My First Retreat

Even for a brief period, say five minutes, meditation is difficult for a beginner. The first thing one notices is all the thoughts swirling around in the mind, not all of them pleasant. If the meditator makes an effort at placing the attention on the breath, frustration and self-criticism arise almost immediately. Pain in the body will inevitably follow, not only because of the classic seated meditation postures. As one teacher put it, “We could all be on BarcaLoungers and we’d still notice pain.” The longer the session, the more these things can plague us, until the timer goes off or we give up, whichever occurs first.

People can take two approaches: either build up their practice gradually, or jump in with both feet. It may be easier to get oneself on the cushion for a brief sit, but over the course of daily, frequent, and lengthy sits things will eventually start to settle down, and the meditator may experience a calm bordering on bliss. Gettting through the early stuff to what Kenneth Folk calls “escape velocity” is the key. It may be difficult to carve out the time to do this in daily life, especially when most people have jobs, families, and other obligations competing for their time and energy, and so for many people the solution will be to undertake a meditation retreat.

My first retreat was at a local, rural retreat center, where I went for a long weekend, Thursday evening to Sunday lunch. Retreat life is an opportunity to derail the preoccupations and assumptions of ordinary life with a view to focusing on practice. The type of retreat I attended was a structured retreat, with a daily schedule and rules for getting the most out it. I was enough of a rule-follower to obey the instructions to the letter. We arose early, began the day with an early sit, and then proceeded to breakfast. After breakfast there was a work period, followed by guided mediatation, led by the teacher. The rest of the morning and afternoon, broken by lunch and rest, consisted of alternated seated and walking practice.

Each day there was a group meeting, including about 12 people and the teacher. Each of us was allowed to ask a question or make a comment, after which the teacher would spend a few minutes giving remarks pertinent to what the retreatant had said. While there might be some give and take between the teacher and student, other group members were instructed to avoid responding, either verbally or through glances or body language. In the evening after supper there would be a dharma talk, with some time reserved for questions from the entire group. On the last day of the retreat the teacher left time for 10 to 15-minute individual meetings for whoever wished to sign up.

We observed Noble Silence from the ending of the introductory dharma talk until lunch on the final day. This meant that, apart from the scheduled meetings, there was no talking and very limited eye contact except for necessary communications (for example, at one retreat I left a message for the retreat director to ask people not to use the wood-burning fireplace because it was setting off my asthma). We were also discouraged from reading or even journaling, although there were some people who took notes during the dharma talks. The purpose of these directives was to minimize opportunities for distraction and turn attention inward.

I won’t mince words: it was damned difficult. My brain was like a squirrel in a cage a lot of the time; I waited all day for the group meeting, rehearsing endlessly what I would say, only to find that the opportunity for voicing any of these thoughts was next to nil. When I was sitting I waited for the chime to go off, at which point I’d be walking, waiting for the chime to go off. Music played in my head relentlessly, as well as imaginary conversations with people at home, or with the teacher. People I didn’t know drifted past me or sat next to me, and I’d surreptitiously glance at them, trying to get a sense of what kinds of people they were. I built up scenarios in my mind, developing responses of attraction or antipathy to them based on nothing at all.

On this particular retreat I practiced mindfulness of breathing, combined with awareness of the Five Hindrances: desire (I want to get up and have some lunch!), aversion (this pain in my back is killing me!), restlessness and worry (thinking, thinking, thinking), sloth and torpor (sleep), and skeptical doubt (why am I doing this?). I was aiming for a state called access concentration, where all of the hindrances finally settle and the mind is calm. Following access, there is a series of beautiful concentration states called jhanas that bring the mind more and more deeply into peace. Depending on the level of practice, a person can experience anywhere from light to extreme absorption.

My practice over the previous four months had been constant and focused enough that I had already experienced some of these things to a very modest degree. The retreat deepened the practice in spite of all the mind noise, and I was able to carry that momentum home with me afterward. Since that first retreat in the spring of 2011, going on retreat periodically has been a mainstay of my life, although retreat life continues to be a challenge: as the inner chatter and restlessness have diminished, other difficulties have arisen to take their place.

What makes retreat life difficult is the ego’s resistance to being set aside. In daily life, our ego reigns supreme, directing our activities, opinions, relationships, and self-image. On retreat, without its usual stage for strutting, the ego has a tantrum, played out entirely inside the mind. Underlying its agitation is the fundamental terror of annihilation and death. Even the beauty of the jhanas can’t quite compensate at first. It takes a long time even to access this terror, much less face it down.