Perth Insight Meditation Group I’m often asked what benefits one can expect from sitting an Insight Meditation Retreat, as against attending a weekly meditation class or sitting regularly at home. It is as different as an hors d’oeuvre from a banquet.
Daily or weekly sittings can help to keep a general balance and perspective in one’s life, although in times of strong stress or anxiety this may be difficult to sustain. A Retreat gives uninterrupted deep periods of stillness that then ripple out through every aspect of one’s life, not just for a day, but for weeks and months after.
We live in such a hectic world, bombarded by media, noise, demands, schedules and then at the mercy of our own and other’s hopes, fears, thoughts and expectations. It is difficult to find yourself, let alone ‘be’ yourself, when under such pressure. And even if you are retired or working to your own schedule, the voice within, our in-built critic, may give little room for true relaxation and contentment.
After 7 years as a monk at the Serpentine Buddhist Monastery, a friend recently disrobed due to long-term health concerns. He remarked that his strongest challenge was to adjust to the deluge of stimulation we experience in everyday modern life. Even without distracting himself by watching television, or reading newspapers, at every turn he finds he is beset with continual noise and visual stimulation.
On Retreat, even if just for a weekend, the quiet is a balm which nourishes the inner being. Rather than missing talking, most people find the silence immensely satisfying once they drop into a deeper layer and then may find, with surprise, they have some reluctance to re-emerge. Life is simplified. Although one can adjust the schedule as one’s personal health requires, no other choices or tasks impinge. Even the brief selected daily chore, such as meal preparation or cleaning, is undertaken as an opportunity for awareness, for being present with movement, action, thoughts, sounds.
If you continually note distractions and then let them go, coming back to this actual moment, then the mind starts to clear, emotions settle and a happiness, which is our natural state, surfaces. When not jaded by over-satiation, each sense become sharper and can be appreciated fully. Food tastes delicious when eaten slowly and mindfully, each flavour distinct. The eyesight clears, colours are brighter, bird song is so fresh and sweet and clear.
Chronic health problems including insomnia, indigestion, high blood pressure, migraines, skin complaints and anxiety, to name a few, are reduced or disappear and the immune system is kick started. As we relax more deeply, muscles and skin relax and become softer.
The chest opens up, breathing patterns change and the emotions relax in response. Feelings of gratitude, generosity, acceptance, compassion, joy and love can rise without effort. We merely clear away the mind debris and over stimulation to find that this is our natural state of being.
I usually reach a space somewhere on each retreat where I romantically decide to do this ‘forever’, to enter a monastery and spend my life in meditation. I laugh, for like everything in life, it changes, and I realise I’ve been distracted by planning for the future, escaping from the reality of ‘just this moment’.
And that is the total beauty of it, experience is always changing. Thoughts come and go. Emotions come and go. Yet inevitably will come a sticking point. Some fear or hate or wanting will rear its head and we are stuck, totally caught up in an old memory, feeling it again as we replay it in the mind. It is at this point that we must stop and befriend our fear or hate or wanting. We do this by letting the felt body experience wash through us, but this time with awareness and without the usual self-justifying story line. That means if we are experiencing anger, that we let ourselves feel the tightness in the belly, the held breath, the clenched jaw, the adrenaline rush that are the body feelings that accompany this emotion. We accept it without blame or guilt.
This can take some practice, to learn to watch these sensations without being consumed by the whole mind drama that goes with them. As we sit more purely in the actual emotion, it is simplified. Once we can see it just as “anger”, instead of “my anger which I’m totally justified in feeling”, then the power goes out of it and it eventually dissipates.
By doing this we are being compassionate and kind to ourselves. We are released from the hold of the emotion and we experience freedom. While all this can happen in a weekly class, the whole process is magnified on Retreat, and we move through and clear out states we may just choose to ignore or avoid in less intensive practice.
Acceptance of ourselves just as we are in this moment, leads to the deepest peace. Relaxation occurs on the deepest visceral level and brings lightness and a sense of expansion. As I begin to let go of my tight identification with the body, gradually there arises the knowing that all beings and all things are inextricably linked. We are all connected. The ‘I’ becomes part of the greater whole and I know it in the centre of my being.
Insight meditation is a Buddhist practice, but all are welcome. Retreats bring many riches that could take years to find if we just sat weekly. If you can attend the whole 9 days, the rewards are immense, but even a two or three days can bring great healing and clear out all the mind chatter. And the experiences are both accumulative and life changing.
by Bavali Hill