Wednesday 11 December 2019

My week of ‘Noble Silence’

On a meditation retreat, the goal was to be mindful of each step, each bite, each breath, to gain insight without distraction. Think of it as a spa for the mind.

Holding a transparent plastic pouch, my cellphone zipped inside with a white label displaying my name in bold letters, I followed the line as it snaked toward the front of the meditation hall. With a small knot in my belly, I inched forward and approached the small stage where five meditation teachers sat silently. When it was my turn to stand front and center, I placed the bag into a deep wicker basket — piled high with other phones in plastic bags — waiting for the reverberating gong of a Tibetan singing bowl to announce its surrender. I walked back to my meditation cushion, took a deep breath, and felt a wave of lightness come over me.

This ceremony was the start of my silent meditation retreat in February at the Insight Meditation Society, a retreat center on 400 wooded acres in Barre, Mass., just 60 miles from Boston. While preparing for my youngest child to leave for college, I decided I was ready to take the next step toward deepening my eight-year meditation practice — a silent retreat. When an internet search guided me to one called “Path to Awakening,” led by Joseph Goldstein, a co-founder of the meditation society and a renowned teacher of vipassana meditation, also known as mindfulness or insight meditation, I signed up. After I told my friend and fellow meditator, Jo Brody, about my plans, she opted in, too.

Silent retreats have been attracting meditators for thousands of years, and with recent research confirming the benefits of mindfulness and meditation — reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure and improved sleep, for example — a growing number of travelers are going on them.
Hokyoung Kim
“The meditation retreat is one of the fastest-growing trends within the fastest-growing sector in tourism: wellness travel,” said Beth McGroarty, vice president of research, at the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit that promotes wellness. Meditation is seeing the kind of growth that yoga did a few years ago, she said and is now a billion dollar business with a rapidly rising number of participants — the number of adults meditating in the U.S. more than tripled to 14.2 percent in 2017 from 4.1 percent in 2012.

Leading up to my week of silence, I read the FAQs on the website, glanced at the schedule, and deliberated whether to bring snowshoes (I didn’t) and a stash of dark chocolate (I did). I worried about feeling disconnected and lonely, and even concocted an exit strategy that involved borrowing Jo’s car and returning to pick her up a week later. As a life coach, I frequently encourage my clients to push themselves out of their comfort zone: “That’s where the growth happens,” I tell them. Now that I was entering a new phase of life — no children at home for the first time in 25 years — it felt like an opportunity for me to walk the talk.

Prelude to silence
In the parking lot on arrival day, Jo and I met Josh Senders from Port Washington, N.Y., a second-time participant. I was relieved to learn that silence would not begin until the following morning, and not, as I’d feared, the second we crossed the center’s threshold. Entering the building, a former monastery with towering Georgian pillars displaying the word Metta (or loving-kindness in Pali, an ancient Indian language), I felt a bit less daunted, knowing I had a few more hours to call my children and remind my husband to feed and walk the dog.

Once inside, we entered the meditation hall to choose a zabaton, a large square cushion that would be home to our meditation sits for the week. We each placed a shawl on a cushion at opposite ends of the same row to avoid eye contact. Initially hesitant about having a friend on retreat, I felt comforted having Jo there, and we agreed to keep a physical distance.

After getting our room assignments — a single, dormlike space — we were guided to a table to receive a “yogi job,” a traditional element on retreats where guests are assigned a daily task to bring mindfulness to everyday activities, such as washing dishes. Waiting for the woman who would assign mine, I overheard Jo’s conversation with the guy in charge of hers. “Would you like to be a pot scrubber or a vegetable chopper?” he asked. Jo chose the chopping job.

Then it was my turn. “Your yogi job will be to clean Main Hall bathrooms I and II each day after lunch,” said the volunteer.

“Do I have a choice?” I asked. “No, not unless you have a physical disability preventing you from doing the job,” she answered.

In that instant, I thought back to the mindfulness lessons and podcasts I’d listened to over the years, reminding myself to take a breath, and just be with whatever I was feeling. (Jealousy? Disappointment? Irritation?)

Sitting and standing
The first evening meal was filled with chatter. The people at my table had traveled from Maine and Seattle, Brooklyn and Dallas. Some were first timers, who like me, were happy to get the lowdown from the veterans. Do you have to attend every meditation session? (Some do, others take breaks and meditate elsewhere, some take a nap.) Are there any long walks or trails on the property? (There’s a three-mile loop on neighboring roads and a map posted outside the office.)

Following dinner, all 100 of us yogis went to the meditation hall where we were introduced to the retreat’s three teachers, and two teacher-trainees. In preparation for the week ahead, Mr. Goldstein offered a few suggestions. “Relax and be alert; maintain a continuous practice of being mindful even when you aren’t in the meditation hall; and slow down,” he said.

Each day followed the same pattern — sitting meditations alternating with walking meditations, each lasting 45 or 60 minutes at a time, for a total of somewhere between six and seven hours of meditation a day. On a few occasions there was a mindful movement, or gentle yoga class.

We woke at 5:30 a.m. to the clang of a brass bell for the day’s first sit at 6 a.m. All meals were eaten in silence, save for the clanking of silverware and unavoidable sneezes and coughs.

(Source: NYT)

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