A 3-month Buddhist meditation retreat is no less mind-altering than ingesting hallucinogens or traveling to a remote land where nobody speaks your language or knows your culture. But the agent (or angel) of revelation in intensive meditation is neither an exotic plant nor an expensive plane ticket. It is essentially this: silence.
I’m eight weeks into a three-month silence. For many days now, my inner world has been sweet and calm: mind quiet, concentration strong, access to compassion readily available. The wordless, ephemeral beauty of being alive saturates my waking awareness, colored by gratitude and a tolerable, even welcome, hint of melancholy. Access to this tender state is one of the reasons I enter these long silent immersions.
By most standards, I’m a fairly experienced meditator. I meditate daily, and have for years. I’ve spent months at a time immersed in silent practice. I study it, teach it, and write about it.
I can still wonder if I’m doing it wrong.
It’s often said that Buddhism is built on two core principles – wisdom and compassion. On intensive meditation retreats, I spend most of my time engaged in wisdom-based practice, with mindfulness at the root. But it is metta, the Pali term for loving-kindness, that imbues the long, silent days with a fundamental heartfulness.
I had been practicing meditation for several years before I mustered the courage to sit a silent retreat. Lord Resistance, you are one strong adversary.
The essence of vipassana meditation — the Buddhist root of mindfulness — is to see things as clearly as possible without superimposed narrative, without the colorations of personal history, free from the desires and aversions that steer even the most subtle reaches of mental life. It is this practice I hone hour after hour, day after day, in the long weeks and months of a meditation retreat.
But sometimes, my meditation flows organically into something that feels more akin to prayer.
Here’s an old Jewish joke:
Stan has been shipwrecked on a desert island for decades. One day he is rescued. Before leaving the island, he shows the rescuer how he spent his years alone: Building a main street with several huts, each with a different purpose.
(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog, which begins with this installment, explores daily life in the silence, and how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).
It is a warm afternoon, early March. I am deep into the retreat — ten weeks so far. As I head out for my daily walk in the forest that surrounds the center, I pass the communal message board near the dining room. A note is posted with my name on it. This is very odd. I read: Someone has called with news that my friend Bob died.
I turn back and return to my single dorm room, lie down, and cry. It’s a brief, clear, unobstructed cry. A few minutes later, I head out again to walk in the forest.