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On Silent Group Meditation Retreats: 10 Things I’ve Learned Along the Way
Few people have guided me through mindfulness and meditation quite like Janet Solyntjes. As a longtime silent retreat leader, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) instructor and co-owner of the Center for Courageous Living, Janet expertly balances traditional meditation philosophies with practices firmly grounded in reality.
Janet was also my first extended silent retreat leader. Without her wisdom, I doubt I’d be where I am today personally or professionally. Now, I’m grateful to share Janet’s story of her first silent retreat—and it didn’t begin as flawlessly as you might believe. After all, even experts need to start somewhere.
In 1987, I participated in my first silent group meditation retreat. It was a month-long program held in a place now called the Shambhala Mountain Center, or SMC. A few friends suggested that it was perfect next stop on my meditative journey.
For me, going on a silent retreat was an abstract concept—just another box to check off on my way to something more important. Perhaps I had fallen under the spell of spiritual materialism. Was I truly seeking a higher or more idealized state of peace—or did I just want some credentials from engaging in what seemed like a very long time of doing nothing?
Would a month of intensive practice make me a “better” spiritual person?
In the days leading up to the retreat, I sensed my fear and anxiety about participating in the rigors of the long, disciplined days over a four-week period. I wasn’t sure what triggered the fear, but didn’t worry much about it.
Then, the arrival day came. I got into my car and headed up the mountain towards SMC. I had my map in hand (think 1987) to help me navigate the unmarked dirt roads leading to a place I had never been.
As I approached SMC, the map indicated a left turn—but the map didn’t know that I had miscalculated the mileage. I turned left, instantly knew I’d taken a wrong turn, and thus panicked. That immediate sense of panic—buoyed by the preceding days of fear and anxiety—sent me fleeing back down the mountain where I found refuge with a friend.
Two days passed. The “sirens of retreat” haunted me with their cries to return, and I drove back up the mountain to SMC. At the conclusion of the retreat 28 days later, I decided to stay on and joined the staff of SMC.
Fast forward 32 years. I have now participated in many silent retreats and have led them for over 20 years. Silent retreats have now become an essential ingredient in my recipe for sane living.
Here are ten things I have learned about silent group meditation retreats:
- You never really know what to expect. Nothing is completely predictable.
- Paradoxically, the daily schedule is fairly predictable—and perhaps the only constant. The daily schedule becomes the container for all things to “cook” under the fire of practice.
- You will get bored, and boredom is a profound teacher.
- The dharma, or wisdom of how things are, can be heard in a way that it is not heard in daily life. Words penetrate deeply during a retreat.
- Nature becomes the gateway into a magical world of self-existing sacredness. Nature is a guide and teacher of the retreat.
- You can get to know people simply by sitting in silence with them. They may even become a lifelong friend.
- The body—yours and everyone else’s—will be uncomfortable. Not always, but it’s an inescapable part of the path of intensive meditation practice. One wise Zen teacher said at the end of a long day of group meditation: “Body hurt?” That was all he had to say in his dharma talk.
- Daily nourishment will take on a new meaning. On that note, food will be an interesting form of entertainment. Whether you find it fantastic or disappointing, it becomes a strong reference point for anticipatory pleasure.
- You will know what you didn’t know and remember what you forgot. What do you do with the insight gained in the retreat? Nothing in particular. Let it come. Then let it go.
- You will miss home and you will want to stay in the retreat forever, both at the same time, which is hard to describe in words.
These are merely my personal reflections. If you are drawn to a retreat—if the “sirens” are calling you too—then why not give yourself the opportunity to participate in one?
Do you feel drawn to a deep dive—an indescribable immersion—into the only time you have to live? Into the only home you really have with this body? This mind? This heart?
By Janet Solyntjes, Co-owner of the Center for Courageous Living
It doesn’t have to be a month-long commitment like Janet’s first experience. Many retreats, like my donothing Leadership Silent Retreat, last only a few days and are perfect for beginning meditators. As long as you enter with a curious mind and an open heart, you’ll leave not only rejuvenated but also with an insight never imagined.
April 2, 2019 at 12:12PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs