There are countless yoga vacations on the market right now that offer a variety of activities such as surfing, dancing, hiking, wine drinking and socializing. While these vacations can be fun, silent retreat offers something different. I would be lying to you if I said that silent retreat is “fun”, but I have found through personal experience is that silent retreat can be incredibly transformational.
What does being silent mean?
Depending on the retreat, being silent means that you do not speak to others, nor communicate in non-verbal ways through eye contact of body language. Usually, there are periods set aside for formal teaching instructions, in which the facilitator will guide you through practices. All cell phones, computers and tablets are turned off, long periods of reading and writing are discouraged. It is just you, nature, and your practice.
This sounds awful. Why would I do this?
On Silent retreat, we are given FULL permission to take off all of the hats we wear in our daily life and step out of the various roles we play in our career or family. We are given the space to rest the language centers of our brain and let the energy drop down from the head into the body. Turning off our computers, cellphones, and tablets can be incredibly restorative for our entire nervous system.
Within this restful space, we have the opportunity to honestly look at our neurosis! The intention behind this is not to be judgmental, but to see clearly what thoughts, words, and actions we can let go of in order to bring about a more lasting sense of wellbeing. Awareness in itself is curative. Just seeing how our thoughts run our life is the first step in making an inner shift.
Secodnly, when we are on silent retreat we take an aerial view of our life and given the chance to reflect on where our energy is going. We have time to listen deeply into our heart on what matters most. Does my life align with what I value? Am I living a life I am proud of? People report after returning from a retreat that they feel inspired to shift a major or minor aspect of thier life. It could be as small as taking the time to have a bubble bath once a week, or as large as a carreer change.
In my first ever silent retreat, one of my teachers said: “silent retreat is about relationships”. When I heard this, it was confusing to me. How can being alone in silence improve our relationships?
The fact is, we are always in relationship– and perhaps the most important relationship we are in, is the relationship to ourselves. It is through time spent in silence that I have learned how to be my own best friend. I have established an inner resiliency and reliance that I wouldn’t trade for any yoga vacation. I have also learned how to relate more intimately with each moment regardless of how boring or painful it is. I understand through my retreat practice that my wellbeing depends less upon circumstances, but more upon how I relate to them.
We get so busy chasing pleasant experiences that silent retreat can seem counterintuitive. While vacation memories fade, I argue that time spent on silent retreat can offer a lasting shift in how we live this precious human life.
Below is one of my Favourite Poems by Pabelo Neruda, called Keeping Quiet:
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still for once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for a second, and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.
During a question and answer period of a lecture, the late Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi was asked “ Suzuki, I have been listening to your lectures for years, and I just don’t understand. Could you just please just put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism into one phrase?”
Suzuki Roshi laughed and responded: “everything changes”. Then he asked for another question.
Anicca, or impermanence, is one of the principal teachings of Buddhism. The Irish Poet, Author, and priest, John O’donohue, uses the world transience to speak about this teaching. The etymology of the word means, “to pass through without staying”. I prefer the word transience because it acknowledges life as a process; and that even though everything in life is impermanent, we cannot deny the fact that life does indeed touch us. Below is a beautiful excerpt from his book Anam Cara:
Transience is the force of time which makes a ghost of every experience. There was never a dawn, regardless of how beautiful or promising, that did not not grow into noontime. There was never a noon that did not fall into afternoon. There was never an afternoon that did not fade towards evening. There never was a day which did not get buried in the graveyard of the night. In this way transience makes a ghost out of everything that happens to us.
All of our time disappears on us. This is an incredible fact. You are so knitted into a day. You are within it; the day is as close as your skin. It is around your eyes; it is inside your mind. The day moves you, often it can weigh you down; or again it can raise you up. Yet the amazing fact is: this day vanishes. When you look behind you, you do not see your past standing there in a series of day shapes. You cannot wander back through the gallery of your past. Your days have disappeared silently and for ever. Your future time has not arrived yet. The only ground of time is the present moment.
While this may seem like a somber topic to reflect on, acknowledging the truth of transience helps us to:
1) let go
When we contemplate the changing nature of reality it helps us relax into the flow of life. Trying to hold tightly onto something that is continually changing is like trying to hold onto a moving rope- what happens when we hold onto a moving rope? We get rope burn! We suffer less when we let go. We suffer less if we can learn to dance with life, rather than trying to hold onto it or place it neatly into a small box. If we truly understanding the changing nature of reality, it begins to make more sense to live a life of an open palm, rather than a closed fist.
2) become more present
If we truly acknowledge that everything is subject to change and that life is transient, would we not be called more into paying attention? Would we not bring more attention to the time we have with our loved ones, and enjoying our life, both in its profundity and in its mundane routines? Life is precious because we are passing through it. What quality of attention would you bring to this moment, if you knew this was the last of its kind?
3) Live a life of meaning
Validating the transient nature of things also encourages us to reflect on what matters. Just because life is transient, does not mean we don’t bring our full attention and care to the preciousness of our time. As the Japanese poet Issa says:
This dewdrop world
is but a dewdrop world,
Life is transient “and yet” it does not mean we don’t care. It does not mean we don’t show up fully for our life and create something beautiful, help others, or share our unique gifts to the world.
Perhaps asking yourself this week: How do I pass through this world with meaning? What brings me meaning?
Below is a simple guided meditation exploring the transient nature of things. May your passing through be beautiful. May your understanding of transience awaken the most full and meaningful life.
The poem I am reading in class this week and posted below, speaks to the fundamental reason why we practice: to STOP and listen.
In our modern world, we can get so swept away by the routine and pace of our life, that we fail to take the time to stop. Even if our actions are wholesome and aligned with our deepest intentions, sometimes the mind can get a little clouded or “mucky”. It is sort of like driving down a gravel road- dust gets churned up. Meditation and Yoga are like stopping on the dirt road and letting all the dust settle so you can see clearly. Then you have time to look around, re-route, re-evaluate, and perhaps re-direct.
by Martha Postlewaite
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose. Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worth of rescue.
How to create a clearing:
1: Take 5
Stop whatever you are doing. Get up from the computer, turn off your device. Light a candle. Lay on your bed or take a walk outside.
2: Come into your body
In Chinese energetic medicine, intelligence does not come from the brain, rather, from our body, through the energy and spirit of our organs. Because Chi (energy) follows attention, if we drop our attention into our body, our Chi flows there, and we have access to their wisdom. After a yoga session, students often come up to me and say that they have found a solution to their problem, or have a new great idea for a project. Meditation teacher and Psychotherapist also speaks beautifully to this concept of body intelligence:
“The more we come home to our bodies, the more access we have to our creativity & intelligence- we stay up in our minds because we actually think it’s going to take us to better places. But if we can stay at home in our body our thoughts actually spring forth in a more rich and fresh way- thoughts become more creative and useful.”
Excercise, Yoga, meditation, can be an excellent way to come from the head and into the body. Feeling the hands, face, feet and inside the mouth, in particular, helps drop the mind into the body, as these areas have the most neural tissue.
3: The Sacred “No”
The sacred “no” is about taking a break from the endless internal dialogue that creates so much noise in our mind. Thinking is not bad, but it takes energy. To create a clearing, we want to take a break from discursive thinking. In Tibet, there is a saying that “meditation is a holiday for the heart”. Saying no to thinking does not mean thoughts won’t come to the mind. It just means we are not feeding the storyline with our energy.
There are various meditation techniques that can help with this. I have included a simple “counting” meditation that I find helpful to create a clearing in my life. So If you can’t make it to class, take 5 min to stop and recharge.
For those of you who are seasoned yoga practitioners, you probably have heard this word “intention” used casually at the beginning of a yoga class. When I first began practicing yoga, in my teens, I was confused by this concept and was often left scrambling to find something I could “intend” before moving into my sun salutations. In this post I would like to explore this concept of intention, and how we can bring it into all facets of our life- not just at the start of our yoga sessions.
Intentions Versus Goals
Perhaps the biggest misconception surrounding the word intention is that it is often confused with a goal. Many of us come to yoga in order to achieve something- to get more flexible or to fix our frozen shoulder, perhaps to lose weight or to become more mindful in our daily life. Goals are future orientated, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having these sorts of aspirations- in fact, we need them to fuel our purpose and growth.
The intention we are cultivating in a yoga class is more direct and immediate than a goal. Every action we take in our body, speech or mind is fueled by intent. Therefore, intention is operating in every moment, whether we are conscious of it or not. Intentions form the basis for determining how we meet each moment as we move towards our goals.
Theravada Buddhist teacher and Scholer Thanissaro put it beautifully:
“Our experience of the present doesn’t “just happen”. Instead it is a product of our involvement- in terms of present intentions, the results of present intention, and the results of past intentions- in which present intentions are the most important factor. The more we focus on that involvement, the more we can bring it out of the half-light of the subconscious and into the full light of awareness. There we can train our intentions, through conscious trial and error, to be even more skillful, enabling us to lessen our experience of suffering and pain in the present. This is how skillful intentions pave the road to mental health and well being in the ordinary world of our lives”
What is your intention, Really?
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But when we look closely, are those intentions really good? What defines a “good” intention? One of my best friends and colleague Adam Stonebraker always says “we meditate to find out what is secretly running our life”. When we really examine our minds we can be surprised to see that some of our actions, while we thought were well intended, are actually just unconscious habits operating through us.
I found yoga as a teenager, struggling with severe eating disorders. My reason for going to yoga was less about self-care and more about self-improvement, combined with a compulsive need to exercise. While my practice of yoga may have appeared to be wholesome on the outside, internally the intention had a violent undertone which perpetuated my current pattern of striving. With the help of skilled teachers, my initial misguided intentions of my yoga practice ended up evolving into something beautiful and ultimately healing. But this is not always the case.
Certain situations, especially interpersonal ones, can trigger past conditioning which operates so quickly, we are often unaware of our intention behind our thoughts, words, and actions. This can leave us with feelings of remorse over our the poor decisions that were made that did not align with our deepest values. Senior meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach, outlines two categories of intention that can operate within the mind:
Limbic intent. This sort of intention is oriented around our survival. Limbic intentions are mainly concerned with fulfilling desires, avoiding physical, social and emotional pain. We all have limbic intentions because we have a nervous system, and, as humans, our brain stems are wired this way. Limbic intentions operate almost automatically and lead to the “poisonous” mind states of greed, hatred, and delusion. The Buddha suggests that none of these mind states lead to a lasting sense of wellbeing or happiness.
Evolved/Enlightened intent: This kind of intention is more evolved and takes time to train. It may not be our first impulse as it comes from the frontal cortex and is concerned with the short and long-term wellbeing of self and other. This intention is grounded in the wider perspective of wisdom, kindness, and compassion. In Buddhism, wise intention is the second facet of the “noble Eightfold path”.
So what is a wise intention? There are three qualities to Wise Intention that are outlined in the ancient texts. I have explained them in a more modern way- to make these teachings more relatable:
Let that shit go:
The first pillar of what continued wise intention is the intention of Renunciation. For many of us, when we think of renunciation we think of “having” to give up something- like the monk who shaves his head and gives away all his belongings, or Catholics giving up chocolate for Lent.
There is a story of the late Buddhist teacher, Venerable Ajahn Chah, who was walking through the forest with his disciples. They come across three giant boulders. Ajahn Chah asks his disciples, “Do you think these boulders are heavy?” The disciples looked at their teacher strangely and said: “Yes, of course, venerable, they would be very heavy”. Ajahn Chah smiled and replied: “They are only heavy if you pick them up”.
In the Buddha’s model of renunciation, we do not renounce something in order to be “good”. We renounce it because we genuinely see that indulging in that certain thought, word or deed leads to suffering. It is like picking up a giant boulder! This could mean not replaying that situation at work again and again in our mind, or choosing to spend less time on our device, or giving up the need to gossip at work.
Renunciation in the case of wise intention means pausing at the moment of impulse and choosing not to act upon thoughts that lead to suffering- moment to moment. When we practice renunciation in this way, it is actually a HUGE relief. We can lay down our burdens!
Be a kind human:
The second factor of wise intention is the intention of kindness. It is interesting that all spiritual traditions value kindness and recognize it as a source of wellbeing and happiness. When we are kind we are acting from a place that recognizes our interconnection with all things. Going out of our way to be kind, and to leave both our inner and outer world a better place, is the intention of kindness.
Don’t add to the mess:
The last factor of wise intention is harmlessness-which is similar to kindness, but has a different flavor. Harmlessness requires us to step out of our fixed views and really reflect if our thoughts, words, and deeds will leave any residue of hurt. For example, you might think it is kind to tell your friend the truth about a certain situation because “in the long run, it will be good for her”. But if it in anyway causes harm, perhaps take time to reflect on your deepest intention before acting.
Harmlessness also means that we have compassion for the way we are and the way others are at any given moment. Harmlessness makes room for us when we mess up. Even when we do act upon our not-so-skillful intentions, we can refrain from adding a layer judgment to it and have compassion for our human imperfections. This gives us room to humbly start over.
Steps to developing Wise intention:
Pause. Close your eyes and breathe- What is the intention that is operating right now? Is the root of your intention limbic or enlightened? If we can notice where our intentions are coming from, the unconscious habits are less likely to rule us. Take time to meditate, do a slower form of yoga or take a walk. As the poet, Martha Postlewaite, says: “make a clearing in the dense forest of your life”
Self-reflect – Ask this question: will this lead to harm others or myself? Does it benefit others and myself? Reflect on past actions and your intentions behind them. What effect did they have? What effect do you think your current intention has now?
Plant new seeds. Intentions grow out of thoughts, so if we change the pattern of our thinking, we change our intention. The following phrases are ones I used on my month long retreat last year, to help ground my mind in wise intention. You can do this meditation on your cushion, before your yoga practice or even in the grocery store line up.
“May I let go of what causes suffering”
“May I grow in kindness”
“May I radiate compassion internally and externally”.
The Buddha taught that we live our lives on the tip of intention and that every mind-moment is planting a seed for a future action. Over time, honestly examining our intentions will clear the shadows from our mind and we can then start to live in a way that is more aligned with our deepest values and aspirations.
Below is a poem by Stephen Levine that I often read in Yin classes when I talk about this theme of intention. Enjoy, and happy practicing!
“when we push aside our emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be”- Susan David
I thought I would make this first blog post one that is raw and personal. I do not always share my personal life with my students, or on the Internet for that matter, but with this name change, re-branding and new website, I wanted to shed light on a bit of my inner process. In no way is this post meant to hand off my baggage, but rather to admit to my struggles and share some insights that have grown out of them.
This fall my husband and I decided to separate. I became one of the 50 percent in the well-known divorce statistic. The reasons aren’t relevant because loss is loss. Pain is pain. Major changes always test our capacity, and mine was indeed tested.
With all the years of yoga practice, study, meditation and time spent in therapy I thought that I would cope better, but night after night I found myself crying with a glass of wine in hand, tears on my face, surfing the internet and basking in my own sob story. The feeling of being a failure and alone was, at times, too much to bear.
After some time spent on silent retreat, and in Taiwan studying Zen and tea ceremony, I realized that “my” situation of divorce, and how I coped, is just life unfolding. We don’t have all that much control over what happens – “success” and “failure” are just labels we put on our goals, careers, or relationships that are always in flux. Our life is like a river and we don’t know what direction it’s going. The more we fight where we end up, the more we suffer.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist teaching that states: “bring all obstacles onto the path of practice”. So why not turn our “failures” into fuel for self-exploration? Success doesn’t last forever, and it is usually quickly forgotten and replaced with another goal or desire – it is like a bucket that never fills up. Failures, on the other hand, are much more valuable. While they are also impermanent and entirely conceptual, they can at least have a lasting impact. Failures highlight our shortcomings and help us to pause and reflect how our actions influence our life and the lives of others. The pain, guilt or loneliness that often accompanies failure has the power to develop greater compassion and empathy for others. When we really feel our difficult emotions, we begin to understand that we are not alone in our pain- that all humans experience these states. Rather than letting our emotions define us, we can use them as a path towards a greater connection with humanity.
The fact is, we will fail. And no matter how “yogi” we (think) we are, sometimes we need to drink wine and cry. And then when the time comes, we pick ourselves back up- sit on the cushion, pick up that dharma book and start our morning with sun salutations. Trying to live up to some sort of ideal, instead of embracing ourselves as we are, is a subtle act of violence that can actually mute our development. The point of this post is to suggest that what we label as “failure” is actually ok. It is better than ok, it is beautiful. If we can embrace our failures and the emotions that come with them with a compassionate heart, then when the time comes to humbly start over, we can do so with more love, wisdom, and clarity.
Below is a poem I wrote reflecting on this theme of failure (and the mundane, yet sacred, act of making tea)
The image to the right is a photo of a poster I took with my cell phone, during my recent stay at Kripalu Yoga center. The poster was hung in a stairwell between my room and the dining hall, so I had a chance to look at it repeatedly as I walked from my room to meals. The question came into my mind again and again: Is yoga about ceasing the fluctuations in the mind?
While I have deep respect for both Kripalu and the Yoga Sutras, I can’t help but feel this translation of Yogas chitta vritti nirodha (Sutra 1.2) can be misconstrued to mean that in yoga one is trying to achieve a mind free of thoughts and emotions. This belief creates a lofty goal that it can not only set us up for
failure,but put our minds in a state of overwhelm and self doubt I have many students say to me “meditation is not for me, because my mind is too busy.”
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, speaks to this:
“Many people believe that when you are calm, you should not have a thought, when you are tranquil you should not have a thought, when you are in peace you should not have any thoughts or emotions. This is wrong. This is a projection or desire based on ignorance. When one is calm, when one is tranquil, when one is in peace, the mind doesn’t stop producing thoughts. The mind doesn’t stop producing emotions. The thoughts are not the trouble. The emotions are not the trouble. (The trouble) is created by ones own confusions of not knowing how to relate to the thoughts or emotions themselves. When the mind becomes tranquil and clear (through meditation) thoughts can come as a visitor and leave as a visitor- a peaceful visitor- nothing other than a peaceful visitor”.
Perhaps our practice is about changing our relationship to our thoughts, rather than ceasing the thoughts all together. Our practice opens us to the possibility for thoughts and emotions to happen, without embodying them, resisting them, or ingnoring them. Below is a poem that I think helps animate the attitude we can take in our practice. The poem is called “The Little Duck” and it was published in 1947 in the New Yorker by Donald Babcock:
Now we are ready to look at something pretty special. It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No, it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells. He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, And he is part of it. He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree. But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have. He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic. Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it. And what does he do, I ask you. He sits down in it. He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is. That is religion, and the duck has it. He has made himself a part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it touches him
I think our practice is less about stopping the fluctuations of the mind, and more about “riding the swells” of our mind and emotions the way the little duck does. Through inward drawn attention, we can see that it is the nature of mind to think, to have fears and worries- just as it is the nature of the Atlantic to swell. The very belief that our thoughts should cease during meditation and yoga can lead to a cycle of self judgment and trepidation around the practice. Instead, we can be the calm witness of our thoughts and emotions; bringing a warm, yet detached energy to our mind states as they fluctuate. As we become more able to ride the swells of our mind, so we will build the strength to ride the changing currents of our lives as well.