Today is the day I will pack up my duffel bag of stuff and head over to the Vajrapani Institute in Boulder Creek for my annual silent retreat. Usually this takes place in August, a warm, still time in the Santa Cruz Mountains that sort of lends itself to drowsy, bucolic contemplation. But this August shows every sign of imploding with activities and visitors this year, and with a 14 year old who is now too old for summer day camps, I deemed it best to retreat while school was in session.
Here is what you do on a three-day silent retreat. Or, better yet, what you don’t do. You don’t rush around from one thing to the next. You don’t speak (you likely figured that one out on your own). You don’t cling to your noisy, churning thoughts. You don’t spend time on electronics. You examine the stuff you brought — in your duffel bag (preferably not too much) and in your psyche, your mind (you will be hopelessly overloaded, a veritable Winnebago of junk and rehashes and obsessions and shoulds/coulds).
You are not there to fix anything, correct anything. You are there to observe.
You step out of your cabin, witness the spectacular nature around you, and observe your whizzing thoughts. It is “real” nature: there are bugs and gnats that fly around and annoy you. Which pretty much sums up the thoughts as well. You are not there to kill them or chase them away. You simply observe them. And you observe, with gentle humor, your annoyance and occasional discomfort. You observe it all with compassion. Compassion of the self, I’ve come to learn, is one of the very best things we can learn. Our greatest gift to ourselves. (Next to chocolate, really soft pillows and blankets, and a good bottle of wine. Oh. And learning not to take oneself too seriously.)
Vajrapani has seven meditation cabins up on a ridge. The ridge is a “silent” area. The fact that it is silent, however, doesn’t mean you’re isolated from people. On a fully occupied week, there could be seven of you. It’s an interesting quandary when, like myself, you’re used to retreats of the other nature: the isolated ones nestled deeper in the redwoods, where you can play music and yack away, if only to yourself. This one poses different challenges. You are aware of others, sometimes more so. Last year’s visit it was brutally hot and in the afternoons we were all driven out of our cabins like ants seeking water. But all of you remain in meditation mode. You can be a few yards away from someone and the custom is to give each other space, perhaps a nod, perhaps no acknowledgement at all, if one of the retreaters seems so disinclined. This can feel odd at first.
It’s an excellent way for me to work on this part of my “stuff.” I’m great at being alone. Really good at it. Being around others, in silence, wholly aware of them, aware of myself, is actually a great practice for me. You don’t chat. Perhaps you observe the same thing visually–the birds, the tiered ridges of redwoods surrounding you — perhaps not. But you silently honor each other’s process, and through this silent, respectful, highly aware state, you learn something. You gain something.
And then there’s the walking. Because of course you can’t sit in meditation all day long. Your butt gets sore. Your S.I. joint gets wonky. So you step outside the cabin, into the natural world, and you walk. Now, meditation walking is not your ordinary purpose-driven walk. You take slow, slow steps. There is something ballet-like about it. A delicious sense of being aware of your body in movement, the gladness that springs up in your heart at the opportunity to do just this. There might not be any music playing, but you are in the middle of a retreat from life’s pettier concerns, the sun is shining down, producing dappled shade beneath the trees. There’s a song in your heart, pure awareness in your mind, and there is the pure, organic beauty of movement.
Oh, the pleasure of movement.