I recently went on a mindfulness retreat.
People are often curious to hear what it is all about. I will make an attempt to write about my experience (which might be totally different from somebody else’s experience…)
Before leaving I was not necessarily looking forward to it. Not as in ‘Yeah! Mindfulness retreat!’. Because I’ve been there, done that and… believe me: it’s not always a walk in the park… But I knew it was the right thing to do… so, I went.
The retreat took place in a beautiful place, in the middle of nowhere. It had started 2 weeks earlier and people could join or leave at the end of each week. We were welcomed at 3 pm and joined the existing group for the sitting meditation of 5pm. And then we went into the ‘normal routine’:
Sit, walk, don’t talk.
Sitting very still
Walking very slowly
And… all of this in silence.
Is that it? Yes, while meditating all the time, of course.
On a typical day, the bell wakes you up at 5.30, the first sitting meditation starts at 6 am. Each sitting meditation is alternated by a walking meditation (and yes we do eat, we even have some chores – all done in silence) and the last one finished at 9.30 pm. So the day is very structured and everything is organised for you.
And what is the definition of meditating?
Paying attention to whatever presents itself, as long as it presents itself.
Basically you want to exercise your ‘attention muscle’. And how do you do that?
You start by focusing on your breath. This is your basic object of observation. You notice how the air enters and leaves your body and where you notice this (nostrils, abdomen, …). After a while, when some degree of concentration is developed, new objects of attention may be added: the body, physical sensations, thinking, emotions … The idea is that when one of these objects presents itself (eg. you start to think about everything you still need to do after the retreat…), that you notice that your mind wanders off, and that you ‘label’ this as ‘thinking’ or ‘planning’. Sometimes the mere noticing of the thought makes it disappear. Sometimes you’ll notice your thoughts stay there and you just keep on noticing ‘planning’, ‘thinking’, without going into the context. After a while you may notice that another ‘object’ comes to the foreground: for example a physical sensation: your leg starts to hurt (sitting still for a long time in one position can do that to you…). Again, you will label this as ‘feeling’ or ‘pain’… And whenever nothing presents itself, you go back to the basic object of your breathing.
As you can see the instruction is quite simple, but it’s not so easy to do…
Why would you want to do this?
Not necessarily to relax. While focusing on the breath can help you to calm down, opening your attention to other ‘objects’ can also open the door to ‘unpleasant’ sensations, thoughts and feelings… Although we are asked to observe in a non-judgmental way: there are no ‘unpleasant’ feelings, again you will just label them as ‘anger’ or ‘restlessness’ or ‘sadness’ or…
So, if it’s not relaxing, why? By practicing paying attention you get to know yourself better. You start to notice certain patterns, certain thoughts that keep on coming back. And believe me, this can be very confronting… However, this will be very useful when you go back to ‘normal life’. Here too you will be triggered but you might recognize certain patterns, automatic reactions and … choose to react differently.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor E. Frankl
So instead of shouting back when somebody raises his voice to you, you notice whatever happens inside of you when he does this AND choose not to raise your voice but stay calm (should you want to, of course).
So basically it’s an ‘observation boot camp’ during which you practice very intensively. And the benefits can be reaped afterwards…
Do you need to do a retreat to get these benefits? No, you can also opt for starting on your own (check out this) or doing an eight-week mindfulness course (more info here).
Some more personal conclusions:
- I don’t find the ‘silent’ part so difficult, it’s more not having ‘contact’ with the other participants
- I very much appreciated the 15 minutes’ daily interviews with Frits Koster, who accompanied us in the process with his humour and non-judgmental wisdom
- My mind gets bored easily… and I can be quite hard on myself
- The instructions are simple but keep on being challenging…
- I should consider a career as a scriptwriter… I’ve noticed my mind can come up with the most amazing scenarios
- You’d be amazed at how many aches and pains can be caused by… sitting still or moving very slowly…
So what do you think? Up for some sitting, walking and no talking?
As usual I like to read your comments and questions below!
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