My friends Allan Lokos and Susanna Weiss have always spoken highly of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre and the lessons they have learned there. Great teachers and powerful teaching, they’ve said. Supportive landscape too. Though I’ve lived in western Massachusetts for over 14 years now, I had surprisingly never made the trek or carved out the time to visit the place. This past weekend seemed perfect timing: I needed a clear ritual close to these last 15 months of rich learning, I have wanted to deepen my own mindfulness practice, and it just made good sense as a professional commitment. If I want to guide others on the path of contemplation, I need to keep walking it myself.
I figured such an immersive weekend would challenge me, but I welcomed that as well. Usually, I sit in meditation for twenty minutes or a half-hour and that grounds my day with greater presence and more sturdy resilience. Got breath, good to go. In contrast, this retreat included a near continuous cycle between sitting meditation and walking meditation: one half-hour in the hall on the cushion, one half-hour with the floorboards or garden path. We knew we’d stop for meals and, at some point, each have a work assignment to help keep the place running (mine was cleaning out the compost and kitchen trash on Saturday afternoon), but other than that, it was all meditation, all the time.
From the workshop opening, the staff also asked each participant, or yogi, also to dive into another big-time commitment: renounce almost every form of communication with others. Most directly, that meant not talking but it also meant avoiding gesture-making and eye contact. For sure, we had to put cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices away. And we could do no reading or writing of any sort. If we needed to contact the housekeeping or kitchen staff to address a need, we were allowed to jot down a small, handwritten note. Even then, though, our teachers asked us to consider if we really needed the question answered before we stepped into the world of words. Our focus for the weekend would be the patterns and tendencies of our own minds. Anything with a strong pull away from that gravitational center made the renunciation list.
As I arrived on Friday afternoon, I anticipated that the toughest of those obligations for me would be the commitment to give up the written word. As you faithful readers might suspect, writing helps me understand and process my world. When clouds of worry or distress come my way, putting words to page helps me name their formations so they can pass along and bring back the blue sky. When good ideas arrive, fleeting and rare, writing helps me remember them or share them with others. Moreover, I’ve just come to the end of my sabbatical and have so many thoughts to pull together. Sure, I could see how extended, rambling discourses could pull me away from a meditative focus, but what about a quick jot-down? What about a short note-take? I decided to honor the challenge and to trust what would emerge.
I also wondered how I would do with such an interpersonally restricted approach in general. I’d just come off two workshops blending improvisation and spirituality, walking an outwardly playful path of co-creation. And I’m an experienced veteran of more raucous retreats with Amma, India’s beloved “Hugging Saint.” By design, her programs always include a festival of sensory overloads: saffron robes and multi-colored tapestries, sweet smells of incense mixing with curry and rice, full-throated trance-inducing bhajans, elaborate weddings and baby-blessings, and all the like. Everyone dances, everyone frolics, everyone hugs—and it all happens late into the night. The main idea, in one word: LOVE. I naturally lean in such expressive directions. Maybe I would find that these meditation retreats just didn’t fit so well.
(Ah, the many workings of the resistant mind!)
As we actually got into the ‘work’ of the retreat, I quickly got more comfortable. I appreciated the way that our teachers, Narayan Helen Liebenson and Michael Grady of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, offered three options for our “objects of attention” as we sat: the breath, whether at the nostrils or in the abdomen; our ‘points of contact’ (i.e., sitting bones on the cushion or chair, hands resting on knees or thighs, or feet and legs touching the mat); or whatever sounds we heard around us. Each could apply as a reference point during our meditation there in the hall—or at any other place in our lives. We focus our minds on one of the three and we come to the present moment, embodied. If we notice that our attention wanders, we gently bring it back to that object.
My first walking meditation on Saturday morning proved valuable as well. Michael had suggested we find a twenty- or thirty-foot track, indoors or out, on which to walk slowly and attentively. We could notice our breath as we moved, our foot’s contact with the ground, or the movement of our body as a whole.
Again, if our focus wandered far afield, we could simply bring it back to our walking. I chose to walk along the grassy path of a flower garden bursting with color, the ground still wet with early dew. At first, my slower pace made each step seem wildly wobbly, as if I were trying to find footing on a balance beam or thin rope. Eventually, as my arches and toes made their way around the nubs of soil or onto each slightly raised patch, my confidence and surety grew.
The same proved true as we passed through each iteration of sitting meditation. Where my posture had seemed uneven or unsteady at the start, I began to settle into more stillness and calm. My mind still had plenty of running around to do, but at least my body found some peace.
Michael and Narayan gave us more tools to work with that monkey-mind as well. If we found ourselves following a train of thought or having a reaction, for example, we could let that train itself become another focus object. Without accelerating or climbing on board, we could simply observe it. If we start feeling sleepy, for example, we need not judge ourselves; we can just notice “Oh, I’m feeling sleepy.” Or, if we can’t register the sleepiness without having the judgmental reaction, we can simply notice that we’re having that reaction: “How about that. I’m not willing to accept my sleepiness.” We don’t need to ask why the reaction is there or where it comes from—though our simple observation might spontaneously generate such psychological insight—and we don’t need to hope for its departure or continuance. We only need note that it’s present. Such witnessing, he promised, leads to a freedom far more relaxing than any of our modern-day distractive entertainments.
As Saturday moved into Sunday, I continued settling into a slower, more attentive rhythm. Even though I woke up super-early both mornings (like, 3:15 am early!), I resisted the urge to write down my thoughts and instead did my best to follow my breathing or notice my body making contact with my bed. I got up before breakfast to do some yoga and take a mindful shower. Now, when I returned to the garden at the close of our last walking session, I found a simple stability and balance that had been absent before. My feet seemed more intelligent, picking up variation in the soil before I touched down. If I closed my eyes, my feet knew to stop moving forward when I went from a warmer sun-drenched patch to a still-cool shadowy area. Overall, my body wanted to walk at a gentler pace.
Though I obviously hadn’t been checking in with anyone as we went along, I sensed that others had had similar experiences and that we had bonded as a result. Here we were, some 70-some-odd folk brought together by circumstance at a retreat center way out in the woods. We had exchanged no names, titles, or work histories. We had shared no words, no touch, and only rare glances to avoid bumping or to offer deference. And, yet, we had generated a real kind of intimacy. Perhaps it was the shared sense of purpose, the mutual care for each others’ journeys, or simply the side-by-side experience. Whatever the origin, the connection felt strong.
In the end, I still have questions about forgoing the written word during the retreat. I chose not to take any notes through the last morning’s initial sitting and walking meditations, but I did also choose to jot down some thoughts before our last presentation (I wanted to harvest my own perceptions before speaking out loud or hearing others’ voices). I certainly wouldn’t want to cling to any inspiration that came, but nor would I would to ignore or dishonor that gift. I wasn’t tempted at all by the other commitments—cell phone, computer, reading—but I suspect that’s because I knew those lures would still be waiting for me when I finished as they had been before. An ephemeral idea or insight made no such promise. If (when) I go on a next retreat, I imagine I’ll bring a little notebook to scratch down any flashes of insight or turns of phrase worth remembering. I’ll say enough to trigger my memory without diving into the distraction of full-on exposition.
I know, too, that though this retreat asked me to restrain a naturally playful and connective mode, it also nurtured something new in me, a stiller and perhaps nobler side. I’m fascinated by the way I’m walking now, wider and slower. I’m intrigued by my deeper breath. Without clutching or clinging to the Insight Meditation experience, I can safely say that I’m wanting more. Sabbatical or not, I welcome the chance to grow more fully into this moment.
 “Yogi” actually comes from the Hindu tradition rather than the Buddhist one, but means “one traveling a path to Divine Liberation.”
 During a question-and-answer session later in the weekend, another yogi noted that the first two objects of attention seemed self-contained, while the third seemed external. Was there, he asked, a reason for that difference? I loved Narayan’s response: that actually all three could be seen as either internally- or externally-focused. Sound seems to come from outside us but it’s our ears that are doing the hearing. We’re involved in the sound’s impact. And though our breath and body sensations seem to be “our” experiences, they actually tie us into life’s larger forces. Who’s actually doing the breathing? Isn’t it more that we’re being breathed? And who’s making the contact that we experience as pressure against us? Whichever perspective we choose, the objects of our focus bring us into our bodies in the present moment—and put us in relationship with the world.
 That longing extended to my leaving the center as well. I knew I had tasks to get back to—e-mail, phone calls, other conversations—but I wanted to linger in pleasure of the moment’s tasklessness. I took a longer, more scenic route home and enjoyed the roll of forests and farms. The bit of buffer helped.
 Probably not surprisingly, it proved a bit bittersweet when we finally did get the chance to speak with each other at our closing lunch. In a short little window of time, I met another high school teacher looking to bring contemplative practice to his emotionally-challenged teenage students, a newly-minted Harvard neuroscience PhD on her way to a consulting job with McKinsey out in San Francisco, and a full-time rowing coach introducing mindful presence along the Charles River in Boston. So great to meet and so little time to enjoy it! Here’s hoping for continued connections….