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Sep 12
Community Articles, Pacific Northwest
Demystifying the Experience of Retreat

by Matthew Bryan of Seattle

Greetings fellow warriors, I write to you having completed a week of dathun. The retreat took place in December at a secluded camp north of Victoria, BC. The camp is seated on the shores of beautiful Lake Shawnigan and our practice consisted of sitting and walking meditation for 6-8 hours per day. We ate our meals in the meditation hall on our cushions and participated in various spatial awareness exercises outside. For two days we entered noble silence, during which no words were spoken, except when absolutely necessary. All together, we were challenged to be mindful during each waking moment.

Practicing consistent mindfulness awakens us to the magic of things going on around us. Our more neurotic concerns diminish in significance and we are exposed to every detail in the environment. To witness these details is to witness beauty. Enjoying the pattern formed by the legs of stacked chairs, experiencing the little smells that creep into one’s nose in the community shower, or the drone of air moving through the open space, there is a sense that every little detail is magical for some reason. That reason exists beyond any concept of the thing itself. Slowing our mind down at retreat allows these tidbits of magic to present themselves to us. This is what artistic inspiration tastes like. We cannot express all of our inspiration through art, though we might grasp at it in an attempt to hold on to the experience. To me, this transience feels like a tragedy. Chogyam Trungpa names this as a source of loneliness for the warrior: you can never fully share your experience with others.

Insofar as this mindful situation exposes us to the external world, it also exposes us to the internal world, which in many respects offers the same challenge. For instance, just as my conceptual mind can layer interpretation on the external world, it seems that it can do so for the internal world and therefore prevent direct perception of it. While sitting for short periods at home allows me to work with certain obstacles and therefore certain aspects of my internal world, a full exposure is quite different. Short sits help me pull back the outer layers of the onion of my mind, but it takes these longer sits to peel deeper into the inner parts of it: to shed my armor and tear up with each stinky, acidic, juicy experience. As I peel off layer after layer of the onion, it feels like there is not much of me left. This leaves me feeling exposed to the whole world, and that the world is exposed to me. It is only in the experience of extended retreat that this has been possible for me.

Often, fear of this exposure arises when we perceive the world as threatening. When this occurs, we try to shut down our direct perceptions. Paradoxically, in my experience, fear also arises out of excitement. It is exciting to have access to such wonderful peace, and we react by trying to grasp our experience, wanting it to never leave. Both of these grasping, aggressive fears prevent us from fully experiencing the situation.

A loving community is part of what makes this exposure possible. Even in noble silence there is a transmission of love and openness between people. This is hard to describe, except by expressing my own neurosis and how different it feels to me personally. Generally, I am apprehensive around people and sometimes avoid them, which is my experience of cocoon. There are times when people seem very threatening and scary. But at this retreat, people felt like precious jewels to be cherished, and there was a transmission of warmth and healing kindness between us.

The compassionate nature of community at retreat offers a glimpse of how the world might look if the full vision of the Great Eastern Sun reached a state of fruition. There is a sense that every chore you do (called “rota” at retreat) is creating a special space for other people, so you don’t mind doing it; and you have an appreciation for the hard work of others. When you notice the silent suffering of another, perhaps standing in the corner and removed from the rest of the group, you know that you must walk over and present an open well into which they can share their experience.

During noble silence, the staff posted a sign saying, “No uninvited touch during noble silence.” While I think everyone agrees that unwanted touch is always discouraged, there was a disgruntled reaction to placing barriers between people in this kind of situation: our cocoons do a good enough job of that. In response, I wrote on a name tag the following: “all loving touch invited.” People’s reactions were overwhelming. I received hugs from people I had never met. To this day, I still have not exchanged more than a few words with some of them, which is an obvious sign of the power that draws people together in such a place.

Another blessing of retreat is the emergence of inspiration. If you are like me, you long to experience peace. Your internal world is conflicted, your external world is conflicted, and the cessation of grasping, aggression, and ignorance feels like a distant hazy dream. You might describe this feeling of attaining peace with the words, “some day…”, while on another level feeling the whole attempt is futile. Retreat, on the other hand, promotes confidence that you are truly okay and that the meditation practice does have significant effects. With such a prolonged exposure to basic, easy goodness, you grow confident in its existence.

The freedom and peace of retreat experience causes our cocoon to seem stinky and humid in comparison. The contrast provides ground for discipline. The prospect of a return to the setting sun world seems sickening. We decide to commit ourselves to the removal of all obstacles and take delight and joy in accomplishing actions, knowing what effect they are having.

My aspiration is that these words help clarify the experience of retreat. Since reading them is entirely holographic, it is not possible for them to transmit to you the truth of really being there. Perhaps they will help you connect to your own experience of basic goodness, becoming inspired to arrange time in your life to go on retreat.

All photos were taken by Matthew Bryan on his retreat. To learn more about the nearest retreat center to you, please visit: www.shambhala.org. For details about the 2011 Pacific Northwest Winter retreat, please click here. To register for the Pacific Northwest Winter Ngondro & Werma Retreat, please click here.

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3 responses to “ Demystifying the Experience of Retreat ”
  1. Matthew_Bryan
    Sep 17, 2011

    I appreciate your technical correctness and precision. I don’t know what connotations the word “retreat” has to other practitioners, but the organizers of this event officially bill it as a “retreat.” Specifically, it is called the “Pacific Northwest Winter Retreat.”

    Rod, it is good to see you are returning again this year. The retreat will be the same format and in the same place as last year. You can find a link to the Shamatha portion here if you are interested in signing up:


  2. Rod Paynter
    Sep 15, 2011

    A couple of things –

    First, to Mark. I don’t understand your comment about a weekthun being glossed as a retreat. Glossed? What’s that? It may be that the author has made an error with technical terms, I myself don’t know, but would like to. And what does “glossed” mean? It sounds derogatory.

    Second, I was a one-week participant at that Shawnigan Lake experience. The profundities that I experienced are necessarily different from those of the author, but I certainly share his appreciation of noble silence and the outdoor opportunities for mindfulness, among other things. I hope to be able to return this (next?) year.

  3. mark a smith
    Sep 13, 2011

    Nice description but very sad that a weekthun (which is a wonderful thing) is now being glossed as a retreat…

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