Si­lence is golden calm

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE15 -

Avery preg­nant Ju­liana Berger took a five-day trip with her hus­band and didn’t speak to him once. They weren’t fight­ing. They were at­tend­ing a silent re­treat.

Berger, 33, a Web de­vel­oper, had at­tended a num­ber of silent re­treats over the past decade. Her hus­band, Jonathan Mann, a 32-year-old song­writer, had never been.

Like so many peo­ple these days, the­New York-based cou­ple wanted a break from the stress of daily life.

“I thought the still­ness would help me con­nect with my baby,” says Berger, who was nearly eight months preg­nant at the time.

Silent med­i­ta­tion tran­scends most re­li­gious tra­di­tions, and can be traced back thou­sands of years.

To­day’s re­treats last from a day to sev­eral weeks and take place at monas­ter­ies, col­leges, spas, ho­tels and even hos­pi­tals.

“It’s not re­ally a va­ca­tion,” cau­tions Robert Ep­stein, se­nior re­search psy­chol­o­gist at the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute for Be­hav­ioral Re­search and Tech­nol­ogy and pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of the South Pa­cific in Fiji. “It’s a very un­usual ex­pe­ri­ence, which can cer­tainly be ben­e­fi­cial, but it’s dif­fi­cult in some re­spects, be­cause it’s a time when you are alone with your thoughts. And you can hear your thoughts very clearly.”

For some peo­ple, hear­ing those thoughts can be dif­fi­cult, though by hav­ing time and space to think them through, some peo­ple are able to “ex­haust the most dis­turb­ing ones and throw them away,” he says.

Berger and Mann both ex­pe­ri­enced what they de­scribed as a trans­for­ma­tion dur­ing their stay ear­lier this year at the Bud­dhist-in­flu­enced In­sight Med­i­ta­tion So­ci­ety in Barre, Mas­sachusetts.

The re­treat­wasn’tcom­pletely silent. There were teach­ers, lec­tures, small group ses­sions and some nec­es­sary words ex­changed while cook­ing the veg­e­tar­ian meals— but none to each other. Each of the 90 par­tic­i­pants had their own mod­est sin­gle room.

The re­treat had ac­tiv­i­ties

sched­uled from 5:30 am un­til 9:30 pm. There were about eight daily pe­ri­ods for sit­ting, along with set times for walk­ing, yoga, group in­ter­views, work­ing, eat­ing, chant­ing, med­i­ta­tion in­struc­tion and lec­tures on Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy.

Mann says he’s never been good at be­ing still and found a 45-minute med­i­ta­tion on the sec­ond day phys­i­cally painful and emo­tion­ally frus­trat­ing. After­ward, he went to his room and wept in what he de­scribed as, “the most vi­o­lent emo­tional re­ac­tion” he’s ever had.

“The melt­down helped a lot,” he says, ex­plain­ing he de­cided to stop try­ing so hard. He started mov­ing about dur­ing the med­i­ta­tion pe­ri­ods and al­lowed his mind to wan­der.

As a re­sult, he re­laxed, and “some moments of clar­ity came”, he says. He re­al­ized how much anx­i­ety he car­ries.

Berger, too, found that she had to stop try­ing to con­trol things. She had planned, for ex­am­ple, to get lots of rest, but that didn’t hap­pen.

“I ended up hav­ing ter­ri­ble dif­fi­culty sleep­ing and had to sit with fa­tigue, ex­haus­tion and frus­tra­tion,” she says.

“When I sat with the part of my­self who was try­ing to con­trol and pro­tect and had com­pas­sion for her, I ex­pe­ri­enced a pro­found trans­for­ma­tion,” she says. “I was able to ex­pe­ri­ence joy in the present mo­ment: a beau­ti­ful walk, a glo­ri­ous nap, one breath in, one breath out.”

Other re­treat philoso­phies of­fer par­tic­i­pants more time to go at their own pace.

For in­stance, the four-day re­treats of­fered to stu­dents and fac­ulty by Ford­ham Univer­sity, in New York City, have some sched­uled prayer and a brief daily meet­ing with a spir­i­tual direc­tor, but the rest of the time is for per­sonal re­flec­tion.

“I al­ways sug­gest to peo­ple to get out into na­ture,” says Carol Gib­ney, an as­so­ciate direc­tor of the cam­pus min­istry.

Af­ter fa­cil­i­tat­ing the Je­suit school’s re­treats for the past dozen years, and work­ing with hun­dreds of par­tic­i­pants, she of­fers the fol­low­ing ad­vice:

It takes at least 24 hours for a person to move past the point of “mon­key brain” — rac­ing from one thought to another and be­gin to re­lax. Once a person re­laxes, there tends to be a height­ened aware­ness of things both in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal.

The still­ness evokes all kinds of feel­ings, in­clud­ing frus­tra­tion and even grief. “Com­pas­sion­ate aware­ness is what emerges,” she says. “Com­pas­sion for one­self; for feel­ings that they might have buried and pushed aside.”

In choos­ing a re­treat, be an ed­u­cated con­sumer. Con­sider the mis­sion of the re­treat house, read re­views and talk to friends.

With re­treats in­creas­ing in pop­u­lar­ity as peo­ple try to get away from their fre­netic life­style, “Think about what you’re get­ting awayfro­mand­whatyou’re­go­ingto,” she­says.

Fi­nally, she ad­vises: “Be open. Ex­pect to be sur­prised.” Berger agrees. “Going­ona silent re­treat is a jour­ney,” she says. “When you take away all of the en­ergy we put into com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it is redi­rected to the parts of your life you nor­mally ig­nore. I would rec­om­mend it to any­one.”


Peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in a walk­ing med­i­ta­tion on the grounds of the In­sight Med­i­ta­tion So­ci­ety Re­treat Cen­ter in Barre, Mas­sachusetts.

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