By Marybeth Stern
Does the idea of an “At Home” silent retreat sound paradoxical? In the Mindfulness - Based Stress Reduction curriculum, strategically positioned to occur after Class 5 or 6, there is a one day silent retreat. Often in the orientation, which is a preliminary overview of the entire course, it is this component that sparks the most intense response: concern, curiosity, perhaps even a bit of anxiety. “Is it really for the whole day?” “We’re expected to be silent even through meal time?” “Can I journal during that time?” From a teacher’s perspective, this is perhaps the first opportunity to explore with the group the universal tendency of the mind to jump ahead. The pull to be drawn into future thinking and the hunger to know details of an event that is scheduled for six weeks from the present moment is strong. Add the descriptor of “at home” to the All Day silent retreat and curiosity and yes, sometimes anxiety, abound. The reassurance that an abundance of information will be provided and questions answered as the date grows near is usually sufficient to restore ease, along with the invitation to engage the perennial mindfulness question, “What’s here now?”
The dictionary definition of retreat “ the act of withdrawing…” implies a stepping back, a shift from the mundane activities of daily life into “a place of refuge, seclusion or privacy..” Indeed, the traditional notion of retreat often did involve going to a remote place, usually a place of natural beauty, far from the maddening crowd. I smile as I write this in early April 2021, fully aware that the refuge for many is the threshold of a closed bedroom door and the source of natural beauty, perhaps a potted houseplant, badly in need of watering. The conditions of a pandemic society redefine the crowd not as maddening, but for some, the object of longing. For many, the “act of withdrawing” began in March 2020 and was experienced not as a choice, but as a challenge necessitated by an invisible enemy.
To choose to spend a day in “Silent Retreat,” is not a choice to withdraw, but a decision to engage. Silence is simply a condition that supports the engagement. Throughout the day one gets to linger with awareness, hardly an act of withdrawing. This is a rare opportunity. Saki Santorelli, in his book, “Heal Thy Self” tells us: ‘The deep desire to move on almost always robs us of our life.” On this day, we offer ourself a gift: we get to notice that desire and dwell within the moments of life without the urgency to do, to go, to be anywhere but “here.” The practices include sitting, standing, walking, eating, moving, seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, feeling, caring. It is an experience of deep solitude and undeniable connection. There may be moments when the chaos of internal mental chatter seems interminable and then suddenly the stillness, the spaciousness in and around thinking, worrying, judging offers a soft landing place to just be.
To participate in a silent retreat from home offers unique and potentially lasting benefits. It is an opportunity to see the familiar landscape of a small bedroom or office, family room or kitchen with new eyes as the light is perceived in the present moment reflecting off a shiny object or peering in through slatted blinds. Listening practice might include the sounds of breezes and birds out an open window as well as the sounds of your bickering teens from a room down the hall. Sounds that soothe and sounds that bristle. The sight of a cherished photo that you’ve become blind to, and a new appreciation for a tree newly in blossom. In this time of restricted travel, the frontier of the familiar lies waiting to be explored. It is a journey of no miles, the cost of the fare, simply a willingness to see things freshly.
Periodic participation in silent at- home retreats is an ideal way to renew and reinvigorate one’s practice. If you choose to give yourself the gift of this day, there are a few preparatory steps that can optimize the experience. Enlisting the support of those you live with and asking for what you need in terms of quiet, privacy etc. is important. Explain that though they might see you occasionally in the course of the day, you plan to be in silence.
Setting an intention for the day and preparing the physical space that you plan to use can create an atmosphere of seclusion, refuge, safety and comfort. Having what you need in the space - a yoga mat, meditation cushion, chair, water, snack, socks, light blanket, whatever comfort items you think you may need, can save you from unnecessary distraction as the day unfolds. You also might want to prepare a light easy meal for mindful eating during the mealtime break. A bouquet of fresh flowers or the scent of lavender oil can make even the most familiar of spaces feel special. As the day arrives, a good way to start is to review your intention and sign on a little early to meet any technological issues and hear preliminary instructions offered by the facilitator. As you drop in, an attitude of appreciation and self care is essential. An open mind and an open heart can lead to extraordinary discoveries even in the most ordinary of places:
“…the time will come when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror..
You will love again, the stranger who was yourself.”
The stranger that you seek may be there, resting in your own backyard!
By Mary Beth Stern
It’s a beautiful fall morning as I look at my calendar. I smile at the utilitarian efficiency of the google calendar, emblematic of the great shift. I fondly recall the handwritten notes to self and the inspirational quotations on my perfectly sized, 7 1/2 inch square calendar, big enough to be clearly visible on the desk in my office and easily tucked away in my tote when on the run. Jolted by the arrival of the month of October, my mind is whisked away, like an old -fashioned high speed rewind recording of the year 2020. I remember arranging the chairs for my mindfulness class in a large waiting room, intending but never quite achieving the “perfect” circle. There’s an art to getting the circle just right: creating enough space between the chairs and being sure they are all in easy view of one another. I loved the egalitarian nature of this formation, a constant reminder of the multidirectional learning that emerges in the magic of the MBSR circle.
It’s a bit of a blur now, how January quickly became March. There was something along the way in the news, about a far away epidemic. News is always a bit far away until it’s not. My birthday happened in February and there was a wonderful visit from my daughter. Those few days were slow, precious and sweet and there was a tug in my heart as I dropped her off at the airport for her cross continent flight home. It was later in the month when she called, complaining of symptoms I’d been hearing about on those nightly reports. When I showed up for the last session of the mindfulness class I’d been teaching, there was a sign on the door: “DO NOT ENTER if you have the following symptoms…"
I had taken select classes online throughout the course of my mindfulness training and had become, in time, comfortable with the platform. I remember how my mind would pause and occasionally ask myself, “Is the comment you’re about to make “unmute” worthy?” But teaching the entire MBSR curriculum online? I was skeptical. Just in time, an offering appeared in my inbox for a training to teach MBSR online. There were all the requisite details of the technology included in the class, but beneath the details of gallery view, speaker view, shared screens etc, was the heart of the message: the importance of kindness and patience with one’s self and the participants. My skepticism was softening. I recalled the lesson I’d learned in the distant past of not even attempting to solve the 9 dot puzzle, knowing “I’m not good at this.” I resolved to shift from teaching in person to teaching online immediately, while the skills were still fresh.
In MBSR classes, the question is sometimes posed: “What’s here now? What are the learnings, the discoveries, the challenges?” As I ponder these questions, as they pertain to online vs. in-person mindfulness training, my mind ping pongs from subtle differences to the more significant. To begin with, the iconic MBSR circle is now a square. The location of “my square” is undefined. I’m not in a particular corner and there is no hierarchy to the configuration of the squares on the screen. The multidirectional learning is apparent, as wisdom spews from the middle, top, bottom and sides of the screen, and at times, from multiple screens.
What is seeable for each individual on the screen is limited: mostly, just head and shoulders and a bit of background. A participant I taught who had taken both the in-person and the online class shared, “I could actually see and hear the people more clearly with the option of speaker view and volume adjustment.” As a teacher, what I don’t see and sometimes wonder about is if a particular person is short or tall, slight in frame or overweight. The discovery, here, is that if it is important learning for the student, it will often emerge. They might mention it in a pre- class interview or in the course of the class. One young woman commented that her weight was at an all-time high as a result of sheltering in place, which led to a rich discussion of self- compassion and acceptance as a foundational step to habit change.
I was fortunate to teach in-person MBSR in a hospital with a meditation room with floor to ceiling windows. The view outside was of a lovely healing garden. Often we would engage in a “window meditation” gazing out, taking in the entire visual field. “Life is a garden, not a road,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “We enter and leave through the same gate. Wandering, where we go matters less than what we notice.” The “garden” in online MBSR, may be a pile of neatly folded laundry (or a heap of dirty clothes still undone!), it may be a view out a small window, or a favorite photograph hanging on a wall. The practice is in the noticing....in the ordinary spaces where life happens.
What people see and notice and learn about one another on the screen has been a huge discovery. In a group I am currently teaching, as we gathered together, one window popping up and then the next, an individual intentionally unmuted himself and blurted out to another participant, “I am SO happy for you!!” We had all been muted to enter and were a little startled by his exclamation. What he had noticed in the rather tiny square of another student, was that she was sitting on a balcony and that the sky was visible. The prior week she had shared that she could not go outside due to wild fires that were closing in. What is seen or perhaps not seen on the screen, is often more than compensated for, by what it is heard and surely by what is felt.
Whether people come to the class for tools to deal with chronic pain, anxiety or out of control stress, the common thread that draws people to MBSR, whether in-person or online, is the longing for connection. I have found myself inviting all to unmute and share about an unpleasant event, a challenging communication, meeting unexpected loss. At times it’s been a little messy, people accidentally speaking at once, not sequentially in turn. It reminded me a bit of a large Thanksgiving family gathering… noisy, unpredictable, with laughter, political arguments, team rivalries and perhaps even tears. There was a time I had a brief power failure; I hastily rebooted and logged back on thinking “THIS doesn’t happen with in - person classes!” I apologized to the group and someone said, “oh I thought it was MY computer!” We laughed, paused and continued on, connected in ways that clearly transcended technology.
The feature of breakout rooms in the online platform, is designed to join people in pairs or small groups for a more intimate discussion of a particular topic. I’ve discovered this feature, perhaps more than any other, serves to bring people together and build group cohesion. In an in- person group, my experience has shown that folks tend to settle into the habitual pattern of sitting in the same seat or in the same section of the circle week after week. We even explore this tendency in class seven as we engage in a “ seat changing” exercise. In online MBSR, students are given the opportunity to interact with all the other members of the group over the eight week period. Folks are randomly assigned to be with different participants, not just those who are “ geographically convenient” in the circle. Another obvious advantage of the online platform is the accessibility of the class to a worldwide population. The circumference of the MBSR circle now encompasses the entire globe and students get to know their intercontinental classmates in cozy gatherings of 2-4 people through the feature of breakout rooms.
Undisputedly, there are features lacking in online MBSR. One is the casual greeting among people as they enter an actual room as opposed to a virtual room. Another is the obvious, at times most palpable, lack of physical touch. No fist bumps, no hugs, no high fives. To be connected often impels us to desire physical touch. How often a hug or a slight touch of a hand on a forearm has felt like an affirmation of connection for me. The challenge, then, as we embark on the Era of Zoom, is to explore this new frontier, attentive to innovative ways of being together in this new “square on the screen” format, allowing the heart to touch and be touched, in a forum where the hands cannot.
Among the many reasons I am passionate about mindfulness is that it allows for doubt and skepticism. I read Ruth Whippman’s Op-Ed piece with appreciation for her wit, writing style and careful analysis of some of the potential pitfalls should mindfulness be viewed as an individual practice that insulates us from the larger societal context. Teaching mindfulness to inner city school children in no way exonerates us from the responsibility to tackle educational inequality; and offering mindfulness to office workers is not a license to shortchange them when it comes to health care benefits and paid vacations. I believe it is the current trendiness of mindfulness that fosters the mistaken premises upon which Ms. Whippman bases her argument. In MBSR trainings, teachers are taught the underpinnings of mindfulness as well as the practices and didactics.
I would take exception to some of the assumptions in the op-ed piece. 1)”…in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic auto pilot..” Stating this as the expressed purpose of mindfulness totally misses the point. The invitation to live mindfully never promises to maximize happiness; it empowers one to respond intentionally to whatever is arising, be it happiness, grief, confusion, anxiety, the entire array of human emotions. “..Refusing to succumb” to long entrenched reactivity or auto-pilot conjures up a kind of harsh, white knuckled self -discipline that would likely lead to more suffering. The fact is that mindfulness encourages self compassion. 2) “..Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life..” On the contrary, in my experience, people who practice mindfulness regularly, tend not to defend AGAINST modern life, but train to open to and WELCOME whatever life happens to be presenting in the moment. Yes- even burnt on spaghetti Os! 3) “…the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present..” In re-learning the innate skill of mindfulness (we are born with it and have it purely as children who are always in the moment) we experience the present moment not only mentally, but through physical sensations and emotions as well. Through practice we learn to be aware of our thoughts, but also the feelings and sensations that accompany them, moving out of the purely conceptual or cognitive experience, and into the entirety of our experiences, mind, body and heart. 4) “…we should constantly be policing our thoughts..” Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of the thoughts, not policing or judging, but acknowledging and allowing the thoughts and noticing when they drift to the past, future or abstract with a kind and gentle curiosity. 5) “…more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding,humiliating or exhausting ones. “ In my experience teaching MBSR, the irony is that the demographics of income, race, ethnicity dissolve when the discussion of the experience of pain- physical or emotional- is told from the perspective of what is perceived in the body and the heart. We learn the secret of the universality of humanness: when we forgo the stories we tell ourselves, we discover that your pain is the same as my pain, your joy is the same as my joy. 6)..”Our happiness does not come so much from our experiences themselves, but from the stories we tell ourselves that make them matter.. “ Here mindfulness would replace the word “happiness” with “suffering.” When we are able to open to our experiences, letting go of the stories or judgement the brain wants to assign them, we can learn to appreciate the richness of every twist and turn and unfolding in our lives.
As I am often eager to share what I’ve learned with everyone I know, the concept of “moralizing smugness” that is referred to in the article, is one with which I grapple. I can best describe the gifts of living a mindful life from my own humble experience. The joy and the sense I have of doing what I was meant to do, after teaching a cycle is indescribable. By practicing mindfulness -( and it truly is a practice; I certainly have escaped on occasion to those “Don Draper” moments!!) I have come to know I can meet whatever is arising -be it the joy or the grief- without resisting, numbing or reacting on auto-pilot. I have learned that my pain serves a purpose, in drawing me in just a bit closer to those seated in the circle, with whom I have the honor of sharing this path.