by Tim Burnett
Last Saturday we had the quarterly Day of Mindfulness for the Bellingham area classes at Semiahmoo County Park. I've had the privilege to lead quite a few of these retreats so it felt, at first, like just another work day. Get what I need together, get to the right location, offer what I can.
However, within about 15 minutes of arriving, I started to notice a different feeling in me, a feeling that was a mix of anticipation and delight. People were arriving and taking their places in the room with their mats, blankets, and chairs. There was excited and nervous energy in the room. Wow, I thought to myself, here are a bunch of people setting aside their busy lives for a full day to practice. I marveled at what had needed to happen for this this to work out. We are all here together. I wondered what will happen for each of these people today.
In the initial check in before we dropped into silent practice, there was a mix of feelings: gratitude, nervousness, feeling pulled to be somewhere else (we all have so much to do!), curiosity. One person reported with a little chuckle that she was in a really grouchy mood and it was a good thing we wouldn’t be talking as she might say something she'd later regret.
And then we began. I led the practices with what I hoped was just enough instruction with plenty of space for each person to find their own way in each practice. We did some gentle standing stretches, we sat and watched our breath, we walked outside (bracingly cold but beautiful!), we came back in. We offered loving-kindness to a loved one and to ourselves. We listened to the environment around us. We walked again and sat again. We dropped more and more fully into our bodies, sharing this day of mindful awareness.
I had no way of really knowing what was happening for everyone, but I was moved by a sense of deep peace in the room. Everyone was settled. There wasn't any whispering or chatting - we moved together silently like a kind of mindful amoeba flowing around the room, outside, to the kitchen, to the restroom, or sitting still for practice, rest or to eat lunch.
Walking outside I saw many of our mindful folks sitting and watching the view of the water or walking slowly. A few other park visitors came and went. The sun rose across its late winter arc and started to lower again.
We checked in again at the end of the day. We were all brought to tears by the many realizations and shifts that each person reported. Not that it was easy. There were challenges with mind states and physical pain. But the dominant recurring themes were gratitude and peace. What a remarkable thing, what a gift to be completely out of our usual busy patterns for a day.
The Silicon Valley Capitalist-engineers like to talk about "disruptive technology" - and it's been so interesting to hear (and see) that some kinds of disruption actually are beneficial. An old tired way of doing something is disrupted by a newer more innovative way.
Perhaps the practice of retreat is a kind of "disruptive technology" for us. We disrupt our usual routine full of lists and routines and speed blocks of doing, doing, doing. My meditation teacher used to say that the great thing about meditation is that it's completely useless -- which always got a laugh. But I think we do need bursts of support to set aside our drive for "utility" - the deep pattern that we have to be always busy and productive. That we actually do need some "uselessness" too. This kind of disruption can lead over time to a kind of re-balancing of our lives. Disruption is too harsh of a word maybe because this version, a day of mindful awareness, is gentle, supported and carefully crafted to be as beneficial as it can be. But disruption is also true. It can be a little wrenching and surprising. Maybe people have told us at the start of a day of retreat, "I don't know if I can do this - be silent and just do this stuff for six hours?!" And many of those same people have later told us, "Wow, that was one of the best things I've done in a long time." Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it was the best thing they've "non-done" in a long time.
I'm so happy that Mindfulness Northwest has been able to steadily increase our retreat offerings. Our one-day Days of Mindfulness are both built into every 8-week class we offer and also available to people to sign up for just the day. A next step might be our weekend retreat - coming up March 29-30th. Consider also our 5-day and 7-day silent retreats in August and October. Yes, longer retreats can be a challenge but the benefits can be very rich and important.
I hope you'll have the opportunity for retreat soon.Tim