Instructions for a Do-It-Yourself Mindfulness Retreat
The Goal of a Sabbatical Day
When I was a child in New York City in the 1940s there were “Blue Laws” in force, laws that attempted to legislate the Biblical injunction, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” The Sabbath day varied—in some neighborhoods it was Sunday, in others, Saturday—but the rules themselves, mandating a moratorium on mercantile activity, were the same. Businesses were closed. Shopping stopped. There were no convenience stores. People needed to remember, in advance of the Sabbath, to provide for the upcoming day of rest and spiritual reflection so that, on that day, they could rest. The community collectively caught its breath. Family members spent time with each other. They renewed connections. They visited neighbors. I like to imagine that, whether or not people went to religious services, there was the possibility in that period of a pause for reflection. “What am I doing with my life?” “Is what I am doing good for me?” “Is it good for other people?” “Does my life make a difference in the world?” “Could my life make more of a difference in the world?” All of the important fundamental questions in life seem to be waiting, so to speak, next on line at the top of the mind’s agenda, if only we give them the time and the space to present themselves. I believe a Mindfulness retreat, even a one-day retreat, provides the time and the space for that sort of reflection.
Think of Mindfulness as the habit of seeing things in an uncomplicated way. We generally don’t. Based on our individual histories, our memories, and our fears, we often make up our reality out of a projected worry and frighten or discourage ourselves. I once had a series of back and forth phone calls with Robert, the retreat master at the San Francisco Zen Center, because I wanted to register for a retreat there. We kept missing each other. When I said to the person who answered the phone, on my third or fourth attempt to talk to Robert, “Perhaps this means that I am not meant to participate in this retreat,” he said, “Probably it just means that Robert isn’t here.”
That verbal exchange, now more than thirty years old, is an example of why I feel I need to pay attention. Mindfulness is seeing things as they actually are not as we imagine them to be. Practicing mindfulness does not require that a person become a Buddhist. The hope of practitioners is that they might become like a Buddha relating to their experiences with clarity and responding with kindness and compassion.
The Buddha’s core teaching addressed, “the cause and the end of suffering.” He explained how the mind becomes confused and fatigued yearning for pleasant experiences and despising unpleasant experiences. Pleasant and unpleasant experiences, the Buddha explained, the joys and pains of everyday life, are not the problem. The yearning and despising—the imperative in the mind that things be different—the extra tension in the mind that disappears when things are seen clearly and understood fully, is what the Buddha called suffering. Mindfulness—the relaxed, non-clinging, non-aversive awareness of present experience—is a skill that, like any other skill, requires developing. I tell people that practicing that skill is something I try to do all the time, in all the experiences of my life. I also tell them that, like everyone else’s life, my life is very complex. I try to set aside a bit of time every day and a whole day of time at regular intervals—Sabbaths in the course of my life—contexts of simplicity that will support my intention to reestablish clear and balanced understanding.
A Whole Day of Mindfulness Retreat
A liberating insight is not something I can produce on demand. I cannot decide, “Tomorrow morning at 10:30 I will have a profound new perspective on this area of difficulty in my life.” I can, however, set up the conditions in which liberating insights are likely to arise. In time set apart for retreat there are no diversions. When I was a child, we stayed home on the Sabbath since travel was considered a form of work. Now I think of a retreat as not traveling far from myself, not hiding from myself, and as getting to know myself better. I know that as I begin to see more clearly how I am and how my own mind gets tired and tied in knots of confusion, I see more clearly—and more compassionately—that that must be true of everyone else.
If you take on a day of a personal Mindfulness retreat—instructions to follow—please think of it as a day without agenda. Nothing particular needs to happen. Don’t expect a radically altered mind state, unless happy and relaxed are radical for you. Happy and relaxed probably will happen, and happy and relaxed are optimal conditions for insight, and the healing that comes from insight, to begin to happen. The timing of the arising of moments of insight seems, to me, pretty much a matter of grace. A profoundly healing insight might arise in the course of even a single day of practice. It could even arise right now as you prepare for retreat. This all means, “begin your day without planning for a particular result.” Who knows what new view is just around the corner in the mind? Being on the lookout for something specific might divert us from seeing something really wonderful. My greatest faith is that the mind has an incredible ability and everlasting capacity for healing itself and that it begins to do it every chance it gets. A Mindfulness retreat is a chance.
You can plan a Mindfulness day for yourself anywhere. You can stay at home, turn off the ringers on your phone, leave a message on your answering machine that you’ll phone back, don’t turn on the radio or TV, don’t read or catch up on work. It’s hard to stay home and not be seduced by things to do, but it is possible.
You could stay at a retreat facility that is open to short-term guests, or rent a house on the beach, or borrow a friend’s vacation home, or even spend a day in a hotel room. The esthetics and logistics are different. The instructions, and the goal, are always the same.
Schedule for Retreat *
6:45 Wake up, dress
7:00 Listening meditation
7:30 Eating meditation: breakfast
8:15 Walking meditation
9:15 Sitting meditation
10:00 Walking meditation
11:00 Sitting meditation
12:00 Eating meditation: lunch
2:00 Walking meditation
3:00 Sitting meditation
4:00 Walking meditation
4:30 Sitting meditation
5:00 Eating meditation: dinner
6:00 Walking meditation
7:00 Sitting meditation
8:00 Walking meditation
9:00 Eating meditation: late tea
*This schedule follows the style of a traditional Mindfulness retreat. At Spirit Rock Meditation Center, we begin one hour earlier. Getting up before dawn is a lovely practice. You can choose to begin earlier—or even later—depending on your personal needs.
Listening meditation is a specific form for practicing mindfulness of body sensations. Sounds, like everything else, arise and pass away. You can discover the truth of impermanence, an understanding the Buddha taught as crucial for the development of wisdom, just by listening.
Early morning is great for listening. When you first awaken, lie still and listen. Then wash, dress, and sit quietly. In rural settings, you are likely to hear birds and animals beginning to stir. In a city, sounds of outside activity—garbage collection, building construction, or traffic—begin. Even in an apartment on the 10th floor of a building in midtown Manhattan, plumbing sounds pick up in pace, elevator doors open and slam shut. A whole world of images constellates in the mind around “bang, slam, gurgle, drone, ‘ring-ring’” . . . . The mind fills in the blanks. Day is recreated anew.
Sit in a position in which you can be both relaxed and alert. Close your eyes. The stillness of your posture and the absence of visual stimuli enhance hearing consciousness. Since you’ve just been sleeping, you aren’t likely to feel sleepy.
After your body is settled comfortably, just listen. Don’t scan for sounds. Wait for them to enter your awareness. You might think of yourself as a backyard satellite dish with a wide range of pick-up capacity, waiting. Stay alert and relaxed, and just wait.
In the beginning you’ll likely find that you are naming sounds. Door slam . . . elevator . . . footsteps . . . bird . . . airplane . . . . Sometimes you’ll know the feeling tone that accompanies the experience: bird—pleasant; pneumatic drill—unpleasant; laughter—pleasant. After a while, you may discover that the naming impulse relaxes. What remains is awareness of the presence or absence of sounds: hearing . . . not hearing . . . sound arising . . . sound passing away . . . pleasant . . . not pleasant.
Think of your listening meditation now as a wake-up exercise for your attention. However it happens—with names, without names, with feeling tone awareness or without—just let it happen. Don’t try to accomplish anything. Just listen.
Breakfast – Eating Meditation
Eating is a most wonderful opportunity for paying attention because it is so interesting. It involves more than one sense organ: we see our food, and smell it, and taste it, and sometimes (if it’s crunchy or sizzling) we hear it. And, usually, we are eating because we are hungry, so our experience is likely to be pleasant. If the retreat you plan for yourself includes preparing your own food, choose foods you enjoy that are easy to prepare.
If you are preparing your own food, do it slowly, noticing all the movements that go into setting up the meal. Don’t nibble as you prepare. You’ll be able to feel the tension of desire, and also learn the mind’s ability to accommodate unmet desire. (This is what makes this a retreat day. A spa day cultivates relaxation by responding to desires. This Mindfulness day cultivates wisdom.)
Sit down with your food for a minute before you begin eating. Look at the food. Smell it. Notice how you begin to salivate. Notice the impulse to start eating. Notice how the mind feels in the moments before pleasurable activity. Then eat. Slowly. Put the spoon or fork down between bites.
Imagine that you are tasting this food for the first time. When Honor Rose, my youngest grandchild, was just beginning to eat solid food, she rolled each new thing around in her mouth. She looked surprised—and interested. If you are preparing your own food, you won’t be surprised but you could still be interested. Everything has its unique flavor.
If you are in a retreat center, or a hotel, you might not be pleased with the food. Then you could think about the notice that the cooks at Spirit Rock Retreat Center have posted on the bulletin board of the dining room: “Preparing delicious food is our Practice. And, when we don’t, it’s your Practice.” You don’t have to like it. You can be interested in how not liking feels, and how hard it is for the mind, sometimes, to accommodate not liking even the smallest thing. You can learn a lot about suffering when not liking and resenting is happening, and a lot about the end of suffering when it passes.
Basic Instructions for Formal Walking Meditation
Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese Zen teacher who established the San Francisco Zen Center, described “beginner’s mind” as that capacity of mind that is able to experience each moment as entirely new. He said that the element of expectant interest inclines the mind toward greater understanding. I think what Suzuki Roshi meant is that habituated vision limits us.
I thought about Suzuki Roshi the first time I visited my friend Tamara Engel, a Mindfulness teacher in New York City, in her apartment. I have known Tamara for a long time, but had never been in her apartment before. I looked with special interest at the photos on her walls and saw her family, her friends, herself as a child—all of them became more enlivened by this more intimate encounter. You can bring this more intimate encounter, this “beginner’s mind,” to a place you’ve never been to before, or to your own home. (You may have had this experience already, returning home after a semester at school or a year abroad.) In Mindfulness practice, we pay special attention to every moment of experience, because we expect the intimacy of deeper connection to awaken us to a fuller, wiser understanding.
Pick a place to walk back and forth that is private, uncomplicated—one where the walking path can be ten to twenty feet long. If you walk outdoors, find some place secluded so you won’t feel self-conscious. If you walk indoors, find a furniture-free section of a room or an empty hallway, so your walking can be relaxed and easy. You don’t need to walk in any way that is unusual. No special balance is needed, no special gracefulness. Just plain walking. Perhaps, sometimes, at a slower pace than normal, but, otherwise, quite ordinary.
Begin your period of practice by standing still for a few moments at one end of your walking path. I often discover myself that my entire body is an antenna for sensing the world. I feel warm or cool, I hear sounds, I see what’s around me, I feel my whole body standing. Some people like to start by bring attention to the top of the head, then moving the attention along the body through the head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs, and ending by feeling the sensations of the feet connecting with the earth. Allow the attention to rest in the sensations in the soles of the feet. This is likely to be the feeling of pressure on the feet and perhaps a sense of “soft” or “hard,” depending on the surface upon which you are standing.
Begin to walk forward. Keep your eyes open so you stay balanced. I often being with a normal strolling pace and expect that the limited scope of the walk, and its repetitive regularity, will allow my body to settle into a slower pace. It usually does. I think it happens because the mind, with less stimuli to process, shifts into a lower gear. Probably the greed impulse, ever on the lookout for something new to experience, surrenders when it realizes that you aren’t going any place.
At a strolling pace, the view is panoramic and descriptive. At a slower pace, the view is more localized and subjective. If we could have running read-outs, like subtitles, of the thoughts that accompany walking, they might look like this:
Strolling pace: “Step . . . Step . . . Step . . . Step . . . Arms moving . . . Head moving . . . Feeling happy . . . Looking . . . Stopping . . . Turning . . . Hearing a bird . . . Stepping . . . Stepping . . . Stepping . . . Wondering what time it is . . . Thinking this is silly . . . Stepping . . . Stepping . . . Swinging arms . . . Feeling cool . . . Looking around for a sunnier walking path . . . Moving into sunshine . . . Feeling warm . . . Feeling pleased . . . Smiling . . . Stepping . . .”
Slower pace: “Pressure on feet . . . Pressure . . . Pressure disappearing . . . Pressure reappearing . . . Pressure shifting . . . Lightness . . . Heaviness . . . Lightness . . . Heaviness . . . Lightness . . . Hey, now I’ve got it! Now I’m paying attention . . . Whoops, I’ve been distracted . . . Starting again . . . Pressure on feet . . . Pressure shifting . . . Lightness . . . Heaviness . . . Hearing . . . .”
Slow walking is not better than fast. The point of walking (and the goal of Mindfulness practice) is to notice that things change. Regardless of pace, everything changes. Direct experience of temporality can happen while strolling just as easily as in slow stepping. I like reminding people that the speed-limit guide for mindful walking is: “Select the speed at which you are most likely to maintain attention. Shift up or down as necessary.”
Decide how long you will walk before you begin, and try not to look at your watch. If you have a watch that beeps, you could set it. Indoors, you could set the timer on your stove. Walking just to have the experience of walking—not to get somewhere, or to finish—is a pleasure.
Basic Instructions for Sitting Meditation Practice
Choose a sitting posture that is comfortable for you. You can sit on a chair, on the floor on a meditation cushion, or any place else where you can be relaxed and still stay alert. Some people even meditate on their bed, sitting propped up with pillows. Find a position appropriate to your physical abilities.
I use the first few minutes of sitting practice to settle down. I try to sit up straight, with my spine erect, but then I allow my body to drape itself naturally and easily around me. I imagine my body relaxed around my skeletal form in much the same way my soft wool coat hangs down from a firm hanger in my closet. Let your eyes take in the scene around you, and then let them gently close. If you can, smile. It helps the mind relax. Then just sit there. Don’t do anything.
Usually the first thing I am aware of are sounds—near and far—and I notice them arising and passing away in my mind. They seem to orient me to my own body, and I begin to feel myself sitting. I can recognize what posture I am in—on a chair, or legs crossed, or even on my bed—by the particular pressures, vibrations, pulsings, and tinglings that the body produces in my mind.
Then, as I sit, the special events associated specifically with the coming and going of my breath are likely to become prominent. I think you’ll notice that as well. You might feel your breath as alternating pressures around your rib cage. You might feel it as tiny flutterings in and around your nostrils. You might notice your breath as the echo of sensations throughout your body every time breath passes in and out of you. Wherever, in whatever form the breath presents itself to you most prominently, stay right there. Let your attention rest in the movement of the breath. When your attention wanders away from the breath—and it surely will—bring it back to the breath and rest there again.
Now, see if you can maintain, simultaneously, the global awareness of all the body sensations, as well as the particular awareness of the breath arising and passing away. This wide-angle view of the shifting breath within the body offers another direct example of the truth of temporality. Everything is always changing. To help your attention mark that experience you can say to yourself in your mind: “breath arising, breath passing away; breath arising, breath passing away . . . .” Being confident that things change supports my mind in difficult times. It also reminds me to cherish wonderful moments knowing that they won’t last.
Years ago, I heard very straightforward instructions for Mindfulness meditation from Shirley, a radiation technologist doing my mammogram. I had mentioned to her that I am a Mindfulness teacher.
“I believe in meditation,” Shirley said. “I’ve been meditating for twenty years, religiously, every day.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I pay attention to my breath,” she said. “I get up every morning, wrap myself in a comforter, and sit on my couch for half an hour. I close my eyes and feel my breath come in and go out. That’s all. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping at night, but even if I do, that half-hour in the morning refreshes me completely.”
“You do that every day?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “Unless I get up too late, and my family is already up and making noise. Then, I do yoga instead.”
The intention to focus attention—to see things in a relaxed and clear way—is more important than any particular subject of intention. Sitting is fine, breath awareness is fine, yoga is fine. So is walking. So is eating. (The instructions for lunch and dinner, even late tea, are the same as breakfast: Prepare slowly, eat slowly, and bring investigative, energetic attention to every moment.)
You’ve probably noticed that the instructions for a whole day of Mindfulness practice are very simple: Have a plain day. Don’t add anything at all to basic human experiences of sitting still, moving about, and eating.
You will probably feel relaxed and rejuvenated from your day. Seeing things in an uncomplicated way is relaxing. It is inspiring for me, also, and I think it will be for you, to remember that our individual determination to calm down enough to see clearly benefits more people than just ourselves.
Interviewers often ask me if I don’t think meditation—especially a whole day of it—isn’t narcissistic and self-indulgent.
“Wouldn’t the day be better spent,” they ask, “out helping others?”
I reply, “There are many wonderful ways to directly serve others, and probably many people have discovered them. A Mindfulness practice and continuous attention to one’s own process, especially one’s own intentions—and an occasional whole day of intensive Mindfulness practice—supports our ability to best serve. It keeps our motivation going.
I say, “When we see, even in the simplest circumstances, how difficult it is to stay content, how easily irritated we become, how many worries we have, how hard it is to relax—we intuit that that must be true for other people as well. All other people. And we start to be kinder. We are kinder to ourselves and, ultimately, more forgiving of others. The world would get happier if everyone relaxed and forgave each other.”
Usually people think about that a moment. Then they smile and say, “I think you’re right.”
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