These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

7-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Posted on March 25, 2013 by Eric Feldman

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From my blog:

Imagine spending seven days without your phone, television, or computer. Okay, now add on the incentive of no listening to music, reading, or writing. And now try doing that without speaking or communicating at all. Not just verbal communication; you can’t even look at anyone else. Oh, and one final, small thing – you’re not really supposed to think either. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Well, yesterday, I returned from a 7-day silent meditation retreat in which I joined about 40 other people just as crazy as me in seeing what exactly that experience would be like. The retreat took place at an absolutely beautiful kibbutz in northern Israel called Hannaton, about halfway between Haifa and Tiberias. From this small kibbutz you could see tree-filled mountains and mountain ranges on all sides with tiny, mostly Arab villages here and there, and with the Sea of Galilee right outside the kibbutz’s borders.

Photo from here:

Photo from here:

Just to be clear, describing silence to someone who lives in the world of noise and being to someone who lives the world of doing is about as easy to do as describing the color red to a blind person. Language just doesn’t have that ability. Something to keep in mind, that this might not all make sense, and that’s okay. Oh, and fun game to play with yourself while you read this: try to think about how many random and unrelated thoughts pop into your head, and watch those thoughts.

Sunday – Welcome

It began late Sunday afternoon. About half of us arrived on a bus from Jerusalem, and the first thing we noticed when we got off the bus and arrived at the kibbutz was the schedule. And let me tell you, I was pretty intimidated. Here’s a basic rundown:

530 am – Wake up
6 – Sit
630 – Chanting
8 – Breakfast
930 – Sit
1015 – Walk
1025 – Sit
11 – Yoga
12 – Q and A
1230 – Lunch
2 – sit/walk/sit/walk/sit/walk/sit
6 – Dinner
730 – Teaching
830 – Walk
845 – Sit

Now look at that and tell me that you wouldn’t also be intimidated. Lots of sitting and walking – not exactly my idea of a good time. And then came the next reality check – Danny, the (awesome) guy in charge of logistics, told us to put all of our valuables in a bag to be returned at the end of the week, just so that we wouldn’t be tempted by any distractions. I kind of knew that we wouldn’t be doing any phone calls, ipod listening, etc., but this made it pretty real. Goodbye outside world, see you next Sunday.

Then we had our first meal, which was our one chance to talk and get to know one another. I met a few new people, talked with some friends that I was doing the retreat with, and remember talking with one of then about how I was both very excited and very nervous, and had absolutely no idea what to expect. Pretty accurate assessment looking back. After dinner we were introduced to our home for the next week, a large tent on the edge of the kibbutz overlooking a forest-filled valley with mountains and villages on the other side. We had a brief introduction in which I kept thinking, “what have I gotten myself in to”, and then headed to sleep early.

Monday – Day 1

Our first real day, and it definitely felt like Day 1. I was confused, felt out of place, bored, tired, and had no idea what I was doing there. And next Sunday felt like a looong time away. I felt a lot like I was a proud member of an insane asylum as I saw people walking incredibly slowly back and forth in a field and looking down at the ground, and a bowl-shaped bell signaling that we all return to a big tent.

I began to get familiar with “the bell”, the little noise that would have full ownership over our time for the next week. The bell, shaped like a little metal bowl with a stick to hit it with, would begin and end all of our activities (even though I’m not sure that word really applies to sitting and walking), and I think I speak for all of us when I say that during many of our sits and walks, our mind would be filled with thoughts of “when will that freaking bell ring!?” It always rang eventually, but typically not until long after we wanted it to.

Another important part of the retreat that we were introduced to on Monday was eating meditation. All of us sitting in a room together with tables scattered about, eating completely silently and looking down at our food. As someone who doesn’t enjoy the idea of eating alone, this was a difficult adjustment. At lunch, I was eating at a table with Sean and Shoshana, two friends who I had Shabbat meals with just two days ago, and now we were sitting literally 2 feet across from each other and not even acknowledging the other’s existence. Pretty strange. But the point was to focus on what we were doing, and that was eating, and to really think before each bite and savor the taste while in our mouths. And a key rule, which I urge all of you to try, is not to put more food in your mouth while there is currently food in your mouth. Pretty unnatural, actually.

The “instructions” for the day were to use our breath as an anchor. The general instructions for the retreat came down to two words, to pay attention, and our way of doing this evolved through the week. But the basic point was to be mindful at every single moment, a 7-day long, non-stop meditation. So we began on Day 1 by using our breath as an anchor, so that when we got distracted and our mind ran off on us, we would be able to bring ourselves back to the present with our breath.

At night, there was a great teaching by James, one of the retreat leaders who I had taken a class with at Pardes. He talked about the shortcomings of concepts, and how we all think of the world in terms of concepts and not in terms of reality. He told a joke about how a grandmother was walking with her grandson one day and someone commented about how cute he was, and she said that if you think he’s cute, then just wait until you see the pictures. And how this is something we all do, think of the world in terms of labels and concepts and not in terms of actual things.

Tuesday – Day 2

The instructions for Day 2 were to move from using our breath as an anchor to using our most prominent bodily sensation as an anchor. Although this day was also strange, I began to feel more comfortable with the setting and the routine. I didn’t really feel like I was connecting or doing the meditation “right”. But yoga was definitely great, and I looked very forward to the meals, at which I had incredible experiences focusing on every bite, and had the most delicious cucumbers and tomatoes (the food was pretty much cucumbers, vegetables, and a few other things at every meal. But incredibly healthy and vegetarian. Along with this, meditating in a tent, yoga, and walking around barefoot all the time, I felt like quite the hippie) that I’d ever had. So that was Tuesday.

Wednesday – Day 3

Whoa. What. a. day. The anchor for today moved from the most prominent body sensation to being mindful of the entire body. And in the post-breakfast, sit, with that new anchor intact, I finally, for the first time, began to feel like my mind was really quieting down and I could really focus on watching my thoughts. What I later realized I was doing was called open awareness, in which you are fully mindful of the entire mind without using any sort of anchor. This is what I would call my first “good” sit, and it felt great. When the bell rang and I opened my eyes, the sun was coming through the tent in a way that, mixed with my state of mind, just really made for a magical moment.

After lunch that day, I went on a walk through the kibbutz and saw a massive herd of sheep crossing the road from one field to another, with a Volkswagen waiting patiently. This doesn’t really relate to my experience at all, but I just thought it was a hilarious clash of biblical and modern. Nothing else so eventful occurred that day leading up to my meeting with James in the afternoon. I was so used to looking down and away from people that I actually couldn’t even pull myself to look at his face when we spoke – it was so strange. I told him about my general experience and how there was nothing so much to report, and then went back to the tent for the final sit of the day, right before dinner.

I struggled through the sit and was tired and aching and hungry and really longing for that bell to ring. But once the bell rang, I thought I would just give it a little bit longer to see if anything would happen. And what a good decision that was. Time wasn’t really clear to me here, but a bit later, I started to feel my body shaking, and was thinking (a) this is cool and (b) I have no idea what’s going on but lets play this one out. Then I felt my arms and hands start raising into the air, my head coming back, and my mouth opening, then finally began to feel myself leaving my body. This whole time, while this experience is going on, I’m also completely aware that it’s going on and am thinking “oh my god this is so cool!”. This was absolutely the greatest feeling of ecstasy I have felt in my life, and wanted it to continue, but was also thinking that I was pretty hungry and didn’t want to miss dinner. So I knew I had to stay for at least a bit and cherish this moment, and then eventually food took priority and I bolted to the dining hall to eat.

I was still in this ecstatic state when I arrived, and began demolishing carrots and tasting them like I never had before. One of my friends, Joseph, saw me (which I found out later) and began laughing. And just to be clear, on a silent retreat, laughter is pretty extraordinary. This set off a wave of laughter throughout the hall, and then once I joined in everyone pretty much lost it. And this just added to my ecstasy. The feeling continued during the teaching that night, so I can’t really be too precise about what James taught about, but it was awesome.

I spoke to James that night afterwards and told him about the incredible state that I was in, and he told me to feel my feet on the ground, more, more, more, look at that tree, just feel grounded. He said that I had reached a bliss state and had an out-of-body experience, but that this wasn’t the point of the practice and that I should just focus more on being mindful. I wasn’t so thrilled by that response, as I was feeling like I had just hit the meditation jackpot and that there couldn’t possibly be any higher purpose of the retreat than to get to the level that I was at. But I respected what he had to say and kept it in mind.

Thursday – Day 4

The day began in the best way possible, by observing the most spectacular sunrise of my life. Mountains all around, fog blanketing the tree-filled valley, and the sun’s rays coming up from over this silhouetted mountain that appeared to be literally floating in air. Joseph also was outside watching it, and we began applauding as the sun finally showed itself. The high continued through the morning to a lesser degree, but that some time in the afternoon…

CRASH. I had been trying to hold on to that feeling, and completely lost it. I felt nothing. I was feeling like I had been before the retreat had begun, and felt that I had completely lost all of the progress I had made. Things just felt so, normal. And it wasn’t fun. I was pretty upset and couldn’t really get into the meditating that afternoon and evening. At night I gave myself a pep talk and said that this was just a new challenge and opportunity for learning and growth, but that didn’t really make me any happier.

Friday – Day 5

This is the day that this retreat was made for. Full circle. I had my ease in days, my high, my low, and now, finally in the fifth day of the retreat, I was at a real place of growth and matured understanding. Although they had been taking about mindfulness and paying attention and such all week, those words didn’t really mean anything to me until I went through what I did. I finally realized why the retreat was so teaching-low and practice-intensive, because the only way to really understand, as with anything, is to practice and experience. James’ talk with me on Wednesday finally made so much sense. And I finally realized that meditation and mindfulness weren’t about ego and cool meditation tricks and being like Siddartha, but rather about love and joy and peace and the full, unadulterated radiance of the now. And not about getting fancy but just about being mindful, period.

And having that realization was so great. It really gave me so much clarity and understanding and I was really able to focus on the point of mindfulness and looking at thoughts and seeing their roots and catching them without falling into them. Uncertainty – seeya later. Worry about future – gone. Insecurity – not today. My mind was the most quiet that it had been in my life, and I felt like a mindfulness ninja, striking any thought out right as it arrived. It was pretty awesome. And so novel and rewarding to be able to watch thoughts as they appear, see what they were rooted in, see how they manifested themselves in the body, and then just be able to watch them and see them disappear and tell them that they didn’t phase me. This is one of those parts that probably won’t be so understandable to those of you who haven’t been to day 5 of a silent retreat before, but it was pretty unbelievable.

In the afternoon, I spent about an hour just lying on the grass in a field outside and feeling the wind and looking up at the clouds, and realized that I needed more lying in fields in my life. Too much time is spent doing, moving, going, thinking, and not enough time spent lying in fields, feeling the support of the earth and the feel of the wind. I also was able to look at the clouds passing by and relate it to a metaphor that had been taught earlier about thinking of thoughts, sounds, etc. as clouds passing in and out. There was pretty noisy construction outside our tent that morning, but all of us were so hooked in and engaged that by that point, the sounds were a non-issue for us. Well, at least for me.

Shabbat came in that evening and I experienced one of the most ecstatic Friday night Shabbat services of all time. After not speaking all day (except for prayer and chanting), and then being able to release all of this pent up energy in a service that normally has excitement as it is, we all lost it. Screaming these psalms of praise as the sun was setting and Shabbat was being welcomed in was the most joy that that tent saw all week; it could barely contain it.

After dinner, James gave his final teaching of the retreat, an incredible talk about keeping things simple. About how we add so much unnecessary complexity to our lives, and even with spirituality, it’s about adding on, about what we will “get” out of the retreat, etc. But in reality, it’s about paring down and coming back to the essentials and basics of life, back to what is real and true and important. One thing he said that spoke to me was about how anxiety is completely a consequence of not living in the now, about worrying about things that in all likelihood won’t even happen. Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it, and then when you’re done doing that, do what’s next. So much of what we worry about i.e. conversations, decisions, actions, etc. hardly ever go the way that we worry they will and can be dealt with just as well if not better when we put our full energy in at the appropriate time and not before. And he re-iterated and expounded on the idea of the retreat, being present with the truth of what IS, not what will be and not what was. Great, great talk.

Saturday – Day 6 and Last Day

If you’ve made it to this point in my post, then (a) I’m very impressed, (b) you’re probably my mom, and (c) you deserve a quick break. It’s almost over, don’t worry.

Shabbat. Late wake up today, 7 am. Woohoo! During morning prayers and chanting, Jeff (the other retreat leader) had us look each other in the eyes during a climactic point. And I can easily say that I have never cherished eye contact so much in my life. To be able to look at the faces of these people that I had gone through so much with and desired so much to speak to and hug all week, was really amazing. After all, I was sharing a small dorm room with five other people including several close friends, and after having to completely blow them off and blatantly ignore them all week, it was such a special moment to see the faces of those that had gone through this tremendous journey with me. Although this was a very individual journey, it was also the kind of journey that was only made possible through the support of everyone else in that tent, feeding off each other’s energy at all times.

After lunch, I used the waning hours of silence before our final gathering in the tent to do some praying and meditating in the forest overlooking the valleys and mountains and water. Not really able to put that time into words, but it was a very appropriate way to end the week and take advantage of my heightened awareness and sensitivity one last time.

We then came together in the tent and gathered in a circle to share our experiences, and it was amazing hearing what everyone had to say and even such basic things as hearing the names and voices of these people that I felt incredibly close to. Who would have thought that silence and avoidance would breed so much love and community. During evening services every day, there is a line in which we God to spread His sukkah (tent) of peace over us, and I really felt like this was that tent that is being described. We left that tent with hugs and speech and all smiles, and had a very noisy dinner and Havdallah. It was amazing, but also incredibly strange, that’s for sure.

Epilogue – After arriving back in Jerusalem that night, I was just planning to go straight back to my apartment and chill out to help with the adjustment, but God had other plans. First, I bumped into two friends at the bus station from a seminar I had done six months ago. Talking. Then a friend in the army called me and told me that a fellow college friend was in town, so I hopped off the bus and met the two of them at a bar with a noisy band playing. Whoa. That was some pretty intense stimulation for someone who was freaking out from carrots earlier that day. So I finally had to leave and when I hopped on the bus back, I see that one of the ten people on the bus is another friend from college who I haven’t seen in over a year and was visiting. So it may not have been the most graceful re-entrance into civilization, but it certainly got me back in the groove of things a bit in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

So hopefully this has been a bit of an insight into what my seven days of silence were like. This was only my experience, and I assure you that every other person in that tent had a completely different journey, as would I if I did it again, but this was mine, so I hope you enjoyed it. And hopefully this provided you with some valuable insights into the very powerful, beautiful, and often misunderstood, simple act of silence. Thanks for reading!