I returned from a five day retreat in nobel silence at Cloud Mountain a few weeks ago. I must say, it was exhausting and fulfilling at the same time. The funny part is, that many people have asked me “what did you get out of it??” I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. Hopefully writing this will help me clarify that for myself. I was hoping to get some clarity on a few items and perhaps just a little peace and quiet to practice in. Or at least that’s what I thought I wanted.
First a word about Cloud Mountain. The place is incredibly beautiful and serene. If you’ve ever been to the Cascade Mountains, you know they are green. This was GREEN. There were leaves, vines or ferns everywhere. The pulsation of life was astounding. I had a private room that was very comfortable. The meals were all vegetarian and very good. Andy the new cook was wonderful at his craft and preparation. The grounds were beautifully walkable even in the damp and cold rain of a weirdly winter like June in the northwest.
Each day consisted of rising at 5:45 am, many 45 minute sitting meditations with associated walking periods, as well as dharma talks, ending at 10 pm. No talking was welcome except to when necessary to perform assigned tasks like cleaning or cooking. After I returned people would often ask, “what was it like to spend a week in silence?” For me, that was easy. I’ve spent half of my adult life business traveling alone. Sitting on airplanes, riding on trains, in a rented car, evenings and mornings in hotel rooms, all alone and quiet. For others, silence was less natural.
As I’ve been told by many, I went thru the normal and expected period of adjustment. For the first few days, I was just not feelin’ it. I couldn’t get quiet. My mind was a complete cacophony of chaos slow brewed with some interesting creativity and a lot of imagination. By the time I had even realized I daydreaming my way thru some long lost conversation, the 45 minutes were up and it was time to walk. Once I did get quiet though, I was able to meditate very clearly and quietly. Aside from the usual aches and pains of sitting so much, it was incredibly pleasant and peaceful, allowing me to access a level of mindfulness I had not reached before. Small noises, little itches, sounds of life or rain outside, vanishing scents, the texture of my shirt against my skin, all registered separately and discretely as no thoughts, no emotions, no … well I guess me, existed.
The unexpected consequence was the disruption in my practice when I returned. I simply couldn’t meditate for a week or more. I didn’t want to. In fact, I had a lot of doubt about my practice and my ability to remain committed. It had been so lovely, with such nice people, and so serene that the very fact that I didn’t get any amazing insight was just disappointing. I felt like I wasn’t “good” at practice. If I had been, I’d have gotten something really amazing out of it. But what I got was time to quiet myself, some extra tools for mindfulness, some good metta technics and practice and a few new friends. That’s all great but what happened to the flash of insight, the floating into anatta (Sanskirt: अनात्मन्) or just some seriously blissed out moments in deep, penetrating meditation. After a few weeks of neglecting the disciplined practice I had become accustomed to, I realized that I had been expecting too much and as a result, was disappointed by a really great outcome. Silly. Turns out that I had fallen into the trap of over-reading the significance of retreat. I really wanted much more out of it than I originally thought. Not being clear about my real expectation in my conscious mind lead me to a practice shaking doubt afterward. In reality the insight I gained was that examination of motivations and expectation is as important to practice as examining the result and the finding a path forward.
A note on the teachers : Andrea Fella and Greg Scharf were great. I had heard many talks by Andrea on AudioDharma, but had never heard a dharma talk of Greg’s before. He was surprisingly and refreshingly insightful. His talk on patience was heart felt and very moving. You can find more of Greg’s talks here at DharmaSeed.org