Each winter, I spend about ten days in solitary meditation retreat. I stay in a cozy little cabin in the wilderness, at the banks of a rain-swollen river. There is something about the depth of the silence there that permeates my awareness until I become truly quiet. Residing there day after day creates a lasting memory in me, a brushstroke of clarity across my colorful mind. For the rest of the year, the memory of my retreat experience reminds me of my own true nature. Even now, writing about it, I settle into that place that has become so familiar and so dear.
Oftentimes when I attend organized meditation retreats with precious teachers and dear friends, I leave feeling a little bit frazzled from all of the chatting that happens between teaching sessions and during meals. I’d prefer to be quiet most of the time, but I find myself swept along by the group behavior. By contrast, when a meditation retreat is held in complete silence, the group tends to fall inward. That works well for practice, but constrained by our silence we cannot share our insights across the gulf that separates our internal experiences. I’ve always wanted to attend a balanced meditation retreat that uses silence for study and practice, and then discussion for learning from each other… so I created one.
Our Middleway Method meditation retreats are mostly silent. On the first day, we arrive like a noisy flock of birds. After a joyful and talkative dinner together, we settle into our nests, tuck our heads under our wings, and sleep. Then we bring the silence of the night into our morning movement practice, waking into mindfulness. At breakfast, we continue our quiet, but as a group, we practice being with each other with care and inclusiveness. Mindfulness is not mind withdrawing into itself. It is called mind-fullness because we attend to the world and the people around us until our minds are full of presence.
During study and practice time with the teachers, we discard the familiar lecture-style format so common in meditation training, and instead facilitate open inquiry and discussion. Many new Middleway students have shared their appreciation for being encouraged to interrupt, ask questions, and actively participate in their own process. We do not passively receive the teachings; we actively discover them. Then, of course, when we practice, we rest again into the precious silence that so clearly shows us our true nature.
This balanced approach allows us to embrace the natural beauty and solitude of the retreat space, while also giving us opportunities to learn from each other. After a silent meditation practice, when a fellow student says, “I sat there thinking about my mortgage payment the whole time,” someone always breathes a sigh of relief, comforted in knowing they’re not the only one. When we get down to the nitty-gritty, and really share what’s going on inside our practice, we discover the truth about the human experience, and from there we can move forward into our practice with honesty and gentleness. When someone says, “That time, I really rested,” the feeling spreads among us, reminding us of our own silent wilderness.