Last week, I drove from Baltimore to Montreal for the sole purpose of retreating into silence with a group of six strangers. This was the third time in my life I have attended a silent retreat. The first time was for three days, the second was for ten, and this latest was for four. There is fairly wide agreement among those I meet that this is a strange and undesirable way to spend time, but I do not agree. Yes, it might be strange, but in fact, I can think of nowhere I would rather be. Having tasted the vastness of awareness that opens so easily in communal silence, I have found myself craving it, especially following busy times in my life. After my longest retreat at Santa Sabina, hosted by Richard Miller in the spring of 2007, I swore that I would never again miss that yearly opportunity to move into silence with a group of like-minded folks and gifted teachers. As 2008 arrived, I was given a work-study scholarship to the May Santa Sabina retreat, but I was unable to accept it due to a schedule overlap with final exams for my first semester as an adult student. I have since left the mainstream academic world of final exams, embarking on a self-directed study of contemplative practices at Goddard College. While studying contemplative practices it seemed to make sense to incorporate some personal contemplation and so I included this retreat, held in the mountains an hour east of Montreal. The retreat was lead by Joan Ruvinksy who I met, in silence, at Santa Sabina in 2007. Joan was one of many participants, in addition to Richard, who led practices during the ten days in Santa Sabina. What follows is an essay on this latest period of silence including a description of my understanding of the nondual teachings/philosophy as I’ve absorbed them from Richard and Joan, an overview of the practices used, and first-person observations of my experiences of contemplative communal silence.
As Joan puts it, on retreat “we meet in the paradox of apparent teachings,” apparent being the operative word. I come away from encounters with Joan and Richard with the sense that there is nothing to be sought. “Practice or don’t practice,” still there’s just this. Richard and Joan were both students of Jean Klein, a French doctor and chamber musician who, as they put it, “never took himself to be a teacher of anything.” What was offered by Jean Klein, and in turn by Joan and Richard, is a freedom from the need to be a student. There are no methods to learn, no practices to engage in with discipline or otherwise. There is nothing to believe or adopt. Nothing offered in their apparent teachings need be taken as truth, but instead, can be explored using a radical empiricism of first person experience. In my time with them, these apparent teachers have offered useful guideposts with great patience, described here as I currently understand them:
Doing happens, there is no doer.
Perceptions, thoughts, and actions arise, all within unbounded awareness. It is only after the fact that the story of self as controller is instantaneously and convincingly crafted to own the sensation, thought, or action. The moment of ownership presents an opportunity to return to presence. There is a palpable contrast in the global feeling tone when one takes ownership of an event arising in conscious experience. The first is a closing around the event and the second creates space around it. For example, when the event is the sensation of physical or emotional pain, the automatic framing is that I am in pain. In contrast, the framing of this sensory event as pain is arising feels different in the body. There is a space created when perceptions are free to arise within an expanded attentional field of awareness.
There are many ways in which meditation teachers encourage opening to the good and the bad in our lives, to all that is. The following Rumi poem is frequently evoked in yoga circles.
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
When we close the door to shame or malice, we are in effect saying no to the present moment. Byron Katie calls our closing to the chunks of life we don’t accept as arguing with reality. The practice Joan offers during these arguments with reality is the useful expression “this too”. I have found it most useful when I become aware of a ‘no’ and, in fact, have begun to cultivate the practicing of listening for no. Attending to these moments when we wish things were other than they are illuminates their pervasiveness. It’s easiest for me to catch the arrival of no when I’m in physical or emotional pain. The identification with pain and the subsequent no happen quickly in the wilds of life, but relaxing into this too opens the experience up and the pain appears as but one of a myriad of perceptions arising in the present moment. While on silent retreat, I have had experiences where it feels as if I’m practically swimming in no, but gradually, there appear cracks between the no’s and I am able to open to this too.
There is no separate self, no separate other.
The first time I heard Richard present this idea, he described meditating on a rose long enough to realize that you are the rose. “There is no separation,” he said. This was many years ago and at the time, my mind balked at the apparent illogic of it interpreting it as some sort of semantic gamesmanship in which separation of my self from the rest of the world was merely a matter of perception. I have since heard this premise of nondualism framed in many ways, some of which have appealed more to my thinking mind than others. More importantly, I have had first person experiences of this nonduality which can best be described as an opening into pure consciousness in which my own previously identified self, as well as the perceived other, were both arising. Put another way, moment to moment, my own embodied being provides me with the capability to perceive the portion of the world with which I am currently in contact, both inner and outer. All of these percepts, whether originating from inside or outside this body/mind are arising within pure consciousness, hence no separation. The trap often comes by assuming that we are the self we have become so firmly identified with.
Until I arrive at a better understanding and ability to articulate these non-teachings, I will simply note that I have found the combination of doing happens and this too provide an applied philosophy that translates well into engaged living outside of the protective cocoon of silent retreat.
During retreats with my nondual guides, there are many practices offered, though each is presented as completely optional. This is not a nondual school of the zen variety. Discipline is neither demanded nor encouraged. The teaching lineage was never embraced by Jean Klein, and so lost, but it is known that these are tantric teachings rooted in Kashmir Shaivism. Though there are ancient texts available for study and modern Indian teachers who continue to teach this brand of nondualism, Joan warns of closing around cosmologies, practices, and doctrines. The following is a brief description of the practices employed during these silent retreats. The descriptions are not here to provide instruction of how one might perform them, but instead to provide context for the experiences presented later.
The morning practice on retreat begins with kapalabhati, sanskrit for skull shining breath. This is a breathing technique which incorporates a gentle but active drawing in of the abdominal muscles during exhalation and a passive relaxation of those same muscles on the inhale. Each breath cycle happens fairly quickly and is relatively shallow. Kapalabhati is considered a kriya, or purifying practice, done before other breathing techniques of pranayama (energy/breath work).
Alternate nostril breathing
Several forms of alternate nostril breathing practices are employed including nadi shodhana, viloma, anuloma, and pratiloma pranayama. These practices include various combinations/alternations of inhales and exhales through one or both nostrils. For instance, during anuloma pranayama (anuloma means “with the grain”) one inhales through both nostrils, exhales through the left while closing the right nostril with the thumb, inhales through both nostrils, and exhales through the right nostril while closing off the left with the ring finger.
The word mudra in sanskrit means seal. Though many mudras are gestures that involve the whole body, the term is often equated with those gestures conducted using only the hands. A simple mudra most people are familiar with from images of meditating yogis is the cin, or consciousness, mudra in which the tips of the thumb and forefinger touch to form a ring and the remaining three fingers remain open. There are many mudras presented during the morning practices of these retreats. They can be done alone or in conjunction with the kapalabhati. Richard even teaches a sequence of mudras, one for each of the 29 syllables of the morning chanting of the Gayatri Mantra.
Yoga nidra is a form of meditation in which attention is directed to sensation, breath, feeling, thought, mental imagery, identity, and pure presence. One could contrast it with other types of still silent meditation that engage either open attention or sustained focused attention on a single object. In yoga nidra, attention is cycled through the body. In classical yoga nidra, this rotation of consciousness maps closely to that of the sensory cortex. Additional attentional exercises incorporate combinations of a large number of passive techniques, sequentially addressing each of the aforementioned realms of experience (breath, feelings, and emotions, thoughts, etc…)
The practice of body sensing appears to be unique to the students of Jean Klein. Body sensing could be thought of as yoga nidra in motion, bringing in the motor element missing in a still, supine yoga nidra practice. Body sensing is a moment to moment inquiry into unmediated sensation during movements that arise spontaneously. The language of the guide encourages the student to move effortlessly (or to notice the arising of a doer) with exquisite attention to sensation. Movement is invited to arise without will so that motion and sensation may be observed arising within an expanded field of attentional awareness. It is a practice that does not make much sense to the thinking mind but one in which the senses themselves come alive. The practice is heavenly for some and excruciating for others.
This is a simple practice of using the eyes of another as the object in awareness. While it is quite simple, it can be a bit tricky. Many retreatants have described it as a difficult and uncomfortable practice during which self-consciousness, projections, judgement of self, and judgements of their partner arise. When one can relax into an open attention in which the perceptions of self and other arise within pure conscious awareness it can be a powerfully illuminating tool for dismantling limited concepts of separation. I have found this and other open-eyed meditation practices to be very effective techniques for guiding me fully into the present moment in which what arises is simply observed, not identified with nor projected onto the other. In contrast to the open-eyed sitting meditation technique of zen’s zazen, having an “other” with which to work illuminates moments in which the experience of self and other arise.
Though I wanted to remain open to whatever the experience of four days of silence offered, the 650 mile drive through blazing fall color in the Catskills and Adirondacks gave me ample time to build up expectations. I was a bit concerned that four days was not enough time to settle into the silence but the first morning of awakening to the pre-dawn intoning of the tiny Tibetan cymbals called tingshas brought me right back to the slow oscillating, dynamic equilibrium of luxurious silence. Each day began with one hour of optional practice. This time is for one’s personal practice. The nondual tradition taught by the teachers with whom I’ve attended silent retreats is one that offers techniques as tools, not as disciplines. This non-dogmatic outlook attracts people from many different backgrounds and so all manor of personal practices might be in evidence during the first hour of the morning. Though I had planned to do my own, often lazy, hatha yoga practice, the stunning beauty of the mountain sunrise transfixed me and I spent every morning in the warm quiet kitchen, looking out the east-facing windows with a cup of black tea, milk, and sugar (ed. note On reading this essay, Joan pointed out that mountain-gazing is a yoga practice described in the ancient text, Vijnana Bhairava. Maybe I’m not as lazy as I think I am.)
At 7:30 a.m., the tingshas called the group together for morning practice. We began by chanting three rounds of the Gayatri mantra ( known as the celestial song of light), practiced kapalabhati with accompanying mudras, and pranayama followed by silent sitting meditation. Not that long ago, I would have read the preceding sentence and promptly labeled this whole business as suitable only for new agers. I consider myself lucky that my first yoga teacher was a former sales rep firmly rooted in western normalcy and that only later was I introduced to these practices in bits and pieces, never receiving a chunk large enough to be considered a threat to my supremely rational self. Even after several years of yoga classes, I was alarmed to learn that my yoga teacher training would include the presentation of something called “alternate nostril breathing.” Despite my trepidation, the practice, known as nadi shodhana, has become one of my go-to tools for dealing with stress, but I digress.
When the morning practice hour ended, we moved into our silent breakfast, free to do as we pleased until late morning when the group reconvened for body sensing and yoga nidra. In the past, body sensing has been the practice I most enjoyed while on retreat, but the first two days in Montreal it was especially difficult to do the practice. I simply wanted to be still. And who was stopping me? This is the kind of question that arises in experience hundreds of times a day during silent retreats, and once it surfaced in this context, I did, in fact, lay flat on my back during body sensing, with movements so small they could probably not be seen by an outside observer. As has been my experience in previous retreats, these micro-movements amplified the sensory volume to levels I have never before experienced, and allowed short durations of pure sensation, beyond thought, image, body awareness, or proprioception. It is the experience of unmediated sensation, and one that proves surprisingly elusive. It is difficult to illustrate to one who is currently engaged in reading but I’ll try, nonetheless. Once you read my suggestion, maybe you will take a moment to take a break from reading this essay to give it a try.
Close your eyes and bring your attention to the sensations arising in the inside of your mouth. As you shift awareness from left to right sides, top and bottom surfaces of mouth and tongue, upper and lower teeth, notice if you find yourself thinking about or visualizing these parts of your mouth. Continuing to explore sensations while softening the eyes away from mental images, softening away from thought and continue to experience the entire inside of your mouth as a mass of pure sensation arising in open awareness.
This is the kind of guidance offered during both body sensing and yoga nidra, which was our last practice each morning. From 10 to 11:30 we moved like glaciers through a long body sensing practice, took a 15 minute break, and returned for 45 minutes of yoga nidra. Since yoga nidra is most often practiced lying down and the long drive had taken its toll, I struggled to stay awake during the first two day’s yoga nidra practices and fell fast asleep almost the instant I got supine. Lunch following yoga nidra was a riot of sensation, further amplified by the freedom from the distraction of the social demands of speech. Our time was unstructured until the late afternoon where the group came together for 20 minutes of silent meditation followed by a check-in to share whatever was arising. This introduction of dialog was a bit hard to transition into and out of and I wished the plan had been to remained in silence for several days before engaging one another. The act of speaking was so heavily laden with the emergence of my own sense of “I”-ness that I was not able to fully welcome it at the time. In retrospect, the contrast it provided was illuminating and reminiscent of coming out of silence after my last, much longer, silent retreat at which time I was painfully aware of the reemergence of my own personality. The third day of the retreat, our afternoon dialog was replaced with partner gazing. Though I was disappointed in having only one day of partner gazing practice, we were able to sit with three different partners in succession, each providing new insights. Silence returned as we moved into the dinner break and the evenings were spent chanting and reading poetry.
Each night I went to bed the moment the evening gathering ended at 9 p.m., falling quickly to sleep.
I’m afraid my insights will read like the nonsense William James found upon emerging from a seemingly insightful nitrous oxide episode. Everything he wrote down to capture the “fire of infinite rationality” turned out to be “meaningless drivel.” So it goes. What follows are random observations of what arose during the retreat, in no particular order.
Being elsewhere. For the first few days I found that each time I began to settle in and enjoy the silence I was pulled elsewhere. It was as if an epiphany or simply a good feeling was being co-opted by my personality, projecting it into the future and attempting to figure out how I could possess this good feeling and trot it out whenever I desired. My insights during these first few days just as often projected me back in time, eliciting judgements of how my ignorance preceding this wonderful new knowing were evidence of my lack of fitness as a meditation and yoga teacher. The tyranny of my identity became grossly apparent.
Dynamic equilibrium. I awoke during the middle of my first night to the sense that I was experiencing, in real-time, the firing of synapses, a sparkling network of transmission and feedback echoing like sound waves in a cave. It felt as if I could sense the interference patterns evolve into a steady state of softly oscillating patterns. The theme of oscillation continued throughout the retreat, fed by readings in the ancient text The Spanda-Karikas (The Divine Creative Pulsation). Pulsation, or as I was experiencing it, a dynamic equilibrium of gentle oscillation, was evident as subject and object repeatedly emerged and merged. This happened in partner gazing, during body sensing, and while just sitting focused on nothing, as my rods and cones tired and colors and shapes became only dimly present amid spreading ripples of dim and light not unlike those one often sees with tightly closed eyes. Once I began to settle into this experiential playground of openness in which all perceptions were heightened, though not necessarily distinct, it became harshly apparent when the tyrants of I, me, and mine arose to ruin the fun. This too.
The gap. As we sat with closed eyes during the morning meditation, there was an abrupt and fairly loud sound. During that afternoon’s dialog, Joan described how in the stillness of the morning’s meditation, a gap opened up between the sensation of sound and the formation of its resulting perception/realization that a bird that had just flown into the large window of our meeting place. I too have noticed the formation of these gaps between sensation and perception, but during this retreat, I was aware more often of the simultaneity of the two occurrences. Perhaps with a few more days of silence I would have once again witnessed the slowing of time and the opening of such a gap, but my predominant experience on this retreat was one of perception as a reminder to revisit the echo of sensation, attempting retroactively to experience it in a form unmediated by thought.
The power of an ‘other’. In keeping with my earlier experiences on retreat, partner gazing turned out to be a powerfully illuminating practice. My first two out of three experiences were full of the oscillations between self emerging and merging. The sense of “I” emerging was accompanied by inner dialog. In fact, inner dialog is often a reminder for me to sense back to the ground in which the dialog is arising. My sit with a third partner was similar to an experience I had at Santa Sabina. While this experience was not accompanied by the slowing of respiration that occurred in 2007, it did have a similar immediacy of presence. These moments are difficult to describe. It felt like sense domains softened and blended together and the air itself becomes more substantial as if thick and palpable, having texture and sound. In my earlier experience at Santa Sabina, this perceived thickness pervaded even cognition, as the thought process slowed enough so that the formation of thoughts themselves could be witnessed in realtime. An interesting paradox considering the simultaneous sensation of real-time immediacy, as if there was no lag between stimuli and perception.
Hypnogogic <-> Hypnopompic. When setting up for yoga nidra practice on the third day I chose to sit up. I wanted to stay awake during the practice but within minutes I found myself zooming down through the hypnogogic state at the edge of sleep. Since I was sitting up, the swaying of my head brought me back up through hypnopompic state that usually accompanies the transition from synchronized sleep to wakefulness. Following the practice I was puzzled and a bit frustrated that I had not heard a word that Joan said. Only much later, once I had returned from Montreal, did I realize what an interesting experience it had been since we normally have only one opportunity each day to experience each state and when going to sleep at night we are rarely aware enough to observe the transition. During that forty minute practice, I’d passed through both the hypnogogic and hypnopompic states, however briefly, about 20 times. In fact, it felt as if I was oscillating steadily between the two states. The phenomena present at the moment of ascension when full awareness returns is very much like that described in the previous description of immediacy of presence. As if reality is simple more real and completely unadulterated by thinking.
In the days since my return to interactive life it’s been difficult to sustain even glimpses of this unadulterated realness. The first few days I awoke early and continued the hour of morning practices but the perception of a self that needs to do things has whittled away more and more of the time allotted to just sitting. There are books to read, papers to write, classes to teach and the ownership of doing is returning so much more quickly than I’d hoped. While on retreat, the morning’s progression from darkness to sunrise was my most consciously open time of day. It was the time of day during which my oscillations between separation and union were at their slowest. It is also the time when, now home, I am most able to sustain the quickly fading insights of silent retreat. The sense of self as doer is back and any thoughts on when/if I will ever come to reside in just this is yet another attempt to hang on to the wondrous experience of being at play in each moment. This too.