Guide to a Mindfulness Retreat
What follows is a guide for practising mindfulness during our retreat. Mindfulness is an innate ability we all possess to be calm and to live in the present moment. The skills you develop in this practice during the next few days can follow you home, and will hopefully become a regular addition to your approach to daily life.
The practice of mindfulness is joyful. You will soon get used to moving slowly and following your breath. Remember – relax, breathe and smile!
Silence that heals
A period of deep silence is observed throughout the retreat. This is very healing. We allow the silence and the calmness to penetrate our flesh and bones. We allow the energy of the community and its mindfulness to penetrate our body and mind.
When we go back to our homes or hotels, slowly we are aware of every step. We breathe deeply and enjoy the stillness and the freshness. Let us not talk to the person walking by our side. She or he needs our support, too. We can stay alone outside with the trees and the stars for a few minutes, then go inside to use the bathroom, to change and go to bed right away. Lying on our backs, we can practise following our breath until sleep comes. In the morning we move mindfully and silently, taking time to breathe, to go to the bathroom and then return to the retreat. When we see someone, we just smile, allowing him or her to enjoy the morning the way we do. This silence should not be heavy or oppressive. Although we don’t speak, we can look at each other with the eyes of understanding and the smile of loving-kindness and compassion. Your silence supports the silence of everyone else in the retreat.
Bell of mindfulness/coming home
Throughout each day of the retreat – during presentations, outdoor mindful walking, meals and so on – a Bell Keeper will invite the bell to sound. Upon hearing the bell, please stop talking, moving and thinking. Then breathe in and out consciously three times and say silently:
Listen, listen (while breathing in)
This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self (while breathing out)
The Bell of Mindfulness is the voice of our Source calling us back home to ourselves so that we can become alive and happy in this moment. Knowing that we are alive is the greatest of all miracles. Because we are fully present and alive, everything else becomes real: the cup of tea in our hands, the smile of our child, the voice of singing birds, the mountains, the clouds, the little crocuses and the earth on which we are walking. We are nurtured by that awareness. The bell, the telephone and the clock chimes are all wonderful sounds to help you practise. When you hear them, you can stop what you are doing and at the same time you can stop talking and even stop thinking. You just come home to the present moment. Enjoying three in-breaths and three out-breaths is the best way to listen to these wonderful sounds. Remember to smile; your practice need not be solemn.
To breathe in consciously is to know that air is entering your body, and to breathe out consciously is to know that your body is exchanging air. Thus you are in contact with the air and with your body, and because your mind is being attentive to all this, you are in contact with your mind too. It only takes one conscious breath to be back in contact with yourself, and a few more conscious breaths to maintain that contact.
Sitting in silence
The purpose of sitting in silence is to enjoy it! Sitting is just for sitting, not for attaining anything. Please follow your breathing and dwell in the present moment, which is the most enjoyable moment to be alive.
There are many techniques for resting and healing ourselves. During this retreat, our main practice will be mindful breathing. Breathing is a bridge that can help link body and mind. We often get lost in our thinking and worrying about the past or in planning for the future. Our mind is in one place while our body is in another. Following our breathing helps us reunite body and mind.
Whether you sit on a cushion, a blanket, a chair or directly on the floor, sit in a way that helps you feel comfortable. Try to keep your back straight, to allow the air to enter and leave your lungs most easily. One way to help you maintain awareness of your breathing is to say silently, ‘In’ as you are breathing in, and when you breathe out, say silently, ‘Out’.
The first part of mindful sitting periods will last twenty minutes. If you need to move your legs during that period, feel free to do so. Sitting is for your pleasure, so if you do not find your position comfortable, adjust your body as necessary. If you move your legs, do so slowly and mindfully. ‘Breathing in, I will move my legs. Breathing out, I am moving them now. Breathing in, I have done it. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.’ Sitting meditation is not to achieve, but to be: to be yourself, and to smile. If your sitting position seems uncomfortable or incorrect, please ask for advice afterwards.
This twenty-minute sitting meditation will be followed by slow mindful walking and then some silent sitting. After the silent sitting, time allowing, there may be a short reading.
Mindful walking indoors
Between most periods of mindful sitting, we will practise mindful slow walking in order to exercise our legs and to practise mindfulness while moving. We walk together, clockwise, taking one step with each inhalation and one step with each exhalation. Begin walking with either your right or your left foot, breathing in and saying silently, ‘In’. Then, as your other foot moves forward and touches the floor, say silently, ‘Out’. Be aware of the feeling of each foot as it touches the floor.
Mindful walking outdoors
We walk all the time, but usually it is more like running. When we walk that way, we bring anxiety, instability and sorrow to ourselves and the Earth. We have to learn to walk in a way that brings peace and serenity. Mindful walking is making peace with every step.
We may walk a little slower than usual, although faster than the slow walking we practise between our silent sitting periods. Let the retreat facilitator set the pace – please do not walk ahead of him or her. As you walk, co-ordinate your breathing with your steps. For example, you may take three steps with each in-breath and three or four steps with each out-breath. So you can say, ‘In, in, in’; out, out, out.’ Saying ‘In’ helps you identify the in-breath, and ‘Out’ helps you identify the out-breath. Every time you call something by its name, you make it more real. When you walk up a hill, your lungs may want to take only two steps for each inhalation and two steps for each exhalation. Accommodate yourself to whatever your lungs need – sometimes they may want three steps for an in-breath and four for the out-breath. That is fine. Be aware of the contact between your feet and the earth. Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet. We can bring our peace and calm to the Earth – walking in that spirit, we will heal her and ourselves at the same time.
From time to time, when you see something beautiful, you may wish to stop and look at it – a tree, a flower, a butterfly. As you look, continue to follow your breathing, or you may lose the flower and get caught up in your thinking. Walking mindfully is a great joy and a great opportunity to express the fact that life is only found in the present moment. There is no need to arrive anywhere.
Silent meals/eating in mindfulness
Most of our meals will be eaten in silence so that we can really taste the food and look closely at the friends sitting near us. The first time you eat in silence may seem strange or unnatural, but after a while, you will see that silent meals can bring a lot of happiness, peace and insight. Please eat slowly, chewing each mouthful as many times as you can.
The food we are eating gives us the opportunity to see the very close connection between the universe and ourselves. Every morsel of vegetable or slice of bread contains in it the sun and the life of the entire earth. We can see the meaning and value of our own life through every small taste of food, and we can see how precious each bite is. The silence helps us to appreciate this and enables our practice of deep looking to be successful.
From the time you arrive to the time you depart, the retreat offers a continual programme of mindfulness. During the moments between the different programmes listed in your retreat schedule, there are tasks that both retreatants and facilitators attend to for the smooth running of the retreat. These tasks include helping to set up cushions for sittings and group discussions; organising dishes for meals and washing them up afterwards; and doing light cleaning. The main accomplishment in attending to these tasks is to be in the present moment, enjoying the activity at hand. At the sound of the bell or a phone ringing in another room, we stop our activity and return to our breathing, returning to the island within ourselves. Each task should be done slowly, with full awareness of your body as you move through the activity of picking up a cushion or placing a wet dish in the drying rack. Awareness of your breath, your body and your activity will help still your mind. The doing of the task becomes a process of practising mindfulness, an opportunity for peace and calm to dwell in your heart.
In the more informal setting of the Mindfulness Practice Centre, we have found that Group Discussion time is a good opportunity for retreatants to express what is going on for them as they engage in the practice. While most retreatants may be perfectly happy and at ease with their experience, others may find that the practice of silence brings up strong feelings. Embracing these feelings and allowing them to ‘be’ can loosen the hold they have on us. If at some point you wish to talk about them, the group discussion period would be the best time. Learning how to ‘sit’ with our emotions helps us to reconnect with the present moment. If you think of leaving early, we ask that you ‘sit’ with your feelings first, to be sure this is not a response to inner agitation. Sitting helps agitation subside, and may alleviate the desire to leave. If you are used to writing down your thoughts, keeping a notebook handy can be helpful.
The retreat facilitators are volunteer members of the Mindfulness Practice Community. They have varying amounts of experience with mindfulness practice, and consider facilitation to be a part of their practice. Our facilitators look forward to sharing their experience with you as a way of deepening their practice and yours.