When Advance Requires a Retreat


At the close of 2016, I embarked on a 10-day silent retreat in western Massachusetts. It was necessary: chronic overwork, multi-tasking, and the political events of the year had fractured my attention and taxed my nervous system. Ten days might be hard, I thought to myself, but it was also necessary—like “attentional rehab.” It was hard. It was also nourishing. And it was full-on, life-changing extraordinary.

Most of us have heard alluring tales of mystical experiences that arise during a retreat: unity with the Divine, a direct encounter with emptiness, and other such happenings. It’s tempting to think that mystical experiences are “the payoff” of a retreat. Yet most of us, myself included, have close encounters of a more pedestrian kind: intense, searing pain, for instance. Sleepiness (I much prefer the Buddhist terms “sloth” and “torpor,” which sound more dramatic and justified). Alien forms of thought that invade our mind: shopping fantasies, for example, or personally-designed episodes of Iron Chef).

Whether mystical or mundane, these retreat experiences don’t just happen through some quirk of fate. They require a secret, though decidedly unglamorous ingredient: a really good set of Rules.

 The all-grown-up adult self often cringes at the word “rules.” We’re past that, aren’t we? That’s why we grew up: to make our own rules, even if we don’t often follow them Witness the vast array of books and courses designed to improve our willpower. There’s a love-hate thing going on for most of us when it comes to rules, and it often comes surging forth in an intentional community. (During my first yoga retreat in 1996, the chanting, meditation, and practice captured my attention; the food did not. Tired of the tan-colored, carbohydrate-rich fare, I snuck off more than once to the Club Med café down the beach.)

The benefits of a retreat may stem from many hours of sustained sitting, standing, and walking practice. Without a strong container for the breadth of experience that arises on retreat, we wouldn’t have the depth of practice. It wouldn’t be possible to practice deeply, to meet ourselves with eyes wide open on the battlefield of the present moment.

Retreat rules have been chronicled, lamented, and satirized countless times and with great finesse. These reflections are by no means original. Nonetheless, my hope is that they can offer benefit to those who lead and participate in any sangha, kula, or intentional community.



The No-Tech Rule.


On the first night of the retreat, we were “invited” (my adult-child self certainly has a response to “spiritual” language like this, I discovered) to surrender our phones, computers, iPods, and iPads to be held for us under lock and key. Navigation devices, too (this is so ripe with metaphor!). This might seem a little rigid; after all, what’s the harm in, say, checking the weather? Or taking a quick peek to make sure there hasn’t been an emergency in the last five minutes since we checked? It might suddenly make sense to plan for the archetypal deluge of “retribution emails” that will ensue upon your return; why not take a few minutes each day (15 or 20 should do) just to head that off at the pass?

Most of us already know that tech breaks are healthy: witness the “digital detox” articles circling through cyberspace. Initial concerns aside, the benefits of a tech-free environment quickly become apparent. Here are a few additional thoughts as to why.

  1. In the absence of technology, we can feel the magnitude of resources—physical, emotional, mental, cerebral—it consumes. At the end of a day spent in front of screens or submerged in multi-sensory overload, we feel more down-to-the-marrow-of-our-bones fatigued than we do after a day of intense physical activity. We feel technology’s cost and the currency it comes in: attention, health, well-being, and true connection.
  2. Attention is a renewable resource, but not an unlimited one. When we remove the technology, we feel in a deep, visceral way how it erodes our attention. It chips away slowly at our focus until there’s a tipping point; suddenly, we have an attentional deficit. We may notice the cognitive symptoms first. “My memory is gone!” we might say, or “I can’t focus on things anymore.” The advertising industry takes full advantage of our vulnerability to distraction: in 2016, they spent 60 billion dollars on “interrupt advertising.” Say you’re on a website, for example: just as you begin to focus, a pop-up ad or request to join an email list appears. Or you resist the impulse purchase of a rad new pair of yoga pants, only to see them appear on the right-hand side of your Facebook feed. Prior to the retreat, I was acutely aware of changes in my concentration and memory. Creative inspiration would strike in the living room, only to slither away before I reached my desk. I’d begun to litter the house with bright-colored post-it notes just to compensate. Over the course of the retreat, my attention began the slow rehabilitation process which, of course, has to continue indefinitely.
  3. Without technology, we can be active participants in life. That may sound strange (after all, we’re yogis), but for the ubiquitous presence of cameras. The modern social media world is dominated by visual media: a steady stream of pictures or videos of yoga postures, food, exotic retreats, pithy Rumi quotes, or loved ones. This visual barrage activates our brain’s social comparison mechanisms. Over time, our body image may suffer. Our “life image” can plummet, too, leaving us with the sense that we’re not getting the most out of each day or living as fully (or successfully) as others do. Sometimes, partners or friends are conscripted into service as auxiliary photographers and set designers in the staging of our lives. In the end, we can spend more energy documenting our lives instead of living them. On retreat, in response to witnessing the ferocious beauty of the New England winter (first snow, the vermillion haze of winter sunsets, light playing on the statue of the Buddha in the meditation hall, or the illumination of sudden insight on a fellow practitioner’s face), my first thought was often “This would make a great picture!” This imaginary viewfinder introduces an element of “virtual sight” to our sensorium—and this is one level away from direct experience.


Silence (also known as No Talking).


On hearing that my retreat would be silent, people offered a flurry of responses, some humorous. “Is that a hippie thing?” wondered a colleague. “I love the sound of my own voice too much,” remarked another. “I hate silence—so uncomfortable,” said a third.

Silence is deeply healing to the mind, nervous system, and physical body. It penetrates tissue and tendon, breath and blood and bone. It is unseemly to say it, I know: for creative people there’s often a fear that we’re wasting time, or we’ll forget how to access that state of flow, or that (this is a compelling one) our best moments of inspiration will be forgotten without the post-it notes or writing pad. I’ll just say that the insights the insights that stem from silence seem to flow from a deeper and often wiser place—and yes, they etch themselves into our memory centers fairly easily.

Silence has many therapeutic qualities. Here are a few:

  1. When talking ceases and ambient noise levels drop, our sense of hearing grows more refined. We can listen with our whole being. My walking meditations often took place outside, among a grove of pine trees. The clearing was redolent with silence and organic sound. Here, walking became a symphony: the rapid allegro of my foot as it rose from its resting place, the adagio of lightly scattered snow that harmonized with the recovery of the ground beneath, and the rondo of return to earth as it crushed the frozen mass of twigs and leaves and pinecones. Or: An elder tree swayed slowly in the wind, emitting a staccato groan that warned of its impending descent. Over many days, the distinct variations of this sound let my body know that I was not in danger. Or: the Center’s turreted roof, swollen with water and dripping in irreverent rhythm onto the loamy earth around us. Even: the cacophony of mealtimes as one hundred sets of silver forks and spoons shattering the porcelain breach beneath them.
  2. Silence slows the unending river of thought that rambles capriciously from one subject to the next. When our mind is not focused on a task, it continually ruminates on past events, marinates in righteous indignation about someone else’s flaws, imagines future conversations and events, judges not only ourselves but others, and develops narratives to explain our experience. This default thinking mind is one of the primary causes of our suffering. When we “fall” silent, the default thinking mind seems loud and clumsy in contrast. It may be easier to witness. Over the course of a retreat, it spends itself a little and recedes tiredly into the background.
  3. On a longer retreat, we feel the power of silence not in a conceptual way, but in a deeply-lived one. Silence is not the absence of speech or sound. It is the presence of something else: primal, non-verbal, and difficult to capture without using terms like “deepest self” or “prana” or “divine.” Furthermore, silence is not passive, but dynamic and powerful. It causes a leavening, a rising up of things known and unknown from the deep strata of our innerness, as though the name of God rests unspoken and expanding upon our tongue.

No Eye Contact.

That’s right; no eye contact.  We’re instructed to keep the eyes downcast or avert our gaze, even when someone holds the door for us or appears to be in distress, Initially, this proved difficult for me. In the end, it was a revelation and even more, a standalone practice.

  1. Eye contact is another way of speaking. It stimulates an array of narratives in the default thinking mind. Was that person staring at me? I can just tell she hates me. What’s your problem? Oh my God, he’s my soulmate! If you’ve ever constructed a narrative in response to simple eye contact, you’ll know what I mean. Not looking at others turns down the volume knob on these narrative so they’re less compelling. Our narratives can begin to lose their magnetic pull.
  2. Without eye contact, we “catch” other people’s emotions and experiences less often; and when we do, they don’t “stick” to us as much. My The primary way that empaths (highly empathic people) pick up on others’ need states, emotions, physical states, and distress is through the visual cortex. We do so through auditory and kinesthetic means as well, but seeing distress on someone’s face helps seal the deal. Without the constant stimulation of technology, talking, and eye contact, our nervous system can drop below alert mode and truly restore.
  3. Our eyes (other senses too, but vision is primary) are a central mechanism for the designation of “self” and “other.” With the briefest of glances, we know whether someone is part of our tribe. We notice the color of their skin, their religious affiliation, their apparent gender identification, and even how they’re dressed. If they’re in our cultural or social “in-group,” we see them as similar to us. If they’re in our out-group, they become different, other. We then make categorical choices which affect their health and well-being. This is the root of racial, ethnic, and gender bias.

Back to the “Empath Thing.” Imagine a continuum of relationality: on one end, we can be oblivious to others’ direct experience–and on the other, overly responsive to it. A few years back, Planet Fitness came out with a new commercial. It depicted an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type muscle-bound guy. He kept repeating the same mantra: “I pick things up and put them down.” Essentially, Planet Fitness was saying “We don’t have these intimidating types in our gym; you’ll feel at home here.” (There’s a self-other and ingroup-outgroup designation in advertising which needs some reprograming. For now, I’ll simply say that some of the muscle-bound gym guys I’ve met are astonishingly smart, amazingly agile, and sensitive to interpersonal nuances. But I digress.) Anyway, this “mantra” kept coming to mind during the retreat. I heard the phrase “I pick things up and put them down” with new ears. Yes, we pick things up from others (empaths, especially) or create them in our heads all the time. But with awareness, we can put them downmore quickly.

For me, the absence of eye contact was profound. Without sight and sound, it’s more possible to feel the presence of others without the accompanying evaluation (the perception of distress, or judgment, or “otherness”). We’re better able to accept and even to rest within the radical otherness of the sentient beings around us.


Rules, Dammit.

No technology. No speaking. No eye contact. There were many specific rules, and there was the meta-teaching of rules themselves. Why do we need rules as adults? How should we respond to them? Follow them all? Rebel against most? Adhere to the ones we like and discard the ones we don’t?

For adults, rules can evoke power dynamic patterns, in which the apparent “Rule Makers” have all the power and the rest of us have none. Rules can also stir up family dynamics: we may become once more the helpless child who feels decimated by an authoritarian parent, the rebellious teen asserting the right to be different, the obedient child who corrals his siblings (um, fellow retreatants) into order.

I have trained psychologists and social workers for 25 years, and yoga teachers for 14 years. In every community, rules have proven to be a vital nutrient for evolution. This is true not only for an intentional community (a sangha, kula, or studio) but for each individual within it. We already know this; we observe it in children all the time. Without limits, children feel unsafe and uncontained. Without limits, we feel the same way. How can we do the deep work of transforming mind, brain, and body, of facing the elemental patterns that cause us suffering, without them? Structure, rules, and containment help us feel safe enough to turn inward, to “drop in” to what is present in our body and in our direct experience without turning away. Structure, rules, and containment do this for us not just on the mat or cushion, but in the challenging (and, when they happen, the easeful) moments of our lives. I’m not saying that we should always surrender to rules in spiritual settings; certainly, this dynamic can cause suffering, too (and it has, in countless yoga and mindfulness communities).

When it comes to structure, push-back can be creative. It can represent the spirit of change. For me, this “maverick” quality has helped to illuminate the limitations of the fields in which I’ve worked. It has also prompted the kind of pioneer spirit which often leads to new, innovative paradigms. And yet, if we continually attempt to alter or push back against the very structure we require (and, let’s just say it, against the person who establishes that structure), we create discord in an intentional community. So how do we discern whether we’re feeling healthy or unhealthy resistance? In situations where that spirit of rebellion arises, we might ask ourselves: Is this an external injustice I’m fighting? Do I feel unsafe because the Rule Maker in question isn’t grounded, or doesn’t have my best interests at heart—or could these feelings be coming from within? What am I really rebelling against: Am I saying “no” to this person or their structure? To my community and the growth of my fellow practitioners? Or to something uncomfortable in my own direct experience, from which it’s easier to simply turn away?

Some additional reflections:

  1. Containment is the bedrock of intrapersonal safety. This is true even in a physical sense. Let’s take our yoga practice: among its myriad benefits, asana offers the promise of physical freedom, an exuberance of bodily experience we long for and need. Yet boundaries are necessary to balance this freedom: go too far in a pose and we destabilize connective tissue, stress our joints and ligaments, and reinforce movement patterns that leads to injury. This is why even people with joint laxity and hypermobility can get injured and develop arthritis, even when it seems they shouldn’t. We might not feel injury patterns as they begin, or recognize the ways in which we feed them. This is one way that a mindful use of structure or the “super vision” of someone else can help us to see what we cannot, can help us create a stronger vessel for our own liberation.

Containment is the foundation of mental and emotional safety, too. When some people follow the rules and others don’t (or others openly oppose the rules, or turn them into power dynamics), everyone knows. The message underneath even seemingly logical objections is: “I’m not buying into this group thing. When I’m present; anything can happen, so be watchful. And deep work is out of the picture.” This isn’t openly stated, of course. Yet it’s Psychology 101: In the presence of a rebel without (or even with) a cause, we’re not safe to do deep work.

  1. Containment is a vital nutrient in relationships with others. Without it, we can become convinced that we are the center of the Universe. We may feel that all our movement is justified, all our speech makes an important contribution to conversation, and every thought is intelligent and indispensable. In my years of teaching yoga, the strongest resistance I encounter comes from asking yogis to “hold that question” for a bit (usually, until I finish an emerging thought). This happens at conferences, during workshops, and in our own community. Recently, I was describing this to a longtime meditation teacher, who responded with disbelief. “Why do they feel so entitled?” she wondered. “Why wouldn’t they want to embrace this so that everyone benefits from the process?:
  2. Sure, our default thinking self enables us to dream, to plan, to achieve our goals. It also has an endless need for affirmation and self-reference. When someone else speaks, our default self imagines a wise response. When someone offers us a gift, this self evaluates its merit or even, whether it is a gift at all. When someone struggles, this self compares the struggle to its own process; this can result in either envy or schadenfreude (joy at someone else’s discomfort). In the presence of impending or imagined conflict, the default thinking self strategizes endlessly and rehearses its options. It craves affirmation. Containment allows us to rely less on conceptual intelligence or strategy or an impulse to direct others. It asks essential questions: Who am I, and who are you? Who are we together? Not only does containment leave space for others to come forth, it seems actually to call them forth. Through containment, we encounter one another as whole beings; we experience our shared innerness. We may even be able to see and witness what others have not yet shown to the world. We may experience the joy that comes from offering others the nourishment of witnessing, non-judgmental presence.
  3. Containment is the heart of social justice. Certainly, we can celebrate our passionate concern for equality and human rights. We want to get involved. Yet social activism also has a dark side which can be rife with judgment, aggression, and a desire for revenge. As yogis and mindfulness practitioners, we would so well to reflect on our impact beyond the world of our individual mind, body, mat, and cushion. To make a difference in the world requires tempering our passion with containment.

The Standing Rock initiatives and other indigenous forms of “activism” inherently teach this. Our First Peoples at Standing Rock offered what is essentially a how-to manual for conscious activism. First, they used the term “water protectors” rather than “protestors.” Second, they made it clear that they needed all volunteers to follow their non-violent methods. They emphasized that the Water Protection Initiatives weren’t about “fighting back” but rather, focused on prayer and mutuality. Third, they hewed to ritual, making offerings to the water and praying, singing, dancing, and telling stories. They talked less about ownership of the land, using phrases like “We were given to this land,” and “We don’t own the land; the land owns us.” Fourth, they continually affirmed that we are alike, interconnected, and part of the same Earth, that we are in this together. They minimized the self-other designation that often imbues modern activism with judgment and social superiority. Fifth, they set boundaries. “If you’re not here to practice in this way,” they said repeatedly, “please do not come.” In other words, simply speaking out against injustice isn’t enough. We need to do so in a mindful, embodied, and self-contained way.

If we unpack these beautiful and timeless teachings, they tell us:

  1. Embodied activism is not about an “I,” but about a “we,” and ssks that we monitor our own desires in service of a larger vision. (There’s that containment again.)
  2. Look farther than the issue you are “protesting” to determine its greater significance, and hew your actions to that. At Standing Rock, this was water protection. In the World Marches, it was equality, dignity, respect, and more. (In Marseilles this past weekend, a sign read “We are marching for our American sisters, so you feel us with you.” Other countries focused more on the rights they marched to protect than the character of a person they marched against, which shows an admirable level of containment.)
  3. Activism is rooted in contemplative practices such as prayer, meditation, connection with the natural world and the body and our ancestors; these practices are necessary. They provide the vessel (read: container) to stand up in the world, to look at it directly at injustice and work together to change it.
  4. All beings want to be happy and free from suffering; in this way, we are alike (this indigenous philosophy is also the central tenet of loving kindness practice). In other words, we can be angry. We can be passionate. And yet, we must ask ourselves: How can we practice activism in a way that stems from a recognition of our common humanity rather than a judgment of those who perpetrate injustice? This is exemplified in the way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has approached the Chinese persecution of Tibetans. There is forgiveness and compassion, qualities which benefit the “giver,” “receiver,” and “witness” alike. These subtle and evolved contemplative practices require us to ferret out and contain our own agenda and primal responses; in other words, they require containment.


Jack Kornfield wrote a wonderful book whose title I love: After the ecstasy, the laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. The word “ecstasy” can seem loaded, yet another expectation levied on us by modern depictions of meditation. But there’s a quiet ecstasy in the settling of the nervous system, the illumination of difficult mind states, a connection with our deep innerness, and the nourishing presence of nature and others.

Containment exists also to nourish future practice. It’s the form from which all freedom emerges. Breaking silence after ten days might seem like a relief. For me, it was a full-blown experience of panic and sensory overload. On the way home, I stopped at Whole Foods. Few people were shopping; there was a raging blizzard outside. I hunted down one of my favorite produce guys, Michael, and asked why they happened to be playing loud music in the middle of the blizzard. Was there some kind of celebration? Was it a holiday? (You can become out of touch with the outside world on retreat, so anything seems possible.) Michael looked at me quizzically, and then his features softened. “It’s on all the time, Bo,” he said gently. “It probably seems louder to you today.”

It takes energy to process the sights, sounds, and demands of modern daily life. It can be a form of continual, low-grade trauma that has a cost. This becomes so apparent in the contrast between retreat living and modern daily life. For me, one of the most valuable aspects of the retreat lay in the creation of space for questions that will evolve over time. Among them: How can we make space for quiet reflection and contemplative practice in a world that doesn’t stop moving? How do we cultivate deep self (or no-self) in a world that values outer achievement and celebrates the individual? What is our true purpose, and how can we hear it? How do we marry meditative practices with movement, or contemplative practice with social justice? How can we be embodied and present in moments of awkwardness, anger, or interpersonal challenge—in other words, to live our practice into being? And of course, my current “big” question: When can I go again?

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