Our popular contributor Kara-Leah shares her experience of once going on a silent meditation retreat. And she highly recommends it too!
by Kara-Leah Grant
Once upon a time I did a four day meditation retreat, three and a half days of which were in silence.
My work mates at the time thought I was nuts.
Doing nothing but sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating and sleeping.
To me it sounded like bliss.
No work. No website. No teaching. No relationships. No internet, tv, media, newspaper, books, magazines.
Just unadulterated being, led by one of New Zealand’s most prominent meditation teachers, Stephen Archer in a beautiful retreat house in Otaki.
The day’s timetable was the same each full day we were there, but the focus on the meditation changed as we progressed. (For those interested in the exact schedule, I’ve posted it down below.)
We began with “exclusive meditation”, which means focusing on an object to the exclusion of all else, in our case, the breath.
Meditation works on two levels – one is the mind, or small self. The other is consciousness, or large self. Most of the time we perceive life through the lens of the mind. Meditation allows us to drop down into the level of consciousness. It doesn’t mean we’re not thinking, but instead of identifying or being completely wrapped up in the thoughts, we’re able to observe them as they come and go. Kinda like sitting by a river watching the water flow past. We can see the water, we watch it change, but we don’t think we ARE the water.
Exclusive meditation allows everything to settle. The anxieties and troubles of day-to-day life are left behind. All that exists is the present moment, breathing in, breathing out. breathing in, breathing out.
Once we’d done that for a day or so, there was a noticeable difference in everyone’s energy and being. People had “settled”. They were “present”. Words or conversation weren’t necessary to know this.
The second stage of our practice was “inclusive meditation”. Instead of narrowing our focus down to just one thing, we now stayed anchored in consciousness while expanding that out to include whatever arose. This is kind of like being the blue sky and observing the clouds as they scuttle across one’s being, but not getting confused into thinking one is a cloud.
For me, this is when the rewards of meditation really bore fruit. I’ve been using exclusive meditation for a few years now – focusing on mantras, or the breath. Stephen’s clear instruction about inclusive meditation fit a large piece of the jigsaw into place for me. The day and a half we’d done of exclusive meditation had made it extraordinarily easy for me to be present, to be consciousness. It was a powerful sensation.
Shifting into inclusive meditation meant I could retain this sense of presence while opening up to whatever wished to make itself known to me. And here’s where I encountered the first signs of resistance to the retreat. The mind, cunning as it is, began to throw up thoughts like:
“This is easy, you’ve got this nailed, you didn’t need this retreat, what a waste of time, you’re more advanced than this.”
Oh how subtle… appealing to the ego like that!
As I walked my twenty paces up and down under the stand of Totara trees I observed these thoughts as though they were a chorus of advisers sitting on my shoulder trying to tell me “how it was”. I refused to engage with them, to follow them, or to react to them. After awhile, with no attention given to them, they subsided into silence. no one likes being ignored – not even thoughts ;)
Experience has taught me that resistance to the moment generally marks an opportunity arising to go deeper, let go of more. And so it was in this case. I can’t describe my experience, because words are useless in times like this, but suffice to say, on my next walking meditation, those scuttling clouds faded away, the sun came out, and a layer of ego-identity melted away. Something I’d known intellectually penetrated my being, right down into my cells and I felt like this enormous weight had been lifted.
As a result, the last day or so of the retreat were bliss. Quite literally. I cruised around, enjoying sitting, enjoying meditation, enjoying eating, enjoying sleeping.
Thoughts would still come up – planning the future, imaginary conversations – that type of thing. But I was able to stay with consciousness and ask, “What gives rise to that thought?”. Sometimes I was able to discern the thought’s root, and in doing so, that train of thought would fade away and not return. Blasted ‘out of mind’ with awareness.
In one of Stephen’s nightly talks, he spoke about the nature of dilemma, and problem, and how such things only exist “in the mind”. From my place of consciousness, this sunk in like it never really had. Suddenly I got it.
Nothing is a problem.
Because when you live from consciousness, as opposed to the mind, you respond in each moment with total awareness. The appropriate response is always clear. You know what to do. And it’s not about what you want to do, or desire to do, or think you should do. You’re not thinking about trying to manipulate or control the situation. There is no thought, no ego involved. There is no past, nor any future. Only now, and what needs to be done Now.
The response comes from a place of absolute clarity. Of total awareness.
I knew in that moment that anytime I was ever confronted with a “problem” again, all I needed to do was be in consciousness and respond. Life living through me…
Of course, this requires that we release all attachments to outcome, all desires, all wants, all fears… and this is not as easy task.
Yet imagine living in a day to day existence where nothing is a problem and life shines from within in a constant stream of bliss.
Since coming back from the retreat, my problems have melted away. Life does feel different. I feel different. Being in this state is a constant practice, as it is all too easy to fall into the trap of the mind. Into the reality of problems and dilemmas and wants and desires.
Today, four days after returning, I could feel resistance to the moment in the form of anger arising. I was mad damn it! Usually this would be perceived as “because” of external circumstances, but in truth, the anger arises because it is already within me. It’s arising is an opportunity to let it go, once and for all. I could feel my calm state of consciousness melting away and I knew it was time to go and sit.
And sit I did.
Sinking back first into exclusive meditation – settling my consciousness, finding my seat. And then moving into inclusive meditation to allow whatever wanted to come, come. There was no miraculous “A-ha!” moment about the anger. I don’t know why it was there, what it meant, what caused it. But after my meditation it had gone. Drifted away. Again consciousness was clear and life was “no problem”.
It was a reminder that life is an amazing, beautiful thing where dilemma doesn’t exist – if only we can stay in the now, in the presence, in awareness. Attending a meditation retreat is a powerful opportunity to access this place, with plenty of support and encouragement. A retreat makes it easy. But after the retreat, it is just as easy. All it takes is practice, and a willingness to return to meditation whenever the mind begins to “think” there’s a problem.
And boy, does the mind love to think that!
Meditation Retreat Schedule
5:45am Wake-up call
6:00am Sitting meditation
6:45am Walking meditation
8.45am Talk & Sitting
8:15pm Tea Break
Kara-Leah is a writer and yoga teacher who has always been infinitely curious about the make-up of the human psyche and body. Regular yoga helped her heal and recover from chronic back issues, including a spinal fusion at age 16, and two episodes of psychosis at age 29.
Her daily home yoga practice began in earnest when people kept asking her to teach them yoga. She’s since trained as a teacher with Shiva Rea, and immersed herself in practicing, teaching yoga and writing about yoga. Kara-Leah lives just outside of Queenstown, New Zealand with her son Samuel.
She’s the publisher of The Yoga Lunchbox and has just published her first book, Forty Days of Yoga – Breaking down the barriers to a home yoga practice. She’s also a regular contributor to the Elephant Journal.