The Closing Circle

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Writer and meditator Mandy Sutter views the reporting-in process at the end of silent retreats with a mixture of dread and excitement.

Many Buddhist retreat centres embrace the custom of the ‘Closing Circle’.

This doesn’t mean sitting in the middle of a razor toothed torture ring that gradually closes in and squeezes the life out of you, like something out of a James Bond movie.

No. It’s worse than that.

It means that after spending, say, a fortnight in silence with thirty strangers, the group sits in a large circle on the last evening to share their experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against hearing how everyone else got on. Quite the contrary: who wouldn’t long for sensible talk after being marooned with the egotistical maniac who inhabits the inside of my head? I’ve had to listen to her deluded ravings more or less non-stop, unable to drown them out with the radio or a good novel.

But I find the Closing Circle a bit of a nightmare, made proportionately worse by the number of people in it.

Some Closing Circles are uncomfortable in anyone’s money. Those, for example, where everyone thanks everyone else so much, it’s like being at a Bafta Awards night. Or those where the emotional intensity builds so much on the way round the circle that the poor person who goes last has no option other than to say it has been the best fortnight of their life, and collapse in a sobbing heap on the floor.

But even a sober Closing Circle can be tricky to negotiate.

After a fortnight of very low stimulus, the richness of a diverse group of human beings is like a gourmet banquet after a strict diet. The body and mind rebel.

And the false impressions you’ve formed about your co-retreatants in the silence get blown to smithereens. For example, the bloke who did everything in a slow, absorbed way, never smiling or making eye contact (obviously a veteran Buddhist) turns out to be on his first retreat ever. The woman with the radiant smile and calm aura (an obvious bliss-bunny) was in fact freaking out and drove twenty miles to the nearest town on day five before thinking the better of it and turning back.

Such reality checks are definitely a Good Thing. But thirty at once is a shock.

Then there’s the disorientation factor. While you’ve been sobbing quietly through most of the meditations and hit depths of existential despair you didn’t know existed, someone else was loving the imaginative vegan food and enjoying tranquil walks down by the stream.

I often feel a deep sense of community with others when living in silence together. As soon as we’re on speaking terms again, this sense vanishes like a whisper in a wind tunnel. I feel adrift. I wonder: was it just another of my delusions?

In the Closing Circle, we are brought up against the impossibility of doing justice to a wordless experience using words. People go on and on (self included) in their efforts to articulate what can’t be said.

But perhaps I’m alone in finding the Closing Circle hard to handle. How do you go about it?


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