meditation retreats

One thing at a time…

Check out Bodhipaksa’s Stress Reduction Through Mindfulness retreat, April 21–23, 2017

Sometimes we have major stressors in our lives, like financial or relationship problems, or insecurity about our employment. But there are also many smaller-scale situations that contribute to our stress too. For me, these include dealing with the demands of parenting. And it’s often small things, like getting the kids out of the door and responding to their questions that are triggers for me being sharp with them.

And one thing I’ve noticed is how these small-scale situations are usually only stressful when I’m multi-tasking. So if the kids try to ask me something when I have part of my attention on emailing a friend, I’ll snap at them. If I’m busy thinking about a financial problem at work, then the same thing happens — the kids want something from me, I automatically perceive it as a threat, and I react in a stressed way. And of course behaving like this with my children brings a whole set of other problems!

There are time when I have to multitask, of course. When I’m cooking for example, I’m usually switching rapidly between stirring a couple of pots, chopping ingredients, and keeping an eye on the time. It’s inevitable. But adding one more task to the mix — even just quickly replying to a text message — leads to a seemingly exponential rise in stress levels. Add in a question from one of the kids, and my poor system can’t cope!

Our minds were not designed to multitask. When we attempt to do so, something has to give. One of the first tasks to go is our ability to regulate our emotions, and so we end up behaving more aggressively toward others. We also aren’t able to maintain a sense of calm and balance by reassuring ourselves and keeping things in perspective, and end up with that familiar feeling of being frazzled and overwhelmed. Multitasking triggers a “danger” alert, because on some level our brains detect being over-burdened as a threat. Reducing our cognitive burden frees up our mental resources so that we can remember to be kind and reasonable in our interactions, and remain calmer, rather than feeling frazzled.

So I find that it’s important not to multitask. Instead, I try to unitask! The text message that comes in while I’m cooking? It can wait. A delay of ten minutes will rarely cause any problems. If I’m writing that email and the kids ask me questions, then I stop emailing mid-word and let my attention “snap” to them (rather than snapping at them!). Any attempt to keep going with that activity creates sense of emotional tension that quickly becomes unbearable. Often when I’m working I silence my phone so that I can work undisturbed. I sometimes do that when I’m home with the kids, too. And as for thinking about work problems, putting my full attention on what I’m actually doing in that moment helps to reduce my cognitive burden and to keep my mind clear.

So this is something to work with. First, we need to become aware of our tendency to multitask, because we often do it so much that we aren’t ever conscious it’s happening. (And multitasking may not mean literally doing several things at once. It can include rapidly switching from one task to another.)

Note that we’re not aiming for perfection. There are times we have to do more than one thing at a time (cooking and talking to family members, for example). But we can aim for improvement. Being fully present with what we’re doing, resisting the temptation to add one more activity (like sending a quick text in the middle of writing an email), and switching off notifications and ringers when we can, all help to reduce our cognitive burden and help us to reduce our stress levels.

Suggested Activity

As well as trying the suggestions above, try taking a few mindful breaths between activities. After sending off an email, rather than immediately picking up the phone to make a call, take three or four breaths first.

Worried that it’ll make you less efficient? No need! Research has shown that multitaskers are up to 40% less efficient than people who work mindfully and who avoid multitasking.

New Hampshire weekend Stress Reduction retreat, April 21–23

On this weekend we’ll have a gentle program of workshops, talks, discussions, and meditations—including guided meditations. There will be time for rest, relaxation, and exploration.

The retreat will take place in the beautiful surroundings of the Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire.

The event is residential, and vegetarian food will be provided. The accommodation is in two-person rooms.

Portions of the retreat will be in silence, with communication limited only to what is necessary and functional.

The retreat will begin at 6:00 PM on Friday and end at 1:00 PM on Sunday.

Click here for more information on this weekend stress reduction retreat

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Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia, March 2017!

Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia in 2017! He’s been invited by the Sydney Buddhist Centre to lead a week-long retreat on lovingkindness and the other three “divine abidings” at Vijayaloka Buddhist Retreat Centre, at Minto, just one hour from the centre of Sydney, on a plot of largely pristine bushland above the upper reaches of the Georges River.

This week-long retreat is an opportunity to enjoy my innovative and even provocative take on the “divine abidings” or Brahma Viharas — four inspiring and transformative practices that progressively expand our sphere of concern to include all beings.

The divine abidings are a path to insight, blending compassion and wisdom.

On this retreat we will delve progressively deeper into the divine abidings, developing an unselfish concern as deep as the world itself: a love that leads ourselves and others toward awakening.

These teachings have grown out of over 30 years of practicing these meditations, and of helping literally thousands of people to explore them. The retreat is suitable for people who already have some meditation experience. It’s not an event for complete beginners.

  • Metta is kindness, or an empathic recognition that just as we desire happiness, other beings desire happiness; therefore we wish for the wellbeing of others.
  • Karuna, or compassion, is the desire that beings be free from suffering so that they may experience happiness.
  • Mudita, or joyful appreciation, is far more than “being happy because others are happy.” It begins by recognizing that true happiness does not arise randomly, but as the result of skillful actions. Therefore we rejoice in the good we see in ourselves and the world, and encourage its development, living as much as possible from a basis of gratitude and appreciation.
  • Upekkha is often translated as equanimity, or balance. But it goes much deeper. The root meaning of upekkha is “to watch intimately.” It begins with the recognition that the deepest and truest form of happiness is the peace that arises from spiritual awakening; therefore if we truly want beings to be happy we should rejoice in and encourage the cultivation of insight in ourselves and others.

In cultivating upekkha we must look deeply into the hearts of beings and recognize their need for awakening. And we must look deeply into the nature of reality itself, so that we know what awakening is, and can help others to attain it. Upekkha, in its essence, is identical to “The Great Compassion” (Maha-Karuna) of the Mahayana, that seeks the enlightenment of all beings.

The divine abidings, ultimately, are a love as deep as life itself.

The retreat runs from Friday, 3 March until Friday, 10 March, 2017.

Click here to register for Bodhipaksa’s retreat in Australia.


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A truly shocking reason to meditate

Tim Brownson, A Daring Adventure: Next week I am going on a meditation retreat for 3 days.

It’s only the second time I have ever been on a retreat and the last time three years ago I made a bit of a fool of myself (read more here for the full, rather embarrassing story), although I still had a great time.

Even though I’d been meditating for 7 or 8 years I’d rarely sat for more than 30 minutes at a time and 20 minutes was probably a closer average before that retreat.

Rather strangely I was a tad stressed on …

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How an intensive ten-day meditation retreat could transform your life for the better

wildmind meditation newsZoe Schlanger, The Independent: It was 5:30 in the morning on my third day of silent meditation when I noticed something in me take a sharp turn left. I was groggy, frustrated by my inability to sit still and hungry for the breakfast that was still an hour off. I got up from the spot on the floor of my bedroom where I’d been attempting to meditate and walked outside, to the new-growth woods behind the residential quarters at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Shelburne, Massachusetts. It was springtime, and the outdoors seemed spring-loaded with potential: the buds on the trees were sharp little things …

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, and hundreds of fuzzy fiddlehead ferns dotted the forest floor, curled snug. I walked down a little looping path that stopped unsatisfyingly soon; “course boundary” signs curtailed my meandering to an area the size of a soccer field. Exercise, like so many things here, was not permitted.

For the past three days, a brass bell had woken me at 4am, along with the 129 others who had committed to this 10-day silent saga. We meditated, with guidance, for roughly 10 hours a day, broken up by meals and “free time”, which was free only in the sense that we weren’t meditating. We weren’t allowed to read or write, speak to one another, make communicative gestures or even look at one another in the eye. So we all paced the small loop in the woods, staring at trees, careful not to acknowledge one another’s existence. No nodding, no smiling.

During free time after lunch, I walked outside to find a cluster of women standing in the courtyard stock-still, eyes closed, faces tilted toward the sun, looking posed for alien abduction. One woman wore a Nirvana band T-shirt, presumably without irony. I began to giggle, a major transgression, but I couldn’t help it. It all seemed so ridiculous. What the hell was I doing here? There’s no way, I thought, that this silent sitting around, this utter lack of mental stimulation, could be benefiting my brain. I briefly entertained the idea that this was all one massive 2,500-years-running placebo effect. I went over my previous few days in my mind. I looked back at the women. Is this what it felt like to be brainwashed? Was I mid-brainwashing? Would someone being brainwashed question whether she was being brainwashed? No, I finally told myself, I wasn’t being brainwashed; I was being silly. I turned away and stood outside in the sun for a while, in silence, and resigned myself to the idea of another week of this.

In the past few years, the human quest for self-optimisation has collided with improving mobile technology to produce more than 100,000 health apps for smartphones. The mobile market research firm Research2Guidance estimates that mHealth apps, as they’re called, will be a $26bn industry by 2017. Other popular apps claim to make you smarter. Then there’s the burgeoning field of DIY biohacking, led by trans-cranial direct-current. This involves strapping electrodes to one’s head and running a low dose of electricity through the brain. The therapeutic potential appears enormous, and for the DIY crowd, a central appeal is neuroenhancement – the potential to prompt clear-headed focus and amp up cognitive functions. But all these interventions are temporary, rely on devices and paid services, and are relatively unproven. What if the ultimate neuroenhancing biohack is 2,500 years old and costs nothing?

A few years ago, a computer scientist and a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona enrolled 45 human resources managers in a trial: a third took eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, a third took eight weeks of body relaxation training and the rest had no training at all. All three groups were given “stressful multi-tasking” tests before and after the eight-week period; and those in the mindful-meditation group were able to sustain their focus longer than the other groups and reported feeling less stressed.

The brain changes functionally and structurally all the time, taking in lessons from and responding to the stimulus of daily life. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity. But what if you could determine the way your brain changes? For years, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, has referred to the neurological effects of meditation as “rewiring the brain”.

Most of the time, he says, “our brains are constantly being shaped by forces around us of which we are really not aware or dimly aware”. But research suggests that meditators (he’s one) are able to intentionally guide that process – and such research has exploded in recent years. In 1980, there were just three papers published on the topic. In 2014, there were 535. One found that meditators appear to lose less grey matter over time than their non-meditating counterparts. Another suggested regular meditation may “reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal ageing”. A third, from 2012, found that long-term meditators may develop more gyrification, or “folding,” of the cortex, which is associated with faster mental processing – and the more years a person meditates, the higher the degree. A fourth found evidence of increased thickness in the areas of the brain associated with attention and awareness of sensations and emotions in oneself and others. A fifth went so far as to suggest that regular meditation might help you grow more brain.

One technique seems especially promising. Vipassana is the Buddhist meditation technique on which the now wildly popular Westernised concept of “mindfulness” is based. Henepola Gunaratana, an influential Buddhist monk, once described it as “looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing”.

More than anything else, Vipassana meditation is about training the brain to quieten down – to not react on impulse alone. (You might think you’re not impulsive, but the next time a fly lands on your neck, watch how fast you swat it.) These sorts of knee-jerk reactions extend into the emotional realm. When something negative happens, or whenever we crave something, be it a cigarette or the approval of a peer, we react without thinking. And that creates habit patterns that ensure the mind will react in exactly the same way the next time a similar scenario arises.

Here’s where meditation begins to show itself as a biohacking marvel. Learning how to interrupt one’s reaction pattern – and then doing that over and over – can reshape behaviour. And if behaviour is changing, then the brain is changing, says Katie Witkiewitz, a clinical psychology researcher who has studied the potential for mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to cure addiction among prison inmates.

The crux of MBSR is learning to pause when one ordinarily wouldn’t, observe what’s happening in one’s body and then move forward. Witkiewitz set up three randomised medical trials in which people suffering from various addictions enrolled in MBSR programmes modelled on a secularised version of Vipassana – no stories about the life of the Buddha – and the results, she says, were “amazing”. Meditation led to “significant reductions in drug use, heavy drinking and cravings, and significant improvement in mental health”.

I found out about Vipassana in the winter of 2014, in the midst of a break-up of the sort that upends every part of one’s life. I was hungry for anything that might stabilise me when a cousin came back from a Vipassana retreat exuding an enviable sense of calm. She listened quietly as I babbled over brunch about the minutiae of my relationship drama and ticked off all the ways I needed to radically change my life. She said the retreat taught her to “be OK with what’s going on now”. I shrivelled a little. Was my distress that obvious?

I had never meditated before, but I enrolled for the course. (The retreat, like all Vipassana programmes, was free, funded by donations from and run by a rotating cast of former students.) While I waited, I watched “mindful living” – based on Vipassana traditions – have its media moment. And six months later, I got the call.

By the third morning of meditating, my mind was still flailing wildly, jumping from one thought to the next to avoid being quieted. I felt as though I were being dragged around by a petulant child. The more I desired a quiet mind, the more wildly flamboyant my distractions became. As soon as I’d managed to banish the choruses of the last five songs I’d played on Spotify before the retreat began, up came a few bars from Christina Aguilera’s Spanish-language rendition of “Come on Over”.

Then my thoughts turned abstract. With eyes closed, I focused on the dark outline of my eye sockets inside my eyelids. Bad move. Within moments, swirls of blue and yellow gyrated around the vague form of two ovals. I was kind of impressed; resisting quietude with a psychedelic light show is downright slick, really.

As calmly as I could, I pushed the light show aside and began to observe my galloping thoughts with detached amusement. There they were, charging around. What a ridiculous spectacle. Slowly, the clamour dimmed. And after that, the meditation got easier.

Two days later, I walked outside. My morning meditation had gone relatively well, I thought, and I felt calm and concerned only with what was happening in the present. I saw a bird’s nest cradled in a crook of a large, leafless bush about my height a few yards from the door. As I leaned in to peer into the nest, the bare branches filled my field of vision. A second passed as my eyes adjusted to the sunlight and focused on the empty bowl of the nest. As soon as they did, dozens of fat black ants came into focus too, scuttling up and down the branches in every corner of my field of vision. I was watching the ants without shifting my gaze from the bird’s nest. The whole scene, peripheral vision included, was unnervingly crisp. It was like watching a scene in Imax, every corner in laser focus.

For the remainder of the retreat, walking in the woods was a sensory field day. I could see the fuzz on the slowly unfurling fiddleheads from yards away. For the first time in my life, I heard the dead leaves on the forest floor settling on one another. One afternoon, I watched a nuthatch land on a tree trunk, and I could hear its talons make contact with the bark. Nearby, water not more than an inch deep moved languidly along a ditch. I could hear that too.

When I got home, New York was briefly unmanageable. I felt daunted by conversation, and socialising was unappealing. But I soon readjusted to the speaking world, and started noticing little, perhaps permanent, changes. When I faced my morning commute, I was less filled with the sense of existential malaise that used to come when I was wedged between two sets of shoulders, my forehead knocking lightly against the backpack of the person ahead of me. Now it didn’t seem so bad. All these people were just trying to get to work too.

My impulse to fill pauses in conversations was toned down, and time slowed down a bit too, because I was paying more attention to things as they happened. My typical obsessive interest in thinking about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life also seemed reduced, along with my equally large drive to rehash recent social interactions and pick them apart for errors on my part. Perhaps biggest of all, the animosity toward my ex evaporated.

I decided to test out whether what I was feeling would translate to a real-life interaction, so I arranged for us to meet for a coffee a week later; the first meeting since our split. As we chatted, I prodded myself mentally, searching for the familiar hurt and ill will. It wasn’t there. Learning to let go of negativity sounds Hallmark-level trite, but there it was.

And there’s more. Before the retreat, someone suggested I get my thyroid and cortisol levels tested. Since both can be tied to stress, he hypothesised they might shift in a setting designed to train calmness. So I went to my doctor and discovered that my thyroid levels were slightly abnormal, and my levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, were four points above the upper threshold for normal. “Double what I’d like to see for you,” my doctor said.

Two days after the retreat ended, I went back. My thyroid levels had dropped one full point when, according to my doctor, it would take “at least six weeks” on thyroid medication to get that result. And my cortisol level fell almost 10 points, to squarely within the normal range. That would ordinarily “take months” on a stress-reducing supplement, he said. He sounded impressed.

At the retreat, the teacher warned us over and over not to look for major shifts in our lives when we got home. Any small changes – food that tastes a little better, the family interaction that seems a little less excruciating – are remarkable enough. But my constellation of little changes seemed just evidence, really, that with continuous effort, I could change the way my mind worked. I could decouple, however briefly, my sense of self from the meat sack of mind and body. And that decoupling gave me the ability to actually control where that sack was headed next.

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The healing effects of total silence

wildmind meditation newsFlorence Waters, The Telegraph: A week without noise in Ibiza proves a meditation revelation for Florence Waters.

I remember the first time a friend confessed he was going on a silent meditation retreat: no talking, Wi-Fi, books, phones or pens for what sounded like a very long week.

Though a little curious, I was embarrassed enough to change the subject immediately. Perhaps this is how people felt in the Nineties when someone disclosed they were having therapy. But when I saw him afterwards he was clearly moved by the experience; “I can’t really explain, you’ve just got to do it,” he ventured. “I …

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The path to insight: a retreat with Bodhipaksa

german retreatBodhipaksa is leading a retreat about the path to insight at the Vimaladhatu Meditation House, Germany, from Saturday, August 1st thru Saturday, August 8, 2015.

The Buddha’s teachings offer a pathway to inner peace, freedom, and compassion. But we can only go so far on this path unless we challenge our deeply held assumptions of our own permanence and separateness. Through understanding the eternally changing nature of our being, we can let go of self-grasping and awaken to a natural, spontaneous joy and freedom.

The retreat will be led in English. For those who wish, simultaneous translation into German will be available using headphones.

Click here for more information or to register.

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A love as deep as the world: A retreat with Bodhipaksa

dhanakosaEnjoy Bodhipaksa’s unique take on the “divine abidings” — four inspiring and transformative practices that progressively expand our sphere of concern to include all beings. In cultivating kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joyful appreciation (mudita), and loving with wisdom (upekkha), we develop an unselfish concern as deep as the world itself: a love that leads, ultimately, to awakening.

This retreat is being held at the beautiful Dhanakosa Retreat Center, Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Scotland, 24 Jul to 31 Jul 2015.

Click here for more information or to register.

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A silent journey to the centre of the self

wildmind meditation newsDebra Black, Reporter Debra Black attends a six-day silent retreat, where she practices yoga and mediation and tries her best to live in the moment.

“When we relax the breath, the mind temporarily becomes relaxed. The breath is free from greed, hatred, delusion and fear. Relaxing the breath, breathe in. Relaxing the breath, breathe out. The joy arises naturally.” Bhante Gunaratana, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English.

It is odd to eat in silence. I’ve lined up for today’s lunch — miso mushroom soup; cold vegetarian rolls of rice noodles, cabbage and avocado; and fresh fruit — without uttering a …

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Silent retreats: Tradition finds 21st century fans

wildmind meditation newsKaren Schwartz, Associated Press: A very pregnant Juliana Berger took a five-day trip with her husband and didn’t speak to him once.

They weren’t fighting. They were attending a silent retreat.

Berger, 33, a web developer, had attended a number of silent retreats over the past decade. Her husband, Jonathan Mann, a 32-year-old songwriter, had never been.

Like so many people these days, the New York-based couple wanted a break from the stress of daily life.

“I thought the stillness would help me connect with my baby,” said Berger, who was nearly eight months pregnant at the time.

Silent meditation transcends most religious traditions, …

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How to stop beating yourself up

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at Dec 10, 11.37.36 AMThere is still time to join us for a retreat this weekend in Florida, just south of Tampa, Feb 21–23. It’s on the theme of self-compassion and it’s called “How to Stop Beating Yourself Up.”

Self-compassion is at the heart of my teaching these days.

The retreat fees include food and accommodation, and they’re on a sliding scale.

Most us us have the habit of being unkind to ourselves. We talk unkindly to ourselves and often we sacrifice our own well-being in order to “get things done.”

Florida Retreat Center

Florida Retreat Center

Florida Retreat Center

Florida Retreat Center

On this weekend retreat, Bodhipaksa will introduce a step-by-step guide to self-compassion, so that we can learn to be less hard on ourselves.

To allow people of varying income levels to attend, we have three suggested contributions: $250 for those with lower disposable incomes, $350 as the “standard” contribution, and $450 for those with more disposable income available. The price of the retreat includes food, which will be vegetarian/vegan.

The retreat will start at 7:00 PM on Friday and end at 12:30 PM on Sunday.

There are a couple of spaces still available.

You can read more, or sign up, here:

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