meditation retreats

How I Learned to Love Meditation (Yoga Journal)

Cautiously relinquishing her reservations about meditation, a Vermont writer signs up for a nine-day silent retreat.

Lisa Jones, Yoga Journal: About four years ago, the publisher of the newspaper where I worked—a brilliant man without a “woo-woo” bone in his body—shocked the staff by suddenly going on a nine-day silent meditation retreat in New Mexico. He returned soft-eyed, sweet-voiced, and utterly convincing.

“This was the first moral education I’ve ever had,” he said, “that didn’t make me want to throw up.”

Before the retreat, the sound of his phone ringing would make him sigh sadly and stiffen his chest. Afterwards, it took on celestial qualities inaudible to the rest of us. He would look beatifically into space for a moment. “Mindfulness practice,” he explained before gently lifting the receiver.

He was so moved by his experience he wanted to share with other staff members. So a few months later, a co-worker and I drove six hours to the Land of Enchantment. I had never meditated a minute before in my life and had no idea what to expect….

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How a 10-day silence transformed my life

Rose F. Scott, The Philippine Star: I have been filled with gratitude since I attended the 10-day course in Vipassana meditation last October. Since October is the month of my birth, I decided to make this course a retreat for myself. This retreat gave me 10 beautiful days of silence, time with myself, and some techniques on meditation. Indeed, I received a gift from life about life that came at a most precise time.

As a professional counselor, I have encountered many people at the lowest and most turbulent points of their lives. Couples disillusioned and ready to give up on their marriage, families trapped by the difficulties of relationship among themselves and individuals enslaved by their addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling and sex sought help to get relief and resolution to their problems. They found themselves in the path of self-destruction, destroying themselves and their loved ones, even if it was not their intention to do so.

What they, you and I have in common is the phenomena of pain in its physical, emotional and mental form. Life produces pain. This is a difficult reality to accept. We naturally dislike pain and like the opposite of pain, which is pleasure. We have a disdain for one and an attraction for the other. Our negative thoughts and emotions as well as our attachments cause us great pain…

Aside from relying on books, knowledge and skills I have learned from professional school, I rely on my own experience as a person in dealing with human difficulties. I don’t just counsel other people, I am also very serious with my own growth process. I can only suggest and apply to others what I practice and find effective for myself.

If I say to a client, “get to know yourself or love yourself,” you can be assured I have endeavored on the path of self-knowledge and continuously search for ways and means to truly love myself. I’m both a researcher and practitioner in my profession.

Being educated and trained mainly in Western methods, I have found that although these are the prevailing schools of thought, there is something lacking in the process. In counseling, the process of helping the client verbalize his feelings and thoughts can only be the beginning of a healing process. Simple psychology of talk therapy is not enough. Complete healing requires integration of the body, the mind, the heart and the spirit. The process needed to achieve this integration is still missing in Western therapy.

Over the past few years, I did my exploration in Eastern healing arts and philosophies. I have indulged not only my mind but also my body in disciplines such as shibashi, yoga, tai-chi and nature movement. The journey has brought me closer to “home.” My 10-day rendezvous with meditation has provided the key to the front door. It was exactly what I was looking for.

According to S.N. Goenka, a teacher of Vipassana, the final aim of this approach to meditation is not concentration of mind. Concentration is only a help, a step leading to a higher goal, which is purification of the mind. Meditation helps eradicate all the mental defilements and the negativities within, to free us from the thought patterns that cause us misery. At the same time, the mind learns to trust fully in the moment and is purified, preparatory to attaining enlightenment.

Unlike concept-laden workshops and seminars, this course mainly provided a technique for meditation by actually doing it. As the teacher suggested, a direct experience of reality is essential. The technique helped to examine mental and physical structures to which there is much attachment, resulting in tension built up in the body. The body has been the vessel that receives all the negativities and toxins our mind generates throughout our lives. Meditation is like a detoxification process. As the mind becomes purified, the body attains relaxation and a feeling of peace is a natural result.

In this course, I got to know myself, not in an intellectual way by answering the question “who am I,” but actually experiencing a very deep phenomenon from within. This energy I felt was very powerful, it made me afraid at first. I realized later that I was afraid of this power that is in me, the power that will allow me to fulfill all my dreams and more. It was not just an assured feeling but an actual encounter with this infinite potential. All answers reside in the very depth of my being. And now, I can actually touch that being and feel adequate in all situations.

The technique of meditation can only be understood fully if experienced. In the beginning, it is simply focusing on breathing, to get rid of the cluttered thoughts that come rushing to the mind. Then, the mind becomes calm and quiet. This is just the first step to meditation. The rest of the technique was new and mind-boggling to me. It is actually very technical and the teacher gives a very clear step-by-step instruction.

Anyone with knowledge and skills in psychology, medicine and other sciences on the human body would truly appreciate this technology. The question that lingers in my mind is: How can something concrete and technical, a simple methodology, deepen one’s spirituality? Is this where science and spirituality meet?

The teacher explains the technique and shares the philosophy behind the practice of meditation at the end of each day. There are no dogmas preached, only insights that are very refreshing and inspirational. It doesn’t matter who or what your God’s name is. You are challenged to examine if your belief is merely intellectual and devotional, or practical and experiential. Do we simply adhere to the laws of God because we are conditioned to do so in obedience or do we choose to follow as well as emulate the values and characteristics of the God of our belief?

One might ask, will this conflict with my religion? This practice of meditation is not biased towards any religion; in fact it is universal. It is for all those who wish to grow spiritually in whatever religion one chooses to practice. A problem may arise in the mind of someone who is conditioned by fear. Because meditation is not part of their religious tradition and is not taught by religious leaders, one might be afraid of going against the teachings of one’s religion. Some would rather play it safe and stay within the familiar traditional rules and rituals they are used to. There is nothing wrong with this thinking as long as one is aware of it. There is also nothing wrong with someone who is searching beyond what is familiar and is confident and can decide on what is good.

Books and discussions give insights and inspiration, while meditation gives wisdom through a physical, mental and emotional experience. Very deep spirituality is not merely meaningful and inspiring, it is life-transforming.

The 10 days of silence requires discipline, commitment and an open mind. To sustain the silence and other rules of the course requires determination, discipline, patience and perseverance. These in themselves are spiritual qualities being strengthened through the process. There is no easy way or short cut to holiness or mysticism.

Just like any course, tools are provided as a jump start. It is up to the individual to take it or leave it afterwards. To take it means to use the technique and continue the practice in daily life. To leave it means it was just a one-time meaningful course.

This 10-day course in Vipassana meditation answered what I have been looking for. It is the practical “how to,” in a nut shell, the missing process to the integration of the mind, body, heart and spirit.

I have decided to be a diligent student of meditation by giving the exercise my best shot. I believe I have become a better counsel for myself and also for others. I also believe that those who learn how to meditate will, indeed, find in themselves a very wise counselor.

As I meditate daily, great fullness permeates my being. I live each moment grateful no matter what comes; basking in the gratitude of which I speak!

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Zen and the art of meditation

Anne Broache (The Daily Northwestern, Evanston, Illinois): To run a center for Zen Buddhist meditation, where silence and stillness are sacred necessities, a college town can provide more pitfalls than peace.

“Particularly students screaming as they walk past,” said Sevan Ross, director and resident teacher — or sensei — of the Chicago Zen Center.

Despite such noise and in spite of its name, the Chicago Zen Center has resided at 2029 Ridge Ave. in Evanston since the mid-1970s.

A group formed and opened the local center after Zen expert Roshi Philip Kapleau, who had founded the Rochester Zen Center in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1960s, held a public workshop in Chicago during the early ’70s. For years the center was affiliated with the Rochester center, which sent teachers to Evanston a few times each year to conduct meditative retreats.

Then Ross, a former Catholic who was ordained in 1992 as a Zen Buddhist priest, became the Chicago Zen Center’s director in 1996. He was sanctioned as a teacher two years later.

From the outside the Zen center resembles a typical Evanston house. It has a sprawling front porch, ample windows and gray-green siding. Ross said he hopes his bamboo plantings on the center’s north side will grow into the most massive grove in the city.

Inside, the aroma of incense — a difficult-to-find, Japanese temple variety, Ross noted — wafts through the halls. Walls have been added and subtracted. Bathrooms glow with bright blue and green paint.
“If you’re going to be a Zen teacher in the West,” Ross said, “you have to know carpentry and electricity and all of that.”

Meditation occurs on the polished wooden floors of the zendo, a large room that overlooks Ridge Avenue from the second floor. A small Buddha statue poses on an altar at the front…

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EXPERIENCE AND DISCOVERY
Zazen, Japanese for meditation, is the core of Zen Buddhism. Ross said he expects his students to practice zazen daily, either on their own or at the center.
“Zen practice is not about doctrine or belief,” Ross said. “It’s about experience and discovery.”
Zen Buddhism teaches that no truth resides outside oneself, and zazen forces a reorientation inward. Not all meditation involves silent sitting; some involves walking or chanting.
Wearing dark robes, Zen practitioners position themselves on round and rectangular gray cushions lining the zendo’s perimeter. A series of strikes on bells and wooden blocks guide them through the initial stages of meditation.
The third and final piercing strike on the inkin bell, a small handbell, signals that sitters must stop readjusting their posture and remain completely still for the meditation period.
“People who come here are not really looking for doctrine,” Ross said. “They’re looking for truth that can be discovered in themselves — not in a psychological sense, but deeper.”
During sesshin, two- to six-day intensive retreats scheduled throughout the year, sittings can last up to 14 hours per day. Participants eat simple vegetarian meals centered around rice and sip tea produced by the Chinese Tenren Tea Company — Ross’s vendor of choice in Chicago.
At such retreats members divide their time between sitting, chanting, work, lectures and extremely private interviews, or dokusan, with Ross.
“It’s a meeting about one’s meditation practice,” Ross said. “Therefore it is often not verbal because words and letters are going to be misleading past a certain point.”
The physically demanding retreats employ senior Zen members as monitors, who use “encouragement sticks” to slap acupuncture pressure points on meditators’ backs. Not to be interpreted as punitive, Ross said, the hits aim to prevent stiff, hunched bodies and to promote open, Zen-like posture.
“Americans are armored: We walk with our heads down, shoulders bent, armored to the world,” Ross said. “That’s one of the things that Zen training does — it opens them up to the world.”
SMOOTHING HILLS AND VALLEYS
Senior member Elie Nijm, 54, a school psychologist who lives in Buffalo Grove, Ill., has wielded the encouragement stick. He started coming to the Chicago Zen Center around the time he started practicing Zen, about 15 years ago.
Nijm spent his childhood as a Christian Arab in Israel but has lived in the Chicago area for 32 years.
“I grew up in a religion where I was always shown the pictures of God and was told stories about God,” he said. “But no one taught me to taste God directly.”
A combination of such feelings and circumstances led Nijm to Zen. He read a book about Zen practice in one sitting and, captivated by its ideas, decided to seek a local center.
“For me,” he said, “the most fundamental questions I was seeking was the question of, ‘What is reality?”’
Similar questions confounded Evanston resident Steve Cole, 49, when he decided to begin Zen practice about five years ago.
Cole had arrived at a “personal dead end,” he said, when his eight-year career as a Harvard University professor ended abruptly. The Babylonian history scholar found himself teaching in Helsinki, Finland, and meditating at a Zen center there, where he hoped to regain control of his life. He later discovered the center was connected to a network that includes the chapters in Rochester and Evanston.
Now employed at a fast-paced software development company in Park Ridge, Cole practices Zen meditation for at least 45 minutes each morning. He tries to attend sittings at the Evanston center every other week and to go on as many retreats as his vacation time permits.
But Cole said he considers Zen more of a lifestyle than a religion.
“It’s a way of living in the world realistically and comfortably despite the ups and downs,” he said. “It really helps you to smooth out the hills and valleys.”

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