Another fresh article is up at Samma-Samadhi, dealing with the tension between ecstatic contemplation and getting out into the world.
For those interested, there’s a new post up at Samma-Samadhi.
Comments are welcome, as always!
This past weekend I led meditation and did astrology readings for a Rocky Mountain Contemplative Writers retreat up near Granby, Colorado. This was my fifth or sixth retreat with my friend (Best Man in our wedding, actually), David Hicks, who handles the “writers” portion of the program. David has been incorporating bodywork into the retreats, as well, bringing his favorite massage therapist up the hill for the first day.
The idea is, I “crack ’em” with meditation and readings, David “scrambles ’em” with individual writing consultations, group writing prompts, communal dinners (everyone has to provide one meal throughout the long weekend) and a concerted effort to establish lasting bonds between retreatants, who must ultimately use their writing as a sort of “poor man’s therapy” to deal with what inevitably comes up during the proceedings. We encourage retreatants to “write the most difficult thing,” so you can imagine the stories having to do with cancer or other physical ailments, sexual abuse, death and random acts of violence. What you may not imagine is the power that comes through this writing. A common feedback we receive is that retreatants never knew they had it it ’em, and that it is such a surprise to realize that “this is how real writing feels.”
After everyone arrives on Thursday evening, settles into their rooms and puts on their night clothes, it’s my job to lead the first meditation session. I have a standard speech stating that, when the idea first came up for us to do these retreats, we thought it would be great to combine a writing retreat with a Theravada meditation retreat model — i.e., establishing Noble Silence from beginning to end, meditating upwards of five or six hours a day, no food after noon… the whole bit. “I figured we’d attract a bunch of meditators who happen to write,” I tell them. “Instead, I’ve come to realize that we’re getting writers who are open to the idea of a little meditation, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of writing.” Laughter and nods all around.
That being the case, I encourage everyone to be as relaxed as possible. They can try sitting in some variation of the lotus position, like me, or they can sit in a chair or couch, they can lay down flat, they can stand, do walking meditation, shift whenever a pain sets in — whatever they need to do in order to keep from dreading meditation. I ask that everyone keep a notebook beside them to capture writing ideas, bits of dialogue or whatever else that may pop up from the silence and seems right for their current work. We’ve gone from lots of meditation to a bare minimum: one hour at seven a.m. (instead of my preference of five a.m.), with a half-hour bell for those who can’t do a full hour; a half-hour at four in the afternoon, and a half-hour before bed. I make myself available for anyone who may want to sit longer or more frequently (never happens, but since I do it on my own, I may as well open it up to everyone), or who have questions regarding the nuts-and-bolts of meditation, or the specifics of what comes up for them during silence.
Finally, I utilize some hypnotherapy induction techniques (progressive relaxation, visualizations and prompts using present-tense “-ing” language) to guide retreatants into their sits, so that they’re not left to battle those initial moments in isolation.
It occurs to me now, a week after the retreat, that I missed an opportunity to go into the question, Why meditate?
I mean, beyond the obvious reasons — relaxation, sitting in silence as a group — what does meditation bring to a writer’s retreat? How does sitting still, bringing focus to the breath and dealing with random thoughts, feelings and insights help the writer write better?
I could probably come up with many, many benefits from meditation for the writer, but one stands out above all others, as far as I’m concerned.
There is a cumulative effect that becomes established after a couple days during these retreats, even with the minimal amount of sitting that we offer. This accumulation has the quality of saturation, or even absorption, as though meditation continues into the time between formal sits. Focus and concentration undergo a subtle shift, so that one becomes focused and concentrated, rather than having to work for it. There is an emotional rawness that develops, as well, such that those “difficult things” we’ve been avoiding as writers bubble up to the surface, as if they’ve just been waiting for the right circumstances in order to express. There is something about sitting in a group according to a firm schedule, entering the silence together and maintaining that space, that deepens our experience of life and brings greater meaning to everything we do, whether it be cooking a meal, walking through the woods or sitting down to work on a story.
By Sunday (which comes too quickly, alas) the environment is rich with emotion and artistic passion, even as friendship bonds have established a level of trust and safety unmatched at your typical writer’s retreat. Meditative saturation has taken hold, and for some of the retreatants this constitutes a “religious experience” they’ve never known — and we hear promises of continued meditation practices all around.
I hope that they follow through. I hope that they consider what happens in a little three-day retreat, and that they extrapolate these effects out over several years of thrice-daily sits. What would happen in their writing lives if they came into such a depth of saturation?
I could tell them, of course, but it’s much better to find out for oneself.
* [Famous quote by Thelonius Monk.]
No, I’m not talking about the profound religion of Jazz.
My teacher, while acknowledging the apparent attainment of meditation masters like Ajahn Chah, has a problem with their teachings, in that they do not come right out to affirm the Buddha’s actual instructions on meditative absorption. They persist in mystifying the subject, sometimes demonizing it (though Ajahn Chah has not gone that direction), almost always diluting it to conform with a made-up meditation technique called “vipassana.”
Nevertheless, Ajahn Chah is an example of how the Buddha’s monastic ideal has been preserved over the centuries, and his teachings are very much worthy of our consideration. I feel that his was a skillful and rigorous meditation practice that produced great spiritual fruit. Perhaps he taught his closest followers from that place of gnosis, thereby “protecting” the rest of us from the “dangers” of meditative absorption.
The cat, however, is out of the bag.