Friday, March 13, 2020

How to do a contemplative retreat

There is power in the re-frame.

I saw a great lil meme today that said we need to re-brand "social distancing" - say instead something like "I've been exiled for the good of the realm!" because it's so much cooler.  Or another recommended using "solidarity distancing".  I like it.

Personally, I've recently become practiced at spending long periods without much social interaction, events, or entertainment, but it's certainly not what a lot of us are used to.  In addition to the fears about what our own health, or the health of our society might come to, feeling socially isolated right now might feel like an additional strain.

With all this, I was reminded of a line from a famous text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, in which the author recommends avoiding "frequent trips outside."  The yogin recommends this as a way to help hone the type of concentrated mind that the practitioner in retreat aims toward.  This injunction is reminding me of today of the fact that even small changes can induce in us profoundly altered states of consciousness.

A biohacker who's podcasts I've been following recently, Ben Greenfield, makes no pretense about the fact that he uses psychedelics regularly.  Before experimenting with those external agents though, he recommends any aspiring psychonauts to experiment with fasting or three days camping alone.  These simple and drug-free practices can induce intense changes in consciousness and a lot of it is because we are changing our HABITS.  Many humans crave the consciousness-altering effects of drugs, but we get nervous when our consciousness is altered by a change in personal lifestyle patterns.  What if we could learn to love the feeling of being altered even when it's not by our own choice?

So as I'm in a bit of my own contemplative retreat today, I wanted to share some notes with you about how you might feel moved to utilize this vast movement inward that many of us are experiencing to create a mini contemplative retreat practice of your own.  

Here are five easy steps.

1. Have an intention
Like I said in the beginning, there's a power in the framing of things.  Staying home because you "have to," because things are cancelled is much more of a bummer than staying home because you want to protect others, or explore your heart and mind.

So think, what are some goals you have that would be facilitated by spending concentrated time at home, or by yourself?  One of mine is rest and recharging (as an introvert, keeping a full social schedule can be quite depleting for me).  Perhaps you want to create a habit of meditating or praying more?  Maybe there's a craft project you long to do.  Make the intention and you'll be tapping into some of the deep power of your human mind and spirit.

2. Meditate more than usual
In order to do a contemplative retreat, you don't have to stick to a prescribed schedule of meditation.  If we're thinking about the principle above of generating altered states by changing our patterns, then all you have to do is meditate more than usual.  If you don't meditate at all, it might mean trying once per day.  People who already do 2 sessions per day might want to go for three or four.  You'll know when you hit the "sweet spot" you'll start experiencing more clarity or insight than you ordinarily do.

You can also know if you've gone too far because your emotions may get raw, or you might start to feel stir crazy or get cabin fever - walk it back a little bit and watch a movie!

But if you play your cards right, you'll get a sense of why people do meditation in retreat.  There's something about not going outside about a bunch of errands that helps collect the mind.  Something about not managing all the social niceties of interacting with acquaintances that allows something within to get calmer than usual.  Take advantage! 

3. Do some movement
You might be avoiding the gym right now, or you might just be taking a much needed recharge.  Or maybe being free of a commute has left you with some extra free time.  In any case, it's a great time to do some mindful movement practice at home.

In a traditional meditation retreat, a yogin would break up periods of stillness with yogic exercises.  These would keep the body limber  for all that sitting, but even more importantly, these movements were thought to open the meridian channel network and support deeper states of relaxation - like a self-acupuncture session in a way.

Now's a great time to do some yoga, qigong, or tai chi, as well as go for a walk, or even practice some rebounding or body-weight exercises.  Relish the power of exercise to restore the body and also keep the mind fresh and vital.

4. Take in the wisdom
As the mind gets quieter, there's a lot of space.  That space itself is a relief and a wonderful thing, but it's also useful because it can be the openness where new insights can arise.  If we expose ourselves to deep questions, wise words, or potent teachings from this stance of openness, we can help the mind grow toward states of even greater comfort and ease.

It's also easy to get whipped into a frenzy if we're exposing our mind to fearmongers or the type of bickering that can be nourished by social media interactions.  A wonderful practice during a mild contemplative retreat is to place intention around what kind of information we want to take in.  Expose your mind to things that will edify you and steer clear of those which disempower.

5. Set the boundary
The last key is one of the most potent, it's creating a container, which makes what you're doing a sacred practice.  This goes right in line with your intention setting at the beginning, but it's about how you choose to behave for the duration of your contemplative retreat.  In ancient practice, this is referred to as the retreat boundary.

There are inner boundaries and outer boundaries.  For some yogis, they would mark out a piece of land and not leave the borders for a set period of time, but a different kind of retreat means that you'll take a specific state of mind and resolve to keep it, no matter what.

For your contemplative retreat, the boundary might be quite simple - "I commit to meditating for at least 15 minutes per day for the next three days."  Or it could be multifaceted "I will meditate in three periods, I'll keep a vegetarian diet, I'll endeavor to go to bed by 10:30pm, but sleep as late as I wish, I'll limit my social media interaction to 45 minutes per day."  or the like.  It could even be something like "I'll only use my cellphone as a phone, and not a mobile computer to check every 10 minutes!"

ANY of these personal commitments can create enough change in habits to enable the mind to experience some dramatic shifts, and these shifts can be wonderful contributors to our growth, wisdom, and happiness!

During this time when many are staying home for the good of others, it may feel like a big shift, but with the power of intentionality, one can utilize these pattern disruptions to lever the mind into greater states of openness, freedom, and love than ever before.  Who's up for some contemplative retreat?

1 comment:

  1. Love this. I'm sending it around to help support creating a conscious space during this time of enforced retreat. Even with a lot of meditation experience, I'm benefiting from this re-frame, changing the habits in a specific way to demarcate a period of time with an intention. Many thanks for this!