Scenes from a Mindfulness Retreat: The Work

| October 6, 2012 | 12 Comments

Part two of a four-part series.  You can read the introduction here.

One of the things I think those of you who have been on more traditional retreats would find most unusual about the mindfulness retreat is how interactive it was.  There were no long periods of silent meditation, broken by occasional meals, dharma talks and work periods.  Instead, the three daily practice sessions were organized into series of exercises, nearly all of which included dyad or small group discussions and large group talks.  Over the three days of the retreat I got to work one-on-one or in small groups with nearly all of the 30 other participants, sharing at a very fundamental level what was going on in our bodies, minds and hearts.  These exercises were very much like the ones I have described in my pieces about the Friday night drop-in sessions which are also run by the UW Health Integrative Medicine program.  These discussions were not about rehearsing the sordid details of our personal lives, however.  They were a chance for us to share how various physical sensations, emotions and thoughts arose and changed in our awareness as we responded to whatever exercise we had just engaged in.

As I’ve written before, one of the primary effects of sharing at this level is the very visceral realization that everybody’s life is pretty much the same.  We all share frustration over the refusal of life to be the way we want it to be; we all struggle with sickness, aging, loss, anger, helplessness, grief and death; we all long for love and acceptance, especially our own love and acceptance.  We sit before each other, our humanity fully on display, but rather than feeling either repelled or vulnerable, the effect, for me anyway, is to feel seen and accepted, and to feel accepting and loving, in a way that I have seldom experienced.

Movement

The use of mindful movement is a core MBSR strategy for reinforcing the sense of embodiment, for being mindful of the body whose wisdom we so often ignore.  So our sessions would often begin with movement: standing and lying yoga, simple tai chi moves, even some qi gong gestures.  It was clear from looking around that many of my fellow participants were much more familiar with yoga than I was, and had the physiques to prove it.

I felt a little self-conscious at first at how big, clumsy and stiff my middle-aged body felt.  Closing my eyes helped.  It also helped that the movements were simple, and that the emphasis was not on mastering the forms of asanas but on feeling into the sensations of the body stretching and balancing, and how those sensations changed as we came to rest.   I soon discovered that yoga made my back feel better and seemed to wake me up, and that I felt calmed and centered by the graceful flowing movements of tai chi.  After three days I could notice that I was more limber than when I started, that my body flowed more naturally along the floor in corpse pose.  On returning home, I found myself motivated to incorporate 20 minutes of floor yoga in my morning sitting practice, which seems to help me be more comfortable as I sit and more easily drop into the silence of my sensory awareness.

Mindful Listening

I am sitting on a mat on the floor across from Angela.  We’re asked to pick a speaker and a listener.  The speaker is asked to bring to mind someone they really admire; when the tingsha rings, the speaker is to begin talking about that person’s admirable qualities, while the listener engages in mindful listening.

It’s a practice I was familiar with from the Friday night sessions.  One’s intention is to stay with one’s sensory experience of that person – the sound of their voice, their facial expressions, their body language, and the sensations and emotions that arise in your own body as you pay careful attention to the speaker.  If you get caught up in thoughts, especially evaluations and predictions, you simply use the breath and the pressure of gravity on your body to come back to the present moment and refocus on the speaker.

Angela’s posture became more upright and relaxed as she spoke about someone whose free-spirit, intelligence and loving nature she admired.  She placed her hands beneath her chin and her elbows on her thighs, making a stable and integrated double triangle of her body.  Her voice was steady and self-confident, but her brow was a little bit furled – this was a relationship that was not always easy for her, I felt.

Then it was my turn to speak.  I brought to mind a good friend, and talked about her sense of humor, kindness, loyalty, cheerfulness and courage in the face of adversity.  It felt warm and relaxing to remember her and connect with my caring feelings toward her.

Now we alternated again.  This time, we were supposed to imagine someone we had a really difficult time with – and speak about qualities of theirs that we admired!  A groan went up from the group – we had all been readily willing to speak about our negative reactions to these disagreeable people, but this was going to be tough!

Angela was really working.  Her body folded in on itself tightly, her brow furrowed and knit and her mouth contorted as she struggled to say nice things about someone she didn’t like.   Whereas she had shared warm, human qualities about her admired person, the best she could say about her difficult person was that he was professionally very successful and financially very well-off.

When it was my turn, I certainly felt no warmth or connection to my difficult person – just tension in my chest and forehead as I called him into memory.  As I spoke, other than a couple platitudes about his intellect and professional standing, I found myself largely attempting to sympathize with various formative life situations I imagined might have been responsible for making him such a son of a bitch.

Now it was time for Angela and me to share what we were experiencing while were speaking and listening to each other.  Although it was not part of the instructions, we both spontaneously offered each other guesses about who the other person’s admired and difficult persons were – and we both guessed comically wrong.  This might have been the biggest insight I gained from this exercise – I felt I had been trying my best to empty my thoughts and be fully open and empathetic with my partner, and yet my guesses about who she was talking about were fully informed by my own preconceptions and memories of past experiences.

Afterward we rejoined the big circle and shared our experiences.  The contrast between the openness and connection I felt with my admired person, and the tension and self-preoccupation I experienced while imagining my difficult person, turned out to be the common experience of the group.  All of us struggled in the imagined presence of our difficult ones to see them as people who might be lovable  –in other words, to see them as people.  It was clear that the reflex of holding the unwanted off,  the inability to see it in any other terms than those of our own aversion, was strong for us.

There was a glimmer of hope from one of the participants.  “At first it just seemed too hard.  I just couldn’t get past my anger at this person to allow myself to think about their good qualities.  So I just spent a few moments letting myself feel what I was feeling.   I was angry – no use pretending otherwise.  The exercise got a little easier, then.”

Experiencing Shared Humanity

We were invited to pick a partner and sit facing them.  I was sitting next to June, and with the exchange of a smile we shifted our chairs to face one another.

The first instruction was to look carefully at our partner’s face and try to remember it.  We were sitting with our knees only a foot or so away from each other; gazing so intimately into the face of a stranger felt uncomfortable, but June’s eyes twinkled and she smiled kindly.  Next, closing our eyes, we were to keep our partner’s face in our minds as we began to internally recite metta phrases for them.

This was different from any metta practice I’d done before.  Having just gazed intently at June’s face, her visage burned brightly in my imagination;  and though my eyes were closed I was intently aware that she was sitting right there.  The effect for me was a strong and immediate sense of connection and warmth — how much more vivid this was than imagining absent people far away!

As the activity came to a close, we were reminded that, just as we had been sending good wishes to our partner, our partner was there sending the same wishes to us.  A shift happened;  I felt an embodied sense of not only being the source of loving kindness but being the receiver as well.  This occurred not as some intellectual concept but as experiencing the heartspace, not as something enclosed, but as a window shared between us.

We opened our eyes and looked at each other again.   Once again we exchanged smiles, this time with a kindness and poignancy that hadn’t been there before.  June and I spontaneously reached for each other’s hands.

 Working with the Unwanted

We were invited to select from among the smooth stones that had been placed around the centerpiece. A shiny grey stone about the size and shape of an egg drew my attention; I picked it up and returned to my cushion.

The invitation next was to visualize a difficult situation in our lives in as much detail as we could, and to feel into the physical and emotional sensations that arose as we did so.   Reflection on an ongoing family frustration was enough to bring up the physical irritation in my lower abdomen that always accompanies fear and anxiety for me.  Now, we were to hold the stone close to our body, and try to imagine the difficult sensations flowing out of our bodies and into the stone.  I was surprised at how graphically I was able to imagine this – the tension left my gut and seemed to flow through my fingers and enter the little stone.  Finally, we were invited to handle the stone gently and see if we could investigate it with curiosity and friendly attention.

I am aware, reader, that you may be rolling your eyes at this point; and as I reread what I’ve written the implicit silliness of it is not lost on me.  But I will tell you that, as I stroked the smooth surface of my stone and examined the whorls of its texture, the gesture took on a poignant meaning.  Just as the little stone was outside me, not myself, so that familiar stone of tension in my gut was not mine, not me, not myself.  And because I could observe it from a distance, small, misshapen and vulnerable, it was possible to approach it not as a catastrophe to be avoided or abolished, but to hold it in the larger space of my awareness with compassion for its suffering.  The idea of befriending my own suffering – an absurd, unimaginable thought for me once – suddenly became doable.

That stone rides around in my briefcase now, and when stress or frustration arise in me, I think about that little gray egg, and it is easier for me to hold the suffering lightly and offer myself some kindness.

* * * * *

Engaging in this kind of practice continually with the same group of people day in and day out created a continually intensifying feeling of bonding among us, as individuals and as a group.  I didn’t get to know the life details of more than a few of my fellow retreatants – after all, when we were not in these exercises we spent our time in silence.  That didn’t seem to matter; by the final day of the retreat I felt such a sense of friendliness and compassion for these people who I’d never met before and who were still largely strangers to me.  And through them, I could feel an open-heartedness that seemed as if it could really embrace all beings everywhere.

 

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About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the religious trappings of Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (12)

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  1. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Very interesting exercises, Mark, thank you for sharing them. It’s fascinating how we can, through the use of some basic techniques, have such profound experiences that foster meaningful change in our approach to one another.

    Take the stone, for example. Most of the people on this site are likely to understand this as not a literal moving of your stress from your gut, through your fingers, to a chuck of mineral. But the effect remains beneficial, and we can still take advantage of how our minds operate with symbolic gestures like this as tools to help us.

    Eager for part three of your series!

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Thanks, Ted! As I’ll focus on in the next post in the series, our mindfulness teachers are great at coming up with ritual gestures that work as embodied symbolism. There is no need to invest these gestures with magical qualities in order for them to foster powerful insights. Secular ritual is possible!

  2. Keren Dar Keren Dar says:

    Wow, you are taking me back to the retreat where I was introduced to Metta;
    similar setup and group dynamics.

    It reminded me of an exercise that we were given, that was especially powerful for me;

    But the presenters mixed it up a *little*
    it was on the last day of the Metta, so by now we were familiar with the format.

    Feel, recall a loving relationship. Give to self, then someone close, strained relationship, stranger, whole universe.

    We were to recall a romantic relationship that had ended.

    Then we were to use this same person in all the formats, and to give to ourselves last.

    Talk about understanding that there is no separation except the one we create in our heads.

    I got physical pains in my chest, the atmosphere was palpable. I sensed we were all sensing this together.

    Then to use this person in all the formats; and to begin backwards..

    The person we wanted to send Metta to, the

    • Keren Dar Keren Dar says:

      ooopsy typos, the post was to end at together…

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Keren —

      That must have been an intense experience! When Christiana Wo of Insight LA leads metta practice, in the final stage the instruction is first to imagine all the people you’ve just been doing metta for — the beloved person, the neutral person, and the difficult person — sitting in a circle with you. Then to reflect that everyone in that circle is somebody’s beloved person, someone’s difficult person, and somebody’s neutral person. For me it’s a great way of stripping the stories from those relationships and reflecting that the need to be loved, and the ability to give love, is the birthright of every person.

  3. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Mark, thank you so much for sharing this retreat experience and exercises! I’m so glad you decided on this retreat over the BG conference as it sounds like this was far more beneficial to your practice.

    The exercise on listening is a powerful one. We did something similar at my local sangha. We were doing a “daylong” where we meet for a Saturday to focus on one aspect of practice. This one day was on right speech, and related to that is right listening. I discovered I’m often thinking of a response before the other person is done talking. We did a similar exercise as you mention and variations on it which helped me improve my listening skills. I found in listening without concern for my response helped me connect more closely and relaxed tension I didn’t realize I had until those exercises.

    Jan would really enjoy this article. He understood ritual well beyond the religious familiarity, and he helped me understand better some of the positive psychological uses of it. Your example with the stone demonstrates how powerful intention and imagination are, and so we need to be mindful of how we make use of them. As Ted points out, this is not magic, but indeed a testament to how our minds work. We can set our stresses aside, whether symbolically through a stone, or setting the mental intention to let go. Thank you, Mark!

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Thanks for your comments, Dana! In my spare time (when I have any) I’m researching Dan Siegel’s concept of the neurological “resonance circuit” and how things like self-talk, meditation and ritual give us a means to tap into it. Siegel gives his patients methods of visualizing the neurological changes that practices like the body scan, mindfulness meditation, etc, are supposed to foster. What is fascinating to me is that we don’t have to engage in magical thinking in order for us to use these methods to bring us into relationship with ourselves

      I wish I could have a conversation about this stuff with Jan. I am thinking differently about this stuff over the past few weeks and I know this was a topic he thought much about.

  4. Keren Dar Keren Dar says:

    Dana, Mike

    Would you please share or clarify what you mean by being mindful of how you use these rituals and symbolic gestures?

    How do you distinguish between magical thinking and a valid symbolic act?

    I am reminded of the magic circle that Gurgieff encountered with Yezidi tribe.

    I never could quite understand the dividing line in pre/trans fallacy that Ken Wilber
    proposed in regard to magical thinking.

  5. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Keren —

    I guess the key for me is knowing that a symbolic gesture IS symbolic. So for instance, if I am saying to myself “May Keren be safe and protected,” I know I’m not sending you some magic protective energy. I am imagining you as a way of bringing an interpersonal relationship to mind and heart and investing it with kindness, which builds my capacity to experience open heartedness in interpersonal relationships. Neurologically, this apparently really does build the neural pathways responsible for feelings of compassion and sympathy. Similarly, I knew that my nervous tension wasn’t flowing into a stone; but imagining the stone as containing my anxiety helped me detatch from it and come into a new relationship with it. I’ll write more about this in the next piece.

  6. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Karen,

    I agree with Mark. As far as the passing negative experiences or emotion to the rock, we do so knowing it’s symbolic, but it seems to also convince the mind that it’s time to let go, not by thinking the rock will really take it away, but by imagining the movement of the experience to an object outside ourselves we are reassuring ourselves that it’s truly time to let go.

    I recall hearing about a ritual years ago, where people would write their greatest fears on paper then burn them, thereby letting go. I thought it crazy at the time. But when I tried it, I realized it was symbolism and a ritual that give the mind a physical process to encourage it to let go. So there is no magic. You aren’t really burning your fears, you are setting your intention through the symbolism of writing on the paper, and then through the symbolism of burning. It’s not always going to work, but I think it’s a neat way to symbolize letting go.

  7. Keren Dar Keren Dar says:

    Mark, Nana.

    What are your thoughts/insights on this “knowing it was symbolic” and its effects and if it correlates with the nocebo/ placebo effect?

    How does this knowing and belief interplay?

  8. Mark Knickelbine says:

    The use of double-blind studies with placebo controls is a great way to test the effectiveness of a pharmaceutical because it teases out drug effects from psychological ones. But what if the effects we’re interested in are all psychological? If some practice aids in my ability to regulate internal mental states, does it make sense to say that practice is “only a placebo?”

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