Retreat Report–Anonymous

Three years ago, I joined my first SI retreat.  The experience of the first retreat is like to be locked in a solitary confinement.  I was struggling in enduring both physical pain and emotional stress.  But I did get a breakthrough of a complex that had been bothering me for years.   This time, I’m more adapting to the scale of sitting sessions.  There is less resistance from the body or the mind.  But there’s also an added layer of expectation and fear.  Am I going to have an emotional meltdown?  Am I able to face the truth of my imbalance? Even after the registration, I’m still hesitating whether I have the courage to face my own shame and insecurity.

Surprisingly, on the first full-day of the retreat, I have a serene experience of sitting after Simon’s guided relaxation.   It is simply peaceful.  My heart is filled with joy and I feel in harmony with the body and the surrounding during the sitting. I was expecting a teary journey for the nine-day retreat.  And I have a complete opposite experience on the first day.  Really?  Can the mind really be at ease and peace?  Can it be so simple to get rid of the perpetuating suffering in life?  I’m so grateful I have a taste of peace and joy from Silent Illumination. In the interview, Simon points out that there is no involvement from the mind.

For the next two days, I want to have the “happy” experience again. It seems like the correct outcome matching with the description from Shifu’s book of Silent Illumination. But, of course, with the wanting, I’m falling into the secondary.  In the interview, Rebecca reminds me that there is no judging the good experience vs the bad.  Coming back from the interview, I stop trying to cut off the “irrelevant” thoughts any more.  The mind is not focused; thoughts about work, family, conversations, and memories just come up randomly. I’m just in this messy state one sitting session after another for few days.

On the 6th night, the meditation session is extended from 40 minutes to 1 hour.  After settling down on the cushion, I catch myself getting worried that I can’t make it through the whole session.  It’s shocking to know that I’m so deeply concerned about being labeled as a failure even just for a sitting session. I can almost hear my mother’s disapproving remarks if she knows about this. I’ve been conditioned to prove myself over and over again in the race of accomplishments. I have to come out on top in getting good grades, going to good schools, grabbing promotions at work, and making my children getting good grades, good schools, good jobs also. I put unnecessary pressure on myself and my children. I always feel that I’m not good enough and I make my children feel the same way.  The one-hour sitting goes by smoothly as the mind is engaged in the investigation and getting deeper insight.

During the interview on the 7th day, Simon mentions 3 steps in facing my fear.  First is to recognize I was trapped in this mode of fearing my mother’s judgment. Second is to be aware of my emotions when I face the judgment. Third is to communicate with her about my true feelings. The mind is focused on the investigation for the rest of the retreat.

In the afternoon of the 8th day, we have a meditation session in free format for the entire afternoon.  I choose to sit by the window feeling both relaxed and motivated. In the investigation, I keep on repeating a comment “you are just so-so in your life” to see how I take it. I try to think of something positive of myself to refute the criticism but I find it extremely uncomfortable in doing so. I’m just a mediocre, I’m just a faker. Nothing is worthy of recognition. It is I who label me as a failure. I accept that I am a disappointment and I think I deserve the shame. I put the curse on myself. It is an overwhelming realization and tears start coming down.  I find the root that causes me so much pain; and it is all generated by my own mind.

In one of the Dharma talks, Simon mentions that we often practice the First Great Vow as to deliver innumerable minus one sentient beings. We tend to put our own self as the last one to pay attention to. I realize that, if I don’t build myself up, I’ll continue to inflict the same harms I felt to people around me.  I’m a victim and a persecutor as the same time.  The vicious cycle will continue to the next generation; and the harm can spread to innumerous sentient beings. I have to work on it, accepting myself and catching myself falling into the trap of shame.

I have strong faith in using the method of Silent Illumination now.  It has helped me resolve some perplexing issues at both retreats. I also have better understanding of how to use the method, dropping the controls and simply being aware of the presence. It is a valuable journey to get to know myself and to strengthen myself. I’m grateful for our teachers, Simon and Rebecca, in clearly explaining the subtleties of “the method of no method”, and in guiding us applying the method for our life investigation.

Retreat Report by I.U.

Silent Illumination Retreat report, 5-25-2019 to 6-2-2019 at DDRC

I was in a bit of a funk when I arrived for this retreat. I had been practicing too hard in my daily life and had a bit of an eruption. Had to take a few steps back. As a result, I was the least excited about this retreat that I had ever been. I was just there to practice and see what happened I told myself.

The instructions given were similar but different to other retreats, even other Silent Illumination retreats. Yes, it was still brightly illuminate the mind, be aware of the body, environment, all of mind, but unlike the other retreats I had attended there was a component to explore thought. In every other retreat I felt that if I started to have thoughts I was somehow failing. If I caught myself thinking, the thought had to be brushed away. Even the tiniest little bubble of thought was a failure. Here, though I was encouraged to allow the thoughts to wander through the mind. So long as I did not forget where I was, losing the present moment, the thoughts were to be allowed to remain.

After a couple of days, the mind started to settle down a bit, but it was still thinking all the time. In the lectures, Simon told us to completely illuminate the thoughts. I was having all these thoughts about planning for the future, rehashing old arguments from the past. The vast majority of my mental commentary fit into these two categories. When I started to completely illuminate them, I had to start investigating where they came from, and I discovered much to my dismay that they came from pride, from thinking that I was more special than anybody else.

This was a bitter pill for me to swallow, but that’s what I came to the retreat for, so I just kept on practicing. Whenever a thought arose, I began jumping straight to the root. “Another thought based in pride, let it go.” “Planning for the future again? Let it go.” Mind began to gel, so that everything was flowing together. Yes, there were thoughts, yes there was wandering mind, but it was like the great ocean heaving quite naturally, nothing to fear. I was at peace with what was going on, until I started trying to sit double sessions and ran into the pain barrier.

I had an interview with Rebecca where we talked about this. She had me describe the entire process of my experience leading up to my breaking posture. How the pain would grow, how I would just try my best to hold on, widen the focus, let the pain be just a little part of the overall experience. How it would grow and grow until I had a little conversation with myself, convinced myself that it would be better to just give up, that there would just be more sitting, more pain to sit through afterwards. She asked me if there was any real life situation that mirrored this experience, and I described my most recent bout of home training difficulty. I talked about how I had a habit of walking away from things that were difficult, from situations or people that didn’t bring me the fulfillment that I wanted.

I had been living for some ideal future, practicing for some idea of fulfillment that actually had no basis in reality. It was all just a dream. I could see quite clearly how the meditative experience of Chan is a microcosmic reflection of every day life. The same problems and patterns that are present in mind out in the world will arise on retreat. I was told that the real work was to be done in my normal life, that if my meditation as ever to progress, I would need to deal with this pattern of disengagement in my own life. I generated the intention to live an ordinary life, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I generated the vow to put down all dreams and just live in the present moment.

After that interview, I went back to the entry hall and just wept. I cried grieving all of the dreams I was giving up, all of those dreams I had held close to my chest for so many years. Behind all of this pain, I glimpsed something extraordinary. What happens when dreaming is over? There is an awakening. I spent the rest of the retreat trying not to run away from this resolution. There was such a tremendous sense of, “Oh wait! No! Not yet! I could be more!” I did my very best, but I’m not there, not yet anyways.

Coming home was not what I expected it to be. I’d had all these thoughts of the big changes I was going to make in my quest to live an “ordinary life,” but have realized that those thoughts were kind of absurd. They were just another attempt of the ego to be special, just special in being the “most ordinary!” What is ordinary? I think that it’s just what is natural. What is it to live awake? To be aware of what is coming and going in mind. Putting these two together, what is an ordinary but awake life? To be free and natural to be what you are and not be confused about what is going on. This will be my operating basis for this next leg of practice.


Retreat Report–T.F.

Hi Rebecca,

I attended your retreat this weekend at the suggestion of my doctor.  He is a wise and compassionate person who I have come to respect and rely upon to help me acknowledge, understand and live with PTSD. So when he suggested your retreat I signed up without question and I cannot say I that expected anything in particular but I will say that by Friday night and into Saturday, I thought he had lost his own mind for thinking I could do this retreat.  I was tempted more than once to get in the car and drive home.  I encountered many difficult personal challenges throughout the weekend and feel that the 2 days I spent on your retreat were more difficult than the 8 weeks of Basic Training I did in the Army.  Upon reflection, I am pleased that I completed the retreat as it was a positive and powerful experience of self awareness for me.

There has never been time when my mind was not troubled. My doctor introduced me to meditation and it helped me to focus on my breath which in turn slowed down my thoughts and reduced the noise but I did struggle with pushing away the thoughts and feelings that came up as fast as I could and didn’t understand how to apply meditation to everyday living.  Your guidance throughout the practice this weekend allowed me to finally understand what he has been telling me.  Your words this weekend echoed his and it just all clicked together at the right time,in the right place  and with all the right people. You asked us to let you know what we wanted to take home from this retreat and my answer is clarity of mind and the ability to be present in my own life.

Yesterday, my first day back from retreat, I got stuck in traffic on my way to an appointment. It is a fact that I do have road rage and I immediately became angry and frustrated and then I heard “this is a good opportunity to practice”.  It made me stop, it made me think of you and my doctor and I smiled as a great sense of accomplishment grew within me and I sat in traffic, still annoyed and anxious but when I got to my doctor’s office I was able to laugh about the traffic and I had a good day.

I am grateful to you for allowing me to practice under your guidance and for your patience throughout the retreat.

Reflections on my Western Zen Retreat in October 2018 at Dharma Drum Retreat Center (by D.S.)

I had searched for a retreat opportunity off and on for six months when I came across the Dharma Drum Retreat Center online. I registered for its Western Zen retreat after reading positive reviews but not exactly knowing what to expect.

The Western Zen Retreat ended up being a unique experience. It combined communication exercises with sitting meditation, daily dharma talks by retreat leader Rebecca Li, as well as some meditation “in action” activities and exercises – walks, a daily work contribution, and an evening activity that three out of four nights involved creative movement or dance.

There were various highlights. The meditation and communication exercises utilized a method that was familiar for me as a practitioner of vipassana-style meditation yet completely novel. They involved a form of inquiry – dropping a question into my mind that triggered the process of meditation itself. “Who am I?” was my question. It became the framework for the physical and mental subjective experience that followed during the formal seated meditation. I observed all of my mental, physical and emotional phenomena within the context of that question.

In some ways this was the same as other methods of meditation that I had used. Watching my breath, either with an intense or light focus, “just sitting” or shikantaza, a Japanese Zen style of meditation, body scanning, and mental noting (using labels such as “thinking”, “seeing in”, or “feeling” to mark the arising of various forms of subjective experience) were all styles of meditation that I had used to frame the perspective of a non-judgmental observer to my own moment-by-moment experience.

Inquiry was a kind of meditation I was familiar with, but this was the first time it formed the basis of highly focused meditation. Daily sits, about four times a day of silently observing everything that arose as if to provide an answer to the question of who I was. I found a rewarding experience from what you might call the question of being and identity and an excellent framework to get into the meditative zone.

At times, I saw it as a rhetorical question or device. At other times it engaged both the spiritual and philosophical roots of my own personal existence. Was “who am I” what I did? What I was? What I experienced or perceived, who my family and friends were, what I was proud of, ashamed of, my role my family, or my connection to the universe? Did it matter?

I soon learned that while most other participants had the same question, some, those who were repeat participants at the Western Zen Retreat, had other questions such as “What is my true nature” or “What is love”. In many ways these questions overlapped with mine and pointed to the less literal uses of the method.

The other revelatory part of the retreat was the communication exercises. For six, alternating five-minute intervals that amounted to 30 minutes in total I participated in a kind of dialogue with another “retreatant,” up to four or sometimes five times a day. With a new partner each time, we started by finding out each other’s names and our question. The bell rang and one of us asked the other our question. “Dan, please tell me, who are you?”

My partner or I then had five minutes to answer the question by saying whatever came to mind. As the first person talked, the other listened in a stance of non-judgmental attention, neither assenting to nor questioning anything that was said by their partner. Just being present. The bell ring and roles reversed, back and forth for a total of six times.

This was revelatory for two reasons. Number one, I was given a glimpse into the core subjective experience of my fellow retreatants. It felt like a glance into our mutual humanity. We all live quiet lives of desperation at times, questioning our identities, what we’ve done to ourselves or others, and our sufferings are so similar it can be eerie. What we hear when the other opens up in a context of trust blows away our inevitable prejudgments of whom we thought the other might be. Gender, race, age, physical appearance – none of that matters. It is one thing to believe that we were all similar but quite another to have it proved again and again over the course of a day.

The other revelation was to talk about myself for upwards of one hour or more each day to strangers, again and again confronting, at least to start with, the worst aspects of what I saw about myself. For reasons I perhaps cannot explain, on day one of the retreat I started with a deep need to talk about the parts of myself that I had the toughest time confronting.

But that changed as the days progressed. Within the context of confidentiality, I accessed deeply honest feelings about myself and found, even during the course of a single day, that I could gain a different, broader, more nuanced appreciation of various parts of my personality and history. By day five, I became less convinced I could label myself as one thing or the other and reached a point where, much different than where I started, I felt open, honest, and comfortable about the answer to my question.

Making all of this possible were the daily instructions and Dharma talks by Rebecca Li on method, the communication exercise and related topics, two meetings that I had with her during the retreat and one with her co-leader, Simon Child, and the overall manner in which she helmed the retreat. Rebecca was detailed, empathetic, at times injected humour, and spoke a common sense level and one that had a deeper resonance. Her instructions on how to employ the inquiry (or “huatou” in Chinese) method of meditation and the communication exercises made them easy to deploy and meaningful. The retreat grounds, buildings and vicinity were beautiful, the food generous and satiating, the dorms spare but clean.

There was also a daily morning service that involved Buddhist liturgy that, for the most part, had no references to any theological references. To the degree that there were any – to “deities” or taking refuge in the “three jewels” (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) – I saw this as symbolic of a confidence or leap of faith in the process that helped me fully engage with the retreat methodology but did not necessarily take it literally.

In some ways what I accessed at the Western Zen Retreat was a greater sense of ease with myself. In others, a closer look at what starts with but goes well beyond words.

Reflections on my Beginner’s Mind Retreat (J.E.)

This was my first retreat, a 40th birthday present to myself.  Life has a way of building clutter, complications and jumbled thoughts.  I was feeling spread too thin, too impatient and too distracted.  I knew the problem, but didn’t know the solution.  Somehow the subject of meditation seemed to be surfacing more regularly.  I wanted to experience it with full guidance and ended up at this retreat with only a month of short, irregular, app guided meditation sessions under my belt.

The only thing required for this retreat is an open mind.  While I could describe the grounds, the buildings and schedule (all have a simple beauty), there are no words to describe the atmosphere – The sum is greater than its parts.  As I sit here trying to find a way to describe the experience, I realize it is a labor in vain as everyone likely experiences it differently.  While I can’t say my introspective ‘moments’ will be the same for others, I do believe if you arrive with the above requirement you will leave with a new sense of calm and appreciation.

Time stands still while on the retreat…I could have been there two days – or two months; could have been a stranger to the fellow retreatants– or known them my whole life.  I was different when I left than when I arrived…could it really be less than 48 hours later?  Upon leaving the retreat though, the memories fade quickly.  Effort is needed to continue the practice and maintain a sense of presence and calm in a world which is not cooperative towards such undertakings.  It is not an impossible task though – you will realize the tools have been there all along, the retreat just helps you realize it’s worth the effort to learn how to use them.

Reflections on my Beginner’s Mind Retreat (by S.A.)

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from the retreat at Dharma drum. I definitely wasn’t ready for the quite visceral effect it had on my body and the overwhelming emotions that followed. As I look back on my time there I find it hard to believe that only 2 days passed during this experience and as much as the first day was difficult and overwhelming, the second was all opening and I wished I could stay for longer.

I reflect often on Rebecca’s analogy of a twisted hose pipe moving frantically in every direction until the block is passed and the water can run smoothly. There are surely many decades of blocks and knots in me! But where as in the past I believed that I had to go back and examine each twist and knot in detail to move away (something I NEVER wanted to do) now I can just acknowledge them and let them go, looking forward to the time when the water runs smoothly. And already it feels a little calmer.

I come away from my time at the retreat feeling changed.

Changed in a way I don’t quite understand. Changed in a way I can’t express using words. I have a sense of beginning to understand something that was right there in front of me but which I never took the time to try to comprehend.

I feel simultaneously calm and strength. I have a notion of clarity, as if I just know what to do, not for anything in particular but just a general sensation.

I will take all of this and establish a daily practice and make it my priority. If I can make that happen, I’m sure that family, work, relationships, health in short everything, will benefit.

Reflections on my Western Zen Retreat with Rebecca Li, Simon Child and Hilary Richards at DDRC, October 2017

I had a powerful experience at the retreat. Asking the question “Who Am I” taught me a great deal about meditating and about myself. The process was intense, but also forgiving and freeing. My mind had time to notice and follow thoughts. Continue reading “Reflections on my Western Zen Retreat with Rebecca Li, Simon Child and Hilary Richards at DDRC, October 2017”