No Retreating Here.

We’re in the last week of our almost three month motorcycle trip, and according to the plan, I’m spending the end of the trip on an Insight Meditation retreat. Lars is camping and staying nearby. He is a long time practitioner and participated in a similar retreat last fall. So, this one is mine and I think its better I do this on my own. The BC Insight Meditation Society is hosting this retreat at the Bethlehem Centre in Nanaimo. There are a couple more days left, and full disclosure, I’m “cheating” by using my tablet and creating this post. I think it’s OK. These thoughts would have a much harder time leaving my mind if pen and paper were required.

So, in this time, thankfully, I have had quite a few thoughts that have emerged, and have been known. In insight meditation, this is a good thing.

They have a wonderful circulating pond here, full of various fish and some lilies, with beautiful landscaping all around.

So, I’m fascinated by the circulating part of this pond, as it seems like a wonderful analogy for this meditation. This may be totally wrong, but here goes.

The pond has two circulating filters – two six inch buckets, which the water is drawn into. The junk on the surface, flower petals, leaves, pine needles etc. eventually swirl around and into the filter, and thus clean the water. What is fascinating to me, (OK, give me a break on this), is that the junk can get caught around the rim of the filter. It can just sit there, until other items join it, and they create enough momentum to get pushed into the filter outright. Until then, the filter starts to get backed up, then the water doesn’t move properly, and the pond begins to stagnate as the water isn’t circulated and cleaned as effectively.

This is what happens, when you have a lot of time to not do the things you would normally do to occupy your time. We aren’t supposed to have our devices, (though, yes, I’ve snuck a peek or two) no novels, books or knitting; just the one book given to us – Dhamma Everywhere… and it is an awesome book, by the way) So back to it, we have time to do a lot of “nothing”, which is really hard to do, really it is. Mindful walking, or sitting. Meals are prepared, and offered on schedule three times a day. I’ve only been taking lunch, so I have had even more time to do… nothing.

I can’t say it’s “fun”, or easy. It is hard. The talks from our teachers are great, but I still find it challenging. Metta to Steve Armstrong. He was scheduled to teach, but has taken ill. 

Alexis Santos, and Adrianne Ross are our teachers for this course. They have very different styles to each other. Alexis is very sponaneous, not sure if he plans what he talks about. Adrianne is very detail oriented, has notes to follow at all instructed sittings.  So far, I think I prefer Alexis’ style of presentation in the larger group setting, but have very much appreciated Adrianne’s clarity in the small groups, when responding to each individual’s questions and needs.

Back to the pond… all the bits of stuff, leaves, pine needles, petals etc. those are like the thoughts that are in one’s mind. They swirl around, fast, slow, or not at all. They make their way to or through into the filter, or, they can get stuck, and as they do, they stick other things with them. I haven’t decided which equates to the mind, the pond or the filter.

Simple analogy from a simple mind.

As I begin to understand the concepts of insight meditation, I’m sometimes able to detach the object from myself. The mind acknowledges this thing that can make me feel good, bad, or other. By making the mind acknowledge it, me and my emotions become distanced from the thing. Detachment. Baby steps on this journey.

The retreat setting isn’t easy, there is a lot of time, which apparently we all crave, and need. But sitting with the reality of all the time ahead, with nothing but mind and body can make one feel a little uncomfortable. I can’t say that I’m loving it, I was ready to leave last night. After a chat with Alexis, I understand more how to approach the retreat with balance. I certainly see and am experiencing the value of it. I have confidence that I can bring the mindfulness more fully into my day to day living, one step at a time.


I completed the retreat a few days ago; the above was written  around day four or five. Truthfully, I was very close to leaving then. I was very restless, I felt I was able to understand the concepts, and was ready to take it home. Intellectually, I understood, but by the end I felt it at a much stronger emotional level. I’m glad I stuck it out, I do feel I gained a lot by staying until the end.

Upon reflection though, there are some things that I think could have been done a bit better.

Initially, I did find the culture of the retreat setting an uneasy one.

I didn’t understand what the silence was for, and why. I thought it was etiquette; Noble Silence is a way of allowing participants to not have to be interupted by the general interactions, eye contact, small talk, that would normally occur in our day to day communications. It’s a way to have a safe space to be quiet and reflective, without having to justify behaviour. Once I undersood this, it was much easier to be sharing the space with my fellow practitioners.

The bowing, hands together in reverance, chanting etc. I was not comfortable with this part of the practice. Lars explained to me, that a lot these practices are cultural, coming from the societies of Thailand and Burma, in the Asian-Buddhist cultures there. Insight Meditation has its roots in Theravada  Buddhism, and many of the western instructors have studied in Burma and Thailand. Those cultural overlays have been adopted by them, where these practices are part of society. The reality is that Insight Meditation welcomes people from all faiths, and if the cultural overlays, eg praying and bowing, don’t make sense to an individual, there’s no obligation to do them. I think it would have been very beneficial, to know this at the last. I felt quite out of place, not placing my hands in prayer mode. Towards the end I felt like it was part of the process, I wasn’t able to resist doing so. To be honest, there were times when I felt the retreat was bit cult like…

There’s a duality with a certain tension I think. To have “sangha”, or community is may be tremendously important for some, but it shouldn’t be depended upon, necessary or required for an individual to maintain their practice or spirituality. That’s important, as it distinguishes this as a practice, and not a religion.

It was a very emotional experience for the majority of the participants. Steve Armstrong was scheduled to teach at this retreat, but he has been diagnosed with a brain tumour. Many participants have had the privilege of Steve’s teachings, and gave been touched by his honesty, wisdom and vulnerability over these few months. He took the time to talk with us online. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.


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