Friday, 25 August 2017

Go on a retreat

For many yogis and meditators, going on retreat is a regular part of their practice. A retreat is life simplified, with distractions removed. It's a chance to live at a slower pace, to do less, to make fewer choices. 

For beginners, a retreat can be a good environment to learn the practicalities of meditation. Things can be revealed over a few days that are hard to convey in a weekly yoga or meditation class.

Retreats uncover a deeper stillness which flows over into the world of work, family and society.

A retreat is not an individual experience. We have to share our living space and support each other. All participants help out with the housework (cleaning, cooking, washing-up). Caring for the building, the environment and each other is part of spiritual practice (which is just another way of saying, "part of life").

The meals should be tasty and nourishing. Food should be a joy but not an indulgence. Many of us have developed habits of using food as entertainment or as distraction. Retreats introduce a new way of eating. We don't choose our meal times and we don't make choices about what we eat (although allowances are made for food allergies). We practice eating "just enough": no more, and no less, than is needed to nourish body and soul.

Similarly, we practice speaking "just enough": no more, and no less. In doing the housework, we speak only as much as is necessary to get the job done. At meals and other times, complete silence is the rule. There is also time to catch up with friends and to share our experiences, spiritual and otherwise. But we can also learn to be with each other, to be companionable, without relying on gossip and chatter. 

As a further aspect of silence, retreatants can abstain from reading newspapers, magazines, novels and other non-spiritual literature. Some may choose not to read at all, although this is a matter for personal choice. It's a kind of "detox" for the mind.

The retreat is not some ideal society, it is not a replacement family. The world is not a broken place that we need to escaoe from. But the relentless torrent of internet, television, 24-hour news channels, of work, socialising and family duties, can leave us tired, with our senses blunted and dulled. We lose our sensitivity to life's wonder and joy. The good news is that we are not trapped. You can leave behind your usual roles of partner, parent, employee. You can see yourself anew, in a simpler light; you can come again to your senses. 

There are many meditation and yoga retreats organised around the country, and I strongly encourage you to try one. The Ranelagh Zen Group will hold a retreat this October (28-30 October, the bank holiday weekend) in County Roscommon. Please come along to our Monday evening meditations if you want to learn more. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Don't worry if you don't understand

I don't know what happens to you when you sit down and meditate for ten or twenty minutes. I don't know because something different happens every time you sit. From one person to another, from one sit to another, it's never exactly the same.

Most beginners have strong ideas about what they want to happen. They want to become calmer, or happier, or they want their mind to stop. These things might happen, but then again they might not. If it happens this time it might not happen next time. Sometimes you become happy. Sometimes you end up noticing how anxious you are. Sometimes you become calm. Sometimes you only seem to become more restless. You can't predict what will happen.

But one thing should happen every time you sit. By the end of your sit, even a short one, you should be be more sensitive than you were when you started. By which I mean, you should have come to be aware of something that you were previously not conscious of at all.

Perhaps, after sitting for a while, you notice muscular tension around your mouth, or in your shoulders. It was there before you sat but only now, in the quiet of meditation, do you actually start to feel it.

Or perhaps, after sitting for a while, you really notice your breathing. In and out. You breathe all day but most of us, most of the time, pay no heed. But now you feel it, along with everything else you feel and see and hear. It becomes part of your conscious awareness.

You don't have to meditate for a long time. You don't need to make a big effort. But in every sit you should become just a bit more sensitive; you will start to feel something you were ignoring before. This might seem trivial, but it is hugely important.


When we think about philosophy, or the truth, or the nature of reality, we habitually think about some kind intellectual truth. We want an understanding which is all about the mind. When the mind believes "I understand", I feel happy; and when the mind believes "I don't understand", I feel anxious.

And we bring this reliance on intellectualism to our meditation. We chase the mental notion of understanding, and confuse this with knowing reality. But reality and truth are both bigger than the mind. Reality and truth are not there to be understood. They are there to be felt.

So always, when you sit, don't worry about the mind. Don't worry if you don't understand. In fact, it's better to feel like you don't understand, even if that is an unpleasant feeling. Do not waste time chasing after intellectual understanding. Your life is not like a crossword puzzle, something for the brain to solve. It is far richer than the mind, alone, can contain.

Knowing reality is not a question of becoming smarter. It's about becoming more sensitive.


We will hold a meditation morning on Saturday 19 August, 10am to 1pm, in Ranelagh. All are welcome.