Quietude: The value of quiet retreat

Filed under: Spirituality |

by Gussie Fauntleroy

Opportunities for quiet retreat are extremely rich in Crestone, even without setting time aside for days or months in a secluded cabin. Compared with the rush and clamor of a city, just being in the quiet of the Valley can be restorative and create openings for personal spiritual insight. But when we take the extra intentional step of removing ourselves in quiet solitude from the flow of daily life in the world—especially with the preparation and support of an established spiritual practice—amazing things can happen.

Becoming open to everything

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel serves as retreat master for Mangala Shri Bhuti, a worldwide Tibetan Buddhist community that maintains 13 retreat cabins for experienced Buddhist practitioners in the foothills above Crestone. Beginning in 1998, she spent a total of almost seven years in near-solitary retreat in one of the hermitage cabins. For a year and a half in the middle of that time she kept virtual silence, speaking only occasionally with her young son and limiting all other communication to writing.

Elizabeth has been studying and practicing Tibetan Buddhism for more than 25 years under the guidance of her primary teacher (and husband), Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. She earned a masters degree in Buddhist studies from Naropa University in Boulder. By the time she decided to enter retreat she was highly disciplined and passionate about Buddhist inquiry.

Much of her time on the mountainside was not strictly solitary or silent—during the first few years in particular she met periodically with other retreatants for group practice, and saw her young son. But she established a firm perimeter around her retreat space, outside of which she would not go.

Elizabeth acknowledges that her days of meditation and other forms of Buddhist practice were not always serene; she describes her mind as inherently “wild and active.” Eventually, however, she discovered she didn’t need to reject any of her experience; she found a way to relax with it. And while maintaining her physical boundaries she realized the true boundaries had to do with whether or not she was engaging the practice.

“What I found was: At first you think the point is to be separate. But what’s surprising and wonderful is you find you feel engaged with everything. Your mind starts to become present and you notice everything around you—the ants, birds, where the moon and sun are. All of life and experience becomes very touching, and in the end it becomes very inclusive, rather than exclusive. It becomes the ability to include everything.”

Just as surprisingly, perhaps, that sense of inclusiveness applied even to emotions and thoughts she once would have pushed away. She recounts that even loneliness, when she opened herself to it, became a rich and meaningful experience, a heart-felt awareness of kinship with all living things.

Particularly during her extended period of not talking, Elizabeth noticed a greater fluidity in her perceptions and experience. “Language is all about labeling and reaching conclusions; it’s all about what you want or don’t want,” she observes, adding that without the habitual mental action of making things concrete, space opens up for enjoyment of the fullness of experience. Yet at some point she also realized that talking has its place as a natural sharing and convenient mode of communication, and she shifted back into occasionally speaking while still in retreat. “One’s voice and relationships are such a gift,” she points out.

Elizabeth eventually found it appropriate to return to the outside world. Today, with teaching and the recent release of her first book, The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha’s Path to Freedom—she previously edited several books on Tibetan Buddhism—she has taken what she considers the next natural step, into service. And although she is back in regular interaction with the world, she expresses solace and gratitude in knowing that others are “holding down the fort of sanity” through quiet retreat. “I feel very touched by people longing to go deeper,” she says. “I’m just one example.”

Allow for what bubbles up

The benefits of quiet retreat are available even in much shorter stretches of solitude. Cindy Cleary is a busy mother of two who works as a counselor and middle school aide at the Crestone Charter School and is in the process of becoming a licensed school social worker. She also extends her talents as a communications consultant, writer, wilderness therapist and detoxification diet and healthy living consultant. She’s a committed yoga student and is actively involved with the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram, serving for five years on the Hindu spiritual center’s board.

So when a couple of friends mentioned having spent restorative, meaningful quiet time in a small retreat house at Nada Carmelite Hermitage, Cindy knew it was a place where she could meet her deeper self in silence and let go of her many community and family roles. The Carmelite community provides a supportive and affordable environment for retreats of any length, she notes.

Cindy’s first weeklong quiet retreat was at Nada in late October 2009, and her second one took place this August, shortly before the start of the school year. During the first retreat she broke her silence after a couple of days to attend Mass and a potluck birthday party for a member of the Carmelite community. Shifting between silence and a social event was an interesting experience, she reflects, especially after a particularly deep and joyful meditation the night before the gathering.

“I’d just had a blissful oneness experience, and I had the naïve idea that I would carry that with me,” she recalls. “It was amazing how quickly all my Cindy-ness came back. I realized I need to give myself more time and space and be realistic about my lifelong attachment to my social persona and triggers.” During this year’s retreat Cindy maintained silence for the entire week. She describes the result as a much more balanced and nourishing experience.

For both retreats, the only structure she gave herself was to set aside three 30-minute periods each day for sitting in meditation and prayer. Otherwise, she allowed herself to follow her natural rhythms for eating, sleeping, reading, journaling, yoga, sunset watching and whatever else came up. “It was really what I needed as a busy mom,” she says. “I needed absolutely no schedule, to just really sink into whatever spirit moved in me.”

Both Elizabeth and Cindy emphasize the value of spiritual preparation prior to retreat, as well as outside support in the logistics of letting go of the world for a while. Cindy encourages retreatants not to bring along distractions, such as novels, or any kind of to-do list, including the goal of accomplishing spiritual homework. “You can set intentions, but not expectations,” she advises. “Allow for what bubbles up.”

Part of what arose for Cindy was “an expansiveness that you just don’t get in daily life,” she relates. “Even in my evening walks (at home), I just can’t breathe it in as much as I can when I really let go of my expectations and roles in life. My goal is not to be the best hermit I can be,” she continues. “I’m on retreat so that hopefully I’m a better person as I move through the world.” Her eight-year-old daughter Jade looks up from her drawing and smiles and adds: “A better mommy.”

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