By Nelle Oosterom, Chair of Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group
If you are new to meditation, or have never sat in meditation for any extended period of time, the idea of participating in a retreat for even one day might seem daunting.
There are lots of reasons for why you might think that: “My back will hurt.” “I’ve never sat for longer than half an hour.” “I can’t stay stay in silence for that long.” “My family needs me.” “I can’t afford it.” “I can’t fit it into my schedule.” Etc.
I recall having a lot of anxiety about suffering physical pain when I undertook my first retreat in 1995. It was a weekend residential mindfulness retreat in St. Boniface at what was then an Oblate Sisters convent and it was led by Calgary-based teacher Shirley Johannesen.
In fact, I did experience a lot of bodily discomfort while on the retreat — aching back, throbbing head, screaming knees, and churning stomach. The instructions were to stay with the pain and simply notice how the sensations of the body tend to shift, move, expand, contract, disappear and return. That there was an alternative to resisting or fighting discomfort — that pain could actually be accepted as an object of interest and exploration — was new to me. So a change in attitude could transform pain into being not such a big deal. Who knew?
Mindfulness also exposed a lot of useless and/or harmful mental activity. And my quirky sense of humour got the better of me at one point. While engaged in mindful eating I erupted into an uncontrollable fit of giggling, with tears streaming down my face. This broke the silence so badly that Shirley came up behind me, gently put her hands on my shoulders and asked if I was alright. “It’s OK, to let it happen,” she said with great compassion. “Just know that it’s happening.”
I hung my head in shame, convinced that I was surely the world’s worst meditator!
Just before the retreat ended, Shirley warned us that because we were not used to practising mindfulness, we would be in a sensitive emotional state for several days. She advised us to treat ourselves as if we were recovering from a broken leg.
She was right. No sooner was my mind released from the discipline of practice, than it started chattering incessantly. My energy levels surged, as if sparks were flying off of me.
In the days that followed, I noticed my awareness was quite sharp and I took some pride in this. When I became annoyed about something, I was able to watch the annoyance and feel it dissolve. Feeling rather liberated, I thought, “Hey, I’ve got this mindfulness thing now, I can handle anything that comes up.”
With my new-found arrogance, I made the mistake of pushing the dharma onto a friend. She grumpily told me to stop preaching at her. Disappointed and angry, my next journal entry read: “Will the suffering ever stop?” Then came the realization that the path of liberation includes suffering — Noble Suffering, the Buddha called it — as we peel back and confront layer upon layer of conditioned personality.
The impact of that first retreat spurred me on to undertake many more retreats in many locations with many teachers. Over time, the contrast between life on retreat and life off retreat became less stark as I incorporated mindfulness into my daily life.
Nowadays time in retreat is largely about refining what I already know, and toning my “mindfulness muscles.” And over the past twenty years, I’ve been especially fortunate to sit with Sharda Rogell, a senior teacher with Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Centre in California, when she is in Saskatchewan to lead retreats.
For me, retreat participation has been the foundation for training my mind. The fact that I’ve had so much retreat opportunity has been among the greatest blessings of my life.
That said, I would like now to share information about upcoming retreats in 2018, both here in Winnipeg, in Saskatchewan (which is just a day’s drive away) and British Columbia.
With Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group:
January 6 — Lovingkindness Day of Mindfulness at St. Peter’s Anglican Church. (Note: This retreat is limited to 35 and is full, but participation may still be possible if you put yourself on the waiting list). winnipeginsightmeditation.org/day-of-mindfulness-1/
June 8 — Golden Buddha Day of Mindfulness at St. Benedict’s Monastery. Registration details will be on this website in May.
September 28 to 30 — Weekend residential retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery. Registration details will be on this website in August.
With Insight and Mindfulness groups In Saskatchewan and British Columbia
January 25-30 — A five day residential retreat in Saskatoon with Insight teacher Susie Harrington. saskatooninsight.com
March 9-11 — A non-residential retreat with Insight teacher Howard Cohn in Regina. reginainsight.ca
May 25-27 — A weekend residential retreat with Insight teacher Adrianne Ross. saskatooninsight.com
May 25-June 1 — A week-long residential retreat with Insight teacher Steve Armstrong in Nanaimo, B.C. https://bcims.org/Calendar/EventId/237/e/residential-retreat-with-steve-armstrong-25-may-2018
October 9-14 — A five-day residential retreat with Insight teacher Sharda Rogell in Moose Jaw. reginainsight.ca
October 26-28 — A weekend residential/non-residential retreat in Saskatoon with Mindfulness teacher Bob Stahl. saskatooninsight.com
March 10-15 — Recreating the Heart of Compassion, a five-day residential retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Winnipeg with Mindfulness teacher Dawn MacDonald and Yoga teacher Jonathan Austman. chcm-ccsm.ca/compassion-project/winter-2017-programming/event-series/re-creating-the-heart-of-compassion-an-annual-mindfulness-meditation-silent-retreat/
Also, check out the B.C. Insight Meditation Society http://bcims.org, the Calgary Insight Meditation Society calgaryims.org, and the Edmonton Mindfulness Group mindfulnessedmonton.ca for their retreat schedules.