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A Meditation Retreat at Springwater Center

While visiting the east coast in August for a wedding, I attended a week-long silent retreat at Springwater Center. I'd worked and volunteered for a year at Springwater a few years ago. While I'd lived in New York City subsequently — only an hour's plane ride away — I'd only been back once since. So it was wonderful to see the place and the people again.

Silent retreats at a Springwater are a remarkable thing. First, there's what's missing — cell phones, deadlines, commutes — and all the other stresses of everyday life. Second, there's nothing added. All other meditation centers that I'm aware of adhere to a particular religious or spiritual system. As its brochure notes, "Springwater is without rituals, ceremonies, or beliefs of any kind." That open, quiet space fosters an awareness of this present moment, which we're so often overlooking when absorbed in thoughts about the past, the future, and ourselves.

Toni Packer led the retreat. At age 78 she's less physically mobile, but her talks were as crisp and clear as ever. Packer directs four retreats a year and participates in others as a fellow retreatant. Four others in attendance — Wayne Coger, Stew Glick, Sandra Gonzalez, and Richard Witteman — also lead retreats at Springwater and elsewhere in North America during the year.

Here's an excerpt from Michael Atkinson's preface to Packer's book "The Wonder of Presence." Atkinson, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, gives an in-depth description of what a retreat is actually like at Springwater. It's a lengthy excerpt, but an informative one:

Leaving the two-lane highway that leads away from the tiny village of Springwater, a dirt road takes you past a sprinkling of houses, turns into the woods. and winds its way toward the center itself. Fifty yards from a gravel parking lot partly sheltered by the surrounding woodlands, high on the hillside, is a large, modern, wooden building, with great glass windows looking south. Entering a reception area, where racks hold shoes and invite you to leave yours, you find someone from the staff there to greet you. Neatly printed white sheets of paper on a bulletin board give you your room number and job for the retreat, and you find your way to the room and roommate with whom you will spend the next week, stow away gear, make your bed, and return to the main floor of the building to connect with old friends or to meet with new faces, an activity that continues through a serve-yourself dinner of soup and bread at five o'clock. As the conversations continue, most are mindful of the silence that will ensue after the orientation at seven.
The coordinators of the retreat, who are not given any special standing, explain safety procedures and the general mechanics of retreat. Schedules are posted in a number of places, and one is never in doubt about what will be offered next. But here, all activities except work period are optional. You may come to the talks or not, attend sitting periods or go for a walk or take a much needed nap. No credit is given for being on one's cushion early or staying late. And if you need to communicate — and this is the only binding rule other than doing your work assignments — do it with the pencils and pads of paper that are available everywhere throughout the center.

The whole retreat will take place in silence that is broken only by Toni's talks and in meetings. First the mouth, then (with luck) the mind, may give up the compulsion to chatter. Perhaps in the silence some of that automatic functioning can come into question, can be seen through, even set aside, in the course of a deeper looking.

At first the silence may seem inconvenient, but in time it becomes the solid and flexible basis of the retreat experience. As the interactions that habitually confirm our self-images drop away, the ease and simplicity of moving through the day quietly gives a hint that life might be more like this all the time — not with total silence, certainly, but without that foam of language that forms on what could be the clear water of our actions. When words are exchanged, they could count for something, could be heard as well as spoken.

In the meditation hall that first night, we settle onto our cushions or chairs and enter what Toni has called the work of this moment, being aware of all that is going on within and around us — the sound of the wind, the touch of the air currents within the room, the coming and going of our own breathing, and of our thoughts and impulses — just being fully present to whatever arises....

Toni is notorious in the spiritual community for her refusal to instruct people in techniques of meditation. Individuals attending the retreat may count their breaths or recite a mantra to themselves, but that is strictly their own doing (and in no way forbidden or even discouraged, really). Eventually, one comes to the point of trying the simple "awaring" that Toni speaks of so often and so passionately, allowing the mind free of technique to see, to hear, to be with what is going on. Others may call this a version of shikan taza, or maha ati, or dzogchen, but Toni declines to align this clear seeing with any tradition or technique — in fact, she seeks to free it from all traditional assumptions, inviting us to just see, just listen, not with the eyes or ears only but with all our being.

A small bell sounds, and twenty-five minutes of meditation are followed by seven minutes of informal, unstylized walking meditation at a gently ambling pace. Here again, there is complete freedom. Those who want to walk more slowly or quickly, or get some of the tea always supplied in several varieties, or go to the bathroom, or stretch, or leave the meditation area altogether, peel out of and reenter the walking line, which wends its way through the room until that small bell invites those who wish to return to their places and begin sitting again.

So, through several rounds, goes the first evening, ending with snacks set out in the kitchen for those who want them. Then sleep.

A bell at 5:30 the next morning summons most to wakefulness, and a silent cluster coalesces and dissolves around the various pots of tea waiting, steamy, downstairs in the dining hall. At six, sitting and walking begins again, and after the morning meditation, a hearty breakfast of cooked grains and fruit, followed by a silent work period. In a single hour, virtually all the work that needs to be done at the center is accomplished in silence. Food is chopped, soup made, dishes washed, floors swept, the entire spick-and-span ambiance made even cleaner. And then this silent flurry, which itself becomes quite focusing over time, subsides into an hour in which one can rest, read, or take a walk. At ten the meditation begins again, and after the first round of sitting and walking, it is time for Toni to speak.

Sitting in a place of no special prominence, eyes closed, she names the day, takes a moment of silence, and begins. Her voice is a little deep — as seems to befit this tall, vibrantly alive, white-haired woman in her early seventies — and it is full of passion and wonder, quietly urgent. Often, she speaks first of the land on which we are sitting — the rustle of the wind, bird sounds, the faint roar of a plane overhead, the warmth of the sunlight streaming through the many windows, the buzz of flies in summer, drip of rain, the sound of winter's icy branches knocking against one another. The sense of nature's presence is never far from the surface, even as the talk works its way through other concerns. In mid-sentence Toni may echo the caw of a bird from the nearby woods: no division between reflection and nature, the topic at hand and the great world in which it arises.

The first day's talk almost always centers on listening, which is in a way the start and finish of Toni's work. Can we come to listening freshly, whether or not we've ever worked in this way before, whether these retreats are a new experience or a way of life for us? Can we listen in such a way that we inquire along with Toni, not listening to her as an authority, but letting her listening awaken our own? Are we agreeing, going along hoping for the best, looking for a secret, willing to accept doubtful things in order to achieve some special state? Or are we genuinely asking, sentence by sentence, "How is it with me? Is this true of me? How am I responding at this moment?" Can we attend not only to what the mind hears but also to the hearing itself, and to how the whole bodymind responds throughout its network of nerves and muscles, ideas and memories? Can we truly listen?

When Toni speaks, the language she uses is the stuff of ordinary English, but one begins to notice little alterations here and there — how infrequently the personal pronouns get used, how "aware' has metamorphosed from adjective to verb, as when Toni speaks of awaring the moment in all its richness, and that awaring is seen as more primary than the individual in whom it is happening. Such language is not a repeating machine but a vehicle for discovery.

Silences often punctuate the talks, and after a time there comes a silence followed by the words, "We will end here for today." But it is only the talk that is ended. The listening goes forward into the rich silence of the day's unfolding. More sitting and walking, lunch of soup and bread and fruit, abundant, a walk across the meadows or through the woodland paths that surround the center, a pause to sit and listen to the waters of the cascade or watch the clouds reflected in the pond's surface, now wrinkled, now clear. A chance to exercise and then return to the sitting room for more sitting quietly, doing nothing. Dinner, another walk perhaps, and as the angled light of sunset gives way to twilight, then darkness, the evening's rhythm of sitting and walking is again under way in the meditation hall....

There is no drive to produce an enlightenment experience, no attempt to produce any experience at all, but instead a cultivation of deep listening, deep looking into the situations in which we find ourselves, and into the very quality of looking and listening. For the very act of looking openly without preconception, without boundary, is itself an expression of the awakened mind. And this clarity is there to be found, not once and for all in some definitive crossing of a boundary, but "for moments at a time," as Toni likes to say.

Neither long nor short, those moments are not to be measured in time. The grip of time itself seems to loosen as we settle into listening openly, into seeing without knowing, as one of Toni's early book titles put it. The silence becomes vibrant — itself a kind of listening — no longer a background. And the emergence from it of bird sound and plane hum, of the crunch of gravel underfoot and the grain of Toni's voice, only seem to affirm that sound and silence are one in this listening, are facets of one presence, as are those in whom the listening takes place.

On the last day, instead of speaking in her own words, Toni reads — typically from the writing of Zen master Huang Po, from Krishnamurti, from the poet Mary Oliver and others, not claiming some traditional sanction but exploring the reverberations of listening in the minds and writings of others. Retreatants too begin to shift gears, as they turn back toward the world of speech and interaction that awaits them at retreat's end. What can be taken from retreat back into daily life? The alertness of listening? The openness of a mind that is not always racing — or an openness to that mind? Since none of these is actually "produced," none can be carried forward or left behind. But for almost everyone something shifts, and we leave more awake, a little wiser, knowing less than when we came.

The listening that emerges while sitting quietly doing nothing is not confined to retreats. It is possible in the midst of a city as well as on a rural hillside, and it is certainly possible while reading this book. The talks gathered in these pages speak from and of that spaciousness, which can be found in our daily living. Reading and hearing these words, we can listen openly, inquire deeply, each step of the way asking, "How is it with me?" For it is our very nature, the most fundamental level of our being that speaks and listens here.

September 4, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



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