This blog post originally appeared on Mindfulness Meditation Live as a guest blog.
In January, 2022, Kate and Lucia are hosting Awakening the Heart, a silent online retreat.
This guest blog is by Kate Mitcheom (Certified MBSR Teacher and MBSR Teacher Trainer) and Lucia McBee (also an experienced MBSR Teacher), who have been colleagues for 25 years, and leading retreats together online since April 2020.
The 2020 COVID pandemic has changed our lives dramatically. We work, learn and interact more virtually than ever and this may continue for a very long time- including the teaching of mindfulness and yoga. The crisis of the pandemic has caused immense suffering, as well as the opportunity to create new solutions.
Walker there is no path,
the path is made when walking.
– Antonio Machado
The long-standing role of residential retreats
Mindfulness practitioners and teachers have long included silent residential retreats as an important aspect of deepening and sustaining practice. Traditionally these retreats are 5-10 days long or longer, held at residential centers that provide a supportive container for silent, intensive practice. The responsibilities of our lives are put aside, allowing participants to immerse themselves in formal and informal practice.
The heart of a retreat is the opportunity to see the ways we create difficulties in our lives, and to discover how mindfulness practice can be liberating. Participants are often surprised that habitual difficulties still arise in a contemplative setting. How are we participating in the creation of our own suffering? A residential retreat usually shines a light on this in powerful ways.
Obviously, it is an immense privilege to be able to attend a residential retreat, and carve out this. It requires many conditions to come together, such as funding and the ability to take time off from work and/or caring for loved ones. Nevertheless, as interest in mindfulness and MBSR have expanded in our culture, the demand for retreats has also increased.
Pandemic lockdown: retreat without retreat?
In March 2020, most residential retreat centers shut down. After a few weeks of lockdown, retreats began to be offered online.
Clearly, this shift removed the physical container traditionally used to support retreatants. Participants were encouraged to create the time and space needed to practice regularly at home. The online retreat schedules reflected residential retreats, including sustained silence, regular periods of sitting and walking together on Zoom, and evening dharma talks.
It was not clear that online retreats were tenable or effective, especially for those at home with families.
And yet, given the on-going world-wide crisis, why not? This massive adjustment has offered surprising insights and possibilities. What adjustments might be needed to make this work?
Retreating in the middle of it all, together
Some online retreat participants live alone or are able to stay in seclusion. For many, however, the retreat is in the midst of their home and the “full catastrophe” of modern life. The challenges that annoy, bore, anger and otherwise create disturbance in our lives are physically present. The work of an on-line retreat is to view all of this through a different lens.
Continuous practice in the home environment may allow us to see clearly the ways we create difficulties in our lives, and to discover a freedom of heart in the midst of all things. As one participant reported:
The fact is I could get triggered at home anytime, but the next hour, I would be sitting on the mat to work through it, therefore, I could gain many breakthroughs in my practice. It helps me to integrate the practice into daily living, I really start to cultivate the moment-to-moment awareness throughout the day.
Despite the silence of retreat, a sense of community typically develops on residential retreats. We develop a connection to the person we sit next to every day; the person who takes their tea near us after lunch.
How does this translate to the on-line space? Participants are physically separated, and yet this sense of community develops as the same faces show up for sittings and other practice, day after day. The intimacy and familiarity that arise can create a real momentum for the retreat.
Online retreats increase participation from those otherwise might be unable to attend due to mobility and other health issues, and/or unable to afford the time or expense of residential retreats. Online retreats are often more diverse and include participants from around the world. This adds something to the experience that is rarely felt communally in the residential form of a retreat.
Remembering history, looking to the future
It may be helpful to remember that, while many elements of the Buddha’s teachings remain constant, the way of teaching the practices of mindfulness has been modified over time. Monasteries originally were only for monks and nuns, until centuries later, householders were encouraged to attend 10-day retreats in these monasteries.
Due to the impact of colonization in Asia, several monastic leaders began teaching meditation to lay people in the 19th and 20th centuries as a form of cultural resistance and as a way of preserving Buddhism in the face of Christian missionizing. These were often forward thinking reformers and visionaries. It was in this context of upheaval that young travelers from the West came to Asia in the 1960s to learn meditation, eventually bringing their learnings back home.
MBSR is part of a larger shift in the way mindfulness has been taught. Kabat-Zinn created the model of an eight-week class with homework to bring the practices of mindfulness and yoga to those unlikely to ever attend a residential retreat, or even go to a yoga class. As he put it:
“It struck me …that it would be a worthy work to simply share the essence of meditation and yoga practices …with those who would never come to a place like IMS [Insight Meditation Society] or a Zen Center.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Change happens. A core tenet of mindfulness is the contemplation of impermanence. How mindfulness is taught and how retreats are conceived of will continue to evolve, while the constancy of the dharma remains.