After studying Spanish in Guatemala, I spent thanksgiving with my two sisters, their significant others, my mom, and my sister’s daugher Hadley, in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a great few days, and afterwards I jetted off immediately to the Bay Area for a much-awaited meditation retreat.
The Insight Retreat Center
The retreat was at the Insight Retreat Center (IRC) in the foothills of Santa Cruz, CA. Incredibly, IRC is able to run these retreats at no cost to participants and, consequently, spaces are given out via a lottery system. Luckily, since the retreat I wanted to attend was less popular, I got in on my first try. For comparison, a 7-day retreat at IMS would cost around $700. That IRC is able to do this is a testament to how vibrant their community is, as well as to the wealth and generosity in the Silicon Valley area.
I chose this 7 day retreat because I really liked both teachers (Alexis Santos and Andrea Fella), and because the retreat was taught in the style of a Burmese teacher named Sayadaw U. Tejaniya. I really like this style, for reasons I’ll go into below.
I arrived in SF the day before, and I spent the night with Kevin and Alina in their beautiful Potrero Hill home. We had an epic sushi dinner, at which I tried eating a sea urchin for the first time. It is basically the exact opposite of what I thought it would be. Sea urchins look so spiny and intimidating, but inside they are are soft and buttery. A metaphor for certain people? Perhaps. They also strain my definition of ‘animal’, and I may have decided that they are close enough to being vegetables that even a vegetarian like myself can eat them guiltlessly. I feel similarly about lobsters, since they are basically huge ocean cockroaches, and given the number of insects killed as collateral damage in producing each vegetarian meal I think that downing a lobster is probably the ethically better choice.
Anyways, since I didn’t have a car, I took Caltrain to San Jose, and then the 17 bus to Santa Cruz. I took an uber for the final couple of miles from the bus station to the center and, once again, was thrilled at how easy and affordable Uber is in a situation like that. It really makes using public transit more feasible.
The retreat center is in an converted retirement home. The IMC community has done a ton of work — all of it volunteer — to bring it up to code and make it comfortable. The facilities are clean, high-quality, and entirely appropriate for hosting meditation retreats. There are no paid staff at IRC – everything is done by volunteers (with some of them living as residents at the center).
The retreat followed the style of Sayadaw U. Tejaniya. Here is a brief and probably incorrect explanation. All insight meditation retreats involve spending long periods of time paying attention to a specific meditation object. The classic object is the physical sensation of one’s breath, but some styles advocate including other objects such as posture, bodily sensation, sound, emotions, and thoughts. The Tejaniya style, however, views all meditation objects as essentially interchangeable; the real focus is on one’s relationship to the objects, and on continually monitoring the quality of one’s awareness, as well as noticing how habits or thoughts can effect the quality of that awareness. This kind of practice can be done during any activity, including formal meditation as well as working, talking, or thinking. A key characteristic of this style is that while it is meant to be almost effortless at any given moment, but that it should be practiced continuously, every waking hour.
Although this style is unique and rather free-wheeling by Vipassana standards, the first few days of the retreat followed a normal schedule: 45-60 minute sitting periods interleaved with 30-45 minute walking periods. There were a couple of one-hour breaks for work periods (helping out with cleaning, cooking, etc.) and for meals. The schedule stretched from about 6:30am to 9:30pm. The retreat was, of course, held in silence, except for a couple of scheduled small-group sessions.
However, after the first few days, the schedule opened up. The whole group met together briefly in the mornings, and again after dinner, but the days were mostly self-scheduled. I absolutely love this approach, as it helps me observe my own habits of impatience and sometimes frantic scheduling, in a venue where those habits are even more obviously counterproductive than usual.
I also made an effort during this retreat to put forth, ironically, an extremely small amount of effort. I sat in a chair most of the time, because it was more comfortable than sitting on a cushion. I did walking meditation at a comfortable, normal walking pace (as Tejaniya recommends), and I spent much of my own solo meditation time in a lying-down posture. This made a huge difference to me, since I was able to truly enjoy my meditation. I understand the need to persevere through resistance in a meditation practice, but I am glad to be learning that it’s also okay to set oneself up for success.
After the retreat was over, I felt far, far less ‘sensitized’ than I have at other retreats. Although I felt very serene and stable, I didn’t have the aversive reaction to loud noises and stimuli that I have had at other styles of retreats. In fact, I ended up hanging out for several hours with another retreatant on a beach in Santa Cruz. It was great–it turned out that we have a lot in commona and are both in a bit of a nomadic period in our lives, so we planned to meet up in Latin America a few months later–which, because I took so long to write this, is actually today 🙂
Overall, the retreat was a fantastic and wholly worthwhile experience, and I am grateful to IRC and to Alexis and Andrea for hosting it. I didn’t come to any mind-blowing or earth-shattering realizations, and I didn’t really expect to or need to. It was just a great chance to develop a deeper awareness of my own inner world. I can’t wait to pursue this kind of meditation more.