Most of my meditation experience over the past 20 years has been with vipassana meditation, with maybe a few minutes at the beginning of each practice session devoted to concentrating the mind and body a little. I’m usually trying to be aware of body sensations, the feeling tone, thoughts and emotions, and attempting to pay attention to an overview of the content of my thoughts without getting lost in the stories in the mind. In other words, my main meditation practice is mindfulness.
An exception to this is my metta (lovingkindness) practice, which I try to do a little each day. Although metta is a form of concentration practice, while doing it, I think I’m more aware of my feelings and thoughts about the object for the metta while I’m repeating the phrases, rather than on concentrating on the opening and expanding of the heart/mind.
After all these years, I realized it was time for me to do an extended period of concentration practice, so I signed up last February for the August 10-day Concentration Retreat at Spirit Rock with teachers, Sally Armstrong, Donald Rothberg, Phillip Moffitt, Susie Harrington, and two assistant teachers. I’ve been home less than a week and am still acclimating myself to home and community life and processing what I learned from this retreat.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center is set among serene oak woodlands in the secluded hills of West Marin County and has always been a perfect refuge for me. As soon as I stepped through the gate, I felt like I was coming home. I believe this was my ninth residential retreat at Spirit Rock and I know I’ll be back there again in the future. The meditation hall is large, airy, sparsely furnished, and quite beautiful, and the residence halls are comfortable and convenient; I was fortunate to get a private room.
Although almost all Spirit Rock residential retreats are silent from morning to night, except for practice sessions with a teacher, the emphasis on silence is even more important for a retreat that focuses on concentration practice. I appreciated that all 90 retreatants seemed to respect this request, and the silence definitely enhanced my experience there. The vegetarian meals were always tasty, and the silence in the dining hall helped to sustain the meditation practice.
A meditation gong awakened us each morning at 5:15, with the first meditation period in the hall at 5:45. Breakfast followed, and most people did their yogi job after that before the next meditation sitting that began at 8:15. My job was chopping vegetables for the evening meal, so I did that just after lunch. Except for the lunch and work periods, the schedule alternated between sitting and walking meditation, with the last sitting ending at 9:30PM. We were encouraged to stay in the hall longer than the scheduled time for meditation sittings as a way to further our concentration.
Four meditation sessions during the day were hour-long; the rest were about 45 minutes, with walking periods between the sittings. Each day included morning sitting instructions and an evening talk by one of the main teachers; many of these are available on dharmaseed.org: http://dharmaseed.org/retreats/3977. One of the hour-long sittings in each afternoon was devoted to metta as a concentration practice. Since metta is a heart practice, it is really helpful as a way to embody the concentration practice that can get pretty “heady” and dry at times. I also had four private meetings with one of the main teachers where I could talk about any problem or share an experience I was having during the retreat.
We were encouraged to focus on the breath at all times, where we could best feel it, to the best of our ability. Both Donald and Phillip recommended resting in the stillness in the pause between the out-breath and the next in-breath, which is a practice I’ve been doing at the beginning of each meditation for years. For some reason, I had difficulty finding that place during the first two days but used it as my concentration point for the rest of the retreat, after that.
This was not an easy retreat. It’s difficult to remain exclusively on the breath for an extended time. Fortunately, I did experience times of alertness and peace. But, the main lesson I learned from this retreat is that concentration practice is essential for me in order to gain insight into what’s going on in the body and the heart/mind. I know I’m not always aware of my feelings and emotions during daily life and even when doing vipassana or mindfulness meditation. When my mind was more concentrated, I learned that I could be aware of the hindrances in meditation (and probably the joys) much more quickly and deeply than I ever thought I was capable of doing.
I never realized until this retreat that the seven awakening factors that are part of the fourth foundation of mindfulness are the same as the seven factors in samadhi (concentration) practice. So, it’s no wonder that I need be concentrated to really be aware of what is going on in my body and mind. For me, getting more concentrated first through breath awareness meditation and then moving into insight practice is what I need to do from now on.