A few weeks ago, I had a rather remarkable week in Burlington, Vermont. There’s a 6-month, in-depth residential Mindfulness training program going on there. It’s hard to know exactly what to call it. In Burlington, they refer to it as ‘The Monastery’. The program is divided into two three-month segments – three months of very intensive retreat practice (10-12 hours a day of formal practice, at the level you’d see in a Zen monastery), followed by three months of mindfulness teacher training and teaching mindfulness to teens in the city of Burlington. They had a one-week guest program, so I signed on, with the intention to explore whether this type of program might be suitable for me at some point.
The teacher leading this program is 37 year old Soryu Forall (an article about Soryu), who started a company called The Center for Mindful Learning (CML), which specializes in Mindfulness training in a classroom environment. Soryu is a close colleague of veteran meditation teacher Shinzen Young, and has adopted Shinzen’s ‘Basic Mindfulness System’ as the core practice framework for CML, for his own students, and for the in-depth residential program. When Soryu isn’t working with students and running his company, you’ll probably find him in Japan at a Zen monastery (for three months a year), where he studies with renowned Zen master Harada Roshi.
So I was picked up at the Burlington airport in a car with 3 of the 10 full-time retreat residents. The moment I got in the car, I was struck by the warmth, joy and radiance of these people, who had just spent 11 weeks engaged in intensive practice.
It turned out they were headed to a farewell picnic for one of the retreat residents. This was fortunate for me, as I had chance to talk to people and get to know them a bit, before heading into silence for a week. I immediately felt very comfortable in this group. People were very welcoming to me, and their joy was quite contagious. We chatted about retreat life, and how our individual journeys somehow led us to Burlington, Vermont.
One of the first things I noticed about this group, was that five of the ten people (a mix of men and women) were in their twenties. Two, were just 23 years old. On many of the residential retreats I attend, the average age is probably mid-to-late 50’s, so to see younger people thriving in a retreat environment, is a wonderful thing. Part of the reason that there were so many young people, is that the cost of this 6 month training was zero dollars. (A $3000 deposit is required, but this is refunded when you complete the retreat).
Of course some fund-raising was required to make this retreat happen, but a remarkable joint venture between the Burlington Friends Quaker community, and the Burlington Mindfulness community was key. The ‘Friends’ community provided the physical buildings for the retreat, and the Mindfulness community organized everything. (Soryu grew up in this Quaker community – his parents were Quakers). Quaker meetings continued on Wednesday and Sunday mornings WITH the retreat residents. The main practice for both groups is to sit in silence together, so somehow this seemed to work out pretty well. The main meeting hall had no pictures of Jesus and no statues of the Buddha – just white walls, chairs and meditation cushions.
I recalled a conversation I had with Soryu about a year ago, when I was asking him about his plans for the residential program. He was telling me how inspired he was by a Tibetan Buddhist community in Ladakh (a very remote, high altitude, himalayan town) where he had lived for a period of time. The monastery there served the community, and the community served the monastery, in a harmonious and mutually supportive way. I recalled that conversation as I observed the seamless interactions of the Quakers, the retreat residents, and the local Burlington mindfulness community. In addition to the twice weekly Quaker meetings, every morning for an hour, several members of the local mindfulness community would come and sit with the retreat residents, and meet with the teacher for a short interview.
On Sunday evening there was an open community potluck dinner, a teaching by Soryu, and a period of sitting, and Quaker-style ‘speak if the spirit moves you’. Retreat residents were permitted to talk during this time, while continuing to maintain one of the 29 techniques within the Basic Mindfulness system. On Sunday evenings, there seemed to be a mix of all 3 groups, though one of the retreat residents told me it was mostly the local mindfulness community. I didn’t really know who was who, and it didn’t really matter. Everyone came to participate in the mutually supportive group practice environment. It didn’t matter how you identified yourself (ie. Buddhist, Christian, Quaker, Secular-Mindfulness practitioner, etc.). Oh, and did I mention that the Rabbi of the synagogue across the street from the retreat was hosting one of the retreat residents on her porch? Her son, a college student, is a mindfulness teacher and active member of the mindfulness community. When she needed help moving a book-case, the retreat residents were there to help.
On one of the joint meeting occasions, I was chatting with a long-time member of the Quaker community. He seemed curious about what the retreat residents were actually doing during their many weeks in retreat. Was it Zen, he asked? I replied that, no, it was not Zen, it was Basic Mindfulness, and proceeded to explain the core skills of Basic Mindfulness (concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity), and that some of the methods within Basic Mindfulness did originate from Buddhist contemplative traditions, so you could say there was some connection between Zen and Basic Mindfulness. I asked him a little about Quaker contemplative practice, then we both resumed silence for the meeting.
Only a handful of hours were spent in the joint community experience – the bulk of my week was spent solely with the retreat residents. They operated with the efficiency of a small military unit – organized, synchronized, always on schedule, from 5:00am – 10:15pm. Everyone had a role, and everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, every minute of the day. There were very few decisions to make – practice one of the 29 techniques of Basic Mindfulness, all day, every day, and do your assigned chores during the assigned chore times. Talk only when communication is necessary for an assigned chore.
In the main meeting area where we practiced from 5:30am-2pm, and from 6pm – 10:15pm, I witnessed some of these yogis and yoginis sit, hour after hour, like mountains. I felt like a light-weight in comparison, maybe like a wild horse that had been corralled in with all the highly trained horses. I have been on a lot of residential retreats over the past few years, but the schedule, and the expectations to follow the schedule, were, shall we say, somewhat more rigorous on this retreat. Soryu’s Zen training was clearly evident. The retreat residents were there for hard-core training, so it wasn’t exactly okay to go off to your room to lie down if your back was tired, you felt grumpy, or you were having a hard time for one reason or another. The schedule really kicked my ass, and my digestive system was not adapting well. Soryu did tell me it does take ‘a few weeks’ to adapt to life in that environment. Could an older dog like me really adapt to Zen-monastic-level rigor of training? The jury is still out on that question – a week wasn’t really enough to answer that.
There were nightly teachings given by Soryu. Once again, his Zen training was apparent, often pointing to the subtle paradoxes in the spiritual path. (Paradoxes like – “Let’s really go for it!”, but, “There’s nothing to go for!”) I think that years of Dzogchen teachings have given me the ability to appreciate paradox. Whenever you put something into words, there’s always another way to say it that sounds apparently contradictory. The friction of apparent contradiction can sometimes have a positive radical affect on your mind. I smile when I think of all the wonderful teachers in my life who have brought me to this sense of appreciation.
As the days progressed, my sense of appreciation for the intensity and commitment of these practitioners grew very deep. At one point, I felt that I was sitting in a Buddha-field. I was feeling drawn to Vajrayana practice, where one visualizes the buddhas (both as mental image and emotional body sensation), and completely dissolves into that experience. This style of practice can be done within the ‘Nurture Positive’ technique of Basic Mindfulness. The environment was perfect, so I just went for it, and it worked out well.
There is a power to group practice which cannot be explained, it can only be experienced. I have tremendous respect for Soryu and the two communities in Vermont who orchestrated this environment where a profoundly deep level of practice was occurring. There are many more wonderful anecdotes I could tell about various individuals I met there, but I’d better sign off for now.
If you are interested in supporting this residential training program or finding out more about it, contact CML here.