The Practice of Contemplative Retreat in Our Modern World
The Practice of Contemplative Retreat in a Modern World
As I awoke this morning, my thoughts were filled with
thoughts of Ash Wednesday. I had no idea
why as it is not a holiday that I think about very often. I had a feeling that it was just around the
corner (which it is) and that it had some meaning for me as part of the
This was somewhat strange.
I know that the date as celebrated by Christians commemorates the 40
days that Jesus Christ spent in the desert being tempted by Satan. I know that in its modern iteration, many
people consider it a time to give up or sacrifice something in anticipation of
Easter Sunday. More often than not, it
may mean giving up chocolate. But this
morning, it was so unusual to think about it that I had to ask myself what
meaning Ash Wednesday and the following 40 days of Lent have in our modern
I found an article by Father Thomas Keating who is a leader
in Centering Prayer and the Contemplative Outreach group. Since I wrote about centering prayer in my
book Rainbows Over Ruins, I paused to
read his thoughts. He calls Lent a
contemplative time and suggests that it was meant for communal retreat in
preparation for celebrating the mystery of redemption at Easter. He describes redemption as being about
“holistic health” and states that we need to go through a radical
transformation of motivation in order to be ready for redemption. That’s why the Christ went into the desert –
to experience the lack of the most basic human needs, security, power, control,
affection and esteem.
Father Keating states that wherever we may be in that
overall process, Lent is a time to renew our commitment to what he calls
“divine therapy” by looking at our instinctual needs and the dynamics of our
unconscious mind. Lent is about temptation
of the unconscious mind and how it influences our conduct all our lives unless
we keep working with it. Keating suggests
that Lent is an invitation to go deeper into that process through centering
prayer, and even into a 40 day retreat comparable to an extended Vipassana
(Buddhist meditation) retreat.
Vipassana. Again, my
lack of familiarity with that practice sent me into deeper research. Vipassana is an extended 10 day meditative
practice marked by breathing meditations, noble silence, dietary restrictions
and specific moral conduct. For those of
us in a busy, urban lifestyle, it is a major departure from our daily
routines The 5 precepts are to abstain
from (i) killing any being, (ii) stealing, (iii) all sexual activity, (iv)
telling lies and (v) all intoxicants.
For those more experienced in this practice, they also abstain from
eating after mid-day, sensual entertainment, bodily decorations and the use of
high or luxuriant beds.
While on a Vipassana, the goal is not to disturb the peace
and harmony of others. The routine is
to suspend all prayer and worship other than this specific form of meditation
as guided and to maintain 10 days of silence.
The only physical activity permitted is walking. Simple vegetarian meals are provided. No letters, phone calls, visitors, cell
phones or other electronic devices are permitted, not even music, reading,
writing or television. Other than meals,
the entire retreat is spent in a kind of meditation that focuses on breath and
dis-identifying from the body, emotions and thoughts. Finally, the focus shifts to meditating on
loving kindness and goodwill towards all.
In this tradition, a negativity in the mind cannot co-exist with peace
As I read these descriptions, I was so aware that the work I
have been doing in meditation, centering prayer, psychosynthesis, and positive
self-talk is all interrelated to these practices. However, it also struck me that this type of
extended communal retreat would be a challenge in my life where days are filled
with talk and meetings, television, filming, writing, researching and such.
What daily practice and sacrifice would be in the spirit of
both Lenten and Vipassana practices as described? What would balance the effect of mass media
in our lives to make room for the divine therapy found in observing the
dynamics of our unconscious mind? What small
shift in attention could anyone make that would contribute to such a goal?
As I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that if we
kept the goal in mind to support the peace and harmony of others, as well as
ourselves, we would be living the spirit of these communal retreats. Our normal daily activities might be a
distraction from this goal, however, staying focused in spite of distractions
is also a spiritual practice.
If we find that we need more outer world support for what is
going on in our inner space, then adding components of a retreat could proof
Meditate as often as possible using a technique
designed to silence the mind and bring it to the experience of the Divine DNA
within all of us. I call it the eternal link
between the subconscious mind and quantum consciousness. Breathing meditations, centering prayer and
dis-identification exercises are classic examples. The goal is to eliminate all negative
Noise becomes addictive. Many
people find it extremely difficult to be in silence for any extended period of
time. Even church services are organized
around continue movement through a program and prayers spoken by others which
eliminates very much time to dwell in the silence. To support our interest in silence, we might try
to reduce or eliminate media and electronic devices during our period of focus.
Meditate with the goal not to disturb the peace
and harmony of others and to meditate for good will toward all.
In line with peace and harmony, one of our goals
might be to abstain from killing any being.
That would suggest a vegetarian menu, lighter foods, earlier meals, and
rhythmic walking exercise during this time.
What an interesting challenge this could be to undertake for
the next 40 days. It isn’t that I could
successfully do all of these things,
however, imperfect action is better than none at all. If there is a message or transformative
experience to be found stemming from my earlier early morning reverie, perhaps
I shall find it. Whatever the answers, this is the season for contemplation.
May we use this time to find our inner connection to the
To Your Success,