I spent the last couple of days at the Silent Mountain Retreat, a meditation retreat led by Denis Robberechts at the Rohrauerhaus, a mountain hut near Spital am Pyhrn, at the border between Upper Austria and Styria. I had done one retreat with Denis before, the Walking in Snow Retreat.
I like Denis’ style a lot. It’s practical, with a sense of lightness and ease and no-bs. He doesn’t ask you to believe his wisdom, but asks you instead to try and see for yourself. He himself doesn’t have one lineage or one teacher he follows, but rather is inspired by several and has found his own way to walk the path. We were 15 participants plus Denis plus Martin, the organizer and dear friend.
Darma Talk for Me
The first dharma talk was like he had read my mind and all that has inspired me the most recently. (I would find out later that a lot of people at the retreat had a similar experience. Either he really does do an extraordinary job at sensing what the group needs at any given moment, or the topics that people have are often the same. Or both …) He talked about not-self, and asking yourself who is experiencing, who is thinking. He talked about reaping the benefits of dedicated consistent practice and stopping a thought spiral before you are drowned in the emotional response. He talked about my current favorite: that everything changes and we just need to notice that.
And he talked about expectations. Think about wanting chocolate cake, he said, but there just isn’t any. There you are, being upset about not getting what you want. You suffer not because of the fact that there isn’t any cake, but because you were expecting it to be there. Change your expectations, and your experience of the same reality will change.
He talked about him sitting in India, meditating, when a group of youngsters came. All he wished for was for them to go away and leave him alone. All he wanted was peace and quiet. But then he decided to change his mindset:
I am life, meeting life.
Same at a gathering, where he was hesitant to join because he was the only foreigner. Again, he said to himself:
I am life, meeting life.
And in both cases, the change of expectations changed his experience dramatically. He was confident in what we had in common rather than our differences. And in both cases, his actual experience turned out to be very pleasant.
He also explained the Buddhist Triple Gem in an interesting way, comparing our true nature to simply life unfolding:
Buddha: awakening of self, being true to one’s own nature
Dharma: the path towards this true nature, like a plant growing towards the light
Sangha: a group of people walking together towards this awakening
On top of walking meditations both inside an outside, we also went on an hour-long walk every day. Denis compared it to a lifetime. The walk (the yatra), he said, has a birth, a lifetime, and a death. There is no goal to be reached, the path is the goal.
Notice life as it unfolds, he said. See how you notice your feet walking, then sounds, then thoughts, then beauty, then thoughts again, then walking, and so on … When you notice that you are lost in thoughts, he mentioned, you can ask yourself: “where is beauty?” and just look around.
Longing for Past Insights
During Q&A one day, I mentioned that I found myself longing for states that I once experienced. I once knew how to just be with pain, noticing it’s physical qualities, rather than suffer so much and want it to go away. Why can’t I just go back there and re-experience that?
He noted that the remembering quality was a good one, making this new mindset stronger in our minds. The interesting thing is though, he noted, that when you first had the insight, it wasn’t connected to a wish to make the pain go away. It happened exactly because you dropped the wanting. Now there is wanting, so the past state cannot arise. I guess it’s what Joseph Goldstein would call the “in order to” mind … Point taken.
Lying Down Meditation
Before this retreat, I didn’t really understand lying down meditation at all, and I wasn’t drawn to it. Too easy to fall asleep, not practicing well enough or something. But now this has changed.
Denis talked about us in the west being doers. We grow up with schedules, plans, and a doing mindset. Not so much in India, apparently. People living in the moment, and surprised every single time when there is e.g. a power outage (which seems to happen all the time). No planning mindset. Which is a problem for them.
We need both qualities, says Denis, the doing and the being. We need both, the concentration and the letting go. The structured and the creative. Lying down meditation is tapping into the creative/being side of it. The important part is: set a strong INTENTION, and then let go and TRUST. Yes, you might drift into sleep … the difference to a plain old nap is the intention you set. So the intention might be: “let life unfold itself” and see what happens. As you lie there, keep checking in with your awareness. You might not always be fully conscious, or in the state between wake and sleep, but you’ll still be aware of certain things.
And this was really interesting to me. First of all, allowing myself to let go of a “you need to focus!” mindset and lie down for certain meditations made the sitting practice better afterwards. They felt more of a choice, more relaxed because I had given myself relaxation first. Also, the “intention and trust” mentality did wonders to the focus meditation as well. Denis has a point when he says that what brings us back from being lost in thoughts every single time is that part of us remembers having set the intention to focus. Without intention there is no focus. And it takes away the self-imposed pressure to force myself back to focusing. With a strong-enough, precise-enough intention, the rest flows.
And the lying down meditation in and of itself … turned out to be rather trippy. Actually it was the closest I got to trippy insights I had in the redwood forests this past summer. Some kind of conscious dreaming maybe? I don’t know how much of it could be considered awake, and how much couldn’t. It was an interesting experience for sure.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Denis talked about the fact that for years, he didn’t really connect with the practice of loving kindness (Metta). The idea of thinking of a person and repeating the same phrases every time (e.g. “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you live with ease.”) didn’t vibe with him. It was too ritualized and formalized for him.
But like with everything, he made the practice his own and created a version that he was happy to practice and happy to teach.
But first, he talked about love. What makes us feel love? It isn’t other people, he claims. Several people can love us, but if we don’t feel loved, it stops there. Love has to come from within us. So Metta is a practice where we can increase our ability to do so. And then he told stories of how this practice transpires into real life, and how relationships with people around us (also difficult ones) can improve. We can have an easier time seeing what we have in common instead of what divides us.
So here’s how he teaches it. First, imagine a situation where it is easy to feel love, this expansive, warm quality of the heart. Imagining a puppy, for example, or a little baby. (But don’t force any feeling! If it’s not there, that’s OK too.) Then imagine a person you love. Again, notice how love feels. Then, let a wish arise in you. See what comes up. (e.g. “I wish that you find relaxation.”). It doesn’t matter if the fulfillment of the wish is possible, you can wish that regardless. Really wish them that.
Then imagine another one or two people you love, and repeat the same process.
Then, turn to yourself. Feel this loving quality towards yourself, and see what wish emerges. Wish yourself that. It will feel very powerful, and at the same time you’ll learn a great deal about your innermost wishes and desires.
Then, use the same method to find a wish for someone you don’t really know well. Maybe someone you see on the bus every day, a street vendor, etc. … See what wish emerges – a general “may you be well” is totally fine.
Next, think of a person you have a conflict with. In the beginning, make it a person you only have a small conflict with. Again, see what wish emerges. Realize that ill-will or hurtful behavior often arises when someone isn’t well or centered.
After that, you can expand the circle of people, wishing well to people you are currently with, or your family. Then maybe all people in your country, all of humanity, and all of life (including all animals and plants).
And then he said something interesting: beginning your practice with Metta would also make focus much easier afterwards. You don’t only feel more love, you also feel more present. But … as he repeated multiple times during the retreat: don’t ever take my word for it, always try it for yourself.
I saw its powerful effect during the retreat. I sensed the increased presence afterwards. I felt more connected to the people I felt loving kindness for. I felt more connected with myself. And it made it easier to wish a loved one well who is incurably ill …
Every retreat comes to an end. Everything that exists does come to an end. So, at the end of the retreat, Denis talked about strategies to return to our regular busy lives and take some of that mindfulness with us.
The one thing that I remembered the most from it was:
Without gaps, life loses meaning.
Allow for space in your life, he said. Accept doing nothing. Take the time to meditate. Take the time to have one-minute breaks during the day, where you really don’t do anything. Those little breaks are always possible, he claims.
In my mind I thought “not as a school teacher”. But now I’m not one any more, so: allowing space it is. And yes, I’ll try it for myself.