At the turn of the new year in 2016, I resolved to live more mindfully, and in January I joined a local meditation group. A year and some months later, the group still meets every other week, is facilitated by a super competent, compassionate and knowledgeable guy who earns his living as a hypnotherapist. We spend an hour and a half together in silent meditation, in guided meditation, in other meditative exercises and activities, and in discussion over our experiences together.
I enjoy my time with this group very much and in a year’s span I’ve only missed a handful of our meetings. It has inspired me to keep up my own private and daily meditation practice, it has given me some tools for cooling the fires, for dealing constructively with the common stresses of work and family life, for living more reflectively, and subsequently, it has been a boon for that 2016 resolution to work on more mindful living, a resolution that has had more staying power than any I’ve ever set for myself.
I realize, though, that I had another motive for seeking out a meditation group, a sangha, if you will, to enhance and grow my own spiritual experience. I find myself hearkening back and trying to find a way to recreate or recapture a much earlier and more formative experience with mindfulness practice. The search began for me in 1999, the year I embarked on a long relationship and several extended experiences with a program called The Courage To Teach, an educational opportunity based on the work of writer, educator, and peace activist Parker Palmer.
I had read Parker Palmer’s book and had seen him speak once almost a year before, but The Courage To Teach program was news to me several months later, billed as a series of retreats over a two year period and designed as a course in “teacher renewal.” It appealed to me then, closing in on my first decade as a public high school English teacher, because I felt like I was already in dire need of renewal, that already early in my career I felt not a little bit in danger of burn-out. Renewal. There was something about that word. And there was something about another phrase associated with the program: “formation work.” Both resonated with me in a serious and palpable way. Yes, I knew I needed to renew my teacher self, and yes, there was also something inside, gestating, some kind of formation, a sense of “becoming” something more–or rather, “becoming” into something already there, but dormant.
What followed for me was a two year series of eight Courage retreats, in the late 2000’s another round of four retreats over a single year, and between that first experience and the second, and between the second and this present moment, a smattering, maybe three or four more individual weekend retreats. I have told colleagues and friends of mine that this work, my initial introduction to it and my continual revisitation of it, has been the single most impactful, meaningful, influential, and enriching experience I have ever had, rivaled perhaps only by the heady years during my work toward an MFA in creative writing.
My Courage colleagues and I often joked about the difficulty of describing to someone “on the outside” exactly what it was one “did” at a Courage To Teach retreat. At the center, perhaps, was a fascinating and invigorating paradox, that we were together in community and simultaneously in solitude. Our facilitators gave us poems or short essays to read; they gave us prompts for writing, meditating, thinking, drawing, finger-painting; they asked us questions for conversations in small group or partnerships; they told us to go on walks outside; they gave us two hour breaks during which we were asked to be completely silent, and they brought us together on the eve of our last morning together for Circles of Trust: the Clearness Committee, the centerpiece of the two day retreat. I could go on about any of these listed activities, but to make things snappy I’ll just enlarge this paradox a bit by saying that the goal of all of this work was not academic conversation, was not classroom pedagogy, was not teacher strategies, but rather, in community to invite the individual soul and “inner teacher” of each member of the group. We didn’t discuss things, but we spoke into the circle and were heard. There was almost a religious principle that commentary on what someone else might share was verboten–alongside a serious commitment to confidentiality. The ethos of the work spiraled around a set of community expectations or “touchstones” that worked so powerfully over the proceedings, they are worth listing here. They are repeated and discussed at the beginning of every retreat and often referred to throughout the process. The touchstones ask you to:
- Come with 100% of your self
- Presume welcome and extend welcome
- Believe that it is possible to leave more refreshed than when you arrived
- Know that there is always invitation, never demand
- Avoid fixing–no fixing
- Practice openness and learn from others
- Speak for your self; use “I” statements
- Turn to inquiry when the going gets tough
- Listen to the silence
- Observe confidentiality
Another complete blog essay could be written about each of the preceding touchstones, but I’ll just say here that these particular norms had such a powerful and positive impact on the way these groups were together, that in as many experiences as I had with this process and with as many different groups of people, almost all of whom were essentially strangers to me, I never, not once, had a negative experience, not even a single moment when I felt anything other than completely safe and taken care of.
It was not, never was, a class or a workshop about “meditation,” per se, but everything about it was meditative, reflective, truth-seeking, and most importantly, respectful and inviting of silence. This is where I learned to meditate. So in the absence of around-the-calendar opportunities for Courage retreats, I joined a meditation group, hoping, perhaps, to be able to recreate or participate in something somewhat remotely like the retreat experience inspired by the work of Parker Palmer.
My experience in a meditation group over the last year and some months comes close. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does its job to create some similar conditions to those of a Courage retreat; also, it’s clearly beneficial on its own as simply another avenue into the neighborhood of raising consciousness, awareness, and equanimity. But I realize now, as I was looking to my meditation group as a way to recapture the benefits of an earlier experience, that there might not exist an adequate substitute. There are elements to my Courage experiences that might possibly only emerge from a Courage experience. And this was a question often asked in the closing circle of a retreat: how do we sustain this work? How do we embody or continue these practices? How can this influence who I am in the world, with my family, with my students? Some religious people find this in their churches. Non-religious people like myself, who nevertheless hunger for spiritual growth experiences, find it in other places if they are lucky. For now, I’m in a meditation group. In April, I’ll write a poem every day. I’m rereading Palmer’s The Hidden Wholeness. Slowly but surely, I am finding my way back to courage.