Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. That is a great title. And good advice. It is the title of a non-fiction book about conducting your own mindfulness retreat.
It is difficult to define a mindfulness retreat because different people and groups define it differently. You’ll see the term meditation retreat or even yoga retreat used interchangeably.
A search online will turn up retreats at various centers that are very different from what Sylvia Boorstein’s book is suggesting. One web post on the “best retreats” at well-known retreat centers offers mindfulness retreats where you can experience anything from Pranayama breathing lessons along with stress-management classes, facials, massages, and private yoga sessions. The center nearest to me offers two-night single cabin room accommodation packages with three meals a day, an arctic plunge pool, mud lounge, Scotch hoses (huh?), infinity pool, and services such as acupuncture and life coaching. The menu is not Spartan and includes fresh, raw, organic foods, juices, and smoothies as well as Mediterranean cuisine but also hamburgers and tater tots. Most of these “best” retreats are around $1000 for a weekend. That alone would cause me stress.
Sylvia Boorstein’s approach is a much more down-to-earth guide. The book guides you through a three-day retreat plan and also includes lessons on how to achieve through meditation practices some serenity and focus.
An important caveat is that you need a 3-5 day stretch where it will be possible to step away from your life. You need the time and a place, but the time is more important and possibly harder to obtain.
This rainy Memorial Day 3-day time would have been a good choice for some people, but it takes planning. For me, I had a variety of things on the calendar. None of those things were recreational or meditative. There were scheduled good things (meeting friends; an art gallery talk), obligations (dealing with my older sister in a nursing home), and the unexpected (a burned-out condensate pump on our air conditioner that flooded the basement). Life intrudes on Life.
Boorstein says that any place will do, but I think most of us would like something out in nature – the mountain cabin or the ocean beach – but a backyard works too. Solitude is important. Being distracted by people, including a partner who is not retreating or kids, will not work.
Other than that, you don’t need much besides the book. Maybe a mat or blanket and a chair or bench. Even those are optional if you’re good with sitting on the ground. You need to eat and drink but maybe this is the time to go with water and wise, minimal, healthy food too.
I was attracted to Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by that unexpected title. It also reminded me of the first time I did some serious meditation days. My wife asked me what I was supposed to do. I said, “Just sit and empty my mind.” She replied, sarcastically, “You should be great at that.”
Of course, it is not easy. What seems to most people to be “not doing anything” is actually doing something quite difficult. Try to stop thinking. It is probably impossible, but you can get closer with practice.
This kind of practice and retreat doesn’t have to be attached to philosophy or programs, though it often is associated with one. I began my mediation practices in college because I met a girl who said she was a “Zen Buddhist” and I wanted to get closer to her. I became more attached to the practice than her. I drifted away from regular practice and being in a group after college. I reentered it in a more serious way when I met a man who is an American Jesuit priest, professor of theology, psychoanalyst, and Zen rōshi in the White Plum lineage.
Retreats, even if labeled Buddhist, are usually open to persons of all religious and non-religious affiliations. Weejend or weeklong retreats I have attended usually mix zazen (seated meditation in half-hour plus periods), kinhin (walking meditation, my favorite), chanting, dharma talks, and daisan (one on one interviews with a teacher), and beginners instruction. Sometimes they are silent. Sometimes they involve work at the center.
Though religion and philosophy do not have to be part of the retreat or your intention, my second serious reentry into meditation and mindfulness came when I went to talk by Robert Kennedy. His talk was, and his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit is, about the intersection of Zen Buddhism and Christianity. Kennedy says that “What I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away by authority or by changing theological fashion.” He would say that God is in the Zendo.
For a time I attended his zendo sessions as they were not far from my home. But I have never been a good group member and organizations, membership, facilities, and fees all feel wrong to me.
And so, Sylvia Boorstein‘s book seemed right for me. In some ways, she is like Roshi Kennedy. Boorstein is a respected teacher of Buddhist Insight Meditation and has also remained an observant Jew. One of her other books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist where she writes about how she resolved these two aspects of her life in a complementary way.
The lesson from both of these teachers is that mindfulness and even Buddhism do not replace your religious beliefs or is it a way to convert you. I haven’t come across any atheist retreat centers but they probably exist. Certainly, completely non-denominational retreats are available.
In Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, she writes:
"I've noticed license plate frames that say "I'd rather be sailing" or "I'd rather be bowling." Sometimes I think it's fun to see the rather-be-doing frames because they are a hint about the driver. Other times I start reflecting about the fact that preferring to be doing something else always diminishes the present moment. I imagine starting a business that produces license plate frames that read "I'm totally content right now."
I attempted Boorstein’s retreat once before when my wife was away for a few days. I did it at home and I was too distracted. If I do it again, I really do need to “get away.” The basic schedule is to arrive, sit, walk, sit, tea, sleep, etc.
The book is intended to be read in sections with some time taken to reflect. My first reading of it was a sit-down-in-a-chair with my tea reading, not a retreat. Of course, armchair mindfulness is not the intention., but you could also do that.
Mindfulness cultivates the habit of being able to deal with life when things aren’t happening in the way we’d like. Mindfulness instruction is deceptively simple: pay attention. That is attentive sitting and alert walking. You can be in the moment when you’re weeding the garden or shoveling the snow. The practice becomes a part of your everyday life – not unconsciously, but consciously.
I doubt that he was a Buddhist or meditator, but Paul Revere had the words “Live Contented” inscribed on the wedding ring he gave to his spouse.
I took some ideas from the book that seem like little lessons, aphorisms, or koans.
Feel all of your body. Slow is not better than fast, it’s just different. Nothing is worth thinking about does not mean that Nothing is worth thinking about There are no in-between times. Eat slowly. Taste it fully Consider the interconnectedness of all things. Discomfort comes from clinging to an experience that can’t continue. Discomfort also comes from wanting an experience to end before it is over. When clinging and aversion are absent, you experience freedom.
Morning Star Zendo (Robert Kennedy)