“Is not silence the very voice of the Great Spirit?” ….. ~ Black Elk
Silence during the retreat is one of the most important agreements that participants make. It provides the backdrop for deepening one’s meditation practice, allowing the self to focus and observe the mind and its movement, rather than acting out the mind’s activity verbally. In this spirit, all participants are asked to honor and maintain silence during the retreat, beginning at the after-dinner sit on Friday evening and continuing until the closing council on the last day. (For weekenders, this is after lunch on Sunday.)
For practical reasons, however, the retreat is not conducted in complete silence. The teacher speaks whenever appropriate: to give meditation instructions, to discuss the schedule and administrative matters, and to give dharma talks. Discussion and questions may be invited during the talks, and either group or private interviews with teacher are scheduled for everyone. Also, the retreat managers and cook staff may need to talk in order to conduct their duties. In addition to the kitchen area, a room will be designated for conducting business and other necessary conversation, some of which may be audible to participants. You might wish to avoid those areas where talking occurs if it disturbs your meditation practice. If you need to communicate with the managers or teacher, note boxes and a bulleting board are available for your comments or questions.
Another of the retreat agreements is meditation. While that may seem obvious, it is of the utmost importance. Vipassana, a Pali word which means “to see things clearly,” is a mindfulness meditation practice. Participants and staff are encouraged to maintain a state of mindfulness in all their activities, inside the mediation hall and out.
A third agreement is . . . retreat. In this context, “to be on retreat” means to avoid contact with the outside world, such as traveling away from the retreat site or making unnecessary phone calls. Other distractions, such as writing or reading, are also discouraged. If in doubt, ask yourself, “Does this activity support-or detract from-my practice?” If a participant has compelling health care issues or other personal needs, he or she is asked to attend to them with mindful awareness.
These three agreements-silence, meditation, retreat-support and reinforce one another. Observing them as fully as possible benefits each participant and supports the retreat as a whole.