I returned Sunday from a week of quiet at Bhavana. I started going to this place in 2003 having read one of the books on meditation written by the founding abbot, Bhante Gunaratana (more fondly called Bhante G). It is located in an oak woods in WV just a few miles from the Virginia border, a 3 hour drive through the countryside for me. Founded in 1985, it is completely supported by donations and a devoted volunteer community. I have always found the atmosphere of "meta", loving friendliness, to be positively palatable here. This is a group of people living their faith. In true Buddhist tradition the cost is what you can give, they refuse to give even a "suggested retail value".
On arrival in late afternoon you sign in and get your job for the week and your assigned living quarters. I have been fortunate to always get one of the small wood stove cabins in the woods, "kuti's" they are called, with no plumbing or electricity but nicely secluded. There are some dorm accommodations with more ammenities if preferred. At the first evening meditation "noble silence" begins. No more speaking to anyone. This might sound difficult to some but I probably would not go if this rule was not in place for then the days would be filled with comparisons and measurements and complaints as we are want to do.
The next morning begins at 4:45, optional yoga 'till 5:30, and then mediation until 6:45. Breakfast at 7:00. I love the food here - well prepared simple vegetarian fare. And the mealtime procedure is nice with some chanting by the monks and a quiet procession of folks getting their food and eating mindfully.
Clean up chores until 9:00, then meditate until 11:00 with some guidance by the retreat leader. Lunch, clean up, and personal time to walk or rest or read. They discourage reading a bit, certainly a novel would be a distraction, but I have found reading my favorite book on the subject to be helpful in not getting stuck in my own spinning wheels. Lunch is the last food of the day - no supper is served. This sounds harder than it is. I lose a couple pounds but do not think about food.
Meditation from 2-5. This is a gentle approach discipline. You sit as long as you can, on a cushion, in a chair, propped up with 5 pillows, whatever it takes. When your knees or joints are just too much you stand or walk slowly to and fro, or leave the meditation hall to do what you must. No one asks or questions what you are doing. Everyone moves quietly with concern for others, trying not to disturb. At some time in the week there is opportunity for one to one 15 minute interviews with a monk during the afternoon session.
5:00 is another optional but longer yoga session. The instructors talk through these and the students too if asked a direct question. Then tea time or personal time until 7:00 when there is a Dhamma talk. There is always a subject to be covered at the retreats on some aspect of the Dhamma and they are well presented. Some folks diligently take notes and submit written questions for Q & A sessions. But I confess most of it floats over me in a pleasant drone. I come more for quiet than information. Meditation ends at 9:00 but you could go all night if you wanted. Most are glad to go to bed.
This being my 6th visit, the experience has leveled out, fewer peaks and valleys. It is still not without effort however. I arrive quite focused, looking for something though I know not what it is. There are usually several nights where I can't sleep. Just lying there and sleep will not come. I've wondered if it is from the hours of trying to keep the mind from drifting. My body aches plenty, back aches, knee aches, I take Advil with me. Yoga stretching helps some of the discomfort but Yoga is not a regular practice for me so maybe that adds some new sore muscles, who knows. Though I don't feel an urge to talk, as the week progresses the stories build up in my head. What I will say to so and so, and how will the conversation go, and must remember to tell them about this or that and I have to work a little harder to turn these off. Same with creative ideas, they almost seem to come in a flood, ideas for sculptures, and photos, and songs and whatever, turning them over and over with different twists. It feels like the mind saying "hey wait, ya gotta think about something man, otherwise I'm toast."
I come home glad to be home and fall into my normal life with nary a hitch; everything waited for me, no elves finished anything. But also there is a renewed interest in the practice, a little more resolve to move it up the priority list, to sit a little more, to pay more attention.
I posted a short slideshow of pictures.
The Center's Website: http://www.bhavanasociety.org/