Monday, May 15, 2006

Retreat: Time Apart for Silence & Solitude (Roger Housden)

Roger Housden has produced a beautiful book that is as much a work of art as it is informative. A great deal of attention has been given to layout and aesthetics—the photography alone speaks poignantly of silence and solitude. The book has as its main objective a survey of contemporary approaches to mind development, expanded consciousness, or spirituality, with emphasis on forms of retreat. Although not comprehensive, a sampling of major groups and organizations are given for each path outlined. The book is clearly organized into seven main approaches to expanding consciousness according to one's predisposition. These are:

1. The Way of Knowledge
2. The Way of the Heart
3. The Way of the Body
4. The Way of Art
5. The Way of Sound
6. The Way of the Wilderness
7. The Solitary Way

In the Way of Knowldege we have Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism as well as Raja Yoga and Shamanism. All these paths seek to transcend the egoic mind by way of knowledge and deep understanding.

All the difference schools of Buddhism have at their core the fundamental teachings of the Buddha—the 4 Noble Truths, and the 8-fold path that leads to the end of suffering and dissatisfaction. The ways in which they differ is the approach or technique used to realize their "Goal." Theravada Buddhism employs samatha (tranquility), sattipathana (mindful awareness) and vipassana (insight). Samatha involves bringing one's attention to a single object—usually the breath through the nostrils and the rise and fall of the abdomen, or sensations on the body. From this practice, the mind becomes quiet enough to move into the practice of Sattipathana, or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These are:

1. Bodily activity
2. Feelings
3. States of mind
4. Mental contents

The idea here is to develop a continuous "witness" consciousness in each of the four foundations of experience. Finally, the third stage (vipassana) is to see through phenomenal existence altogether—seeing everything that arises as dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (not-self). Although Housden does not say so, it is considered central to the practice of vipassana to see these three key characteristics of phenomenal existence in the 5 skhandas or "heaps"—those collections of processes that make up what we think of as the human being—and to which ego identifies with resulting in a false sense of self. One common conception of these skhandas as taken from Buddhist Abhidamma are Body, Feelings/Sensations, Perception/Memory, Consciousness/Mind/Thought, and Will/Volition/Impulse.

In Zen, the experience of the true nature of existence can be had anywhere, anytime. There are two main schools: Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai centres around asking a question or koan which defies reason—and a solution can only be arrived at by being or experiencing the answer. In Soto there is no goal, nowhere to go other than where you are right now. There is no method, other than the non-effort of being here—the bare attention to what is. This has some parallels to Krishnamurti's "Choiceless Awareness."

Three schools of Tibetan Buddhism are described—Kagyu, Nyingma, and Gelug—although a fourth school known as Sakya also exists. The Kagyu and Nyingma schools are geared towards meditative practice, culminating in the teachings of Mahamudra or Dogzchen, respectively. Incidentally, these practice-oriented schools also have strong parallels with Hindu Advaita Vedanta or non-dual philosophy. The Gelug school, on the other hand, is of a scholarly orientation. The overall tantric approach to Buddhist practice that often characterizes Tibetan tradition is know as Vajrayana. Here is what Don Morreale had to say on the primary differences between the various forms of Buddhism:

"The principle distinction between Vajrayana and other forms of Mahayana is it's emphasis on transmutation—as opposed to destruction—of neurosis. Where other approaches to Buddhist meditation seek to destroy passion, aggression and ignorance so that the practitioner can be free from ego-clinging, Vajrayana seeks to transform the three poisons directly into wisdom, actually transmuting the constituents of the ego directly into principles of Buddhahood." (Don Morreale, Buddhist America)

Housden goes into some detail of the various Tibetan schools, but his attempt to describe the Kagyu school falls short, as he fails to mention all of the Six Yogas of Naropa forming the historical basis of the Kagyu school which traces its lineage back to the great Indian master Naropa. For completeness, these are:

1. Yoga of the Illusory Nature of Phenomenal Existence
2. Dream Yoga
3. Clear Light Yoga
4. Dumo (Kundalini Yoga)
5. Yoga of Psychic Projection
6. Bardo Yoga

Raja Yoga is an intricate system of practices whose philosophical source is the classical Sanskrit text, The Yoga Sutras, written by the great Indian sage Patanjali sometime in the first or second century CE. "Raja Yoga consists of a way of life designed to enable the practitioner to see through the illusion of created existence and to become established in his existential identity." A summary of the Yoga system as outlined by Patanjali begins with the first steps, (1) yama and (2) niyama, which require observance of various moralities, including non-violence and truthfulness. The next steps are (3) asana (right posture); the spinal column must be held straight, and the body firm in a comfortable position for meditation; (4) pranayama (control of prana, subtle life currents); and (5) pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from external objects). The last steps are forms of yoga proper: (6) dharana (concentration); holding the mind to one thought; (7) dhyana (meditation), and (8) samadhi (superconscious perception). This is the Eightfold Path of Yoga which leads one to the final goal of Kaivalya (Absoluteness), a term which might be more comprehensibly put as "realization of the Truth beyond all intellectual apprehension." Examples cited under Raja Yoga include The Self-Realization Fellowship, and the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.

The Shamanistic path replaces the solitude and silence of the yogi with "rituals which use repetitive sound and movement in order to generate trance states to propel him into the world of spirits, and power animals, gods and guardians." These rituals often involve drums, rattles, dance and sometimes psychoactive drugs. The Shaman's path has some parallels to the contemporary work of psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, and the writings and experiments of Aldous Huxley et al. with psychedelics.

The Way of the Heart involves seeking to transcend the egoic mind through devotional practices, contemplation and experiential union with the Divine Principle. Examples of the Way of the Heart include Christianity, Sufism, and Bhakti Yoga.

Housden rightly indicates that Christianity in recent decades has had to compete with the influx of traditions from the East which are rich in practices of meditation and self-inquiry. Particularly noteworthy are the books and lectures of three men in particular who brought the practices of Zen to the attention of the Christian public. Father William Johnston, Dom Aelred Graham and Thomas Merton. All three men pointed out the excess of dogma and reliance on belief present in the Church, and suggested there were lessons to be learned from Buddhism. Quoting from Thomas Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite,

"[Buddhism] seeks not to explain but to pay attention, to become aware... in other words to develop a certain kind of consciousness that is above and beyond deception by verbal formulas—or by emotional excitement."

Dom Aelred indicates that as long Christ is conceived only as an historical person outside our own experiences, there is no framework to allow the existence of Christ living within our own hearts. He writes:

"In Mahayana Buddhism... the faithful are encouraged to believe that the Buddha's luminous state of consciousness, what is held to be his supreme degree of wisdom and compassion, is open to everyone. This is the prospect that is attracting so many in the West to Buddhism today—to which must be added its apparent harmony with much that is disclosed in the sciences of physics and psychology.

To achieve the 'mind of Christ' may well demand a profound re-thinking of Christianity's prayer life. Telling God, reverentially, what he should do and people, indirectly, how they ought to behave, together make up a good deal of the Church's vocal prayers. They are hardly enough for those who believe themselves to be sharers in the divine nature, who wish to realize experientially such a state and make it known to others."

Housden indicates that the early Desert Fathers continue to be the inspiration for the Orthodox Church which, unlike its Western counterpart, has never lost touch with its mystical roots. In recent decades, the heart of Orthodox teachings on interior prayer, known as The Philokalia, a collection of writings from the desert fathers of the early church, began to reach a much wider audience than the Orthodox community itself.

Several examples are given of individuals who have sought to revitalize the practice of individual contemplation from within the ancient traditions of the early Church itself, rather than by referring to the practices of other religions. These include Carlos Carretto, Thomas Keating, John Main, and Mathew Fox among others.

Keating developed the centering prayer, an adaptation of the Jesus Prayer, which helps to create the conditions that encourage the experience of gnosis—an intimate kind of knowledge involving the whole man, not just the mind. You take a prayer word or image and keep your mind on it with a soft attention, thereby calming your mind and making it available to the deeper impulse of the true self.

Fox's Creation Spirtuality is a radical movement, aimed at replacing the fall/redemption model of Christianity with a theology of creation and creativity that celebrates the qualities of Eros, pleasure, play and delight. Needless to say, he was excommunicated for his views. Fox replaces the idea of original sin with original blessing, and instead of seeing sufferring as the cost of sin, Creation Spirituality sees it as the birth pangs of the individual and the universe. Housden summarizes,

"Humanity and the whole of creation is blessed perpetually by the presence of God and the natural response is joy and celebration. What deserves celebration is life itself in all its forms. This means an awareness of and response to nature; ecological necessities; and our inter-being with all other people. Creation-centered spirituality feels the deep pain of existence, yet remains passionate about the blessing that life is, communicating that passion through all forms of art and shared ritual."

And then there are the systems of universal spirituality within the Christian tradition. The great exemplar is Shantivanam, an ashram that is a unique expression of Christianity in Tamil Nadu, southern India. It was started in the 1950's by Father Bede Griffiths, who came to realize that there was as much to learn as there was to give. Hindu spirituality showed him above all that there was the need for interiority. Bede embarked on a careful study of the classical Indian texts and of Advaita Vedanta, the non-dual tradition which characterizes the Upanishads. In the words of Housden, "He saw that in India, everyday life was imbued with a sense of the sacred; that devotion and a sense of awe before the mystery of life were part of the Hindu's ordinary experience."

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and traditional Sufism remains among the most secretive and elusive of all contemporary spiritual paths. Housden states that

"The essence of the Sufi path is known as the alchemy of the heart, a process which both requires and enables action, love and knowledge. Human perfection (enlightenment) is considered attainable through a gradual purification of the personality which enables the lower soul nature to be infused and led by the higher."

The specific practices are somewhat dependent on the school and personal inclinations of the Shaikh. Recitations of prayers and dikhirs (repetitive reciting of God's name) are sometimes made with movement or dance, like the renown whirling Mevlevi Dervishes. Chants are often synchronized to breathing patterns, and involve the body as well as the mind and heart. Individual retreats are also part of a disciple's practice and their nature and duration are determined by the Shaikh. The founder of the Mevlevi school was Jalal'ud-Din Rumi, the great Sufi saint of the thirteenth century.

Individuals that have adapted Sufi teachings to the West include renown George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and more recently, Oscar Ichazo, who founded the Arica School, and Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of The Sufi Order of the West. Housden provides more detail on the Sufi Order of the West which we summarize with the following quote:

"The Sufi Order of the West describes the transformation encouraged by their retreats in alchemical terms. The first half, consisting of three stages, is the 'solve,' or the dissolving period, the 'dark night of the soul' described by Saint John of the Cross. Psychologically, it is a recognition and consequent breaking down of the self-image, the ego sructure that builds up over time. The second half of the process, also consisting of three stages, is the 'coagule.' Central to this is the reconstitution of the person around a spiritual core."

Bhakti Yoga is usually understood as the way of devotion and surrender. The interpretation in Christianity is the surrender of the personal will to the will of God. In Hindu spirituality Christ is replaced by the guru. However, it is an impersonal kind of surrender, not to the person, but rather to the emanation of the Divine through the personal form:

"By holding their image in mind or by chanting their name, one is bringing the attention of the heart round to receive that impersonal love of which they are a living expression. As one's opennness expands, so does the faith in the guru and in one's own capacity to love. They will not ask you to believe anything, nor to make dramatic oaths of allegiance or discipleship. They will not try and hold on to you. Their grace is there; whether you avail yourself of it or not is up to you. This is the method of guru, or Bhakti Yoga."

Accounts of Bhakti Yoga retreats include those led by renown Western teacher Ram Dass—although he doesn't present himself as a guru, instead using expanded feeling and devotion towards God in all his various forms, and those of Mata Amritanandamayi, following in the lineage of the ecstatic devotional saints of southern India.

The Way of the Body touches on the methods of Tai Chi, Yoga, and body movement or dance. In the practice of Hatha yoga, for example, it has been shown that the practice can provide a great deal of tension and anxiety relief. It appears the repeated and complimentary actions of tensing, relaxing, stretching and holding in various postures, coupled to a calm and attentive mind, have the effect of re-programming the body-mind to reside in a calm and flexible state. Another aspect of the Way of the Body involves using physical movement and postures as keys unlocking certain states of mind. Quoting from Housden, this revealing passage summarizes what Jacob Needleman had to say in his book, Lost Christianity:

"I asked Metropolitan Anthony again about the work with the body, about the methods, the exercises I knew were in the Christian tradition—somewhere, in some time. Where did they come from? Where have they gone? I waited for him to continue. He said something about the Athonite Christians having this work with the body and then paused once again. Finally, he raised his eyebrows towards me. "You have been to our service. If you stand in the service with your hands down to the side, with your head slightly down—not too much—your weight evenly balanced... if one does this, one begins to see changes taking place in the body. The breathing changes, certain muscles relax, others become firm, not tense. All this comes from the religious impulse..." Again a pause. He continued, speaking softly and deliberately. "The excercises you ask about originated in this way: from the Fathers observing what happened to them when they were in a state of prayer."

The Way of the Body is explored through the School of Tai Chi Chuan, the Kripalau Center for Yoga and Health, the Yasodhara Ashram Yoga Retreat and Study Center, and the free-form movement retreats of Suprato in Java.

In the Way of Art, the purpose of the art retreat is to provide a context and an art form through which individuals may know the deeper levels of life that exist in themselves and in all things. Housden aptly portrays the Way of Art from an Eastern perspective as follows:

"In the far East many arts and crafts are undertaken as specific ways to the Buddhist ideal of no-mind, the condition of unity in which there is no separation between subject and object. Almost any activity can be practiced in a way which encourages this condition of being; Zen Buddhists in China and Japan have over centuries developed the martial arts, calligraphy, haiku and music specifically for this purpose. The form of the art was less important than the state of mind it could engender. The form, then, was dispensable; a painting or a haiku would often be thrown away as soon as it was completed."

Contrast this to the view of art in the West from the Renaissance until now. John Lane suggests in his book, Art and the Sacred, that the real shift in the West is in the underlying concept we have of the arts themselves:

"... If poetry and painting, music and theatre, will have little more to give us as 'arts,' perhaps they will have much to give as modes of self-discovery, awareness and personal exploration; as aids to the rediscovery of being and existence. Expansion of awareness could become the final end of all creative work."

Housden explores the Way of Art through drawing retreats with Frederick Franck, and retreats exploring symbolic images with Caroline Mackenzie.

The Way of Sound involves the use of singing, chanting, and instruments in an effort to effect powerful changes in consciousness. Sound has a unique capacity to evoke various mental states, one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Buddhist tradition. However, certain mental states when maintained, act as keys towards the expansion of awareness. Housden describes this as follows:

"Sound has been used in every religious tradition since time immemorial. From the individual incantations of the tribal shaman through the chants and mantras of Hinduism and Buddhism, the early Christian plain song and Gregorian chant, the human family has developed a sophisticated awareness of sound which is being rediscovered and applied in new ways today. The Hindu yogi knows which "seed sound" to intone in order to awaken the power of any particular chakra and how to create different mental states and psychophysical energies by using the appropriate mantra. A Native American shaman knows which sounds to make for healing, while the low chanting of Japanese or Tibetan Buddhist monks generates primordial stillness in both practitioner and listener."

The Way of Sound is explored through Healing Voice retreats with Jill Purce, and Naked Voice retreats with Chloƫ Goodchild.

The Way of the Wilderness involves entering fully into relationship with Nature. And it is in this relationship that we have continual intimations of a deeper reality, one that is not dependent on man or his creations. In this environment of realness, over time we become more real ourselves. Nature serves as teacher and guide, keeper of hidden truths, giver of life. Housden aptly quotes the great Nature-lover Henry David Thoreau, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." Several different wilderness retreats are described, including Housden's personally led Sahara Walk, wilderness retreats run by the Upaya Foundation, and the Tracking Project.

Finally, the Solitary Way involves extended retreats in solitude and includes the renown three year Tibetan retreat, and the 40 day Halvet Sufi retreat in which participants eat just enough to sustain themselves—usually only a few dates each day (with the occassional apple and olives). Christ who is said to have spent 40 days in the desert is the original model for this form of retreat. As Housden says,

"It was and remains a work for the strong of heart and mind. There were many in the first few centuries after Christ who lost the good fight and ended up mad. This was so common that special monasteries were establised in the Sinai desert for those individuals whose minds had become unhinged."

In this book, Housden has provided an excellent starting point for those seeking a retreat from the world, for those wishing to spend some time apart for silence and solitude. An informative read, beautifully presented.

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