Not One Word
Stephen Levine "sat" for the first time some 30 years ago, after the nutrition company where he worked as a biochemist went out of business. Then 27, he used the unexpected break to learn to meditate at a 10-day silent retreat in California's Yucca Valley. Says Levine: "I went there very uncertain of things, but left with direction and motivation." He soon began working as a nutritionist, eventually launching Alameda (Calif.)-based Allergy Research Group, a $16 million, 30-employee nutritional supplement company. Levine has since attended dozens of retreats, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. "It's addictive," he says. "Being a Jewish New Yorker, I've always needed some grounding."
Meditation retreats have been at the center of Buddhist tradition for thousands of years, but they are becoming increasingly popular with people of many backgrounds and beliefs. The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., for one, had 2,350 people attend its retreats last year, up from about 1,700 in 2002.
Simply put, meditation is a skill in concentration, mindfulness, and compassion, says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of ims. "You focus your attention on something, such as your breathing, and use that attention to look at things from a different perspective," she says. Meditation helps people clear their minds, but also can help them address specific problems. Says Salzberg: "There is a misconception that you have no thoughts when you meditate, but that is not true."
Hundreds of centers throughout the country offer classes and workshops in meditation, often referred to as "sitting." (Go to shambhalasun.com to search for centers by state.) Once you become comfortable with meditation, you can practice it anywhere. But if you're looking for a deeper experience, consider a retreat. Multi-day sessions, which typically last a week or longer, provide an ideal setting for introspection. Beginners may want to test the waters by first attending a weekend retreat, but Salzberg says people shouldn't feel intimidated by longer ones.
Most retreats serve vegetarian food and are extremely environmentally conscious; some even ask meditators to use unscented personal care products. At some centers, volunteers work an hour or so each day, usually preparing food or cleaning up, sometimes in exchange for reduced fees. Costs range between $50 and $100 a day for meals, no-frills accommodation, and instruction.
When students arrive, they leave behind cell phones, computers, and other distractions to spend their days alternating between periods of sitting, walking, and eating, all while remaining silent. Students can ask questions of instructors, but chatter between students is discouraged. "Our normal identities and hierarchies don't have a place there," says Salzberg.
That can be a tough adjustment. "It can take a few days to settle into the routine and be comfortable," says Levine, and the experience of deep introspection can be difficult. "You often experience pain or fear, but if you can confront these things you come out feeling better," he says. As for the spiritual high, it often continues long after he leaves: "I'm more thoughtful about every part of my life. It's hard to explain. But the outcome is just wonderful."
By Sarah Max