Monday, April 20, 2009

Creating The Retreat Experience At Home

A little while back, Sweetie and I participated in a weekend dharma and meditation retreat. It was held over a period of three rainy days in a windowless basement space usually used for dance classes. There was an adjacent small room that contained a kitchen area (some creaky cabinets, shelves and a cooktop) and a sitting area with an old couch, some folding tables and chairs. A very standard public bathroom was across the hall. Fluorescent lighting was everywhere.

Sounds pretty miserable, huh? But it wasn’t. It was really peaceful and cozy. We had such a nice time over the weekend that on our way home on Sunday, Sweetie and I started talking about some of the ways that we could replicate the experience in our home. While it seems counterintuitively materialistic to focus on the Arrangement of Stuff, a good vibe can have an important function in Buddhist practice. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, the purpose of arranging our surroundings properly is to inspire our minds and inform our practice. The theory is sort of Pavlovian – we associate certain appearances with certain states of mind – so when we enter into a space that is set up to facilitate meditation, the atmosphere will act as a trigger to calm us and encourage our practice.

In the couple of weeks following the retreat, we thought about what it was, exactly, that the folks setting up the retreat space had done to create the warmth and peace of the atmosphere. Here’s what we’ve come up with:

No Clutter. The retreat space was fairly sparse and austere. Our home is not. Or rather, was not. In the week following the retreat, we went through a major house-wide purging exercise. We ended up carrying about ten large bags to goodwill, and five large boxes of books to the library. The purge was not easy. Not because we couldn’t let go of our things; rather, it wasn’t easy because it was such an enormous, time- and thought-consuming task. The payoff, though, is enormous. Not only is our house airier, but our minds are too. It was really surprising how subconsciously ‘heavy’ all that stuff was. In a way, the difficulty and annoyance of the purging task is a good thing. It's an excellent lesson to encourage mindfulness in future purchases and accumulation of stuff.

Cleanliness. We noticed this immediately in the retreat space. The floor wasn’t in great shape, but it was without a trace of dust or dirt. Every surface in the kitchen area shone. In our house, we can be pretty lax sometimes with regular cleaning, especially with respect to the floors. We vacuum sporadically at best, and the tile floors in our kitchen and bathroom are lucky to see a mopping once a month. It makes sense to me that a clean environment is healthier and shows a great deal of respect for oneself and one's practice. So we pledged to do a better job of keeping everything clean. And we're seeing a difference. Our home feels more wholesome, and we are much more inclined to sit regularly when we don’t have to brush dog hair out of the way first.

Lighting. This was the aspect where the retreat center folks nailed it most impressively. They turned off all the fluorescent ceiling lights in the main room, and, instead, arranged about a dozen halogen and incandescent floor lamps. Each lamp cast a pool of soft light on the ceiling and reflected off the formerly stark walls to warm up the whole space. All the small tables in the side room and kitchen counters also had at least one table lamp, which added both visual interest and more warmth. I couldn't believe how much impact the lighting had, especially in contrast to the (depressing) halls and bathroom, which were both lit with gray-casted flourescent ceiling lights. In our home, we rearranged some lamps so that they would be more functional, and have gotten in the habit of using softer individual lamps instead of overhead lighting when the brightest light isn’t required.

Color and Fabric. The entire retreat space, including the small sitting room and the kitchen, was decorated with brightly colored tankas and other Tibetan and Buddhist pictures and wall hangings. In the main room, red meditation cushions were scattered over the floor, maroon cloth was draped over the dingy walls, and red and yellow wall hangings were strategically placed, giving the space a great deal of warmth from color. Even in the kitchen area, scarves in rich colors were draped over non-work surfaces and tables. Interestingly, the fact that nothing really matched or coordinated only made everything feel more cozy and authentic. At home, we now have a basket of soft throws, all in various warm colors and fabrics, in the living room (and frequently draped on the couches and chairs). We put colorful cloth napkins and dishtowels on tabletops and under framed photos. Our bedding is a mishmosh of rustic creams, tans and navy. Like the retreat center, nothing really matches. But also like the retreat center, we’ve found that our home is warmer and friendlier for it.

Tea and Snacks. I adore tea. Black, green, flavored, herbal – I drink it all, happily, and in vast quantities. But while tea alone is good, I believe it becomes perfect with a little smackerel of something: some fruit, a cookie, a piece of biscotti. So why it never occurred to me to keep more tea and snacks in my house, I have no idea. The retreat center’s kitchen was stocked with all types of teas and other hot drinks. There was a large hot water pot and a bunch of mugs for the drinks taking up a large part of the counter space. A bowl of fruit and selection of other goodies took up another large part of the counter. Nothing was nicer after a long meditation session than to quietly pour a cup and have a small snack with it. It’s a humble thing, but so nourishing. We now keep a similar selection of our favorite teas and cookies at home, and our electric tea kettle shares a prominent place with a big bowl that we try to keep filled with fresh fruit. I also started storing teas in different glass jars instead of the boxes they came, which keeps them fresher and adds a cozy touch to the kitchen.

In looking over this list, I am impressed by how simple and universal these changes are. Even the darkest and most tired space could be improved by implementing them. And they don’t require spending much money, if any at all. Aside from tea and food, bringing the retreat home didn’t cost us a dime. It was instead a matter of giving our home the proper attention and approaching the task with mindfulness. In the months since we’ve made these changes, we’ve found that both our minds and our practices have benefitted.

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