I just returned from a self-guided, weeklong meditation retreat in a cabin on the Northern Califonia coast with a dear friend and fellow mindfulness teacher. Over the past two decades, Janice Gates and I have taught dozens of meditation and yoga retreats and teacher trainings together, while raising our children like cousins in the same small town. So we’re comfortable gliding spontaneously between meditation in stillness and movement, in silence and speech. We’ve seen each other come undone at the seams many times—and helped stitch each other back together again.
As we drove up to our retreat cottage on the bluffs—our car packed with meditation/ yoga paraphernalia and coolers of fresh fruit and vegetable juices—we were both feeling a little ragged and raw. We surrendered to the wild wisdom of ocean, sky, osprey, sea lion, wind, and sun. Rather than following a rigid structure, our retreat grew and blossomed like coastal sage.
We’d start the day in silence, each greeting the dawn in our own outdoor meditation spot. Bundled in blankets, a mug of mint tea steaming between my palms, I’d sit on the balcony that jutted over the cliff like the prow of a ship–receiving drizzle or sun, enveloped by the sound of crashing surf. I’d ask the sea winds that frothed the waves into foam to blow the fog from my heart. I’d ask the waves to wash the hairballs from the clogged drain of my psyche.
After sipping a green drink, we’d do a long, slow movement practice on our mats by the gas fireplace—focusing on deep fascial release that reverberated through the interconnected layers of heart and mind. Then we’d sit in silence again with online meditation instructions from a favorite teacher. Afternoons, we’d walk for miles on the beach, wordless and barefoot— stopping periodically to sit or lie belly down on the warm sand, where we’d glide between silence and spontaneous mindfulness-out-loud dyad practice on themes such as gratitude or surrender.
Back in our cabin, we’d meditate again, then tune into an online dharma talk or guided heart meditation while the smell of baking potatoes filled the room. After quietly savoring a simple evening meal, we’d check in with each other about how we were practicing with whatever was bubbling through our hearts and minds. Then we’d naturally slip back into silence as we watched the sun set over the water and the moon rise over the hills.
There’s profound value, of course, to the discipline of a formal, teacher-led group retreat—to surrendering to a rigorous meditation schedule that disrupts conditioned patterns of avoidance and delusion. But the healing power of this more spontaneous, emergent rhythm reminded me why–even when I’m leading a more structured retreat–I always include plenty of open time for self-guided, self-empowered practice (as well as to rest and just be). Just as I don’t want to cram a body into the pre-determined shape of a yoga pose (but do want to offer guidance that helps break through habitual constriction and limits), I don’t want to cram a psyche into a rigid schedule (but still want to offer enough structure that practitioners are supported to go deeper).
I’m happy to be returning to in-person retreat teaching and am continuing to offer online retreats. I look forward to practicing together in community–honoring our intuitive wisdom and natural rhythms, inspiring each other to go deeper.