Gil Fronsdal: Practicing with Sleep During Retreats
Meditation retreats are wonderful opportunities to bring mindfulness to all aspects of our daily routines. As a large part of every 24 hours is spent sleeping, retreat practice includes being mindful and intentional about our sleep. This is particularly relevant because people’s sleep patterns and needs often change in this setting. With these changes, our relationship to sleep may shift as well. Approached with mindfulness and wisdom, our relationship with sleep can be an important arena for discovering freedom.
First days—settling in
It is not uncommon for people to be tired the first day or so of a retreat. Sometimes this is because they have not been getting enough sleep in their daily lives. Sometimes it is because preparing for and traveling to the retreat can be taxing, especially if it means being busier than usual in the days preceding the retreat. For these reasons, it is wise to simply recognize first-day tiredness as just first-day tiredness. Sleeping in during the first morning or taking a nap after lunch can be appropriate. It is particularly useful to learn how to avoid being angry, frustrated, or discouraged for being tired. There is no need to fight against this tiredness.
Occasionally people do not sleep well the first night or two on retreat. There are many reasons for this. It can be from uneasiness from being with many strangers or it can be from sleeping in a new place. Sometimes it can be from enthusiasm or nervousness about being on retreat. If sleeplessness is caused by anxiety, it is best to try to avoid being anxious about the anxiousness. Rather it is helpful to bring simple, equanimous mindfulness to the anxiety. It may also be reassuring to know that retreats generally are some of the safest places to be. Fellow retreatants’ intention to be mindful and free of obsessions on retreat brings forth kindness and goodwill and creates an environment of openness and harmlessness. It is also helpful to know that when the wake-up bell rings, it is fine to sleep longer if this is clearly what is needed.
Changing sleep patterns
It is fairly common to experience different sleep on retreat than at home. Some people find they sleep more deeply; others sleep more lightly. Some will dream more vividly, others dream less – perhaps with no memory of dreaming at all. Some retreatants will discover they need more sleep while others will find they need less. “Morning people” may discover they do very well getting up to start meditating before the wake-up bell and then going to bed before the last evening sitting. “Evening people” may prefer to stay up late, practicing well beyond the last scheduled meditation.
Given the many individual variations in how sleep is experienced, it is best to avoid having a fixed idea about how sleep should be on retreat. Retreats are a good place to experiment with sleep, learning from the consequences. Too much sleep may cause grogginess; more importantly, too long of a nighttime gap without meditation may interrupt the momentum of the practice. Too little sleep may leave us with less energy to practice through the day. As we learn from these experiments we can adjust accordingly in subsequent days.
Sometimes more sleep is needed on retreats than at home. This may be particularly true when important psychological, emotional, and interpersonal issues become part of the retreat experience. If these experiences are exhausting, sleep may provide both needed rest and a chance for subconscious processing or sorting.
On one week or longer retreats some participants discover that their need for sleep decreases. This may be because retreat life is simpler and less taxing than their daily life. Or it may be that meditation provides a deep rest which substitutes for sleep. Sometimes strong states of concentration are energizing enough to allow for less sleep.
Working mindfully with sleep and dreams
Going to sleep and waking up are important periods on retreats. These are times many people are not mindful, giving in to old attitudes and thought patterns instead. It can be very supportive to one’s practice to be mindful and intentional just before falling asleep and when first waking up. Prior to falling asleep can be a time to check in with oneself and take stock of how one is, and then to consciously bring to mind whatever wisdom, understanding, or intention that may contribute to an inspired and contented state of mind. Sometimes doing a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation while lying in bed can be meaningful, perhaps helping in getting deeper sleep.
How we fall asleep may also affect how we wake up. Spending a few minutes meditating in bed before going to sleep may make it more likely that we begin to be mindful as we wake up. Similarly, when waking up in the morning, spending even a few minutes meditating while still lying down or sitting up in bed can create a good foundation for meditation throughout the day.
When dreams are strong enough or seem significant enough to warrant attention, on mindfulness retreats the approach is to bring mindfulness to the emotions and body sensations that linger after the dream, rather than analyze the content of the dreams. Just as we don’t get involved in stories and interpretations of what is happening while we meditate, while on retreat, we don’t do this with dreams. But we don’t ignore the impact of strong dreams. Because in Insight meditation, the “royal road to the unconscious” is through the body, practicing mindfulness of the body with the emotions that remain from a dream is an effective way for our inner life to unfold.
Even if one has a sufficient amount of sleep, there are many reasons for tiredness during meditation retreats, each with its own antidote. Tiredness during the day may be a sign of sinking into calmness or complacency. While calmness is usually helpful, it needs to be balanced with the appropriate energy and effort. Therefore applying more physical or mental effort can be useful when feeling tired. This might be, for example, sitting up straighter or doing walking meditation, perhaps even fast walking. Other times tiredness is a product of boredom, discouragement, or resistance. In such cases, patient perseverance and/or investigation of these states can be helpful. If emotional overwhelm is the reason for tiredness, it is sometimes best to take a break and do something comforting such as walking outside looking at nature or having a cup of tea.
Some people find it helpful to have a short nap every day during a retreat. The usual advice is to keep such naps short. The longer the nap, the more we interrupt the continuity and momentum of our meditation practice. For those who like to nap, it is recommended they experiment with one ten to fifteen minute nap per day. This may be long enough to be rejuvenating while also maintaining the benefits of continuity of practice.
It is important to learn to practice with tiredness and sleepiness and to develop the skill to keep meditating in spite of being tired. It can be very helpful to learn to not struggle while at the same time continuing with the meditation practice the best we can. Times of dullness, lethargy, lack of focus, and the drifting mind associated with drowsiness can all be seen as times for strengthening equanimity and the capacity to repeatedly start over with mindfulness – maybe every few seconds. Sometimes a bit of sleepiness can even be helpful for meditation because there is less energy available for being distracted.
Because sleep is an aspect of the retreat, it can be important to tell a retreat teacher about your sleep, especially if your sleep patterns or experiences change significantly from your usual pattern. It may also be helpful to discuss with a teacher any persistent tiredness that appears during the retreat.
A meditation retreat is meant to be a safe, meaningful, and supportive environment to engage in a practice and a path of meditation, liberation and compassion. Hopefully it is also a supportive environment in which to sleep deeply and contentedly.
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Reflections on Creating IMC and IRC
As IRC begins a new round of fundraising, this time to expand the premises by buying the property next door, I have been reflecting on what we have created at IMC and IRC.
In my twenties, when I first starting practicing Zen, I had the fortune to live at all three of San Francisco Zen Center’s practice centers. At the time, I viewed these three centers as established institutions, even though they were less than ten years old. As I plunged into Zen practice I took for granted the facilities in which I practiced.
Only recently have I realized how ignorant I was about the fact that those facilities existed due to the devoted work of many people. As a result, I now feel much gratitude, and even a sense of awe, for the generous efforts and support of those who created Zen Center.
This new view of Zen Center comes from being involved with the creation of both IMC and IRC. The devoted, generous efforts and financial support of many, many people have made these two organizations possible. If these institutions now appear to be “established”, I am very happy. We have managed to create vibrant centers where people can practice meditation, hear teachings, and have the support of community. Practice centers concentrate the goodness of many people and so become incubators for bringing forth even more goodness.
When I was a young Zen student I was dismissive of fundraising, organization development, and building projects because I did not see them as compatible with Buddhist practice. But having witnessed how much all my Buddhist teachers, both Zen and Vipassana, were involved in such activities, I now see them as significant practices in their own right, provided we approach them with mindfulness, compassion, generosity, and non-clinging.
Because “established” practice centers benefit many people for a long time, Buddhism has long taught that their creation is one of the great sources of happiness. This has been my experience also. I had not expected to feel as much joy as I do from knowing of the many people who have contributed funds and work to create our centers. I'm also very happy that so many people have benefited from all the programs that having two centers has allowed us to offer. And I am confident that innumerable people will continue to benefit through our practice centers, well into the future.
As we embark on the project to expand IRC with the neighboring property, I am enthused by how much this will enhance our retreat center, continuing in the long tradition of building “established” Buddhist centers. I hope the next generations of practitioners and teachers will begin their practice being able to take for granted what so many of us have created.
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Expanding IRC: Fundraising Drive
You are invited to participate in our drive to purchase the property adjacent to IRC. It includes one forested acre with a 3-bedroom house. When this property went up for sale, an IRC supporter with a vision for the welfare of our center bought the property, with the sole purpose of holding it until we could raise the funds to buy it from him for the $750,000 he paid.
Expanding IRC into the neighboring property is one of our most significant opportunities for establishing a firm foundation for our retreat center. Some of the benefits include:
- Incorporates more woodland, trails, and nature within IRC.
- Improved housing supports the teachers’ participation at IRC.
- Allows for more resident volunteers, creating a more stable foundation for caring for the center and retreats.
- Provides space to build a community room for movement such as yoga and qi gong.
- Provides an additional well for water security.
- Protects the retreat environment from neighbor noise and activity.
~ Ways to Donate ~
Please write Friends of IRC
in the memo and mail to:
Insight Retreat Center, 108 Birch St., Redwood City, CA 94062
and choose the Green “Special Donation” section. Questions or
Gifts of Stock: email firstname.lastname@example.org
or call (831) 440-8858
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Reflections from Volunteer Dharma Day
At the end of April, there was a Volunteer Appreciation Day of teachings and discussion at IRC, and many who offer time and effort in support of the center were able to participate. In return a few participants share what they appreciate about volunteering at IRC, what motivates them to serve and how volunteering benefits their practice.
Tanya Wiser: A not-place for a not-self
I know of no better way to describe IRC. Driving to the volunteer appreciation day I teared up as a deep memory surfaced. I reconnected with experiences of wholeness and a pervading sense of trust that have infused my experiences there. It's like IRC has its own radiant energy because it is collectively held and operates on dana alone. It has no "owner" so it is free to be a "not-place." The absence of paid staff and fees really inspires me. IRC depends on generosity alone on every level (energetic, emotional, physical, financial & operational). Volunteering time here is living the practice, doing service I enjoy because it is for the common good and not for any "me" or "mine". The end result for me is a feeling of safety, and from that arise beautiful states of mind and heart. I'm filled with gratitude and mudita for the trust, vision and commitment of Gil, Ines, Andrea and the greater IRC/IMC community that has been, is and will come to be.
Ryan Oblak: It was wonderful to meet and spend time with IRC's volunteers during Volunteer Day. I find it inspiring that so many people are involved in helping IRC offer no-cost retreats. I've certainly benefitted a great deal from attending retreats at IRC, and knowing that they were made possible solely through others' generosity is remarkable. Being the recipient of such generosity moves me to give back to IRC through my own volunteer work.
John O’Connor: In my personal life I can sometimes be a bit sloppy and disorganized. At IRC everything is consistently done with such care and respect that I feel motivated to be a part of that--to take care with everything. I know there isn't a team of paid professionals who descend on IRC once a retreat is over to “spruce the place up.” It's just us--there is no “them”. While I appreciate the opportunities offered for extended periods of sitting and walking meditation, at IRC it feels like there's a natural progression from those periods to mindful eating, working and just helping out wherever it's needed. I want others to be able to experience that same continuity of practice, where there's no distinction between sitting/walking meditation and "all the other stuff"--there is no "other stuff."
Tanya volunteers during retreats, Ryan is helping to document operations and procedures for the center, and John has helped set up the community hall audio system.
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A Day with Joseph Goldstein
On July 28, Joseph Goldstein visited IRC and offered a rich afternoon of teachings and discussion to a group of meditators who had all benefited from long retreats. For IRC the date was auspicious. It had been exactly ten years since Joseph was the featured guest at IMC’s inaugural event raising funds to allow us to offer retreats entirely on a dana basis.
Little did we imagine then that not only would we be offering dana-only retreats, but that we would be offering them in our own beautiful retreat center. Two years after that inaugural event, a donor made the substantial initial donation that made creating IRC a real possibility, and a search for just the right venue began in earnest.
Fast forward four years, during which many people generously contributed the funds, the planning, and the hard work to make the possibility a reality. The search concluded, the purchase made, the renovations complete, IRC held its first retreat in October, 2012. Only a little over eight years had passed since that inaugural event with Joseph. Being reminded of the arc of this history made Joseph’s July visit especially sweet.
Everyone can share in the event by listening to Joseph’s simple and profound words about mindfulness, available here
Your Questions About Practice
You are warmly invited to send your questions relating to retreat practice to email@example.com
. A teacher will choose one or two to respond to in each edition of the newsletter.
What is the difference between mindfulness and concentration?
Gil Fronsdal responds
: Buddhism views mindfulness and concentration a little differently than how these words are often used in non-Buddhist English. Both are ways of being aware. Mindfulness knows experience objectively; concentration feels it subjectively.
The difference can be described in many ways. One way is through the verbs the Buddha associated with each. Mindfulness is associated with seeing, observing, recognizing, and monitoring. Concentration involves touching, pervading, saturating, and dwelling.
Mindfulness knows what is happening. Concentration feels what is happening. Mindfulness is more closely associated with the mind whereas concentration, especially in its initial stages, is closely associated with an awareness that rests in the body. With mindfulness we are independent of what is known; with concentration we are deeply connected and settled on the focus of our concentration.
Mindfulness is a vehicle to wisdom; concentration is a means to tranquility. We need mindfulness to help us become concentrated and we need concentration so mindfulness can see clearly. The greater our wisdom, the more we can be at ease; the greater our tranquility, the more we can be wise.
With practice, concentration and mindfulness can work together as partners where they equally contribute to a strong, peaceful, equanimous awareness that is free.
Introducing JoAnna Harper and Vinny Ferraro
In January 2015 Joanna Harper and Vinny Ferraro, who share wide experience working with students, at-risk youth and incarcerated people, will teach a silent retreat with Gil.
JoAnna has been exploring spiritual traditions for 15 years, the last 10 in the Insight tradition, and is part of the current crop of Spirit Rock/IMS/IMC
teacher trainees. She has also been trained in the Ojai Foundation’s
council facilitation program. JoAnna teaches both youth and adults in meditation retreats and classes, and is the mother of two children. Both Vinny and JoAnna were trained as teachers by Noah Levine at Against the Stream
Vinny Ferraro grew up tough on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut and at age 20 began recovering from drug addiction and dedicating his life to serving others at the same time. He led youth groups in rehab centers, juvenile halls, schools and halfway houses for ten years before
moving toward mindfulness practice and work in emotional intelligence. Vinny has worked with the Zen Hospice Program
and has trained professionals who work with at-risk youth in using mindfulness-based practices to deal with their own stress and anxiety. He was training director of the Mind-Body Awareness Project
, and more recently has been involved with Mindful Schools
. He also leads the San Francisco Urban Dharma
Mindfulness of Hand Washing
The ordinary activities of daily life can provide easy opportunities for practicing mindfulness and compassion. One such activity at IRC that brings many benefits is hand washing. Hand washing provides a “hands on” opportunity to bring a high level of mindfulness to performing a simple task. It is a time to practice mindfulness of the body as we stand at the sink and bring our hands together in a clear, purposeful activity.
Hand washing can be a time to notice if we are in a hurry, distracted, or indifferent to the value of being present for a commonplace activity. It is also an opportunity to experience the satisfaction of letting go into the simplicity of one activity.
At IRC hand washing is also an important way to care for the retreat community. As most of us know, the most common way colds are spread is through touching objects someone else recently touched with germ-laden hands. Even if you are not sick, your hands can easily pick up germs that you then pass on to others. Avoiding spreading colds is a way to support the retreat experience for everyone and is crucial for people with compromised immune systems.
Just as one isn’t finished with mindfulness of breathing after just a few breaths, so the simple practice of hand washing is not something that loses its value after a few times. Repeated and thorough hand washing can be a vehicle for developing the path of mindfulness. It is also a way to regularly care for and practice generosity to our fellow retreatants.
Work Day at IRC: Saturday 9/13
You are invited to join us for the following Work Days. You may come for the whole day or just morning or afternoon.
- Saturday, September 13, 9 am to 4 pm. (Lunch is included). Please RSVP here.
- Other monthly workdays will be announced. See Workdays at IRC.