May 10, 2010
This past weekend I lead my first contemplative meditation Shabbat retreat. It was a great accomplishment for me as it was a way for me to piece together all the many skills and tools that I have picked up on my 30 year journey on this planet. The retreat was held at the Pearlstone Retreat Center outside of Baltimore, MD. It is a beautiful location, with brand new and attractive meeting spaces, great exposure to the natural world, and delicious kosher food. The staff was extremely helpful and made the logistics of retreat leadership very easy.
This retreat was tailored for a small intimate group experience of about 20 individuals who were involved in Judaism and contemplative work in varying degrees. We began with an orientation and basic instruction to meditation. The logistics of silence were discussed and the group held a “soft social silence” from Shabbat candle lighting on Friday evening until 11am Sunday morning. For this practice of silence, participants refrained from speaking to one another and other people who were at the center. The intention of the silence is to allow individuals to pay more attention to their internal world and mind-states, rather than offering so much energy to social interaction. The weekend consisted of a series of workshops and activities including creative and contemplative prayer services, group-blessing readings from the Torah, sitting and walking meditation, a group movement practice based on Authentic Movement, classic Vinyasa Yoga classes, and a dynamic breath workshop based on the Rebirthing Technique. The retreat provided a balance between silence and beautiful chanting and niggun singing. We also shared in a practice of intentional speech.
During the retreat I gave two Divrei Torah that were connected to practice. The first was about the Five Hindrances that can “get in the way” of concentration and awareness. In Israel I learned about these five mind-states as the Five Guests. I appreciated this new perspective as it relates to the Jewish value of Hachnasat Orchim (Taking in Guests). Thus, I explained how we can move from understanding these distracting mind-states as valuable states to witness. They then can be transformed from hindrances to orchim (guests) to orachot (pathways) for exploring how one’s mind operates. The second talk was entitled, “Personal Meaning through Jewish Living.” The topic grew out of my dissertation study and first explored the difference and relationship between meaning through doing and meaning through being. I wanted to address the question, how does the Jewish tradition help me to affirm my sense of aliveness in the world? I offered a few answers to this question from both the doing and being sides of Judaism and came to the conclusion that it would be valuable to collect metaphors and references to being connectivity in Jewish liturgy and texts to understand more deeply the Jewish pathway to meaning through being. An example of such a reference would be from the Lecha Dodi prayer – “HiToreri Hitoreri,” which calls to us to, “Wake up! Wake up!”
During the retreat we created an environment for public Shabbat observance. Pearlstone’ss campus is surrounded by an Eruv, which halachically allows individuals to carry items through public space. The group refrained from using musical instruments, meditation chimes, or electricity during Shabbat in public spaces. As a result the meditation sessions were book-ended with sweet nigunnim or various chantings of the word Shalom. This was an important aspect of the retreat, because the traditional practice of Shabbat itself can be seen as a practice of greater mindfulness, with one’s attention drawn away from a quality of busy-ness and re-focused on Divine connection and personal spirituality.
In addition to the group work and practice, I offerred the particitpants 15-minute individual sessions to check in with me about their experience on retreat in the context of where they are at in their life. In these sessions clients were able to bring up personal issues that have been coming up as they work on cultivating mindfulness. In a way, I was introduced to the “personal guests” that were visiting them on this retreat. My way of being with the pariticpants in the individual sessions was mostly to listen and affirm their experience. At times, I would gently offer an insight as a suggestion for how they might approach a particular issue or problem that was brought up. The insights generally were guiding posts back to the practice of noticing moment-to-moment. The sessions allowed me to connect more deeply with the pariticpants on retreat. They allowed me to gauge if anyone needed any extra attending to by allowing them to express their psycho-spiritual status while on retreat. I approached the time with the participants as a mindful guide or space-holder.
I believe the retreat proved to be a huge success. I measure this by the following criteria:
1.I managed to get at least the number of pariticipants that I aimed for (18 people).
2.Our group held silence respectfully throughout the specified time.
3.We moved through a diverse and dynamic schedule while maintaining a focus on general pracitce to stay attuned from moment-to-moment.
4.Their seemed to be a sense of group support and compassion at the close of the retreat.
5.The participants shared the following positive feedback:
“The Contemplative Shabbat Retreat for Young Jewish Professionals brought me a great deal of inner peace through mindful meditative workshops. The opportunity brought together an intimate group of like-minded Jews who carved out time for personal work. As we sat in social silence for the weekend, we were taught life skills for stress-reduction, concentration, and strengthening the presence of our highest selves under the lens of Judaic tradition.” – S.K.
“Thank you for the wonderful retreat, Zvi. It was very powerful and beautiful and I am in a great space. Please keep me updated on future events. I loved the chanting /singing, the movement, the breathwork, the meditating, the intentional speaking, your facilitation method, the silent meals and all the instruction you gave.” – M.G.
I also noticed a few areas for personal growth in retreat leadership that I would like to work on:
1.I had one participant who joined in the retreat late for a short amount of time and I personally found his presence to be disruptive. He had not received the proper orientation to the environment that we created and I noticed his impact on other participants to be unsettling.
2.We shared the space with another group which was much larger than us and energetically opposite. I prepared the participants for this and we managed to have our own space for practice and eating. Overall I do not think it effected personal experience to much, though I noticed myself getting frustrated when I imagined that the larger group was getting better service and attention from the Center’s staff then us. I admit this was a judgment, perhaps correct, perhaps not, though I think having our own space would have been better, and I was able to practice attending to my own stories as the facilitator.
3.Lastly, I noticed feeling negative about my performace after a particularly intense breath pracitce session. There was energietic and emotional outpouring taking place. I know that I handled the facilitation safely and managed the after-effects by being available and tending to the energy and emotons of certain participants. What I noticed from this was that I became concerned about my performance when I thought the pariticipants were having a “bad” time.
In the end, I was very satisfied with the retreat. I am glad that I stepped up to this challenge with commitment from start to finish. I am greatful to a number of individuals who helped me to retain this commitment. My plan is to continue in retreat facilitation in a similar fashion. I am interested in holding retreats with varying degrees of Halachic observance to make them more accessible to all types of Jews and Jewish interested people.