Men, retreat!

I spent the weekend at a men’s retreat. This bastion of the 1980s and 90s seems to have plummeted in popularity since the millenium (a Google search on “men’s retreat” brings up a scant 434,000 hits), which brings up the burning question “Why?”. Could it be that men are now so bonded and well-adjusted that they no longer need the rituals and self-affirmations of encounter groups. I doubt it!

Still, i found the retreat idea intriguing, especially since it built on a Men & the Environment conference that featured Victoria’s eco-uber-guru Guy Dauncey, whom i’ve wanted to meet for a long time. Man and the (degradation of the) environment . . . call it a hunch, but is there a connection there somewhere? I went to both events.

So the five stages of men’s retreat for me seem to be: trepidation, hope, deliberate participation, fear of hugs and tears, fun, annoyance, bemusement, getting lost in the woods, and hesitant embrasure. (How many is that?) It was an interesting experience. An eclectic 14 guys — no, men, let’s not shy away from the word — many of whom had experienced the movement years before, some drawn to it, some pushed by crises in their lives.

What did we do in those two days? None of your business is my first response. There’s a reason rituals are guarded — their secrecy gives them much of their force. The big surprise for me was realizing that ritual does have power. Heretofore i’d looked upon it as play-acting or metaphor, and assumed that what efficacy it had comes not from the acts themselves but from their attached cultural significance.

The water altar

I was wrong: the ritual itself induces change in one’s thinking and the conduct of one’s life. And it works in ways that nothing else can. The more i think about it (i’m writing this ten days later), the more i realize the extent to which it has affected me. And the greater my dedication to the arts, which i see as ritual in another guise.

Men’s groups, as it turns out, also come with lots of gushy language and touchy-feely superlatives, to which i am NOT attached in this age of rampant and meaningless exaggeration. (That piece of toast was to die for, it was amazing, it totally changed my life! Pah!) So part . . . much . . . most of my reservations are me being uncomfortable with the physical and the sharing aspect of the weekend. I have pretty much NO experience spilling my guts to men, and that brings with it the correspondingly meager comfort level.

The whole exercise is pretty much one of creating a safe place for men to be with each other in a meaningful way, which is the key. There are plenty of safe places for men — work, the bar, the street, a sports field — but none are particularly meaningful and in none of them do we dare spill our guts or say what’s really on our minds. That’s necessary but almost impossible to find outside of the formal men’s circle.

Would i do it again? I would. I probably will. I might even start organizing a men’s group wherever i end up settling down.

Our three elders/organizers need mentioning:

  • Michael Tacon, of the Well Foundation, grandfathered the whole thing.
  • Dr. Steven Faulkner has run men’s groups as part of his medical practice for decades, and was our principal guide through the long Saturday. A steady hand on the emotional volume control. In his words (kind of telling me off for my cavalier treatment of the rites):

[The] purpose of the rituals was to re-enter our own mythological space and reconnect us individually to our universal nature. Once we reconnect to that, then we can return to the work immediately in front of us. Guy Dauncey reminded us that that there is an urgent need for leadership today. We engage where our higher self intersects with our natural skills.

  • John Shields, ex-priest and current executive director of The Haven (25 years of personal growth courses on Gabriola Island — How could i not have heard about this?‘), wound the weekend up with a striking cosmological perspective of, well, the universe and everything in it. The man has presence. Brought tears to my eyes.

The conference and the retreat were organized by the Well Foundation of Victoria. It was held at the YM/YWCA’s Camp Thunderbird, near Sooke.

Dauncey, incidentally, lives in Saanich, Vancouver Island, and runs and puts out the Econews monthly newsletter. If you’ve got those world-in-the-toilet blues real bad, Dauncey’s the pill. (Him and action, at any rate.) The man’s an optimist and a visionary and his uplifting message is oh, so welcome in these dark, dark times. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Ten difficult days

Or, Four Days in Hell, Two in Outer Space, and Back to Hell

“Prison” (the organizer’s joke word for the 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat, also mine) let out this morning, and about 50 happy people dispersed to all points of the compass. It would be difficult to describe the experience in detail, and futile because by design and intent the experience is highly individual.

As well, i managed to break almost every rule in the book during the ten days, so my experience is probably not a decent representation of the course.

One of those rules was “no reading or writing,” but by day 3 i was compulsively keeping illicit notes on what scraps of paper i could find (mostly paper towels) with a pen pilfered from the men’s washroom duty list.

If there’s a chance you may be doing a Vipassana course yourself in the next year or so, i strongly suggest you DO NOT read those notes — not because they contain anything startling or secret but because they may colour your own experience and that would be unfortunate.

That said, there are several things i wish i’d known before going into the course that would have eased my journey, so do read and heed these points:

  1. The course is canned; it’s not a living, evolving thing taught by live teachers. The whole of the instrucion is in he form of videos and taped of S.N. Goenka, the course’s Burmese founder, recorded in 1991. Don’t let that put you off; he’s a very good teacher, even on video. Just know what to expect. There are “assistant teachers” there to answer your questions.
  2. Vipassana is the muscular, pain-is-good boot camp of spiritual traditions. I was expecting something like the feel-good experience of my only other retreat — a candy-ass Zen exercise two years ago — and i was rudely shocked by the rigor and demanding nature of this course. It took days to realign my head. Expect to work hard, and working hard at a meditation retreat means two things: sitting and meditating.
  3. For the love of whatever god(s) you hold dear, put together some kind of meditation seat that you can perch on without moving a muscle for an hour. That’s sixty point zero minutes. Then get used to sitting in it for at least that long. At full stretch you will meditate up to 10 hours a day, and everyone on the course (even the repeat attendees) had trouble with butt, shoulder and back pain. So will you — it’s inevitable — but do what you can.
    One key thing, confirmed by the massage therapist/physical trainer i got a ride to Nelson with, is to maintain your lumbar arch: your lower back should arch forward slightly (a belly-out feeling). This stack your spine into vertical column and elps keep you from hunching forward — an invitation to back pain. Pelvic tilt is the key here: your seat should slope down to the front.
  4. In the initial days of the course, you may descend a mineshaft of boredom so narrow and dark that you will despair of coming out of it sane. I certainly did. At this point you must place your faith in the teacher and the method, and assume there’s a point to the whole exercise. This i didn’t do, and paid the psychological price. Remember, it’s a well developed course that has been taken by probably hundreds of thousands of students. It really does go somewhere, in shipshape logical fashion. Persist. Don’t despair. Or try, at least.

For the curious, i will soon post a hidden page with the (rough, fragmentary log of my 10-day Vipassana retreat.

i’m goin’ in

I’ll be sequestered in a meditation retreat from June 11-22, during which time i’ll be out of touch. The centre is located 30 km outside of Merritt (contact info below). Check out this link to see what i’ll be doing with my days, and wish me, if not luck, then peace and fruitful hours.

Vipassana Meditation Centre of BCDhamma Surabhi
P.O. Box 699, Merritt, BC
V1K 1B8, Canada

Phone: 778-785-4080 (Vancouver), 250-412-5372 (Victoria),
250-469-7180 (Kelowna)
Fax: (toll free) [1] (866) 259-6088

The [gruelling] course timetable

The following timetable for the course has been designed to maintain the continuity of practice. For best results students are advised to follow it as closely as possible.
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out