Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Springwater Center Retreat Review

December 1, 2012

On November 10, 2012 I left my home in Endicott N.Y. to attend a seven day silent meditation retreat at Springwater Center. Springwater is about an hour south of Rochester and about a two hour drive from Endicott. This center was founded in 1981 by Toni Packer and many of her supporters. Ms. Packer was trained in Zen but decided to leave the traditional forms of Buddhism “to work with the essence of meditative practice – attending to what is happening within and without, in the immediacy of each moment.” I had attended five prior Buddhist-oriented retreats and found them to be wonderfully enriching experiences. I was looking forward to the deep peace and sense of communion that extended silence and meditation had brought me in the past.

Three days into the retreat at Springwater I found myself driving home on a dark, cold night.. I had left the retreat center deeply shaken – feeling angry, embarrassed, disappointed and misled. How could something with such promise go so wrong? Equanimity and tranquility turned upside down. Where should I place the blame? Who had failed – Springwater or me? What lessons can be learned? The following description and analysis of my Springwater experience is an effort to turn this disturbing event into a springboard for positive change for myself and, perhaps, for Springwater.

Institutions like Springwater Center are beacons of hope for me. They are places where people are given the opportunity to discover what's important and sustaining. I realize that they exist because of the dedicated, selfless, often difficult work of many people. I was at Springwater for three days. I met individuals who have been involved with the center for decades. I honor and respect the work they have done. I hope they, and others, are able to receive these words in the spirit of goodwill which they are presented.

In faith,

Ferd Haverly

This summer I decided to go on a meditation retreat. I had been struggling with post-retirement malaise and had found prior retreats to be very helpful. The centers I'd attended in the past did not have openings in the time frame I was looking for. An internet search led me to Springwater Center. There were openings for an early November retreat and I was encouraged by the promotional brochure which stated,

Our retreats are unique – there are no rituals, required beliefs, or assigned practices.
The spirit of retreat at Springwater is in being together in the simplicity and open space of silent awareness – in an atmosphere which invites wonder, curiosity, and inquiry.”

This all sounded pretty good to me. I liked the idea of going someplace that would not be promoting a specific tradition or belief system. I mailed in the $560 fee for the seven day event. I started reading material by Toni Packer, the center's founder, and looked forward to the event with enthusiasm and gratitude.

When I arrived at the center I was assigned to a room to share with two other men. The room and all of the center's public areas were attractive, clean and comfortable. There were fresh flower arrangements throughout. The location in the rolling hills of western New York was spectacular. Many large windows, comfortable chairs, beautiful views and an active bird feeder. All very inviting. The center's staff was friendly and helpful. My expectations were high.
I was surprised to find that the retreat was not full and that only three of the approximately 25 retreatants were attending the center for first time. The other two retreat centers I've attended regularly fill retreats months in advance. 

The meditation sitting room looked out over a beautiful late fall landscape of brown fields, leafless trees and rolling hills. Meals were delicious vegetarian fare.

Overall the daily schedule was comparable to other centers I've attended. There were a series of timed and open meditation sessions. The timed sessions were usually one to two hours long with five minutes of walking meditation after each twenty-five minutes of sitting.
The walking meditation was much faster than I've encountered at other locations. The group would rapidly follow each other around a curving path through the sitting hall and dining area. The floor was a beautiful, highly polished pine and traction was tricky in my stocking feet. Maybe this fast walking is part of the Zen tradition from which Springwater evolved. I don't know. I do know that I found it an unhelpful distraction.

There were daily talks by the retreat leader, opportunities to meet individually with the leader and a daily one and one-half hour “dialogue” session.

During orientation I was told that the only two things I had to do during the seven day retreat was to remain silent and to do my daily chore. You were allowed to talk during daily “dialogue” meetings and private meetings with retreat leader or other staff. I was given the responsibility of cleaning the center's toilets. I thought about how pleased my wife would be to hear about my assignment and secretly wondered if this was a task given to “newbies.”

Retreatants were assigned specific sitting areas along the walls of the large square rooms and were allowed to sit any way they wished. About one third used chairs; the remainder sat on the floor. Some sat facing a wall or window. Others faced the center of the room. A large assortment of cushions were available.

There was no meditation instruction offered or given. I found this odd given that the center's brochure states - “we especially welcome people new to meditation.” In subsequent readings I found that this lack of guidance for new meditators is apparently a long-standing policy at Springwater. I don't understand the rationale for this questionable policy.

During my stay at Springwater I attended all of the sessions offered. The fact that every activity was optional made it more like “real” life. (Other centers had been stricter about attendance.) This liberal policy was a good reminder that personal responsibility and spiritual growth go hand in hand.

Meditation sessions went fine for me. As usual, it took several days for my body and brain to slow down and I found myself looking forward to the scheduled sittings.

The daily talks mostly involved a presentation of ideas related to Meditative Inquiry, a philosophy articulated by the center's founder, Toni Packer.

The following extended quote is from a talk given by Toni Packer in 1998. Ms Packer appears to use the terms meditation and Meditative Inquiry interchangeably.

One aspect of meditation is becoming intelligently aware of what we call our conditioning, our habitually unconscious or semi-conscious reactions toward each other and the situations around us...

Meditation is coming into intimate touch with our habitual reactions of fear, desire, anger, tenderness, or whatever, discovering them freshly, abstaining from automatically judging them good or bad, right or wrong...

At a moment of insight there arises a new sense of wondering: "Why do we live bogged down in automatic reactions? Is it the only way of relating in this world?" Will we be seduced into ex-plaining or philosophizing about it, or can we simply stay with what is going on in the light of the question? Genuine interest has a way of kindling energy to illuminate the ways of automatic reactions — for instance immediately getting hurt because of a critical remark, and instantly defending or paying back, and then mulling the whole affair over and over. This is the alienation, the conflict and suffering we all experience.

Sooner or later we may discern the palpable difference between just being here as we are, openly attentive, and the state of entanglement in a web of fantasy about being somewhere else. Can we directly experience this difference without a need to elevate or disparage either state? Every state of being speaks for itself.

The other aspect of quiet meditation is the wonder of coming upon that which is not conditioned, that which is beyond fantasy and remembrance. Sitting quietly, without desire and fear, beyond the sense of time, is vast, boundless being, not belonging to me or you. It is free and unattached, shedding light on conditioned being, beholding it and yet not meddling with it. The seeing is the doing. Seeing is change. It is not what is seen that matters, but that there is seeing, revealing what is as it is, in the light of wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend.”

Ms. Packer is now in her eighties and no longer active in retreat programs but her presence was clearly felt. It seemed that many of the attendees at the retreat were part of the original group that followed her when she left the Rochester Zen Center. I believe that the current “teachers” at the center were personally selected by Ms. Packer to carry on her work.

The main issue that surfaced during my time at Springwater focused around the “dialogue” meetings. The center's brochure states;

There are opportunities for meeting and dialoging with one another, for hearing each other's insights and questions, and delving into the complexities of living and relating together. ..In this open atmosphere, there is space for wonder – we can listen and inquire without the constriction of outer authority.”

Very nice...but, in my experience, not true. I found that the dialogue meetings had a clear agenda and belief system at work under the guise of free, open inquiry. During the three sessions I attended, Springwater veterans appeared to be trying to apply the principles of Meditative Inquiry by asking probing questions about the thoughts and feelings expressed by others.

At the first meeting I made the mistake of trying to explain what I hoped I would get out of the retreat. I was taken aback by the response. It was made clear that any desire or expectation was wrongheaded thinking. It is not dealing with the here and now.

My opinion that serious behavioral issues such as addiction could be helped by insight but also by specific structural supports was questioned. It seemed that it was being said that all that was necessary was for people to experience fully the present moment. All other approaches to life were misguided. Fantasies and dreams that people took refuge in to avoid the reality of the here and now.

I agreed that being conscious of unhealthy conditioning is important...that it is important to be attentive and not react automatically to events. But when I suggested that, for me, there were some factors that persisted through time such as love and faith, that line of thinking appeared to be received as another example of deluded thinking. “Stories” that distorted reality.

The meetings had no clear facilitator and no guidelines for participation were offered. I was one of the few “new” people in the meeting. Terminology was used that I was unfamiliar with such as “shadow issues.” There were also seemingly irrelevant, personal questions regarding the professional background of me and the other center newcomer in the group. “Are you a therapist?”

I did not know what I was walking into. I had no idea my heartfelt expressions would be received with questions rife with judgment.

On Tuesday, the third day of the retreat I again decided to attend the “dialogue” meeting although I had been bothered from the beginning by the group process, tone and unacknowledged agenda. By the third day of intensive meditation I was feeling more open and expansive, but also more sensitive and vulnerable. I should probably have avoided the meeting but I wanted to fully invest myself in the retreat process and to try to avoid making a premature judgments.

The Tuesday meeting was disastrous. When I tried to explain my personal faith, after a woman had mentioned what I interpreted as her personal faith, my explanation was received with the question of “where is this faith?” and overall negative body language by many of the “veteran” participants. This was too much for me. I felt embarrassed and disrespected. I had taken the risk of sharing something deeply personal, something that has evolved over years of inquiry and practice. It seemed that my description of personal faith did not fit the the tenets of “meditative inquiry” so it was rejected. Disdainfully dismissed. This was beyond the pale for me..

I was left with the strong impression that concepts like faith, trust, love, desire, hope all were suspect. Ms. Packer talks of the “vast listening space of no preferences and no judgments.” These meetings were dominated by preference and judgment.

I do not believe these thoughts and feelings I have about the “dialogue” groups are fantasies or misunderstandings. I am not an overly sensitive person and have never left a retreat prematurely before. I have a great respect for the importance and power of group interactions. I have worked for years as a therapist and have led thousands of group sessions. I understand group dynamics and I believe I am able to accurately assess what is occurring. One of the guiding principles for all of my group work was deep respect for the thoughts and feelings of all participants.

I found a quote from Ms. Packer which helped give me insight into my “dialogue” group experience at Springwater. It is in the introduction to the work of this moment.
...ideals are worthless, dangerous,blinding, hindering. And we constantly build them up and take our refuge in them.”

This helps me begin to understand why my reference to “faith” was received the way it was. It seems to me that this rejection of ideals is a dangerous path which elevates personal spiritual goals above moral and ethical considerations.

I read one description of Meditative Inquiry as being a “contextless inquiry into the nature of reality and unsettling to normative human intelligence with its social referencing.” Unsettling indeed.

I am perplexed by the idea of a group functioning beyond concepts, ideals and conditioning. I'm not quite sure if that's possible. Especially if there are newcomers in the group who are not aware of, or in tune with, this agenda.

I tried, to no avail, to make the point in Tuesday's meeting that Ms. Packer's writings appear to reflect a “faith” that love, compassion flow from “insight.”

Insight reveals self-centered thoughts and images for what they are and when the truth of the “self” is laid bare “self” enclosing thoughts abate...Insight dissolves the capsule of separation. Only then can there be love and compassion.” - from The Light of Discovery

Before I left the center on Tuesday I tried to discuss my concerns with Wayne Coger, one of the retreat center leaders and teachers. I told him that the group was very disturbing and that was considering leaving the retreat. I said I felt embarrassed and disrespected by the interactions that occurred. He responded by telling me that the process was, in fact, “deeply respectful' implying that my feelings were invalid.

He then said he understood that it was difficult to have your beliefs challenged. He stated he remembered when he first got involved he was concerned that all his beliefs would be taken away. I was not asked to reconsider my decision.

This conversation took place in a hallway with retreat participants walking by. Mr. Coger initially tried to find a private room but the business office was occupied. I would have appreciated a chance to discuss this privately with him or someone else prior to leaving. If I had had a chance to settle down and process my feelings I may not have left.

I have been on six prior meditation retreats -five at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and one at the Vipassana Retreat Center in Shelburne, Massachusetts. All have been wonderful, fulfilling, inspiring experiences. I never felt I was having a philosophy/world view being imposed on me. I never felt my deepest convictions and beliefs were questioned. I always felt encouraged to find what worked for me and incorporate that into my life.

Much of my post-retreat research has involved trying to better understand the theoretical foundations of both Meditative Inquiry and the dialogue groups.

It appears that the dialogue group structure at Springwater is closely related to dialogue work of world-renowned theoretical physicist David Bohm. Interestingly, both Bohm and Ms. Packer appear to have been significantly influenced by J. Krishnamurti.

Bohm writes in “On Dialogue”

a thoroughgoing suspension of tacit individual and cultural infrastructures, in the context of full attention to their contents, frees the mind to move in new ways … The mind is then able to respond to creative new perceptions going beyond the particular points of view that have been suspended.”

This “suspension of tacit individual and cultural infrastructures” is obviously tricky business.
Bohm published a set of principles for “dialogue” that might be helpful if Springwater decides to develop group process guidelines. These are,
1. The group agrees that no group-level decisions will be made in the conversation. "...In the dialogue group we are not going to decide what to do about anything. This is crucial. Otherwise we are not free. We must have an empty space where we are not obliged to anything, nor to come to any conclusions, nor to say anything or not say anything. It's open and free" (Bohm, "On Dialogue", p.18-19.)"
2. Each individual agrees to suspend judgment in the conversation. (Specifically, if the individual hears an idea he doesn't like, he does not attack that idea.) "...people in any group will bring to it assumptions, and as the group continues meeting, those assumptions will come up. What is called for is to suspend those assumptions, so that you neither carry them out nor suppress them. You don't believe them, nor do you disbelieve them; you don't judge them as good or bad...(Bohm, "On Dialogue", p. 22.)"
3. As these individuals "suspend judgement" they also simultaneously are as honest and transparent as possible. (Specifically, if the individual has a "good idea" that he might otherwise hold back from the group because it is too controversial, he will share that idea in this conversation.)
4. Individuals in the conversation try to build on other individuals' ideas in the conversation. (The group often comes up with ideas that are far beyond what any of the individuals thought possible before the conversation began.)
- All of the above is from Wikipedia entry re Bohm Dialogue
In summary,

Springwater Center is a beautiful, physically comfortable facility staffed by people who appear sincerely interested in the weIl-being and spiritual growth of attendees.

I believe Springwater should provide new attendees with a full disclosure of the process and intent of “dialogue” groups. This should be combined with a clear set of specific group guidelines. Currently newcomers are invited to be part of a complex, difficult process without enough information. The use of these groups to apply the challenging and “unsettling” principles of Meditative Inquiry to personal expressions is inherently disrespectful to underinformed participants. This, as my experience suggests, can lead to serious problems.

There should be stronger group leadership. I believe this is necessary to maintain proper boundaries and explain and enforce guidelines. In the groups I participated in a clearly identified, assertive facilitator could have been helpful in minimizing judgmental responses and inappropriate, irrelevant personal questions.

Additionally, I think that it is important for Springwater to have a specific plan for helping someone having difficulty. This may already be the case but my experience suggests otherwise. I left the center in a very agitated state. Prior to leaving I attempted to reach out to a staff person for support. Instead of support I was told that my reasoning was wrong and my feelings ill-founded. I would have appreciated the opportunity to process my very strong emotions in a private area. In retrospect I feel it was a dangerous mistake to get into my car and begin the drive home in the state I was in. This was clearly my choice and perhaps the staff reaction I received was not typical but I hope in the future other people in crisis receive better support than I did.

Finally, Springwater apparently has a policy of not providing guidance to new meditators. I believe it should modify or remove language from it's promotional literature which says “we especially welcome people new to meditation.”