Tag Archives: retreat

The 2014 Summer Retreat

The Middle Way Society’s summer retreat at Anybody’s Barn, Worcestershire, finished yesterday, and I hope that in a few weeks we can put up a page containing various comments from all the Retreatants. However, for the moment I thought I would just post some of my own reflections on it.

The retreat was the first one that has been organised by the society (as the 2013 Middle Way Study Retreat, when the society was founded, was organised by me privately). As such it is a bit of a test-bed, but I expect it to be the first of many (the next will be a weekend retreat in Sussex in November). The overall purpose was to provide a basic understanding of the Middle Way as an approach, combining talk and discussion with practice and allowing the practice to give a wider context to the discussion. So the programme contained two 45 minute meditation sessions (early morning and late afternoon), a couple of hours of talk and discussion (two sessions of about an hour or a bit longer), and a more practical or creative activity in the evening that might take one or two hours. In between there were meals and lots of free time for walks, socialising, naps, reading, or reflection. We had silence up until 10am each morning to provide a focused start to the day, but there was lots of informal discussion at other times.IMG_0648 (3)

I’d arrived at this programme by gradually adapting the model I had initially learned in Buddhist retreats and adapting it so that the Middle Way, rather than an adherence to a tradition of what retreats ought to be like, was the working principle. Balance is vital. For retreats to work, people do need to treat them as a special space, and drop everyday distractions such as their mobiles, TV etc, but on the other hand if people are forced into too much of a ‘disciplined’ mould by an excess of one kind of activity, this is liable to produce an unhelpful reaction. I wonder very much about the long term efficacy of extreme meditation retreats, where people do 8 hours of meditation or more, as though meditation was an end in itself and more of it is necessarily better. If one wants to integrate the effects of meditation into one’s life, I think one stands a lot more chance of doing this through integrated activity: though that doesn’t mean that MWS couldn’t run retreats in the future that put a bit more relative emphasis on meditation.

One thing I think I learned from the retreat is that events that one thinks might be very disruptive are not necessarily so, as long as people maintain commitment to the retreat space. Two people had to leave less than halfway through the retreat, and another stayed locally off the premises and had to come and go a lot because of their personal circumstances. On the rather rigid model of a retreat that I had absorbed from my experience of Buddhist retreats, such things would either just not be allowed, or be regarded as disastrous if they happened. But retreats are for people, not people for retreats. Although I didn’t initially set out intending to be quite as flexible as I ended up being about these ‘disruptions’, I ended up feeling that flexibility of this kind was an important part of the way that retreats need to address conditions for real, embodied people. Ordinary people have all sorts of needs and problems that retreats need to accommodate if they are to help them, rather than excluding people because of the fixed idea that a variation of the normal conditions must be seriously disruptive.

The retreat was relatively small (7 people), and only just financially viable (many thanks to Anybody’s Barn for being flexible with their charges), but if we can attract that many people to a successful week-long retreat after only a year of existence, I’m optimistic that we will rapidly gain more credibility and begin to run an increasing number of viable retreats. The people who came along were quite varied in age, outlook, and previous experience. However, a spirit of practising the Middle Way in handling any disagreements soon came to prevail, and by the end of the week (as often happens on retreats) we had all formed bonds of friendship. If you only came on a retreat to make friends, and that was your only motive, it would still be worthwhile. It’s also impressive how easily on retreat people often get down to handling practical activities (like washing up) in a straightforward and harmonious way.

One of my own major contributions to the retreat was the talks, and one of the other points of reflection I will take away from the retreat is to keep improving the way I handled these. My tendency is to be a bit too much motivated by an overall abstract view of what I am communicating, and to go on for slightly too long, because I think about the issues in a very synthetic way, and am also thinking a  bit more about the importance of the material itself than of the needs of the embodied people I am addressing. I think I improved on this compared to 2013, as I kept most of the talks down to about 30 minutes – but there were still some that went on a little too much beyond this. I also need to be more thoroughly prepared with examples and engaging stories, as sometimes I still have to be prompted to provide these.

Nevertheless, the audience did seem to get a lot out of the talks. They have all been recorded and, as with the ones on the 2013 retreat, the plan is to put them up on the website in both audio form and augmented audio (i.e. with illustrative summaries and pictures in a video format). They were differently structured from the talks I gave in 2013, and included a lot more reference to cognitive biases, drawing on the work I have been doing on these recently. Compared to last year, they were also oriented less towards addressing Buddhist assumptions and more towards just offering a straightforward and practically-oriented account of each topic (though some of the questions in discussion did still involve the relationship with Buddhism). I made a point of ending each talk with specific points about the application to practice. The headings of the talks were as follows:

  • Introducing the Middle Way
  • Space and attention
  • Embodied meaning
  • Archetypes
  • Self and ego
  • Theories and ‘nature’
  • Responsibility
  • Value
  • Authority
  • Groups
  • Time
  • Practice

Even if you weren’t there, I’d be interested to hear any comments about your responses to the format and style of this retreat – i.e. how it sounds to you. I’m also very interested to hear any suggestions for future retreats that you would like MWS to run. For myself I finish convinced that retreats are the heart and blood of MWS. The internet is all very well for spreading ideas, but it is only by meeting face-to-face and encountering each other in greater depth that we can really start to make a positive impact on changing our lives using the Middle Way.

Picture: scene from the drawing class run on the retreat by Norma Smith (photo taken by her). Although this happens to show 5 men, note that there were also 2 women on the retreat!


Announcing our autumn weekend retreat in Sussex, UK,Telscombe YH ‘Meaning and the Middle Way’, 7th-9th Nov 2014. Come and meditate, reflect on embodied meaning, walk on the South Downs, and make friends!  Please see this link for more details and to book your place.

Plenty of places still also available on our Summer Retreat in Worcestershire, 16th-23rd August. See this link.

Middle Way Philosophy Retreat – Aug 2013

My first encounter with Middle Way Philosophy was about 18 months ago on the Secular Buddhism UK site when Robert M Ellis introduced it with the following post: The Middle Way – A core principle for Secular Buddhism? In it he put forward an incremental, provisional, non-metaphysical approach to living a balanced, integrated ethical life. He seemed to do this by taking the Middle Way as the core insight of Buddhism, running with it and adapting it to a more Western philosophical and psychological perspective. At the time, I had felt drawn to the idea of secular Buddhism, especially through the work of Stephen Batchelor with its focus on practice rather than belief. However, what Stephen’s ethical model seemed to lack was a coherent overarching principle that held everything together. Robert’s suggestion in his post was that the Middle Way could provide that. I found this intriguing and decided to investigate further.

Over the next year or so I read several of Robert’s books. Some of them were pitched to reach a wider audience, most notably “The trouble with Buddhism” and “A New Buddhist Ethics” and slightly less so “Truth on the Edge”. These I found very accessible and informative. “The path to Objectivity” and “the integration of desire” were more challenging due to my unfamiliarity with various philosophical terms and there was a fairly high level of abstraction. Nevertheless, they had a coherence and robustness about them along with lots of practical examples which has encouraged me to be patient with my comprehension of this material.

At the same time I got involved in several discussions with Robert online and this process helped me to understand more. Indeed, Robert’s exchanges with other people were what really brought these ideas to life and gave me a more holistic sense of the Middle Way. One of the things that especially interested me about Robert in dialogue with other people was that he would argue his case very articulately and with a lot of critical thought. However if he was presented with a sound counter argument he appeared to be quite comfortable accepting this. It seemed clear that he was more interested in furthering understanding than proving his point. This impressed me. Around the same time, he recommended a book entitled “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schultz about cognitive biases and dissonance. I read it and I thought it summed me up beautifully.

So when the opportunity came along to go on a retreat focussing on Middle Way Philosophy in August in Malvern, I didn’t really have any second thoughts. I’ve been on several retreats in the past few years and the structure of this one seemed to draw on best retreat practice but also had a strong emphasis on the group really getting involved in various integrative practices, in terms of integration desire, meaning and belief. See: Practice

A routine quickly took shape through a process of consultation with the group. The first part of the day was conducted in silence. We got up about 0730, and then sat for the first of two meditation sessions at 0800. These sessions of 45 minutes were not the main focus of the retreat but were there to provide balance. The only ritual was to sit in a circle and we sometimes burned incense. We then had breakfast (there was a rota set up so that we all took turns in preparing and clearing up after meals). I should mention that this first retreat was held at Robert’s house. We were a small group of five people and often with a group of that size in such close quarters I have found that there is often the potential for some friction. However, everyone rubbed along together really well and I thought the early morning silence played a part as it enabled us to feel comfortable in silence very quickly with new people. This is something that maybe we are normally only used to with family and close friends.

Anyway, the silence was broken at 10am when Robert would give a talk introducing a certain aspect of Middle Way Philosophy. The talks had quite a dynamic quality to them as the participants were encouraged to jump in if clarification was needed about anything. This was a really useful in processing and engaging with the topics. The talks generally took just over an hour, then after a tea break we had a group discussion about what we’d understood and felt about the topic, how it related to our experience and what the practical applications were. This seemed to set the tone for the rest of the day as then in contrast to the early silence we couldn’t shut up.

After lunch we had the afternoon to ourselves. Robert’s house is right at the foot of the Malvern hills which have some wonderful walks. Sometimes members of the group would go off together for a walk or a cycle ride but more often than not people did their own thing which for me was great.

We had another meditation session at 5pm followed by the evening meal. Then around 7pm someone gave a talk or introduced some kind of integrative practice. These included talks on the Samaritans and Non-violent communication, an introduction to origami and a drum circle. We also had an evening where poetry was read and songs were sung and played both individually and as a group (it was great fun).

All in all, it was for me a really lovely experience. There was lots of discussion, with some disagreement at times but which was always good natured. There was also lots of laughter, banter and one or two tears too.

At the end there appeared to be a general consensus that Middle Way Philosophy really has something to it. There seemed to be an understanding within the group that moral progress is possible both at an individual and social level. For me personally the Middle Way seems the most coherent and well thought through strategy for helping one to achieve such progress that I have so far come across. I recognise as well that increasing my understanding of it and putting it into practice will be a lengthy process that will take patience and application. However, I think that effort will be worthwhile as simply put, I feel it can help me become a better person.

Finally, there was also a general understanding that Middle Way Philosophy is itself a theory that is provisional and a work in progress. For this reason it seemed to make sense to form a society, so it could be developed further, not just by Robert but by a group of people who can see its potential.

With this in mind, I’ve volunteered to be the treasurer and also to run a regular podcast. I’ve not done either before but I’d like to try and rise to challenge of both (gulp).

Barry Daniel