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!

 

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

11 thoughts on “The 2014 Summer Retreat

  1. Hi,
    The more relaxed nature of this retreat seems to be similar to that of the secular Buddhist UK retreat of last year, which I attended and which Robert also played a significant role in organising. I was impressed by the more casual feel, in comparison to more traditional retreats, and felt then – as I do now – that this format has a fruitful future.
    However, this is not to say that the traditional (and more extreme) types of retreat do not have their place. The fact that there are many people that attend Buddhist retreats who have no real interest in Buddhism indicates to me that there is both a wider desire, and a wider benefit than might be found in a purely Buddhist context. People attend such retreats for many reasons: from a desire to temporarily escape from the trappings of daily life (of which social interaction plays a part), to mere curiosity. One of the things that I was initially impressed by was the open nature of Buddhist retreats, in that there was no expectation that one needed to be Buddhist to attend (despite my interest in Buddhism, I would not attend if there was such a requirement). Given MWS’s avoidance of dogma and authority, I feel that we are perfectly placed to also offer more traditional forms of meditative retreat – these would benefit from being non-denominational and might not, explicitly, promote the Middle Way Philosophy – although a passive promotion would be present and would benefit the society.

    In short, I think that there is a place for both formats and the MWS may well be ideally placed to provide each.

    Rich

  2. Hi Rich, I do agree that we could offer meditation retreats, but I wouldn’t see the teaching of meditation as separate from the promotion of the Middle Way. It is possible to approach meditation in a distinctively Middle Way focused way, and to link the teaching of the Middle Way closely to meditation experience: that’s an idea I explored in this post last year: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/new-proposals-for-a-practice-framework-in-mws/ . Certainly, if I was to run a meditation retreat I would offer some discussion of the Middle Way, but I wouldn’t set out to necessarily offer the same wider framework of thinking I have tried to offer on the study retreats. There would be less explicit discussion of ethics, politics, science, cognitive biases etc.

  3. Hi Robert,

    I didn’t mean to say that meditation would be separate from the Middle Way teachings/ philosophy. What you have suggested sums up my thoughts really. My feeling is that during a retreat that is specifically ‘meditative/ quietly contemplative’ in its nature, discussion (or group activity) that is too engaging might be distracting and counter productive. However, I also see great benefit in retreats that also offer both – of which the Middle Way Society may be a pioneer.

    Rich

  4. Hi Robert and Rich,
    I attended the recent retreat knowing that I would hear talks on Middle Way philosophy which I hoped would improve my understanding of the subject that I had been trying to absorb over the past year, also to meet the people who shared Robert’s views, but my questions is, does a teaching agenda deter those whom would like to go on a retreat (as I think you were suggesting Rich), or rather choose to attend retreats held at venues which let the experience sink in slowly with no specific philosophy but which include talks with plenty of pointers for improvement in how we think about the way we live. My view is that an interest in MWS philosophy grows slowly over time, it took me ages to reach the point I have reached, by this time I didn’t feel I had jumped in at the deep end, I had waded into the sea slowly until I felt ready to swim freely!
    With some shock I read the R. Dawkins article posted on FB, I thought it was a joke at first that people would pay huge amounts to dine with him, cult followers are scary creatures. I treasure the freedom to ask questions when I have doubts, I can then decide what to make of the answers.

    1. Hi Norma,
      There are plenty of retreats around now that only provide mindfulness training with no further philosophical context. These obviously meet a need, but that need is being met. I’m not sure how much these offer ‘pointers to improvement’ beyond technical ones in relation to meditation or mindfulness. If they did offer pointers beyond that, I would want to ask what standards or judgements those pointers are based on. If meditation is seen only as a way of coping with stress or a way of advancing one’s career, for example, that is also based on various philosophical assumptions. What people see as philosophically ‘neutral’ is often just conventional.

      At any rate, I personally wouldn’t see much point in MWS competing with other providers in offering ‘pure’ mindfulness retreats supposedly without any explicit philosophical context at all. That would just mean that the philosophical (and hence wider practical) assumptions would be left implicit, unexamined, and probably conventional. I do agree with both you and Rich, though, that we could offer some retreats that focus rather more on meditation, have a lighter element of teaching and discussion, and base the Middle Way teaching more closely on a relationship to that meditation.

      1. Hi Robert,
        There is a wide choice of retreat venues I agree that have differing formats, the Middle Way philosophy course is more specific, your aims are clear, I was just pondering a way to widen interest among the general public whom may resonate with some of the MWS ideas once they hear them.

  5. Hi,

    Perhaps MWS retreats that have more of a focus on meditation might serve an alternative purpose than merely serving those that do not wish to explore Middle Way Philosophy in detail.

    I also envisage that once the membership has increased and there is a significant number of people that are familiar with the philosophy, it might be they that might, too, appreciate meditative retreats. As a member of the society, they may prefer to retreat with like minded individuals (at least in terms of the society) than attend a retreat that is either Buddhist or run by a corporate secular organisation. I do not see such retreats as being alternative to those that are more interactive, rather they would be complementary. And if we take the Buddhist model, with its Dharma talks, then there is still scope for some Middle Way teaching too.

    Of course, there are those that may be deterred by the interactive retreats – many people go to temporarily escape the trappings of social interaction. But, with Dharma style talks, such retreats will keep a Middle Way context.

    These are just thoughts for the future.

    Rich

  6. I have attended many meditation retreats over several years in different traditions. This study retreat was very different to any other. I was anxious that a week of intellectual and social activity would prevent any significant deepening of my practice but the reality was completely contrary to my expectations. The profundity of the talks and the discussions combined with the sincerity and openness of the participants resulted in a significantly transformative experience. Integration was established through balancing periods of talking, sitting meditation, group activities and solitary periods. Somehow the integration experienced through each of these activities interacted synergistically for me resulting in a profound shift in perspective and a quietening of my usual sense of self-consciousness. Rather than being distracting or too engaging all aspects of the retreat fed into each other resulting in a new understanding and experience for me which seems more profound and enduring than those I have achieved in silent meditation retreats.
    Thanks to all concerned I am not the same grumpy old absolutist I was beforehand.

  7. Because I had health concerns on the retreat I needed to leave early, so my comments should be seen as applying to an incomplete picture of events, although two days immersion in the process helped to make it intelligible to me.

    Like Norma, I had begun to feel myself engaging with the philosophy in a direct and meaningful way before the retreat. Certain central concepts like provisionality, incrementality and integration had taken on a dynamic embodied meaning for me, although I might not have been able to clearly define them.

    This early engagement was, I think, a product of the reading I had done, the occasional live conversations I took part in via Skype, by posting on and reading comments on the forum; and without doubt my face-to-face meetings with Robert and Barry. I met Norma during the retreat and we travelled a while together en route to the site at Storridge.

    I found the retreat format very agreeable and helpful. Robert’s talks brought the philosophy to life, as each talk offered a succinct ‘bullet point’ introduction to a theme or topic and a helpful elaboration. During and after each talk I saw the relevance of the talk begin to engage with my view of myself, my habitual thought processes and behaviours, and my thoughts about practice.

    I had long since abandoned any serious meditation practice, but – because the meditation sessions had clear relevance to the more propositional practices offered by the retreat, like the talks, as well as the concurrent creative sessions, the structured and unstructured activities involving others (preparing meals, cleaning up, chatting generally etc), and the time to relax and open to the emergent – because of all that, meditation practice suddenly made sense in a way that had previously escaped me. As a result I have a new and happily informed commitment to meditation, and intend to develop it from here on.

    Although my stay was rather brief, it has made a great difference in my life, and helped me to see things in a new light, within a completely different frame of reference than hitherto. For one thing, I am beginning to reframe my absolutist position about being afflicted with a lifelong malignant depressive condition, with all its concomitant associations with intractable trauma, blightedness, and fear. I now see a wider picture with gentler and more generous eyes, and my personal possibilities with a sturdier and kinder heart.

    I can only speak for myself, but I thought the retreat was carefully crafted and offered a condensed but highly accessible (and dogma-free) introduction to the Middle Way philosophy, and to the meaning of meditation. Robert’s facilitation was skilful, subtle and supportive. The venue was homely and surprisingly intimate, although my bedroom was uncomfortably cold. The Worcestershire countryside is truly lovely, and quiet.

    My thanks to all involved.

    1. Hi,
      I feel that my short time at the retreat will leave lasting memories, meditating together, the company at meals and of course the talks all combined well. I was delighted to meet Robert, Barry and Peter face- to -face, having exchanged thoughts online during the past year, also I was very happy to meet Martin, Lennie and John who added to my pleasure. I thank you all for your kindness, in particular Peter for the lift from Reading and Robert for the wonderful flexibily that made my stay possible. I hope Robert that your sense that the retreat had gone well is reinforced by the comments so far. I liked the talks very much and look forward to hearing them again online (not my voice though!)
      The Barn was spacious and light, a shame that this part of August was unusually cold, my thinned blood didn’t help counter the chill, I appreciated having a room on the ground floor, steps were rather hard to manage in places, but the venue was perfect for you young people!

  8. Thanks to Martin, Peter and Norma for the positive feedback and for your respective contributions to the retreat. Norma’s drawing class is pictured and was very much appreciated. What’s more, Norma has offered to do it again on the Sussex weekend retreat! Martin also kept me on my toes throughout with penetrating questions in the discussion, and thus made a major contribution to the quality of what occurred. I’m sorry that Peter had to leave before his planned drama session was able to take place, but perhaps next year!

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