Deepening your practice with MSC silent retreats

“Go to the Forest, the Root of a Tree or an Empty Hut.”

– Satipattana Sutta

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Deepening your practice
with silent retreats

By Dr. Kimberly Sogge

This ancient instruction was for the establishment of seclusion as a way to begin training of the mind. In some ways retreats have changed a lot since original practitioners of mindfulness and compassion found peace and seclusion in huts, caves and forests, in other ways the principles of taking sanctuary through retreat are unchanging even in our modern world. Practicing MSC in extended retreat has many benefits. Among the many benefits of retreat practice, here are a few:

  • Establishing practice for beginner meditators whose minds may be easily agitated or distracted by busyness or noise in the daily environment;
  • Helping ongoing practice to be supple, fresh, and growing for experienced students, who benefit from practicing with their community and a range of retreat teachers;
  • Interrupting the habitual self-abandonment and addictive habits of that most of us perpetuate in our modern hyper-connected lives, allowing us a space to re-establish a different kind of relationship to our selves and our world;
  • Allowing hearts and minds to open to the nourishment of an extended soaking in practice for students of all ranges of experience, and definitely for all aspiring teachers;
  • Reconnecting to our own good hearts and to each other in the safety of a very supportive practice environment;
  • Finding seclusion and rest in the present moment, to recover from the challenges and suffering that accumulate over a lifetime, for all.

The Center for Mindful Self Compassion (CMSC) recommends silent retreat practice for those wishing to deepen their personal experience of MSC after an initial introduction through an 8-week course, workshop, or intensive. CMSC also requires annual silent teacher-led retreat practice of five consecutive days or longer, as a prerequisite for teacher training, and as an ongoing professional development requirement for MSC trained and certified teachers.

MSC Retreat FAQs

There is often a wide range of retreat experiences in MSC classes: some MSC students have attended extensive silent vipassana meditation retreats, others have never attended a retreat in their lives. Given the wide range of retreat experience in the typical MSC class, it might be helpful to offer some responses to frequently asked questions MSC students have about moving their MSC practice into a retreat format.

Who can attend an MSC retreat?

Everyone is welcome at most MSC retreats. There may be some MSC retreats for specific communities such as women-only, men-only, POC or LGBTQ where you may want to talk to the retreat leaders prior to registering if you are not sure if you should attend. Retreat teachers vary in their requirements for prior retreat experience for retreatants. Most retreats will require a pre-retreat confidential questionnaire to help you make the decision about whether you feel ready for a longer retreat, and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all potential attendees.

Some MSC retreat teachers may suggest that students at retreats of longer than three days have some prior experience of MSC or mindfulness practice. What will be guaranteed at CMSC sponsored retreats, is that everyone will be offered loving, compassionate teaching, inquiry and support in extended MSC practice in a supportive environment of silence.

Can I do a short version of a retreat?

There are definitely weekend MSC retreats available in the CMSC community, and this can be a wonderful, gentle way to start retreat practice if you have never attended more than a half or one day MSC silent retreat. However, to qualify for MSC teacher training, certification, or ongoing CMSC professional education, an MSC-approved retreat needs to be led by a recognized retreat teacher in mindfulness or compassion practice and must be five days or longer.

Does a weekend away with friends at the spa count for the teacher-led silent MSC retreat practice?

As an action of self compassion, we love going to spas too! However an MSC silent teacher led retreat is a different experience than a spa weekend; MSC teacher led silent retreats are always guided by a trained or certified MSC teacher usually with extensive retreat experience. To qualify as an MSC retreat the MSC silent teacher led retreat experience usually has these elements: seclusion, simplicity, silence, sobriety, community, skilled guidance by a certified MSC teacher, extended time for MSC practices, and some opportunity for inquiry with teachers. Without these components the retreat would not usually qualify as silent teacher-led retreat experience for MSC teacher training or ongoing MSC teacher professional development purposes.

I’m nervous about all the silence. Is there any room for talking at MSC retreats?

While experience has taught us that silence on retreat can be very supportive in reconnecting to our hearts and minds without the obligation of habitual verbal behavior with others, even in silent retreats there are usually times for asking questions and interaction between retreat teachers and sometimes other retreatants. In most retreats there are times for Q & A about practice in large groups, sometimes small group dialogue, and often at least one private small group or individual meeting with teachers in which talking is invited. For communicating needs and requests, there is usually a note system or other communication system for communicating questions or observations to retreat teachers or managers while maintaining the tranquility of
the retreat environment.

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