After a day’s reflection, and a little bit of adjusting to the re-entry, I realize that I just spent the last weekend participating in an event of unqualified beauty. There was simply nothing that was not beautiful about the three days I spent meditating with a couple dozen other Midwestern souls in a small retreat center in rural south-central Minnesota. There was pain, there was frustration, there was all the madness of our individual minds and the suffering of our bodies, but who we were and what we were doing there was nothing if not beautiful. This was my first residential meditation retreat with the Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis, led by the wise, compassionate, adorable, and apparently ego-free Mark Nunberg.
If you are reading this, you probably already know about my experiences with the 10-day vipassana courses in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. You have read how transformative and freeing this practice has been for me. The Common Ground also practices vipassana, but with a broader interpretation than the very specific technique taught at the Goenka centers. At first I was a bit suspicious of this. The Goenka version is very rigorous and specific. The honing of single-pointed awareness followed by sustained attention to the sensations of the physical body leads to deep insight into the nature and construction of the mind/body phenomenon we experience as the self. It is a powerful method. I didn’t want to lose out on the benefits I know I have received from this.
The Common Ground approach to vipassana, on the other hand, at least on this retreat, was much more open to interpretation and variation of method. The daily timetable was similar to Goenka’s courses. Noble silence. The taking of refuge and precepts. Many hours of sitting each day. But instead of a specific technique, Mark’s instructions were simply “relax the body and mind.” No object of attention was suggested. Nothing in particular to try to do. Just relax and pay attention. Similarly, the theme for the weekend was simply “forgiveness”. More like gestures, images, or metaphors than specific instructions, we each of us went to work on whatever relaxing the mind and body and being mindful of forgiveness might bring forth in a few days of sitting quietly, eyes closed, mind (more or less) alert.
At the closing of the retreat, as the whole community gathered and each shared a bit of what had transpired that weekend, it was surprising and deeply moving to see how many different ways lives had been touched in a few short days. The simple instructions and broad theme were taken up, worked with, absorbed, and practiced in as many different ways as there were people in that room, and each and every one seemed to be touched by some different word or experience or insight that reached them exactly were it was needed for that person, in that place, at that time.
While Goenka’s method remains, for me anyway, a deeply effective means toward lasting change, there was nothing that I could fault with the experience with Common Ground. The fruit, the blessing, the liberation, the result of the practice is evident; the value incalculable. It needn’t be compared. The point is: sit. How rare to stop with the endless machinations of our daily lives, to stop and simply observe what is going on in there, in mind and body. It is not a particular technique or method, but awareness itself that opens us, brings forth transformative insight, and changes us, truly, for the better. And there is the beauty of it. There is nothing but good happening here, and in the company of so many others, that is an amazing thing.