Reflections on Leading a Contemplative Shabbat Retreat

Dr Zvi Bellin writes:
I recently co-lead a Contemplative Shabbat retreat at Pearlstone Conference Center near Baltimore, MD. I leave the weekend feeling that I am doing the work that I am supposed to be doing. The group consisted of 22 people from New York, DC, Philadelphia, Virginia, Boston, and Baltimore. My co-director was Rabbi Jacob Staub of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Rabbi Jacob is a mentor and friend of mine through the Nehirim community. I feel that our personalities blended well and we created a beautiful container for the group to engage in contemplative practice.

Silent retreats at Pearlstone have a unique challenge that I have not encountered in other settings. We share space with other groups that are talking. At first, I was concerned about this fact. Last retreat, I managed this by reserving a completely separate space of the facility. This year, that space was not available. Also, I wanted our practice space to be held in one of the newer and nicer rooms of the main building. My concern increased when I learned that one of the groups would be a middle school group from a local Yeshivah. When the students checked-in for their retreat, I noted that their rambunctiousness exceeded my imagination. I seriously wondered if this would work out. Our group ended up in a separate wing of the main building. We had our own meeting room (with several huge windows looking out on the beautiful grounds of Kayam Farm), took our meals in a smaller private dining room, and had access to a connected private lounge area. I protected our sacred space by posting signs on all the entrances – “Entering SILENT SPACE. Please enter and exit QUIETLY.” To my delight, our space was seldom “invaded,” and only by the kitchen staff when they were dropping off food.

Our group also shared the intention that we would be impacting the groups around us by our contemplative practice. The other groups were told that they were sharing space with silent Jewish meditators and they can expect to see people walking slowly and not answering their greetings of “Good Shabbas.” (Though we were holding a gentle silence, so it was still in practice to regard others in a way that seemed the least disturbing to one’s inner peace.) It was fun for me, almost a game, to demonstrate to other Jewish people that we were dedicating a Shabbat to slow down and see what was going on inside. I hope that some of those guests will find themselves at a silent retreat one day.

During the retreat, I wanted to give an example of how a desirous thought can occupy the mind. I used an example of sitting and thinking about kissing a man. This felt risky for two reasons: 1. Talking about sexual intimacy in general, and 2. Coming out in such a causal way in a public space where I was holding a professional role. I considered that thoughts about sex come to everyone’s mind during meditation at some point and if I was going to talk about sex, I might as well be honest and not waist energy hiding. I knew I was sitting with progressive-minded people, though there was still that moment’s hesitance – “Is this okay?” I feel good about my decision to open the space up for sex to emerge with less shame, in general and for same-sex intimacy. Similarly, Rabbi Jacob talked specifically about painful memories that can arise during meditation practice. Through our teachings, we created an environment where any piece of anyone’s story was safe to notice, acknowledge and to gently send off. We bring our whole selves to the cushion, might as well be whole with that!

During individual sessions I listened carefully to what participants were reporting. I waited for a thought to come through intuitively and then, if there was space, I shared it. I learned that my initial response should be acknowledgment and an honoring. What thoughts, judgments, and feelings arise for a person is real and true for the person. Before I attempt to loosen a judgment, or create perspective in a thought by guiding an individual back to the practice, I first need to let the person know that they have been received and heard. A key word that resonates for this Shabbat is honoring. Empathy first.

Perhaps the most intense experience I offer on retreat is what I call, “Dynamic Breath Practice.” In this past retreat, I guided the group through two 10-minute sessions of Rebirthing breath work (continuous deep full inhales, completely relaxed exhales). After each session I posed the question for contemplation, “Who am I?” I think it is the most intense because it can be physically demanding to sustain this kind of breath, and there is a quick integration of body-heart-mind that leads to rapid energy release. I know that there is more for me to learn in guiding such breathing sessions, especially with the mix of group dynamics. I would like to commit to learning more.
Finally, I want to share about one assumption that was put in check for me. After retreats that I have attended, I generally have felt a sense of love and connection for the people that I have sat with. My experience is that there is something in the silence that bonds people together, perhaps more solidly than regular social bonding activities. I have received similar feedback from my friends who have attended meditation retreats. What I think I should notdo (which I did this weekend) is say that people can expect to feel bonded when we end the retreat. I feel it created a general expectation about the quality of group cohesion for the individuals sitting. Also, perhaps people were waiting to feel a strong sense of connectivity develop as the weekend progressed. It is probably the case that not everyone at the end of our retreat felt completely integrated into the group. There were also probably those that did not care about feeling close to others in group.

All in all, I am looking forward to growing in this work, leading Contemplative retreats. I feel very nurtured when I get to hold this kind of space for other people. I hope to integrate more of my meaning work into retreat leadership – having personal meaning emerge as a theme that is touched upon and explored through my talks and contemplative exercises.

December 2010

Dr. Zvi Bellin holds a Ph.D. in Pastoral Counseling and is a licensed therapist in Maryland and DC. Zvi directs intimate retreats for the Jewish community that are both spiritually uplifting and intellectually stimulating. Practicing Vinyasa-style Yoga for over ten years, he completed a Yoga Alliance approved Registered Yoga Teacher training at Flow Yoga in D.C. in 2008. His teaching style follows the tradition of blending Torah study with contemplative Jewish practice. Zvi has studied extensively with teachers spanning various Jewish denominations, including, Rabbi David Zeller, Miriam Ribner, Rabbi Zvi Miller, and Rabbi Jeff Roth.