|Green Dragon Temple at Green Gulch Farm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
One of the things that I was interested in doing on my sabbatical was a meditation retreat. Over the last few years I had read a number of things on mindfulness, including the great Coming to Our Senses. I was hoping to use the time off to find a location where I could get immersed in the practice of meditation as a total novice.
Luckily where we live, there are many options. There is the legendary Spirit Rock center just a few miles away, and for those looking to drive a couple hours to Big Sur, the beautiful Esalen. In the last week, I learned there is actually a center that offers vipassana retreats right in town. In any case, I found a really nice option in the San Francisco Zen Center at Green Gulch Farms. What sold me on this center was the combination of proximity, cost and sheer beauty. If you have ever driven to Muir Beach you will have driven past the entrance.
Full disclaimer: I did not really know a great deal about formal meditation before going, so everything that I am writing about was based on this one experience.
From the moment you drive down off the main road you feel completely immersed in another world with towering redwoods and eucalyptus, ferns of all shapes and sizes and the cool, clean smell of the ocean in the distance. The temperature was consistently cool, even in the hottest hours of the day when the sun was able to penetrate the canopy over the farm.
I arrived in the early morning and as I ambled down the path towards the main grounds, an owl swooped overhead and perched on the tree next to me. Throughout the day I would see many different types of birds throughout.
The main grounds consisted of the Japenese style Zendo (or meditation hall) surrounded by a number of modern buildings that contained the dining hall, some offices and dormitories. Everything was surrounded by freshly tended native flower gardens. Beyond the main buildings it was possible to enter the actual farm, which is communally worked for the subsistence of the community. It appears that in addition to supplying food for residents and students, there are also plant sales that occur on-site.
About the practice
The practice at Green Gulch was based upon the Vipassana and Zen traditions, the distinctions of both being new to me. For those that are also not familiar, I would summarize them by saying that the Vipassana tradition uses silent meditation and is based on the notion that ‘what happens is what happens’, meaning that there is not necessarily a specific end you are pursuing in your meditation. Rather, you focus on keeping the form and practice and allowing your mind and emotions to go where they will. As far as I can tell, the Zen tradition was based upon Vipassana but has built up quite a bit more in the way of ritual and formality in terms of the postures and forms of the meditation.
At the core of the experience were about four different seated meditation sessions in the Zendo of about 40 minutes a piece. These were alternated with 40 minute periods of walking meditation, 40 minutes of qigong as a group in the gardens (very similar to tai chi) and an hour long silent group meal consisting of soup, salad and bread from the on-site garden. There were also a couple hours of Dharma talks which I could be describe as lectures on various philosophies and practices of buddhism and how they can be interpreted.
It was during the dharma talks that we were able to really get to appreciate our practice leader, Edward Brown, as he took the time to point out to us what aspects of the practice were really important and which were less so. He had a tremendous sense of humor and I thought his teachings were very pragmatic.
Overall Experience – What I would look for next time
I had few expectations going in as I really had no idea what I was in for. That said, I found the time very rewarding and exhausting. I don’t think anyone can really explain to you how physically and mentally tired you can become by meditating all day, but it really does take quite a bit of strength. As a newbie to the practice, I can say they were incredibly friendly to new students. There was also a tremendous amount of diversity amongst our group and other attendees there. I would highly recommend a meditation retreat here, although I might explore the one closer to my home just as a counter point to this experience.
The outdoor beauty was a bonus. I was completely in love with the farm itself and it was just such a perfect compliment for me, given my love of gardening. I look forward to heading back just to explore the gardens some more and hopefully talk to more of their gardeners.
I think the only additional thing I would look for would be a retreat that incorporates some yoga practice. While there was nothing stopping one from practicing on their own here, I think the scenery was so fantastic that it would have been just an amazing complement to the weekend.