On Doing No Harm and Silent Retreats


If you've been on a silent mindfulness retreat in the US--the secular kind--at the start there's talk of foundational principles for the days or week(s). These precepts begin with the notion of doing no harm. There might be an invitation to noticing the moment when you want to clap a mosquito out of existence. Maybe that mosquito and you can co-exist. Maybe they deserve to live as much as you do.


This usually gets a warm chuckle from the group.


Playing with Habits

There's also the notion of using retreat time to reflect on and play with your non-retreat habits. There are no phones or reading or music as a matter of policy, but we're talking here about the other choices you make that aren't even choices anymore for you. You wake up and have coffee. You always walk to the right when you go into a room. You brush your teeth in a certain way. You fill your plate with food.


Speaking of food . . .

When the ground rules have been explained, maybe there's a brief sit or maybe you're off to dinner. You've done mindful eating at least once, formally, so there's a lot to think about--or not think about, but to be with--when it comes to food.


About that No Harm Thing . . .


Here's a sample Mary Martin experience:


After all of the talk about doing no harm, upon walking into the dining hall I recognize an unmistakable smell. Roasted animal bodies. I always know it's coming because when I register for the retreat I am asked about my dietary preferences. Still, it's perplexing that the animals on the menu have never been mentioned in the context of doing no harm. Enter . . . The Unwanted. I don't want to have to think about this, but here it is, and it will continue to meet me, three times a day, for the duration of the retreat. So much fodder for practice, right? I suppose.


Eating Animals is the Default

Every dining hall I have walked into (again, US-based, secular mindfulness) has body parts in giant pans that I have to work at to avoid. I grew up eating animals, so I saw and smelled that and found it appealing for years. But I just find it so at odds with the conversation about (no) harm. And it is challenging to work with this--to have this contradiction be a running theme for my retreat. Then again, I suppose something has to occupy that space.


On Safe Spaces

There's a lot of talk of safe spaces in the mindfulness community and that's fantastic. When I took David Treleaven's Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness last year, I found so much more to relate to than I thought I would. I always want to be a better teacher and person, but I was surprised by something I felt that was similar to the topic at hand. I realized that at most retreats, I could never talk about what I have seen in my journey to veganism (you are invited to speak at several points). I wouldn't do that to people. It would be all kinds of triggering for them and it would be unfair to dump my experiences on them. These are things you cannot un-think about. Unsee or un-visualize. They are with you forever and inform your choices. The decision to share them is not one made lightly.


My silence on silent retreats has an extra layer. It has the quality of being silenced. From the very beginning, when doing no harm doesn't mention the obvious, the message is clear. Compassion for others is selective, and my brand of compassion is at the very least inconvenient and undesirable. The unwanted.

© 2020 by Mary Martin, Ph.D. 

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Jupiter, FL