A Retreat with Shaila Catherine

Report on Shaila Catherine’s retreat at MAC from December 28, 2013 until January 4, 2014:
The theme of the retreat was “The Beautiful Mind: The Five Spiritual Faculties: Faith, Energy, Mindfulness, Concentration and Wisdom.”

Shaila has been practicing meditation since 1980, with over seven years of accumulated silent retreat experience, and has been teaching since 1996. She has studied with masters in India, Nepal, and Thailand, including H.W.L. Poonja, Buddhadasa Bhikku, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw. She’s the founder of Insight Meditation South Bay, a Buddhist meditation center in Silicon Valley.

About 30 meditators gathered at the Margaret Austin Center near Chappell Hill, Texas to benefit from the teachings of this dedicated Dharma teacher. Mary Yurkovich, Tom Elkin, and Susan Cooley from our Insight Meditation Houston sangha attended for 4 days and departed with nearly half of the group, leaving 16 of us to meditate for the full 7-day retreat.

Our days in Noble Silence started at 6:30 a.m. with yoga or Qigong, and we alternated 45- minute sits with 45-minute walking periods throughout the day, except for silent meals and mindful work periods in the kitchen. We were blessed to have delicious vegetarian meals cooked by master chef Jim Tiebout. Each evening Shaila gave a Dharma talk about how each of the five spiritual faculties can work in balance with one another to set conditions for nonattachment and freedom from suffering. Before lunch she held a question and answer period about challenges in our practice, and we could sign up to have an individual “walking interview” with her during one of the walking meditation session.

I was impressed by the clarity and precision of Shaila’s instructions. As an expert on deeply concentrated states of Samadhi, she describes minute stages and pitfalls of mental processes. She asked us to investigate what triggers restlessness in mind and body, recognizing any way that we are discontent with the present moment. Her advice was to be patient with hindrances when they arise and to explore with gentle curiosity how they feel in the body. Shaila pointed out how often we allow ourselves to be seduced by thoughts and sensual pleasures, which lead to suffering because of their impermanent nature. We practiced noticing the shift from balanced, present attention to seduction and attachment, noting whenever we were pulled away from the breath. She cautioned us not to indulge unwholesome habits once we become aware of them.

Shaila recommended observing when experiences are arising in the present moment, and when we add the concept, “I am having this experience.” Instead of noting simply “pain, pain, vibration, vibration,” we easily slip into thinking, “My knee hurts.” I saw how frequently I identify with and attach to experiences, trying to possess them—how “hearing” can generate the story, “I’m hearing something I like or dislike.” As Shaila reminded us, self- stories take us away from living fully bare experience and lead to “papancha” or proliferation of thoughts and worries.

On the retreat, we practiced developing a wise, calm relationship to our moment-by-moment experiences throughout the day. At the start of each sit, we would establish our posture, a skillful attitude and a clear intention.

My intentions ranged from “Settle down and be still” to “Trust the process” to “Focus on the object of the breath” to “Aim to free the mind.” Instead of squirming when I was uncomfortable in body or mind, I learned to stay steady and attend to the very beginning, the middle, and the ending of in and out-breaths, and even to the pauses between breaths.

My reward was sensing my nervous system relax profoundly and enjoying moments of freedom, gratitude and loving awareness. Although I have meditated regularly since 1988, and I have attended a number of month-long retreats, I had been feeling stuck in my practice before this retreat, as if I were on a plateau.

Shaila’s careful and caring teachings gave me a jump-start that I greatly appreciate. I have renewed motivation and hope about my potential for gradually liberating my mind from suffering.

The Buddha described four kinds of meditative paths to liberation:
One path is slow and painful.
One is quick and painful.
One is slow and pleasant.
And one is quick and pleasant.

The good news is that all those paths work if we apply ourselves steadily with faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.
In the weeks to come, I’d like to review with you in depth some of Shaila’s insights about each of the five Spiritual Faculties. Then, if you’d like to order a copy of Shaila Catherine’s first book FOCUSED AND FEARLESS: A MEDITATOR’S GUIDE TO STATES OF DEEP JOY, CALM AND CLARITY (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008), we could read the book together and practice the meditative exercises that she includes in each chapter.