Open Practice: Why Shinzen Young’s Home Practice Program is Awesome

tweeting during Shinzen Young's Home Practice Program

How big is your body? It’s big as the whole universe or small like the nucleus of an atom, and everything in between. ~Shinzen Young

Many of you who are regular readers of this blog (and those who follow my tweets) know by now that I’m a big fan of Shinzen Young. I just love his geeky and no non-sense approach to the dharma. I consider Shinzen as my primary meditation teacher. However, I have yet to sit with him on retreats or even meet him in person. I just listen to his talks, watch his videos, ask him questions via email, read his instructions and apply it to my daily practice. But even with my limited contact with Shinzen, I still feel a deep sense of kinship and intuitively recognize that he’s the teacher for me. So I’ve decided to make it official that I become his student. You see, it’s not that hard to become a student of Shinzen. No special ceremony. No bowing or taking of refuge. No waxing on or waxing off, or doing the yard work. In short, there are no strings attached. All one has to do is attend his retreats, whether home or on-site. And that’s what I did over the weekend. I finally attended Shinzen’s home practice program. What follows is a first-hand account of my experience with Shinzen’s innovative approach to doing a retreat.

What the heck is a home practice program?

The home practice program is a phone-based retreat developed by Shinzen Young. Here’s a detailed description on BasicMindfulness.org

Many people experience immediate positive effects from Mindfulness, but its real power to foster broad and deep psycho-spiritual transformation only becomes evident through ongoing practice. The problem is that most people are not able to get away on a regular basis to do extended retreats. Without regular retreats it is usually difficult to realize the exponential growth potential of the practice. Family and work responsibilities, the expenses involved and the travel required prevent the vast majority of those ready to take on a regular practice from doing so.

To overcome these barriers I have developed a unique program of monthly phone-based “mini retreats.” These retreats involve guided practice, self practice, group discussion and a chance for one-on-one private interviews with a teacher – just like onsite retreats do. But these retreats are delivered via conference call to your home or anywhere you happen to be in the world. They typically last four hours.

Here’s how it works:

1) Go to http://basicmindfulness.org – pick a schedule and the type of program.

2) Pay the fee for your chosen program(s).

3) You’ll receive the conference call numbers, access codes, and instructions a couple of days before the actual retreat.

4) On the day and specified time of the retreat just dial the numbers, follow the instructions and you’re on your way to four hours of practice.

A retreat over the phone? You gotta be kidding me!

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. I had the same initial reaction the first time I heard Shinzen talked about his home practice program in one of his Buddhist Geeks interviews. A phone-based retreat sounds very bland in comparison with an on-site retreat. Without face to face contact we lose the subtle cues in communication.  And what about the technical issues that might come up? For example: What if I don’t have a land line phone. Skype could work, but what if my internet connection drops off? Yes, I have a cell phone but my signal sucks, even at home. And of course, 4 hours of talk time will drain my battery and my airtime minutes! So these are some of my concerns with a phone-based retreat.

However, after talking with people who actually tried the program I heard nothing but positive feedback. Some of my concerns were actually just that, knee-jerk concerns. In actuality cell phone air time is not an issue because I have free nights and weekend minutes (the phone-based retreats are scheduled on a weekend). Another is that I could charge my cell phone in-between or during the conference call. I also get a good signal at home. So I decided to put my concerns to rest and try it out for myself. Last weekend I signed up for two retreats– Deepening Focus In & Focus Out and Sharpening Focus on Flow — and I’m glad I did.

The Phone-based retreat (Press # to continue)

Over the weekend I told my wife that I’m locking myself in the room for four hours. I asked her to not disturb me unless it’s an emergency. She seemed happy about it because I won’t be bugging her and she could do whatever she wanted while I do my retreat thing. I think she was also glad that I’ll do the retreat at home rather than drive all the way to Seattle and stay there for the whole day. In short, it’s a win-win situation.

For this retreat I relied on my ever-dependable iPhone, with its earphone, so I could hear the instructions better hands-free. Participants were instructed to dial-in 10 minutes before the start of the retreat for the introductions and pleasantries. Upon joining the conference call I noticed that some people in the call are already regulars and they knew each other already. Some had dialed-in from Europe. During the greetings I even overheard Shinzen asking one of the participants about “quantum computing.” Nice. How many meditation teachers ask that kind of question before starting the retreat? 🙂

After the introductions the retreat promptly started on schedule. The basic structure of the retreat is like this:

1) 1 hour and 30 minutes guided meditation with Shinzen. He guides the participants depending on the theme of the retreat. He starts the guidance in the subjective space (feel, image, talk) and slowly moves on to the objective space (touch, sight, sound).

2) 1-hr break. During this segment participants are instructed to practice on their own (e.g. do walking meditation, do simple chores while applying the meditation technique, etc.). Also, during this time, participants can dial Shinzen’s direct number if they want to have a one on one conversation with him.

3) After the break, there is a 30-minute Q&A with Shinzen. During this part of the retreat participants are encouraged to share their experiences and ask Shinzen about specific concerns or questions regarding meditation techniques.

4) 1 hour guided meditation with Shinzen. He guides the participants into ever deeper and broader application of the meditation technique.

I highly recommend to get to know Shinzen’s lingo first before trying out the phone-based retreat. You would have an optimal retreat experience if you’re familiar with Shinzen’s Five Ways before you jump into the home practice program. Here’s a video of Shinzen explaining the five aspects of the Five Ways.

In addition, all the reading and listening materials you need are available on the reading and audio section at Basic Mindfulness. Once you do your homework, you’ll appreciate the clarity of Shinzen’s style of teaching.

Pros and Cons of the Home Practice Program

In general I found the home practice program to be very focused and extremely helpful in developing the meditation techniques taught by Shinzen. I learned a lot in one weekend. However, there are pros and cons to this kind of retreat.

Let’s start with the cons:

– Lack of physical proximity with the teacher could result in loss of subtle cues in communication.

– Less social interaction with the participants.

– Less social pressure to conform. For example, if a participant has no discipline then she could be easily deviate from the meditation session since no one would be watching her during the retreat.

– Technical issues might come up. For example, I got disconnected once during the conference call. I blame my carrier.

And now the pros:

– Anyone from anywhere (e.g. home, library, bus, train, secluded park, etc.) can join in. At one time there were more than 60 people logged in from all over the U.S. and some from Europe.

– Conversations and Q&A are more focused due to less distractions from other participants.

– Less social pressure to conform. For example, participants (especially introverted types) could feel more at ease in the comfort of their own home.

– Less distraction from other people, especially if your sangha is infested with jerks, cute guys/girls, or smelly hippies who gave up basic hygiene 🙂

– It’s cheaper. No need to pay separately for the retreat facility and dana for the teacher.

– More eco-friendly. No need to drive to the retreat center hence less carbon footprint.

– And this is what I like best: Private communication with the teacher. I really appreciate a direct contact with Shinzen Young. He communicates well with his students via phone and/or email. He responds promptly and patiently to theoretical as well as practical questions.

Bottom line

All in all, the pros of home practice program greatly outweighs the cons. Shinzen calls the home practice program a “mini retreat”. It’s not meant as replacement for extended on-site retreats. It’s a supplement to on-site retreats, as well as an alternative for those who don’t have the opportunity to do on-site retreats. I’m looking forward to my next phone-based retreat already.

Maybe in the near future when Second Life is more advanced and the internet has more bandwidth people will be able to do a more satisfying virtual retreats online. In the meantime, the phone-based retreat gets the job done. Give it a try. I’m confident that you’ll agree with me that Shinzen Young’s home practice program is an awesome dharma delivery system.

ADDENDUM: Soon after I posted my first-hand account of Shinzen’s phone-based home practice program I saw this video on ShinzenInterviews channel. It’s an interview by Stephanie Nash with Shinzen about guided meditation on the phone. Check it out for more information on how the home practice program works.

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