When my children, Emilio and Claudia, were eight and four, I took them to the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts for our first family retreat. My husband, who could not get vacation time, was unable to join us. Both children had a wonderful time. They loved their childcare groups, the singing and candle lighting in the meditation hall, the buffet-style meals, the friendship of other children, the kindness of parents, and the freedom to run and play. They also enjoyed the opportunity to see where I disappeared to, against their wishes, for a silent retreat each year.
They kept asking me about the silence of the adult retreats. Given the noise and activity level at the family retreat, it was hard for them to imagine IMS as a silent place, although the idea obviously intrigued them. How many hours went by without people talking to each other? Was everyone silent in the meditation hall? In the dormitories? Even in the dining room? The buffet-style meals were a special treat, and they could easily understand that serving meals in this way would make speaking at mealtime unnecessary.
When I returned from my next adult ten-day retreat, my children were looking for ways to ease my transition back into everyday family life. They suggested that we have a silent buffet breakfast the upcoming Saturday morning. After some sharing of ideas, we devised a plan. We would follow the silent breakfast with short periods of walking and sitting meditation. I checked with them on Friday evening to make sure they still wanted to do it. They remained enthusiastic and asked that I invite “meditator friends” to join us, wisely sensing that the participation of other adults would further authenticate our silent time together. Our friend Vincent agreed to come.
The next morning went according to plan. At 6:30 a.m. I went for my usual bicycle ride and when I returned, Emilio and Claudia were awake and playing quietly in their rooms. I prepared a buffet-style breakfast. When Vincent arrived at 8:30 I rang our meditation bell. Emilio and Claudia emerged from their rooms, walked quietly down the stairs, and gracefully bowed to me and to Vincent. We went to the kitchen, chose our dishes and utensils, and silently made our breakfast selections. When Claudia needed help pouring juice, she motioned to me for assistance.
We gathered at the dining room table, sat for a moment, rang our meal bell, and began our breakfast. We ate slowly and without speaking. When either of the children appeared on the verge of distraction or giggles, they looked to me or to Vincent—eating silently, focused on our food—and quickly regained their composure. After finishing our meal, we proceeded to the living room.
I turned our ten-minute sand timer upside down, and Emilio rang the meditation bell to signal the start of walking meditation. Vincent, Emilio and I, with Claudia holding my hand, walked in a line, making slow laps around the living-dining room area. Once Emilio stopped trying to cut in front of Claudia and Claudia stopped pulling ahead of me or dragging behind, our walking meditation took on a steady, peaceful rhythm. When the sand timer emptied, Emilio rang the bell, and we walked upstairs to the meditation room for our sitting meditation. We assembled in a circle on the carpet. After bowing to the statue of the Buddha on the altar, I turned the sand timer upside down once again, and Claudia rang the bell to signal the beginning of our meditation.
The sitting practice was a bit more problematic than the walking. I found myself peeking frequently to monitor my children’s continual squirming. Like all novice meditators, they rearranged their position constantly, often settling into puppylike reclining poses with both legs up in the air, bellies partially covered by small blankets. However, thanks largely to Vincent’s unwavering stillness, Emilio and Claudia stuck with the session, and Claudia rang the bell when the sand timer emptied. We bowed to the statue of the Buddha and to each other. The children then erupted into jubilant activity, rolling around on the floor and talking excitedly. A short while later Vincent left for home, and our family resumed our usual Saturday activities.
Wary of being too excited about our family meditation session, or worse yet, overly attached to its happening again, I was nevertheless thrilled that we had done this together, and I was curious to know what Emilio and Claudia thought of the experience. When we talked about it later, my children said it was fun. They described the silence as “peaceful” and the food as “more flavorful” than our usual breakfasts. Walking and sitting was “sometimes boring.” Having Vincent there was “great” and made it feel “more like IMS.”
My children named this activity our Buffet Retreat, and to my delight, they wanted to do it again. Now, on most Saturday mornings, the Buffet Retreat is part of our family life. Sometimes other meditator friends come, sometimes my husband joins us, and sometimes it’s just me and the kids. We do it only if Emilio and Claudia want to, and I always check with them the night before to make sure they are still interested. Over time we have made a few small changes to our routine. We added a thirty-minute sand timer to the breakfast table, making it easier for everyone to know when breakfast is over. When Emilio and Claudia began arguing about who would ring the bell for the walking and sitting sessions, they decided it would be best to take turns. So they alternate each week, and they keep track of whose turn it is.
One Saturday, after finishing the sitting meditation, we listened to a CD of Steve Armstrong leading the metta chant in Pali, recorded during a retreat at IMS. Looking at the printed sheet for the chant, we talked about the Pali sounds, the English translation, and the meaning of the words. From then on, my children have asked for the metta chant when we finish the sitting. “Let’s sing ‘Pujemi,’” they say. And invariably, at some later point in the weekend, I hear the soothing voice of my son or my daughter softly singing “Sukhi attanam, pariharantu.”
One day when I was thinking about these Saturday mornings, I was struck by a poignancy that had previously eluded me. Before becoming a parent, I had done a half-day self-retreat at home every Saturday morning for many years. I ate a silent breakfast and lunch, and in between did alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation and yoga. Amidst the many and varied events of my personal life and of the larger world, this Saturday morning routine provided me with a strong sense of balance, contentment and refuge. My Saturday self-retreat ended when the arrival of my son made me a mother. Tucked away somewhere behind or between the joys and challenges of motherhood was a bittersweet memory of this forsaken Saturday morning ritual. And without my seeking it, my children have now offered this gift back to me, transformed in a most natural way to fit into our family life.