Without a word

Meg Small is a seeker, and has been ever since her chaotic childhood, which involved frequent moves and an alcoholic father. “My parents did they best they could,” she says now. Hers is a journey that led her first to therapy, then to Catholicism and finally to Buddhism and a 30-year-long dedication to silent meditation and retreats where no words are spoken.

She attends silent retreats ranging from a few days to a couple of months several times every year. At home in Fort Collins she hosts a small group for a silent meditation on Thursday nights. “Sitting in silence for 45 minutes or so has become an anchor for us.”

She was drawn to the Catholic church after meeting a priest who encouraged her to attend a retreat at a Trappist monastery run by Benedictine monks in Snowmass, Colorado in 1987. “I must have had a huge longing,” she said “I loved the Mass, the smells of the place, the silence and the beauty. Catholicism was a good way for me to get into contemplative practice.”

Later she came to know Shinzen Young, who became her first Buddhist teacher. She liked his left-brain approach to meditation. “He was a ‘do this and then do that’ kind of teacher that appealed to the left-brain part of me. Also, he was open to any religion or denomination.”

He explained to Small that the teaching was the software; that it was fine to run on any hardware of her choice. For many years Young came to Sunshine Ranch near Masonville to conduct retreats.

For the last 15 years, Small has considered John Travis, based in California, her guide. “He’s a total ‘heart’ guy, very different from Shinzen Young, and just what I needed at that point in my life. I was seeking joy,” she said.

Small is now retired but during a long and varied career she managed to find time to attend four nine-day retreats every year. “I’m an introvert,” she explains. “Retreats were such a relief for me. They have been described as ‘a huge party for introverts.’”

That doesn’t mean that the experience was always pleasant and positive for Small, especially in the beginning. Long periods of sitting were at first difficult, but became easier with practice. “There were times when I was miserable,” she admits. “On my first retreat I woke up at 3 a.m. with a migraine headache.”

Small describes a typical day at a silent retreat: “You are awakened about 5 a.m. with bells. A one-hour sitting meditation begins at 6 a.m. After breakfast there’s a work period where everyone has a job, such as doing the dishes, necessary to keep the place going. Then there is usually a guided meditation for the group which can number as many as 85 people.

“There’s a yoga session each day. The rest of the time consists of periods of 45 minutes of sitting meditation followed by 20 to 30 minutes of slow, deliberate, meditative walking. Silence is maintained during lunch and dinner, events that tend to become highlights in the day.

“During the evening there’s often a darma talk on a specific topic, the only time when spoken words are heard. Sometimes a retreat will have a specific theme. The goal is always to calm the mind, recognize internal thoughts for what they are, no more important and powerful than say, smelling.”

Small says Buddha was the first neuroscientist. He figured out that our own minds are the problem. She abides by the suggestion that suffering is equal to pain, times resistance. “We all have pain,” she says. “Thinking about it only makes it worse.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in music performance and an MBA at the University of Wyoming, Small spent 13 years working for Hewlett-Packard followed by a stint at the CSU Extension office. When she became restless at work, she joined the Peace Corps and spent her time in the Ukraine, part of the first Peace Corps group to go there in 1992. Out of that experience grew her commitment to helping to facilitate a USAID business growth initiative in Kyrgyzstan which she continues to this day, making frequent trips to the country.

Her commitment to the practice of silent meditation is a constant in her life, wherever she finds herself. “It’s why I’m still here,” she says. She has already made plans to attend a two-month silent retreat in February and March next year at Spirit Rock in California. “That’s if I get in,” she says. The retreat has become so popular that there’s a lottery to participate.

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