Embracing Challenge: The Dedicated Practitioners' Program
Spirit Rock will offer the third Dedicated Practitioners' Program (DPP III) starting in 2008 (through 2010). The DPP is an intensive two-year, five retreat lay practice period designed for experienced students of Insight meditation who wish to expand their understanding of the dharma and intensify their practice. Spirit Rock teachers Sally Clough and Eugene Cash will again facilitate the program.
One of the DPP's main intentions is to help bridge the gap between residential retreat experience and daily life so that dharma practice is more continuous in all aspects of participants' lives. "The habit patterns are so strong," said co-facilitator Sally Clough. "The challenges of a busy life are all-encompassing, moving us always towards more busyness, towards more diversification, more chaos, and practice leads us to simplification, focus and clarity. We need a lot of reminders and support to be able to continue that as Western lay practitioners."
The program is designed to provide this kind of support structure throughout the two-year period. It consists of five 7-day training retreats, and participants also commit to the following: maintaining both meditative and daily life practice; working with monthly homework assignments that include readings from the suttas--the original Buddhist texts from the Pali Canon, as well as reflections and meditation instructions; maintaining contact with an interview teacher; and regular meetings with a study/practice partner (aka "dharma buddy").
The training retreats differ from traditional silent vipassana retreats in a number of ways. Perhaps most fundamentally, they are not held in silence. There are typically three sessions a day. Each session lasts up to three hours long and includes a period of meditation practice followed by teachings presented seminar-style, with an interactive element. "Some portion of each session involves the students doing their own inquiry into the material," Sally explained. This often includes an open dialogue with the teacher presenting the material, as well as breaking up into small groups such as dyads and triads for further investigation and discussion.
Although breakfasts are usually silent, many other mealtimes on the DPP retreats incorporate mindful talking. This allows a strong sense of community to develop. "In DPP, one of the things that people have most remarked upon is the power of community that gets created through the retreats not being silent and the fact that they're together over two years attending the same retreats. Plus many of them are in the same monthly classes, and they have a dharma buddy which creates a more intimate one-on-one connection."
Co-facilitator Eugene Cash said, "One thing people say is, 'Oh, I have never talked about my practice before.' We believe there is something missing if you don't have people you can talk to about your practice--a certain kind of support, community and power. The other important thing to mention is that the preeminent value at a DPP retreat is not to be social, not to look good or to have to be some particular way, but how to be authentic and real in the sense of being able to work with what's true as the basis for practice."
Both Sally and Eugene agreed that this authenticity is one of the rich aspects of the DPP, but they also acknowledged that it can be difficult for new participants to adjust to relating in this way when they initially begin the program. "People in our community are attached to silent retreats--and for good reason, they're great and they reveal the dharma," Eugene said. "But the idea that the dharma is only in silence is a very limited understanding. The DPP challenges that limited understanding."
Sally said that although it seems challenging at first, learning to communicate intimately at this level in a skillful way has been very rewarding for people. "There really does become a sense of supporting each other," she said. "And the warmth and community that gets created out of that sense of vulnerability is amazing."
The DPP began five years ago because there was a clear need in the Spirit Rock community for a senior students' program that would provide an opportunity for practitioners to inquire more deeply into the teachings of the Buddha and to more fully investigate them within the retreat format.
"When we had the idea for the program, we wanted to make it experiential-based," Sally explained. "We didn't want it to be a study program where people just came and read and discussed the texts. We wanted to follow in the strong Buddhist tradition of deep investigation so the students could know for themselves. That was very much part of the Buddha's teachings--come and see for yourself--test the teachings against your own experience. I think people weren't necessarily learning the tools in retreat that would help them bring the practice alive in their daily life, so that's always been our intention in the content and even in the structure of the program."
Eugene said, "We wanted to create a structure that really intensified people's attention around the dharma. This includes both studying the dharma--seeing their life through the lens of dharma--and embodying the dharma within their lives. We're not asking people to be monastics in lay life, but to highlight the areas that have typically not been highlighted. We've highlighted meditation for years and years. Well, now let's highlight study. Let's highlight service. Let's highlight relationship. Let's highlight speech in terms of right speech and mindful speech, which are two different but complementary things."
The feedback from the two previous DPP groups has been extremely encouraging. Sally said many of the participants have told her, "It's changed my life. It's the most significant thing I've done in my life." Eugene added, "For the people who really engage the program, it's been life-changing. It's really changed their whole understanding of the dharma, of themselves and of what's possible."
Of course this doesn't mean lessons haven't been learned since the program first began. Sally said, "We were so enthusiastic going into the first retreat. We had a great range of teachers there and a huge curriculum, and we were keen to teach and people were keen to learn. Then one woman who was there, and I'll always remember this quote, she said, 'I feel like I've been in the desert for many years and thirsty, and now I'm drinking from a fire hose.' So we tried to do too much in the first retreat. People loved it, but it was too much for people to take in. We recognized there has to be a balance between the power and the depth of the teachings that we're trying to convey, and space for people to integrate what they're learning."
Eugene added, "The other thing we've learned is how to help support and prepare people to utilize this kind of non-silent form. This is one of the things personally that I'm most excited about going into DPP III. I think we can offer some clarity right from the get-go about how to use the form."
Both teachers agreed that the most important thing for participants to bear in mind when they join the DPP is to participate in it wholeheartedly. "In joining this program, there is a commitment to diving into it and putting the teachings that are given to work," Sally said. "They will have this rare opportunity for two years of intensive practice, and the way they'll get the most out of it is by really engaging."
"The best reason to participate in the DPP is to really plug into the dharma so that its current can take you to awakening, and to plug into it in a way that we've seen works for over 2,500 years," Eugene said. "That's what you do when you take robes and join a monastic community--you plug in fully. We live in a really interesting time where people want to awaken and to be lay people at the same time. I don't know whether it's possible without still plugging in very fully, really making the dharma the center around which our life revolves. The DPP offers the structures that allow one to do that and then they can see what happens."
Additional faculty for DPP III will include Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, James Baraz, Guy Armstrong, Sharda Rogell, Gil Fronsdal, Phillip Moffitt, Julie Wester, Adrianne Ross, Diana Winston, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Norman Fischer and other Spirit Rock and non-Spirit Rock teachers.
The deadline for applications to DPP III is October 1, 2007. Those accepted into the program will be notified by December 1. The first retreat will be held May 12 - 19, 2008 at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in Yucca Valley. The second retreat will be held at Spirit Rock from September 14 - 21, 2008.
The prerequisites for entry into DPP include: a minimum of 5 years of vipassana practice and at least 50 days of silent, residential vipassana or metta retreat practice, plus a reference from a sponsoring dharma teacher who knows you and your meditation practice, and who supports your application to DPP.