In our closing circle of the Level III Orff Course, a student made an intriguing comment:
“I’ve been to a lot of Buddhist retreats, but after this, I think they’re missing something.”
No time to follow up, but I hope to find out what precisely he was thinking of. But meanwhile it got me thinking. I’ve been to some 15 intense 7-day Zen meditation retreats (sesshins) in my life and they truly are remarkable experiences. Sitting in silence for 7-days, you not only dig down to some more intense vibration of seeing, hearing, feeling, feel more connected to each moment and the world around you, but you also, in a fundamentally deep way, bond with your fellow seekers without a word being spoken. And I often felt as we were walking rhythmically to the Sutra Hall at 3:30 in the morning that we were doing something truly important on behalf of all sentient beings, healing the world and ourselves through this practice.
But without exception, at the end of the 7-days, the people I felt deep communion with in silence, knowing them through their sitting posture and gestures and the rhythm of their eating and the resonance of their chanting, were now allowed to talk. And it was often (not with everyone) the breaking of some magic spell as personalities emerged and within five minutes I was thinking, “You’re really a strange person who I would never choose to hang out with.” And to be fair, many may have felt the same about me.
But in the Orff retreat, our connection comes from singing together, dancing together, playing music together, joking together, conversing at meals together and yes, also enjoying some deep silent moments together. It’s a different kind of connection from sitting on your own pillow in silence with a roomful of meditators. There’s physical contact, the shared vibrations of the singing voice and resonant drum, the intimacy and vulnerability of expressive dance, the surprise and unique character of creating something together and alone. All with the background common thread of a life dedicated to teaching children.
And so you live two weeks in retreat with a manageable-sized group of some 15 to 25 in each class and the bonds and intimacy formed (never mind what happens after dark!) has an intensity that few experiences in this life can match. And then you return the next year with mostly the same people and then the next, so that by the time you reach the closing circle of Level III, it’s almost impossible to find a dry eye in the house. The tears speak the joy of discovering selves that had been hidden or hurt or wounded or simply neglected. Or developed, but now to a higher and deeper level, always fully witnessed by all. They speak the reminder of how necessary and worthy this work is in the face of the year in-betweens retreats where one is isolated, dismissed, devalued. And of course, they speak of the joy of lifetime friendships (and sometimes marriages!) formed and the sorrow of parting. Truth be told, I never felt that leaving the Buddhist retreat.
So there you have it. Music and Orff Schulwerk and teaching is as bonding and blissful and breathtaking as a Buddhist retreat. And perhaps more so.