On Retreat Practice by Gil Fronsdal
In the years before he attained liberation, the Buddha devoted extended periods of time to meditation. He considered mediation so valuable that later, even after his awakening, he still continued to practice it. Though his daily life involved both time for meditation and for teaching, periodically, through his life, he would retreat into the forest for weeks and months of meditation before returning to continue teaching and guiding others in their practice.
Since then, many people over the millennia have followed his example by retreating to monasteries and wilderness settings to develop mindfulness, concentration, loving-kindness, and compassion and, most important, to experience liberation. Like the Buddha, many of these people then returned to society and shared the benefits of their practice with others.
When Buddhist meditation was mainly the prerogative of monastics, spending long periods of time in the wilderness or in monasteries was the primary means of engaging in sustained meditation. Now that a growing number of lay people are practicing meditation, our modern world has given birth to “meditation retreats” and “retreat centers,” where people can take time out from their daily lives to benefit from the full potential of deep practice.
Meditation retreats are powerful and nurturing places for developing one’s spiritual practice. With a daily schedule devoted to meditation, retreats foster a degree of continuity that lets the benefits of the practice blossom. By protecting participants from their usual responsibilities and distractions, retreats allow for a full immersion in the practice. As a way of “retreating” from our daily life and habits, retreats make space for the emergence of new perspectives and reflections about how we live our lives.
In our insight meditation tradition, the typical retreat is 7 to 10 days long, though some are shorter and others longer. Most of the day is devoted to meditation, following a schedule that alternates between periods of sitting and walking. There is usually a rest period of an hour or so after each meal. The retreat teachers guide and support the retreatants with daily dharma talks and a morning period during which practice instructions are given. A few times throughout the retreat, participants meet with one of the teachers to discuss their practice.
These retreats are designed to create an environment of simplicity, so that participants’ activities and concerns are reduced to a minimum. To this end, retreatants spend most of their time in silence. That means, for instance, that retreats are phone- and Internet-free zones. While the lack of ordinary social conversation and external stimulus may feel alien at first, over time nearly every retreatant I’ve met has come to value the silence and simplicity found on retreat, qualities that are hard to come by in our harried, always-connected modern lifestyle.
Even though all retreatants share the same pared-down schedule, their personal experiences vary considerably because of the different backgrounds, needs, intentions, and understandings they bring to the retreat. In a sense, there are as many retreats going on as there are participants. On any given retreat, some people discover the immense beauty of a peaceful and liberated heart. Others find themselves face to face with unresolved personal issues. Still others discover the value of slowly and systematically cultivating greater patience, mindfulness or loving-kindness. The practice matures differently in different people at different times and in the various stages of their lives.
Based on my experience as both a practitioner and a teacher of retreats, I have come to view the many functions of meditation retreats as falling into four general areas: recovering, discovering, cultivating, and freeing. Sometimes an individual’s retreat experience focuses primarily on just one of these. Other times, several or even all come into play. Yet along with each of these functions comes the possibility of great joy, peace, and purpose.
Retreats are a great place to recover and unwind from the many stresses of life. For instance, people often come to retreat in a state of sleep deprivation, and for them, retreats provide a crucial opportunity to obtain deep rest, often much better rest than they get on a vacation. For people who arrive carrying significant physical tension, retreats can promote much needed relaxation. For those who have been too busy or preoccupied to tend to their emotional lives, retreats are a safe place to let unresolved emotions surface and unfold. For example, retreats can be useful for someone who’s going through the grieving process after a significant loss. The many days of a retreat can also allow for old, long-avoided emotions to finally come into awareness. Sometimes recovery and healing can happen only after a backlog of tears has been fully shed.
Spending time on retreat can also help a person recover values, feelings, and insights that have been forgotten, neglected, or covered over by daily life. As the familiar concerns of making a living, caring for a family, or dealing with crises recede in the silence, the open space on retreat can help people remember important intentions and priorities on which they want to base their lives.
Retreats give people the opportunity to step out of their regular activities so they can discover what is really going on in their lives. Emotions, thoughts, intuitions, understandings, and unexamined issues have an opportunity to show themselves when one is no longer racing around and distracted by busyness. A retreat can be a chance for people to catch up to their lives. It can be a place to discover a greater capacity for joy and peace than previously known.
Uninterrupted mindfulness greatly enhances the discovery process. Sustained attention and calm can help people see the underlying operating principles they live by. Most people don’t know all the reasons why they do, say, or think what they do. It’s common for someone on a retreat to discover with great surprise that fear, aversion, or desire pervades everything he or she does, both on retreat and in everyday life. Another discovery many people make is how frequently they interpret the events of their lives through a single, deeply held belief or attitude that has no true validity. While these kinds of self-discoveries can be painful and challenging, seeing these underlying tendencies is an important part of becoming free of them.
The sustained mindfulness cultivated on retreat can be likened to looking at our present experience though a microscope. This magnification allows us to see into the universal characteristics of human life. This seeing can be deeper and more transformative than any insight we might have into our unique personal psychology.
While on retreat we can also discover the direct benefits of being relaxed, of letting go, and of seeing clearly. We might uncover and question the beliefs that clinging tightly or being tense is somehow helpful to ourselves or others. And we may come to appreciate that our hearts and minds function much better when they’re at peace.
The mind is not a thing; rather it consists of many mental processes that are influenced by the conditions that bear on them. The mental activities that we engage in are the primary influences that shape which mental processes operate in us and how well they operate. If we frequently worry, we are, in effect, training the mind to worry more. If we spend much of our mental activity wanting things or being angry, then we’re strengthening desire and anger. If we emphasize the mind’s capacity for goodwill, we then cultivate greater goodwill. And if we regularly practice generosity and mindfulness, the mind’s capacity to be generous and mindful become stronger.
An important part of Buddhist practice involves taking responsibility for how our minds are shaped. If we don’t take the initiative, our minds can be shaped by influences we may not want. One of the important ways of taking responsibility is to cultivate those mental processes that bring out the best and most helpful aspects of our humanity.
A retreat is an ideal place to cultivate the mind in this way. It provides the rare opportunity to devote much of the day to developing mindfulness, concentration, patience, equanimity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. It allows time to develop these qualities by repeatedly practicing the mental act of waking up to the present moment and refocusing attention.
As the mind is cultivated it has a greater and greater capacity for being at ease and at peace. Rather than being overwhelmed by the difficulties of life, we have greater inner balance, strength, and wisdom to respond in useful ways to life’s vicissitudes.
For most people it’s much easier to experience deep states of stillness and peace or to be filled with great feelings of loving-kindness or compassion when meditation is practiced with the consistency that’s possible on retreats. Some of the most beautiful states of mind are available to minds that are well developed.
In Buddhism, the processes of recovery, discovery, and cultivating the mind are not ends in themselves. They are important steps in freeing the mind from its mental afflictions. The good news of Buddhism is that it’s possible to free the mind from its contracted states. It’s possible to let go of clinging and the limitations that clinging creates.
While liberation can be experienced anytime and anywhere, meditation retreats are one of the most fertile places for experiencing this freedom. Focusing oneself fully on practicing meditation allows for the clear seeing and strength of mind that is needed before one can let go of clinging, fear, greed, and aversion. Retreats also provide the external support and sense of safety that can make it easier to experience any initial feeling of vulnerability that may come with the release of clinging. For people new to practice, this may be learning to let go of preoccupations with people and things that are not at the retreat. For people who have developed their capacity for insight, it may be learning how to let go of their preoccupation with themselves.
One of the wonderful things about meditation retreats is the way they tend to bring out the best in people. One reason for this is that mindfulness practice helps meditators to be less reactive to their experience and feelings than they normally are in daily life, when mindfulness can be harder to sustain. In particular, meditators on retreat are often motivated to resist impulses to participate in the unwholesome forces of their minds. This aspiration to be free tends to bring forth the most beautiful, wholesome forces of the mind. Retreats are places where people can grow in kindness, generosity, integrity, resilience, wisdom, and compassion.
All the benefits we experience on retreat are not generated for ourselves alone. As we return to society at the end of the retreat, we naturally share these benefits with others. In this way, meditation retreats are the spawning ground for a larger, more pervasive transformation. By recovering, discovering, cultivating, and freeing we become a positive force that can change the world.