Self-Retreats by Gil Fronsdal
After participating in several teacher-led Insight meditation retreats, whether in person or online, the next step could be a self-retreat, which provides valuable opportunities and challenges for continuing to develop Dharma practice. Self-retreats require greater discipline and resolve than are usually needed at group retreats. Because of this, these retreats can awaken greater confidence in the practice and our ability to do it.
Some people discover they benefit from the radical simplicity of well-prepared self-retreats. Meditating away from everyday responsibilities and concerns can create a sanctuary-like place and time to connect with the Dharma and oneself. It can be a time to allow unrecognized agitation and preoccupations to be known and fade away. The minimalism of a self-retreat can allow for greater letting go, which, in turn, may bring us close to our heart’s deepest values, intentions, and wisdom.
Self-retreats are not for escaping everyday life. They are opportunities to touch something profoundly important about life and oneself that is easily drowned out by daily activities and social interactions. While group retreats can be very supportive and create a unique and wonderful sense of community, self-retreats provide different lessons and discoveries that can appear when we meditate alone, apart from other meditators.
Historically—down through the centuries—self-retreats have been the predominant way to engage in extended periods of meditation, sometimes for days, weeks, months, or longer. In ancient India, Buddhists lived in the forest and other natural settings while on retreat. Rather than having other meditators for support, they had the natural world.
When one begins doing self-retreats, it is helpful to start with one or two days. When the rhythm of practice on self-retreat becomes familiar enough, we can set aside a longer period. It is best not to do a self-retreat longer than your most extended teacher-led retreat; this ensures you will already have familiarity with the rhythm of the retreat from beginning to end.
Self-retreats can be done at home if one has enough privacy. They can also be done in a secluded location where there are no reminders of home and work. In either case, the place should be well-stocked with all that is needed, or else arrange deliveries ahead of time, so there is no need to go shopping during the retreat. Meals can be pre-cooked or simple to make.
Using or adapting the schedule from a teacher-led retreat can create a useful structure and rhythm for a self-retreat. It might be supportive to follow a fixed schedule closely, especially the first few times you practice in this way. Using a schedule can free up a lot of energy that otherwise would go toward deciding what to do next and for how long.
For well-experienced retreatants, who have done both at least six week-long retreats and several self-retreats, it can be valuable to do a self-retreat with no schedule and no clock. Live a simple life where you do nothing extra that is not part of the retreat. Don’t have a plan for when you will meditate, eat, sleep, etc. Do each when you feel it supports your overall retreat. If it doesn’t feel right to do the usual retreat activities, sit by a window looking at nothing until you feel the call to continue with them. Having a schedule-free retreat allows you to be guided by how your practice unfolds.
For people new to self-retreats, it can be helpful to have daily Dharma teachings. These could be recorded talks, for example, from a teacher-led retreat, or short Dharma readings. You might do one or two page Dharma readings, maybe read a few times through the day. People with quite a bit of experience with self-retreats could try having no Dharma teachings. The simplicity of no teachings can help maintain a radical simplicity where everything becomes processed through meditation and the meditative life of the retreat. The practice itself provides plenty of teachings.
It’s most supportive of a self-retreat to have no connection to email, social media, or the web. Such contact can very quickly challenge whatever calm and clarity has developed. But if it’s truly needed, it’s important to commit to a bare minimal connection with it. If you plan to listen to recorded Dharma talks, download them before the retreat, on a device that won’t tempt you to reconnect to the digital world.
One of the significant benefits of a self-retreat is the opportunity for continuity of practice throughout the day. If the daily logistics for the retreat are simple, being alone lessens the chances for an interruption in mindfulness when not meditating. A self-retreat is a time when the whole day can be a meditation, a Dharma life.
Loneliness is one of the potential challenges of a self-retreat. If it is particularly strong, it might not be the right time for a self-retreat. When it is not too strong, loneliness is invaluable to investigate with mindfulness. Being lonely is different than being alone. Loneliness stems from having particular thoughts, reactions, and desires. Seeing these clearly and learning to be patient with them is training in the valuable life-skill of patience. Understanding how loneliness might be connected to significant unresolved emotions can show you where to direct your compassion and mindfulness. When loneliness abates or disappears, you might discover a deeper connection to yourself; you can become your own best friend. Seeing loneliness through to the other side can be incredibly freeing. Social relationships after the retreat can benefit from this freedom. Occasions for being alone may be more welcoming and beneficial after shedding the tendency to be lonely.
Because we are able to design self-retreats for ourselves, it is helpful to include what supports us to practice well. This support may or may not include exercise. Some form of walking or movement throughout the day is important for maintaining balance in meditation. We can choose wake-up and sleep times that work for our biorhythms. We can personalize how gradually we enter and leave the heart of the retreat. Some people benefit from a slow return to daily life.
For longer self-retreats, it could be useful to have some phone contact with an Insight teacher. This could be on as-needed basis or once for a weeklong retreat and once a week for longer retreats.
Meditation self-retreats can be powerful and effective ways of deepening one’s Buddhist practice. They are so valuable that it is best to approach them with respect and humility. Engage in the retreat to see what the practice brings, letting go of expectations and goals for specific outcomes. Practice sincerely and trust the value of practicing with whatever comes.