Insight Retreat Center

An Overview of Retreat Practice by Gil Fronsdal

In the years before he attained liberation, the Buddha devoted extended periods of time to meditation. After his awakening, he continued meditating. Though his daily life included both times for meditation and teaching, he would periodically 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 have followed his example by retreating to monasteries and wilderness settings. There they have devoted themselves to mindfulness, concentration, loving-kindness, compassion, and, most importantly, to attaining liberation. They have explored and healed their hearts and minds. They have delved into profound silence and peace from which great wisdom flows. And, like the Buddha, they then returned to society to share the benefits of their practice with others.

When Buddhist meditation was mainly the prerogative of monastics, spending long periods in the wilderness or monasteries was the primary means of engaging in extended periods of meditation. Now that a growing number of lay people practice meditation, our modern world has given birth to “meditation retreats” and “retreat centers,” where people take time out from their daily lives to participate in a meditative life.

Meditation retreats are powerful and nurturing places for developing spiritual practice. With a daily schedule devoted to meditation, retreats foster a continuity of practice that lets the benefits of the meditation blossom. By protecting participants from their usual responsibilities and distractions, retreats allow for immersion in the practice. As a way of “retreating” from our daily life and habits, retreats contribute to new perspectives and reflections to bring back to our daily lives.

In the 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 sitting and walking meditation. 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 session with meditation instructions. A few times through the retreat, participants meet with one of the teachers to discuss their practice.

Insight retreats are designed to create an environment of simplicity that sharply reduces the activities and concerns that typically distract us from the simple practice of meditation. For this purpose, 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. A settled, peaceful mind is 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. The practice matures differently in different people at different times and stages of their lives. In this sense, there are as many retreats going on as there are participants. On any given retreat, some people discover the immense beauty of a tranquil and liberated heart. Others find themselves face-to-face with unresolved personal issues. Others discover the benefits of slowly and systematically cultivating patience, mindfulness, or loving kindness.

Based on my experience as both a practitioner and meditation teacher, I 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 one of these. Other times, several or even all come into play. With each of these functions comes the possibility of great joy, peace, and insight.


Retreats are a great place to recover and unwind from life’s many stresses. 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 than they get on a vacation. Retreats can promote much-needed relaxation for people who arrive carrying significant tension. 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 helpful for someone who’s going through the grieving process after a significant loss. The many days of a retreat can also allow old, long-avoided emotions to finally come into awareness. Sometimes recovery and healing can only happen after shedding a backlog of tears.

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, time on retreat can help people remember intentions and priorities on which they want to base their lives.


Retreats allow people to step out of their regular activities to discover what is really going on in their lives. Emotions, thoughts, intuitions, and unexamined issues can show themselves when we’re no longer racing around and distracted by busyness. A retreat can be a chance for people to catch up on their lives. It can be a place to discover a greater capacity for well-being than we’d previously known.

Uninterrupted mindfulness greatly enhances the discovery process. Sustained attention and calm can help people see the underlying operating principles of how they live. Most people don’t know why they do, say, or think what they do. It’s common for someone on a retreat to discover with great surprise how much they have based their life on deeply held beliefs and attitudes they can no longer believe. While self-discoveries can be painful and challenging, they are essential if we are to begin to become free of them.

The sustained mindfulness cultivated on retreat can be likened to looking at our present experience through a microscope.   This magnification allows us to see the universal characteristics of human life. This seeing can be more profound and more transformative than any insight we might have into our unique personal psychology.

While on retreat, we can also discover the benefits of being relaxed, letting go, and seeing clearly. We might uncover and question the belief that clinging tightly or being tense is 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; instead, it consists of many mental processes influenced by the conditions that bear on them. The mental activities we engage in are the primary influences that shape which mental processes operate in us and how they do so. 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, we strengthen desire and anger. If we emphasize goodwill, we cultivate more of it. And if we practice generosity and mindfulness, the capacity to be generous and mindful becomes stronger.

An essential part of Buddhist practice involves taking responsibility for the influences shaping our minds. If we don’t take the initiative, our minds will be shaped by influences we may not want or even be aware of. One of the important ways of taking responsibility is cultivating those mental processes that bring out the most beneficial 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. We have time to repeatedly wake up to the present moment and reestablish attention.

As the mind is cultivated, it has a greater and greater capacity for being calm and at ease. Rather than being overwhelmed by life’s difficulties, we have more inner balance, strength, and wisdom to respond in helpful ways to life’s vicissitudes.

For most people, it’s easier to experience deep states of stillness and peace or to be filled with pervasive 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 have been cultivated.


In Buddhism, recovery, discovery, and cultivating the mind are not ends. They are essential 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 clinging creates.

While liberation can be experienced anytime and anywhere, meditation retreats are one of the most fertile places for experiencing this freedom. Focusing ourselves 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 support and safety that can make it easier to experience feelings of vulnerability that may come with the release of clinging. For people new to the practice, degrees of freedom may come with learning to let go of preoccupations with people and things not at the retreat. For people who focus too much on themselves, freedom may be learning to let go of their preoccupation with themselves.

One of the wonderful things about meditation retreats is the way they bring out the best in people. One reason this happens is that mindfulness practice reduces reactivity in which unhealthy impulses may predominate. The attention to the present moment that meditators develop makes it easier to avoid participating in the mind’s unwholesome forces. Instead, the spacious time and simplicity of retreats are conditions that bring forth and help sustain the most beautiful, wholesome states our minds are capable of. 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 when the retreat is over, we naturally share these benefits with others. This way, meditation retreats are the spawning ground for a more significant, pervasive transformation. By recovering, discovering, cultivating, and freeing, we become a positive force that can change the world.