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Community as Part of Retreat Practice

by Gil Fronsdal, from the February 2014 IRC Newsletter

In the West, residential group retreats are the most common form of meditation retreat. In these, community is important to the overall retreat practice, especially as much of the day is spent with others.  Meditation, listening to Dharma talks, meals, and some of the work assignments are done in community.  In retreat centers without single rooms, even sleeping is done in a room with others.

By practicing in community we benefit from the inspiration others can provide.  Watching experienced practitioners can teach newer practitioners how to be wholeheartedly engaged in the retreat life.  Seeing the steadiness, kindness, calm, and mindfulness of others can inspire us to call on these qualities in ourselves.

Meditating with others can be encouraging.  Alone, many people would not have the personal discipline or inspiration to maintain a schedule of meditation throughout the day.  Having others to meditate with can make it easier to keep going.  This is especially so when doubt, inertia and other meditation challenges occur.  The silent support of fellow meditators can provide the boost to work through the challenges.

Practicing with other people shows us ways in which we are not alone in the practice. Because meditation, especially on retreats, is an unusual activity, knowing that others are doing it can reduce concerns that we are doing something abnormal.  Both when meditation is going well and when it is difficult, practicing with others can protect us from thinking we are special or unique: others may be experiencing the same thing.  Knowing this helps us understand that our experiences are a normal part of the spiritual journey, to be met with mindfulness, wise humility, and compassion.

To practice as community is to practice with the attitude that we are all in the retreat together.  We participate in the retreat both for our own benefit and for the benefit of others.  We care for ourselves when we care for others and we care for others as a way to care for ourselves.   How much we emphasize one side of this dynamic process varies from retreat to retreat.  Sometimes the focus of practice is more personal, other times it is actively to be of service to the other retreatants.  For example, one may want to be a retreat manager or retreat cook, both significant ways of practicing on retreat.

Practicing in community provides direct lessons in how we live in mutual support with others.  When everyone helps with the chores of the retreat we both support others and are supported by them.  Experiencing these areas of mutual support can help us relax as we learn we are not alone on a path to freedom from social entanglements.  It points to our profound interconnectedness while, at the same time, finding freedom from emotional interdependency.

Living and practicing in silence with others during a retreat allows for unique and wonderful connections to others. Because there is no social talking, people on retreat tend to become aware of each other in new ways.  The many circumstances when we are with others in silence are times when closeness, familiarity, and appreciation grow without the need to speak.  Small interactions like opening the door for each other, sharing a meal, washing dishes together, and spending hours meditating near each other in the meditation hall give birth to mutual appreciation.

People accustomed to being alone or acculturated to the lens of individualism may not appreciate how much community life is important to retreat practice.  For some phases of Buddhist practice, the community aspects of practice can even become the most important.  Practicing in community is an antidote to the hyper-individualism that is all too common.  To be too focused on one’s own practice and happiness is, paradoxically, a limitation on the growth of one’s practice and happiness.  To be mindful and caring of others is a way to soften hard boundaries between self and others.  To find harmony in living with others can teach valuable lessons in non-clinging.

Of course, living in proximity with others can have challenges.  Fellow retreatants can be distracting. They can be noisy or inconsiderate.  Romantic attractions and hostile aversions may occur.  Concerns about what others think about us may be preoccupying.  But rather than taking these challenges as unwanted, they are best seen as material to practice with, as opportunities to find inner peace independent from what is happening around us. The simplicity, calm, and heightened mindfulness of retreat life facilitate working through some of the common interpersonal issues that can be ever present in daily life. It can lead to a freedom where our wellbeing is not dependent on how others behave.

Appreciating the role of community in group retreats expands the value of meditation retreats.  It supports a growth of inner freedom that goes hand-in-hand with a growth in interpersonal warmth and compassion.