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Practicing in Online Retreats at IRC

By Gil Fronsdal

An innovative opportunity in our modern technological world is the creation of online meditation retreats. Rather than traveling from our homes to attend a retreat at a retreat center, the retreat comes to our homes. While home retreats are not new, they have tended to be solitary with people practicing on their own.  In contrast, online retreats provide a clear sense of practicing at home while also being with others who are similarly participating from their homes.  A community of practitioners is formed sharing the same retreat schedule and teachings. Through web-based video conferencing platforms, meditators see each other meditating, listen to the same teachers, and hear the questions and concerns of other retreatants.

Doing a retreat at home places meditation practice in the location where we live our everyday life. We have the opportunity to bring our practice into ordinary activities often seen as mundane or even distracting from our “practice”. Rather than pursuing special “spiritual experiences” apart from everyday life, washing dishes, folding laundry, and cooking become “spiritual,” i.e., in Buddhist terms, they become means to our liberation.

An important part of home retreats is practicing in such a way that we are in harmony with any housemates, family or pets with whom we share our homes.  Ideally, and more beneficially, this would mean learning how to be with others in a way that is in harmony with being on retreat. For example, if conversations are needed, we can discover how to speak in a relaxed, mindful way that neither disrupts the continuity of the retreat nor upsets our relationships. If caring for the welfare of others is necessary at home, this caring becomes as much a domain of mindfulness and concentration as sitting in meditation.

Of course, the context for online retreats is very different than practicing at a retreat center. At a center, many of our daily needs are cared for by others. Most of the shopping, cooking, and cleaning needed for a retreat is done by other retreatants or staff. Commonly, for a home retreat, practitioners need to provide all this self-care for themselves. This means that all necessary domestic tasks can become integrated into the retreat as “work-meditations.” These jobs can be done as consciously and mindfully as one would do on a retreat. Additionally, there is the opportunity to do them as an expression of generosity, care, and love for oneself. “Work-meditations” are equally “kind-regard meditations.” We can do these tasks as a clear and respectful way of supporting ourselves in retreat. In this way, when we sit down to meditate we can recognize that we are supporting and caring for ourselves–that we are in a supportive community with ourselves.

Online retreats may require greater personal discipline than residential retreats, where it is easier to be carried along from one event to another by the group momentum provided by other retreatants. Practicing at home with no one watching us, we may not experience this shared momentum.  We may then need to evoke greater dedication and self-discipline to meditate through the day. Developing strength and discipline is extremely useful; they are what will be needed to stay close to the heart’s liberation once this is discovered. Online retreats at home certainly have their challenges, not least because some of our greatest attachments may be more manifest at home. Rather than going to a retreat center to get away from our everyday preoccupations and attachments, we have the chance to face them and find our freedom with them. For this reason, not a few people have been surprised at how valuable and transformative practicing at home can be. Rather than having the idea that mindfulness practice and retreat practice are separate from their daily challenges and joys, they discover how to practice amongst the challenges and joys.

At the end of a home retreat, one doesn’t have to ‘return’ home.  Rather, one now has developed new understandings, associations, and routines for how to continue practicing at home. For example, making our bed in the morning might be understood as an effective barometer of our inner state. Walking through one’s home may be associated with walking meditation, so it can support greater mindfulness through the day. Inspired by the greater embodied mindfulness we evoked in the kitchen during the retreat, we may begin to cook in everyday life with fewer distracting thoughts.

One dictionary definition for “retreat” is “a period of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation.” With this meaning, the word is closely related to the concept of sanctuary, a place where the sacred is found. Home retreats can teach us how to see our home as a sanctuary in ordinary life. Meditation retreats are not a withdrawal from the “real world,” they are a withdrawal from the distractions, preoccupations, and fantasies that keep us from the “real world.” Being on retreat is stepping back from distraction and delusion so we can be with what is most true–the world we experience when seen clearly, calmly, without the overlays of our mental projections. It is a time both to discover the sanctuary of a liberated heart and to carry this sanctuary into all areas of our life. In this sense, meditation retreats become an entry into the world, not a retreating from the world. Symbolically and actually, practicing retreats at home represents waking up to the “real world” more  than does leaving home to do a retreat elsewhere.

Online retreats have opened many new opportunities. They have made it possible for more people to attend retreats and for more people to attend more often. They can include more people than a retreat center. Those who can’t travel or who can’t leave home can participate. People from all over the world can participate and so create a global community of practitioners. These retreats have also made it possible to experiment with a variety of new ways to participate with a retreat. Some people seclude themselves at home to meditate much of the time.  Others continue with their usual work while dipping into the retreat through the day, perhaps listening to the teachings as much as they meditate.

The closing of retreat centers during the pandemic of 2020 has shown us the many benefits that online retreats allow. Online retreats are here to stay, expanding the variety of practice opportunities. Those participating in these retreats during the first year of our new online retreat era are the pioneers of an exciting expansion of the practice. We are laying down the foundation for people to benefit from online retreats for years to come.