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Practicing with the Retreat Schedule

By Gil Fronsdal

Most meditation retreats are structured around a schedule that includes the primary activities of each day.  Posted in prominent places, the schedule indicates times for meditation and when the wake-up bell is rung, the meals are served, and teachings offered.  As scheduled activities occur regularly throughout the day, the schedule is a companion to everyone on the retreat.  It provides a supportive scaffolding for retreat life.

Every retreatant has a relationship with the schedule.  People new to retreats are often surprised it fills so much of the day.  Those with retreat experience often arrive with attitudes and intentions regarding the schedule based on previous retreats. Over the course of a retreat most people’s relationship to the schedule shifts. One’s changing relationship with the schedule can include a wide assortment of emotions: from feeling content and supported to being intimidated and resistant.  These emotions and various other factors can influence how much or how little a person participates in the scheduled activities.

Our relationship to the schedule is an important part of retreat practice and can be a useful topic of discussion with a teacher. Rather than seeing it as an arbitrary or neutral backdrop for one’s meditation, the schedule is integral to the practice of the retreat. As such, it can teach us about ourselves, help develop inner strengths, and be a support for discovering freedom.

The Schedule as a Mirror  
An important foundation for Buddhist practice is understanding the underlying beliefs, desires and reactions that motivate our mental, physical and verbal behavior.  When unseen, these can operate in the background, subconsciously affecting all areas of our lives. When known, we have the opportunity to investigate and address them and learn how to be wise with them. Most importantly, we can discover an inner freedom in relationship to them.

The retreat schedule can be a mirror for understanding ourselves better. Observing howwe participate with the schedule can provide insight into attitudes, beliefs, motivations and feelings that can go unseen if we are free of any timetable.  If we are chronically late for scheduled events, we can ask ourselves “why?” If we regularly wait until the last moment to show up for a scheduled event, why? If we always arrive early, why? If we resist schedules, why?

The following questions can support self-discovery:

  • What is your general attitude about the schedule?
  • Do you consider the schedule helpful?
  • Do you have any enthusiasm or anxiety about participating with the schedule?
  • Do you approach the schedule as a rigid requirement or as an optional suggestion?
  • What emotions and motivations influence how you follow the schedule?  Are these emotions and motivations characterized more by ease or by tension?
  • What role do expectations and imagined consequences have in how you follow a schedule?
  • When you are challenged by the schedule, how can this challenge become a subject for greater mindfulness or self-awareness?
  • When following the schedule feels effortlessness, what does it teach you about freedom?

Developing Strengths
An important aspect of retreat practice is developing our inner strengths and character so that they support us along a path of mindfulness and freedom.  How we participate with the schedule can influence this inner growth.  Sometimes adhering to the schedule can develop discipline, patience and equanimity.  Other times, deviating from the schedule can cultivate discernment, self-reliance and autonomy.  Sometimes, following the schedule can free one from needing to choose what to do. This in turn can facilitate calm, steadiness and letting go.  Other times, it is choosing to not follow the full schedule that provides calm, steadiness and letting go.

A Vehicle for Freedom
Buddhist practice reveals the freedom of an unfettered heart –– a freedom that manifests in our relationship to everything we encounter inside and outside of ourselves.  With freedom we discover an abiding ease, free of greed, hate, anxiety or delusion.  The schedule of a retreat can facilitate this freedom by supporting an ongoing continuity of practice and by being itself something we learn to be free with.

The freedom of Buddhism is primarily understood in terms of what we are free from rather than what we are free to do. This is because when the focus is on freedom to act on our wishes and impulses, the attachments and compulsions behind these wishes go unexamined. By focusing on becoming free from clinging, we can see the roots of our attachments, and are more likely to look more deeply to uncover even the subtlest ones.

As a vehicle for freedom it is often wise to follow the retreat schedule as posted. The schedule has been designed based on many years of experience as to what works well for both individuals and for a group practicing together. Persisting with the schedule can ensure a continuity of practice through all the ups and downs we might go through while on retreat.  It also provides an opportunity to learn how to be free in the midst of all the ups and downs. Skipping parts of the schedule too readily can allow us to miss this opportunity.

However, sometimes it can be useful to diverge from the posted schedule.  For example, sometimes taking a break from the schedule is the best support for the continuity of the practice when it allows us to return to the practice refreshed.

Sometimes, extending a period of sitting or walking meditation beyond the scheduled time allows for a deeper settling. By adjusting the schedule for oneself, some people free themselves from a tendency to obedience, always trying to do the “right” thing, or fear of judgment from others when not following the norm.

The retreat schedule has an important role in the community life of everyone on a retreat. Everyone is connected through the schedule.  By participating in the schedule we support others.  Because of this, when we diverge from the schedule, it is useful to consider how to do it so it doesn’t detract from the mutual support retreats are built on. True freedom is not found in ignoring the well-being of others, but rather in developing a heart where care for others is an integral part of freedom.  The retreat schedule is in the service of the greatest good for all who participate in a retreat.