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In late June of 1974, I drove a few hours from my home to the town of Barre in rural western Massachusetts. An old mansion north of the town center had recently become home for the new Insight Meditation Society (IMS).
For several years I’d been trying unsuccessfully start a meditation practice. So I decided to leap head-first into a ten-day retreat. That should give me some instruction and momentum.
When I walked into the entry hall, I saw the daily schedule on a bulletin board. It included sitting meditations, walking meditations, eating meditations (i.e. meals), working meditation (that first year my “yogi job” was to do an hour of grounds-keeping every morning), dhamma talk in the evening, group interviews, and so forth. Everything was laid out neatly from before dawn until after dark.
I copied it down carefully and took it to my room so I’d know when and what I was supposed to do.
During the opening session, the retreat manager went over the schedule and described all our routines and rules: silence, meal procedures, entering and leaving the meditation hall, individual interviews, etc. The days were designed to create a space of solitude and communal support for cultivating meditation.
A week and a half later when I left, I thought it was the most meaningful thing I’d ever done. And I was glad I’d never have to do it again.
Nevertheless, a year later I was drawn back to do another retreat. I was hooked. I’ve done one or two communal retreats a year for over 45 years.
Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher, had steered me toward IMS. He also steered me toward a very different style of retreat. His suggestion was simple: go into a room, close the door, and do nothing for 24 hours. Take a little food. But bring nothing to read or write or listen to. Just be alone with the mind and observe what happens.
There was a small room with a single window in the attic of the house where my wife and I lived. I didn’t take any food — I used to fast one day a week back then. So a little water was enough. I left a few times to go to the bathroom, but otherwise stayed in the attic room. I also took a journal, but confined myself to only writing a few notes about my immediate experience.
There was no schedule on a bulletin board for me to follow. So I meditated a little. I stretched and exercised a little. I caught up on my sleep. But all together, that took up less than 12 hours. The rest of the time I was simply alone and unchaperoned with my mind-heart.
I found it so helpful that I’ve done quite a few of these solo-retreats over the years.
These two styles of retreat represent opposites on a spectrum. On one end is the large, communal setting with lots of yogis, social rules, and a detailed schedule that give implicit support and structure. On the other end is a solitary, unstructured experience, with nothing to buffer or manage what comes into the mind-heart. We are alone with whatever shows up inside.
There are many other valid styles of retreat that combine elements of communal and solitary retreats. The goals are the same: befriending our experience. But the various settings create different fields of supports and distractions.
The advent of the internet, email, and video conferencing have created a new hybrid that combines elements of both communal and solitary experiences. The coronavirus and need for social distancing have encouraged us to look more deeply and creatively at ways to get both solitude and support while staying relatively safe from the pandemic.
This tension between the solitary and the communal is not new. In the Buddha’s day, it was customary for yogis to do long periods of meditating alone in a cave or kuti (meditation hut). At the same time, the Buddha said the number one support for the dhamma is the sangha or the community of fellow seekers.
On-line retreats are one of the hybrids that combine communal and solo retreats. Typically we are physically alone. There may be others in our household who are not on retreat. But we are not on location with a sangha of fellow seekers.
Yet video technology makes it possible to be in a virtual sangha with others who show up in postcard (or postage stamp) sized images on a computer screen where we can talk together and share our practice experiences.
We are just learning how to combine these elements and just beginning to appreciate the values and difficulties of this hybrid. The world is always changing. It’s up to us to explore the possibilities of how to best use these circumstances.
Before going on any type of retreat, there are some questions I’ve found worthwhile to contemplate. I don’t know the best answers for you. And you may not have a clear answer for some. That’s fine. The questions are meant to be held gently and openly in the mind-heart. See what they stir intuitively.
What are my intentions for going on retreat?
While some intentions may be more skillful or conducive to spiritual growth than others, this question is not meant to judge the wisdom of your intentions. Buddhist practice is first and foremost about awareness. Seeing clearly tends to drawn wisdom and kindness. So the question is not an evaluation of the goodness or rightness of your motives. It is “What are your intentions, really? And do you have a single aim or many?”
Given where I am in my life, what setting would be most conducive?
A fully enlightened Buddha could be on retreat in a subway station during a fire drill. Most of us benefit from more seclusion. But how much? The more isolated we are, the fewer the external distractions and the less relevant the retreat insights are to our normal life. There are tradeoffs — pluses and minus — for any setting.
The optimal situation at this time in your life could be anywhere on a wide spectrum: a cave in the Himalayas; a remote retreat center dedicated to contemplation; a cabin in the woods or a motel room which may not be designed for spiritual practice but does remove you from your daily routines; a quiet room in your home; your domicile with others around; your neighborhood; a subway during a fire drill.
Most people benefit from some degree of removal. How much is optimal depends on your intentions, what’s going on in your life, and what you can reasonably afford.
How much and what kind’s stimulation would help me most?
The general strategy on retreat is to reduce external stimulation in hopes this frees us up to clearly observe the movements of awareness. However, the mind is capable of creating its own distractions. Sometimes it helps to have dhamma inspiration or instruction. This stimulation can come in many forms: live dhamma talks, recordings, discourses, books, one-on-one interviews with a teacher, group discussions with other yogis, and more. Too much stimulation can spin us into discursive thinking. Too little can leave us muddled in habitual mental patterns. How much and what types of stimulus is optimal for you at this time?
How do I relate to the people around me?
If you are living at home with others during retreat, it helps to talk with them (in age-appropriate ways) about what you are doing, the value to you of having time alone, and how you can be mutually supportive during retreat days. There are no single answers that are best for everyone. But communication helps.
How do I deal with distractions?
In a remote meditation hut, there may be few disruptions. At home, they may be in your face. What can you do wisely to lessen these distractions? There may be some you have to pay attention to. But for every yogi who says, “I’m sorry I missed that call,” there are 20 who say, “I wished I’d turned the phone off.” So contemplate what you need to attend to and what you can set aside and how to do it.
How else can I make my environment supportive of meditation?
Beyond choosing a setting and being in wise relationship with those people and creatures around you, are there other things you can do with your environment to make it supportive of deepening practice?
How do I structure my day?
Depending on your retreat setting, parts of your day may be set by a retreat center schedule or the timing of on-line virtual gatherings. But there will be stretches where you are on your own. Contemplate with wisdom and kindness how much or how little structure might be helpful for you and what the elements might be.
How do I get meals?
I don’t recommend fasting on retreat even though I have done so myself. Meditation takes energy. If your body energy runs low, the mind more easily falls into sloth and torpor or agitation. Think about how to get the nourishment you need without the preparation being too time consuming.
How much do I meditate?
One of my teachers, Bhante Vimalaramsi, suggested that a good minimum amount of sitting time on retreat is six hours a day. I do a lot more on most retreats. There are groups that lead successful on-line retreats that suggest a minimum of three hours.
There is no clear answers that fits everybody and every situation. But it helps to look deeply into the mind-heart and ask. And if you need to be flexible, that’s okay too. Just bring as much wisdom and as little distortion as you can to this question.
Where can I do walking meditation?
Walking meditation can be an important part of the practice. If nothing else, it can release tension while you stay mindful. Depending on your setting, it may help to think of about where you can do walking meditation.
How much do I exercise?
Evolution designed our bodies to run. That’s why we don’t have a lot of fur — our skin is exposed so when we run, we can cool off more quickly. Some stretching and exercise can help the body and mind settle. How do you want to deal with exercise?
How much flexibility is wise in my routine?
There is value in having a set schedule so you know what to do next without having to fuss about it. There can also be value in being adaptable to the reality of the moment. How much steadiness and how much flexibility might be optimal for you?
How do I transition into and out of retreat?
The retreat environment is often different enough that it’s natural for the body-mind-heart to go through some transition time: slowing down to move into retreat and re-engaging to emerge from retreat. If it’s possible to set aside a few relaxed days before and/or after retreat, these can provide a transition time that otherwise will take up days of the retreat itself.
These are a few of the questions that can be helpful to reflect upon as we approach a retreat. It can also be helpful to ask others about their experience. But in the end, you want to take the questions into the intuitive heart and listen to how the heart might guide you.
And if no clear answer arises, that’s okay. Take your best shot, try something, see what the results are, and, if necessary, try something else. Like a path through the mountains, often the road to wisdom twists one direction and then other. Trial and error is a valid path to deeper understanding.
Copyright 2020 by Doug Kraft
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How to cite this document (a suggested style): "On Retreat: Befriending Who Shows Up When We’re Alone" by Doug Kraft, www.dougkraft.com/?p=OnRetreat.