Taking Time to Go on Retreat
Retreat is an important part of the Insight meditation tradition, and meditation practice in the West in general. This dates back to the Buddha’s time, when the sangha, or community, would go out on retreat during the rainy season for three months. Today, you can go on retreats that focus on meditation practice, general health retreats, or workshops investigating specific themes.
Although I don’t have the time or money to go on retreat quite as much as I would like, I try to make it a part of my practice. It’s important to step back and take care of ourselves from time to time and give the body and mind a break. We have simple daylong retreats at our center in Northern California, created as an offering for those that don’t have the ability to go on longer retreats. You can try to find something that works for your finances, lifestyle, and schedule.
We are talking mainly about meditation retreats, but we want to acknowledge that there are many beneficial ways to go on retreat. There are general health retreats, spiritual retreats, recovery retreats, and many other offerings out there. Whether you’re going to a health retreat in Queensland or a little cabin in the woods, a retreat can help you rejuvenate your mind and body.
The idea of a retreat is simple. Step away from the chaos of everyday life and give yourself a break. This allows the nervous system to settle, gives us the opportunity to reconnect with the present moment, and can bring new energy to your practice and life. There are different types of retreats, and they vary in structure. The general idea remains the same. Individuals come together to relax, dedicate time to themselves, and orient themselves toward growth.
On meditation retreats, you will likely spend most of your day actually practicing meditation. There are generally periods of guided practice, silent practice, dharma talks, and teacher interviews. You may also find periods of working meditation, depending on the retreat facility. At many retreats, you will alternate between sitting meditation and walking meditation.
You can see here a sample retreat schedule from Vipassana Support International. Although individual meditation retreats may look different, this offers a pretty solid look at what you can expect on retreat. It’s a lot of meditation!
Types of Retreats
There are different types of retreats you can go on. There are retreat centers offering meditation retreats year round, monasteries who open their doors to those who wish to come practice, and places where you can go do a self-retreat. Here are a few common types of retreats you may investigate.
Formal meditation retreats are my personal favorite in general. They can be expensive, but many offer scholarships and payment plans. At a meditation retreat, you will have teachers, a schedule, and the infrastructure to offer you an ideal place to practice. We often go to Spirit Rock nearby, but there are many centers across the country offering these dedicated retreats.
On a meditation retreat, you will likely find a schedule similar to the one above. Retreats often have a theme or focus, so talks and practices will be related. You may find retreats on loving-kindness meditation, building concentration, or mindfulness practice. Places like Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, Garrison Institute, and Vallecitos offer a full schedule of meditation retreats that may range from two days to three months.
Another option is to spend some time at a monastery. We’ve spent time at Deer Park Monastery, Wat Metta, and Abhayagiri and find this to be a wonderful way to practice. At a monastery, you may not have such a rigorous meditation schedule. It’s likely that you spend a few hours a day engaging in working meditation, as yogis help keep the monastery clean and running. Like sitting practice, the work is a wonderful form of meditation and can really help you bring your practice back to your daily life.
Monasteries offer many differences from the meditation retreat experience. They are often donation-based, have less accommodations, and are led by monks and nuns from the community. Rather than receiving direct instruction on a topic like you may find on a retreat, you will have free time to practice as you see fit. There may be dharma talks, and you likely will have the chance to ask the monastics any questions you have about practice.
There are Buddhist monasteries across the country in many different traditions. Whether you want to practice in a Tibetan tradition or insight meditation tradition, you can find a monastery that fits your needs and practice.
A self-retreat is another great way to give yourself a break. This may be advisable for those with more experience meditating, as meditation for beginners can be difficult without instruction and structure. On a self-retreat, you have the opportunity to build your own day and practice. There’s no guidance, although you can listen to talks or guided meditations if you wish via podcast, YouTube, or InsightTimer.
To do a self-retreat, you just need a space to practice. Some places offer space for this, such as IMS’s Forest Refuge. You can also find retreat centers from various different traditions willing to offer space and rentals for practice. Whether it’s a local meditation center, a spiritual retreat center, or a simple cabin in the woods, you can take the time to go out and dedicate time to practice.
Is Retreat for Me?
Retreat can be scary. The idea of meditating all day may be new. It is advisable to have some previous meditation experience before going on retreat, but I also have known many people who were pretty new to meditation when they went on retreat. You don’t have to be a meditation master to go on retreat. Everyone has gone on a first retreat, and you have to start somewhere!
If you want to deepen your practice, check out a retreat. There are daylong retreats you can find, weekend retreats that last just two or three days, and retreats for first-time yogis. You don’t need to go on retreat to be a good meditator by any means. However, retreat can help you deepen your practice in a way that is difficult with normal everyday sitting practice. I personally recommend checking one out if you have the means!
If you are interested in working more in-depth with meditation practices, you can work one-on-one with a teacher at One Mind Dharma.
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