Writings on this page that give a perspective on planning to attend retreat:
Deciding on Retreat
Why Retreat? Why 7 Days?
Retreat versus Daily Sitting
A Reflection On Retreat
What Keeps Us From Freedom?
Retreat: Awakening to Undivided Being
Retreat: An Act of Faith, Despite Everything
Retreat is a unique opportunity to enter into silent presence, supported by the energy of others doing the same, much more deeply than can usually be done during our regular life schedules. This kind of work, boosted by group dialogue and one on one inquiry, can directly clarify our deepest life concerns and transform strongly ingrained habits, releasing long held anxieties and allowing our energy to flow more freely. It can allow the possibility of coming freshly and intimately in touch with life itself, perhaps in a complete fresh way.
Most people who have some experience with meditation would not disagree with these comments. And yet getting to retreat is often not easy.
Of course, no one can tell you when you should or shouldn’t go to retreat. What I’d like to do here is to point out some of the obstacles that people often face in deciding whether or when to go, so that you can notice these as patterns.
My work schedule is too busy. It could be. The question is to distinguish whether this is a fact or not. I personally find that I’m almost always concerned about this when I apply to retreat and yet during the retreat itself, I don’t think about business at all and afterwards usually find that most things have gone on perfectly well without me. The fear of letting go of the usual routine can be very strong, so it takes some subtlety and perhaps experimenting to figure out if you can actually get away. One solution may be to plan very far in advance so that you can take care of any work obligations in advance and avoid scheduling anything just before, during and after the retreat time.
I have family obligations. Likewise. Can you plan far enough in advance with some creative solution? Consider the fears that come up when you think of leaving. They certainly
may be real and valid but it may be helpful to listen to them closely before deciding they are insurmountable.
I’ve had bad experiences at retreats in the past.
You’ve got lots of company. Retreat is a very sensitive time and any retreat setting that does not treat participants very carefully and allow them to find their own way can do deep psychic damage. Required sittings, expectations or pressures to “perform” spiritually, lots of interpretations about what you should be doing and how, guided meditations, all of these
things can injure a person who is allowing themselves to be vulnerable and open.
Of course no human setting is free of the possibility of getting our feelings hurt, being manipulated by others, etc, etc. But we come together exactly to shed light on this process. Our retreats are set up to avoid most of the external pressures that can be hurtful to participants.
We hope each participant will be able to become sensitive to their own needs and to find their own way. And if feelings do get bruised, retreat is an excellent time to look closely at this dynamic together and alone.
I like the idea of retreat but just don’t seem to feel excited about doing it. Some people consider retreat to be a wonderful vacation time. And for some people, at some times, it can be! But on some level we are also aware that we are leaving the comfortable routine of our lives and having to face some possibly difficult or at least unfamiliar things. Even after years of going, I can still feel resistance, sometimes very strong resistance, at times before going into the retreat.
It is not surprising that somewhere in the mind retreat would feel like the very last thing in the world you would want to do with your free time. And yet somewhere else in the mind is the clear understanding that I also do not want to spend my life living in the same habits over and over, the sense that my “safety” also has qualities of a prison.
Retreat does not confront habits in the way that psychological work may. There need be no external pressure to confront these things. But when they do come up, as they usually do at some point, there is a different kind of energy available in retreat that sheds light on and heals, in a way, these patterns.
Just as in retreat itself, the process of deciding whether and when to go to retreat should
be one that you can explore without someone putting pressures or expectations on you.
I do feel strongly that retreat is very helpful. I don’t want this to be felt as an expectation
by other people. But it is also based on lots of experience and inquiry, so I hope my
experience will be a starting point for others to explore the possibility of retreat as well.
Together we (you and I or you and others) can explore the positive and the negative considerations about going to retreat. We can try to distinguish real scheduling obstacles from pure resistance. We can be sensitive to the needs of our nervous systems and our social obligations and get creative about ways to try something new. Maybe one person wants to try only one day first. Or to make sure they can leave to take care of family if necessary. Or someone may want to be sure they can have the privacy they need, or the right kind of food at the right time. Or to have the right kind of cushions or chairs to sit in. There is nothing wrong with being able to create the kind of retreat environment that feels safe to you. It may indeed be a very good place to start. After all, this work is about the possibility of a sensitivity to ourselves, to others and to the world – which are in fact not separate things.
I’m particularly happy to be able to offer a seven day retreat. Up to recently we have had only four to five days. I feel that there is an important and even critical quality to seven days of retreat that is not found in five days. For most people it takes the first three days of retreat for the mind to even begin to be done with its ordinary preoccupations and to quiet down and open up.
In another day or two there is a freshness and energy of presence that becomes possible. However, it is often not until the sixth or seventh day that our deep habitual pattern of perception through thinking may begin to break up, like an iceberg drifting into warm water. Another way to say this is that the deep blindness that dominates what we usually are cannot maintain itself, cannot hide itself into the sixth and seventh day. There is a deep healing that can take place at this time.
I don’t mean to present this as a formula that such and such happens on such and such day of retreat. However, I have always felt that stopping at day five loses a precious opportunity.
Why retreat? We only need to sit still for a bit and consider our lives to answer this, I think. Underneath the concerns, the fears, the memories of so much difficulty, struggle, conflict, are old rememberings of, what? Something simple? Something direct? Something not bound by time? A different energy of presence that we have only the most fleeting taste of. A bottomless presence that we permit ourselves to touch but are not able to abandon ourselves to. Retreat is the withdrawing from everything that turns us away from this bottomless presence and in seven days this presence may, for an instant, reveal itself clearly and brightly for the first time in our life.
It is very helpful, and important, I feel, to point out that meditative work, that long retreat, is not just about getting a quiet break from the storm of our lives. It is more that the whole focus of how we see our lives is questionable, is off, and yet the ability to see life simply and directly does not easily and readily give birth to itself. This simple seeing is a complete radical shift of focus which does not come from will power or intention, nor does it come from gradual cultivation of qualities. It comes on its own when, in a moment, the old way blinks out, gives up the ghost, which may happen if the futility of it is seen and felt sensitively again and again and a wondering begins to grow if there really is something different.
I had wanted to quote from a delightful little book, written in 1970 I believe, by a woman named Flora Courtois, who as a young woman was grabbed by questioning the meaning
of life, the way to live directly. She read books, talked to people and nothing that she
came across touched her directly. Nothing anyone said satisfied her as real. And yet something continued to grab her attention. She was not able to let go of this, despite the demands of school, family and life. As she bumbled through the details of her daily life, gripped by her concern, her real life turned itself thoroughly over to this unknowing and unknowable wondering.
One day, at home “alone in my room, sitting quietly on the edge of my bed and gazing at a small desk, not thinking of anything at all, in a moment too short to measure, the universe changed on its axis and my search was over.”
Yasutani Roshi, one of the most prominent Japanese Zen teachers in the latter part of the 20th century, after visiting with her years later, wrote this poem for the beginning of her book:
In youthful days
You had a doubt about this life
No teacher found
And went alone
At the moment of glancing at the desk
The doubt disappeared, the mind in peace
You lost your way and now
The way has extended in all directions
Seven days of retreat is our rare and precious opportunity to lose our way thoroughly, immersed in not knowing, and wonder and observe moment by moment what this world
is other than the fear and confusion that most of us human beings live in most of the time.
This is itself enough, complete. And yet it is true that at a moment there can be a turning
around of the mind, an opening, that reveals beyond all doubt the simplicity and completeness of existence. Can this be discovered for oneself? We could say that five days of retreat is a retreat with a bottom but a seven day retreat is bottomless, as is life itself.
As always, the things written here may have been put unclearly or may be off, so please let me know if you want to question something said here.
I am considering right now a hypothetical comment that someone might make – “Doesn’t meditative work in our regular life do the same thing that retreat does, just more slowly and steadily over time, with gradual progress?” My response is, no, it doesn’t.
In our daily life there is rarely, maybe never, the still, sustained energy of presence required
to bring the deeper patterns of fear and identity thoroughly into the light. In daily life there
is usually one pattern or another of clinging that is reinforcing itself, including the mistaken
pattern of thinking that things will get better gradually in the future. In long retreat there
is the possibility – though not the guarantee – that such a pattern can be seen for what
it is, maybe for the first time. This kind of seeing is the essence of healing. Even the
deepest traumas may be touched by this healing.
But it is not a matter of time or gradual improvement. It is a matter of the thoroughness, the emptiness, of the seeing at this moment. This is what is usually missing in daily life – the seeing is not thorough. It’s partial, mixed with confusion, tied up by anxieties. Years and years of partial seeing do not add up to thorough seeing. Going to long retreat is the act of stepping out of our context, the context that we use to define our lives, into the unknown of a week of silent listening. We might say that a lifetime of trying to patch up our context is not at all the same as stepping out of it. Stepping out is not just for a moment of respite but it
is stepping out heart and soul into that which is beyond context – to take a week to find
out what it is to thoroughly step out of all of the contexts that human beings are caught
Maybe this description is a little dramatic. Maybe for you it is just a single, simple step from confusion to presence. That’s all. But my personal feeling is that this is radically transformative and for most people will only come about in a long retreat. In thinking about signing up for retreat, one easily feels the incredibly strong pull of our contexts. Context doesn’t want to be interrupted or threatened. It wants to put that off until “later”. Once one is in retreat, the possibility of simple presence becomes the stronger energy in a very natural way.
Another Writing on Retreat Versus Daily Sitting
Why Retreat?: I have a number of writings on our retreat web page about how critical retreat work is for the possibility of radical and fundamental change in our life. This is a difficult thing to write about clearly. I’d much rather talk with you one-on-one! But since I’m
writing here, I’ll share a bit of my personal experience. To a certain extent, there is a gradual change that comes from long meditation. There is probably also some gradual change that comes from daily sitting, though for me retreat has always been critical.
There is another change, though, that is not gradual. I would say that gradual change is partial. The personality gets rearranged, mellowed out. There is more sensitivity. But this is still not radical change because the deeply and desperately held belief that life is about our states of mind and body – or the states of mind and body of others – has not yet been seen through and dissolved.
The deepest of blind beliefs are usually invisible to us. We are too close to them to see them. They are who we deeply believe we are, even though we might not identify it as such because they are so deeply assumed. But these blind spots keep us from seeing and living life as it is. They keep us tied to the endless and futile effort to become free.
For years I sincerely felt that I had come in touch with the oneness that Toni and others talked about. I could feel it working in me. I had moments of great silence and calm. I believed that I had found it and had access to it. But when I would meet privately with Toni, she would always say, with great kindness and patience, this was not yet it.
I couldn’t understand. How could this not be it? There was nothing else I could do differently. Fortunately for me, I trusted her sincerity. After many more long retreats sitting, wondering, not knowing what to do, one day something dropped away on its own and the world was simple, vast, and complete.
I’m sharing this to share my deep belief that this complete dropping away of the misunderstanding of who we are is critical, that it is not something that can be accomplished by will, that we are easily misled about ourselves and need to work with others, and that with very rare exceptions, this radical seeing through of the human misconceptions only happens with some years of long retreat.
It’s my feeling and observation that no amount of daily sitting, even over dozens of years, leads to this thorough seeing through. Daily sitting, occasional one, two or three day retreats, can lead to changes and adjustments of our personalities, some mellowing. But not a radical seeing through.
A radical seeing through of the total human condition is not the end of difficult patterns, reactivity, self-centeredness. Rather, it allows, for the first time, for these patterns to be seen for what they are. Until this time, patterns of reaction are seen through the filter of the deep misconceptions of who we are. This partial seeing actually reinforces our misconceptions
and our mistaken identity. When all that we are drops away, the energy of life – whether in this body/mind/nervous system, in others, or in nature – is seen without agenda. And that is the beginning of the possibility of thorough healing.
So you can see that the first and only thing that we need to be concerned about in meditative work is to come directly in touch for oneself with this oneness of life absolutely thoroughly. We do this blindly, not knowing what we are doing. We let each moment destroy us with its reality. We let life take over until we can see with our own eyes.
Why Not Retreat?: The retreat setting – seven days away from work, family, and all of the trappings that support our identity – supports the possibility of dying to what we believe ourselves to be. At the same time, on some level, our entire belief system may be mobilized against that happening. We are usually ok with a few days of peace and relaxation, maybe some emotional insights, but more than that may mobilize immense and yet heavily disguised resistance.
This resistance to seeing our habits clearly – which is the dying of habit – seems to choke our entire society. We’re locked into our patterns and obligations so tightly. Most people’s work settings are so rigid that they can barely take off a handful of days a year. Obligations to all of the people and things we have to take care of prevent us even from having a decent vacation for many people. It’s sad to see how locked in we all are but it’s the natural result of the misconceptions that we have about who we are.
It might be helpful for you to know that almost invariably when I talk with people about coming to a day or more of retreat, they immediately say it’s impossible. They cite work obligations, inability to take time off, the money that they would lose by taking time off, obligations to family, or pets (one of the most commonly cited reasons for not being able to go to retreat!) Many people look at the retreat week and note that they have one or two obligations already scheduled, so they write off the whole week. (In actuality, it’s fine if people have to leave the retreat at some times to take care of personal things, and they can then come back to the retreat.)
So knowing that everyone says these same things maybe helps so that we can question these reasons a little bit, each person for themselves. Not taking them at face value. Looking at the assumption that I’m ok doing some occasional sitting year after year. That gradual progress is all I need. That’s why I’m writing this. To question those assumptions radically.
It’s painful for me to have watched meditation friends year after year, decade after decade, for some reason avoiding retreat, putting off until later, and now it’s 20, 30, 40 years later, older age setting in, physically harder to sit, perhaps some mellowing but still no freedom from the deep grip of our misconception about ourselves.
Is it possible to address one’s own restrictive circumstances – job, family obligations, money – with some creativity? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. After all, if you were to be seriously sick for a week, your employer would have to accommodate you. You’d have to deal with losing a little income. Someone else would have to take care of your family and pets. And then in seven days, you’d be up and running again. It’s only seven days!
I want to ask you to please forgive me if what I’ve written seems to put pressure on you or if I haven’t been truthful or accurate or if it violates what you deeply believe. Can we take these writings as a starting point for listening to each other? I’m interested to hear how you see things and what you might disagree with above. We can learn together.
Snow falling softly, silently, drifting in the air, the car rounds the last
bend of country road on the way to the retreat center. Even though I have been to dozens, hundreds maybe, of retreats over 30 years or
more, the mouth is dry with anxiety. Over what? Is it because I am turning my back on my usual activities? No phone calls to friends when I’m lonely. No book to read. No music to listen to. No clients to call me for help. No projects
to work on. Nothing to do. I remember the dread of not being able to think of something to do when I was a child.
The thought jumps into the mind that no one will penalize me if I decide I don’t want to do the retreat. For a moment I’m excited, thinking that I can do something more fun than retreat. I’m free to just say, “Forget it,” and spend the week … hmmm, doing what? Visiting friends? Going for walks? No. I need the retreat. Memory reminds me that after a day or two of transition, the depth and silence of long retreat is exactly what makes going for a walk really alive. It’s what makes being around other people truly connected. It gives rise to a deep and thorough refreshing of the nervous system far better than a vacation. It allows the walls of separation and dissatisfaction to drop away and for a thorough sense of being at home to arise. No, retreat is where I want to be, even though the mind is anxious and frightened about the upcoming change.
To be able to make it here today I have planned four months in advance. I’ve told clients far in advance that I won’t be available. I’ve taken care of other work obligations. I’ve avoided planning anything during this time. Life has worked itself around this schedule. The one or two critical calls that still need to be made can be done the first two evenings of retreat. Memory tells me that despite my anxiety about getting away from work, when I return it is usually as though no one has even missed me.
Entering the retreat building, I greet old friends and other friends with whom I’ve attended retreat maybe once or twice before. Something about sitting together in silence for a week leaves a feeling of knowing each other well. Getting settled into my room, setting up towels, toothbrushes, arranging clothes, finding a place to sit in the big sitting room. I feel like a dog sniffing at all the corners in order to feel at home. At dinner before the formal start of retreat, lots of socializing, talking with new and old friends. Soon all the sniffing has been done and each person seems to withdraw from the usual social contact into the silence of the next 7 days. Is it my imagination or is everyone’s mouth dry with anxiety?
A final meeting together as a group to go over retreat guidelines and then the silence formally begins. The need to make eye contact fades away. Also the need to exchange
greetings, to acknowledge another’s presence. No one looking at me or talking with me, complimenting me or making me feel accepted. Is that why my mouth is dry?
Sitting through the evening, the body is struggling a little to find an easy position. Memory provides that this is always true at the beginning and that later on in the retreat, the body begins to be at ease, to become light and transparent. Sleepiness comes and goes, sometimes being nearly asleep for a whole round. This is also only a part of the beginning of retreat.
Suddenly the clarity of this still dark country land is right here. The timelessness of this vast space. Sitting here silently, this group of silent human beings, motionless, it is all here. The busy world a faint dream. The reality is only This. This cool, dark space of silent presence, extending to the stars above and caverns below. This space of presence that predates humanity, predates life, predates time. All is well. All is right here this moment.
The final bell of the evening rings. Getting up, anxious about making the phone call that needs to be made tonight, thoughts torn between not wanting to talk and needing to do the call. Someone else is in the phone booth. Now what?
Later, the call is done. A snack before going to sleep. Most people already settled in for the night. Outside the sky is dark, moonless. Snow is still blowing across the fields. Day seven is so far away that I can forget about time. What a wonderful relief. I notice my mouth is not dry any more. I am glad to be Here.
When I talk to people about retreat (and when I think about going for myself!) it seems clear that the inertia of our daily lives is incredibly strong. It sometimes seems nearly impossible to consider removing oneself from that routine for a few days or a week. I don’t think it’s just our own personal routine that holds us in this iron grip. It seems to me that this is the collective self-enclosure of humanity, the rigid defense of what the human mind believes needs to be protected at all costs. Most of us go to the grave locked in this rigidity, which we think of as the comfort of our routine. There is sometimes a rare glimpse of the freedom beyond this rigidity. But such a glimpse often only makes the mind more defensive than before.
To attend retreat is to purposely put oneself beyond the reach of most of our routine. It allows the possibility of opening into moments of freedom, of simple presence. It allows the possibility of a radical shift in energy from defensive living to genuine, intimate, timeless contact with our moment to moment life, with nothing to lose. For this reason, there is often deep and subtle resistance to going to retreat.
I am writing this because I feel it is extremely important to be honest about this issue. I personally feel a very strong need to get to retreat at least two or three times a year because, in part, it is the one place in our suffering world where the increasingly relentless grip of human fear and defensiveness cannot get a hold. How can there be any sanity, any healing, any love in my life if there is not at least an occassional opportunity to live outside of the grip of fear, which runs all of human institutions that bind our lives?
I am concerned that as the population increases, as the complexity of human society grows, this iron grip is making it harder and harder for even sensitive people to break out of it, even for a few days or a week. The voice of habit always says “I can’t get away. I have too much to do. I have other things scheduled. I need to catch up on things. It’s too hard to arrange. It’ll just be worse when I come back. It’s a bad time of year. Maybe next time.”
It’s not that these things might not be true. Evidently they are true because I hear them over and over, year after year, from people. Maybe we can just raise the question, “Is there something that is far more important than the massive inertia of my life, running constantly, endlessly, to try to secure the future, escape the past, meet the endless demands of just trying to live – demands that are really the collective efforts of everyone to secure their futures? Is there anything else? Is there a need to find out? Is there the will and the energy to step out of this stream of endless struggle for a day, two days, a week? While I still have the health, the energy, the physical flexibility to do so?”
I’ve put a lot of work into trying to provide an opportunity for retreat that is affordable, close by and open enough for each person to find their own way. It’s here, waiting for you with open arms. My hope is that together we will learn not to be fooled over and over, year after year, by the voice of collective human fear and isolation that says, “Don’t dare go someplace where my grip will loosen. Don’t dare go someplace where you may find out there is the possibility of living freely. Don’t dare go someplace where you may see me for what I am and be done with me for good.”
Let’s dare, together. When simple Presence shines through, it becomes clear that the world of endless anxiety about the future and about myself was like a dream. It has its relative reality but it is also possible for it to completely give way to the fullness of timeless, perfect Presence moment to moment. Let’s discover this together.
From my own experience over the past 40 years now, I can say that attending retreats – often three or four or more a year – has been the single most transformative thing in my life.
At the beginning of a retreat, the retreat is a much needed refuge from the overwhelming pressures and anxieties of our regular lives. It’s a chance to recover and to regain some energy and vitality. But if that were all that retreat offered, the benefits would be pretty short lived.
Retreat offers a possibility to enter into the very neglected depths of our own existence and for the deepest obstacles, fears, anxieties, ingrained blindnesses, built-up burdens of the past to come to light in a direct way and to begin to heal and to lighten.
But retreat is also more than just the endless processing of old stuff – as critical and healing as that is. It also allows the waking up to the deep timeless stillness of being, the ocean of Presence on the surface of which all of these confusions, conflicts, anxieties of life seem to constantly churn and foam. This deep, undivided still Presence is something that our poor nervous systems have lost the ability to be in touch with.
Retreat is the opportunity to open to this still Presence deeply. When this happens, our life is transformed from a constant concern with our difficulties, alternating with attempts to get a break from them, to a deep stillness full and complete in itself, in which difficulties may unfold on their own in the intimacy and fullness of the present moment – the beating of the heart, the warmth of air on the skin, the resonant sound of birds.
“Dwelling in silence is not a doing; it is an act of faith that allows our being to naturally realign with its inherent divinity.”~ Adyashanti
As I was looking for quotes from Adyashanti on retreat, I ran across this statement and it struck me. Going to retreat – to devote our life to dwelling in silence for seven days – is an act of faith. It is not something that we do out of who we are. It is something we do DESPITE who we are. We go to retreat despite the fact that it takes us outside of our warm, cozy life. We go despite the fact that we have no spare time. We go despite the fact that we can’t afford an extra expense. We go to retreat despite the fact that we don’t know why we’re going and we don’t know what will happen. We go despite the fact that we have endless things that need to be done that week that can’t possibly be postponed. We go despite the fact that we would rather be doing anything else than just sitting.
In considering retreat, most of us wait for a time when entering into silence fits in. But in a way it is true that silence NEVER fits in to our usual life. Our usual way of living is afraid of silence. It’s every effort is mobilized to fill silence with something – activity, comfort, spiritual hopes. And yet silence is what surrounds us, where our roots our, where our freedom is. So our usual way of life paralyzes us. Freezes us in our tracks, so that we don’t dare touch the silence around us. An act of faith is a single step that is taken out of paralysis and into silence. When we take this step, we take it despite everything in our lives.
Most human beings will never take such a step. The grip of fear (comfort, complacency, the known, what I can’t do, what I’ll do later and later and later) is a sad thing to see. A step of faith is revolutionary.
In reality, silence IS our life. Our real life. But it does little good to say this or repeat it. It needs/wants to be discovered directly for oneself. But it requires taking a step. An act of faith. Despite everything that our life is screaming at us. A step into Silence is not like any of things that our life wants to warn us about. Silence is something that our life – meaning our habitual way of being – cannot comprehend and cannot control. It doesn’t know that Silence is its Mother. It doesn’t know that Silence is what it will return to. It doesn’t know that Silence is what supports it and nurtures it at every step.
The ONLY thing that can remind us of what we really are is to actually dwell in Silence. And to do that requires a single step of faith.