13. A Few Odds and Ends About Retreats
First, retreats tend to have a semi-predictable rhythm to them. Realizing this allows us, if we have the time and resources, to choose how long a retreat we want to attend to meet our meditative goals. Even if we are practicing well, the first few days of a retreat tend to be mostly about adjusting to the schedule, the place, the posture, the routine, the technique, the food, the people, the local customs, etc. Similarly, the last one to three days of a retreat tend to bring up thoughts of what we are going to do once we leave the retreat. Thus, to give yourself some solid practice time in the middle, I recommend longer than five-day retreats when possible. It is not that you can’t derive benefit from shorter retreats, but that there is something about those middle days between the first few and last few that tends to make strong concentration and good practice easier to attain.
I realize that not everyone reading this will be up for or even able to easily go on longer retreats, but what is a few weeks of your life for the potentially amazing benefits of learning to concentrate well? Are you capable of doing a month of practice? That would be a solid block of time to learn some great skills. Six weeks would be even better. Oddly enough, out past about two to three months, yield may go down for some practitioners, since, feeling like they have time, they may not put in the intensity of effort early on, and so actually waste a lot of time and make slower progress than someone who did a shorter retreat well.
Second, every retreat center and tradition has its shadow aspects and downsides. Combine those with our own shadow stuff and we can easily be triggered. This is inevitable, but identifying shadow aspects in ourselves will help prevent us from being triggered by shadow aspects we may easily project onto the center or tradition. Realizing that there are ways to keep these from slowing down our investigation is helpful. One center where I have spent a bit of time is prone to attracting very serious, uptight, scowling people who trudge around in their walking practice as if the slightest sound or glance from anyone might set them off like a bomb. I have been to another center where at times I have been the only meditator in the meditation hall, requiring me to have more self-motivation and discipline. Another monastic center I have been to has the whole male hierarchy thing going on which can trigger all sorts of reactions from both male and female retreatants.
Then there are the neurotic issues around food, a huge topic, of which vegetarian versus non-vegetarian is just the tip of the iceberg. As an aside, I personally don’t think that eating meat is likely to interfere with most people’s meditation abilities, but it certainly is not great for the animals or the environment, or likely to strengthen our efforts at advocating for and living by a non-harming ethic. I personally have waxed both vegetarian and omnivorous along the way, and can’t predict what I will eat in the future with certainty. Take your best guess about what balances your health with the health of the planet.
There are also almost always issues around bathrooms, quarters, showers, hot water, washing clothes and dishes, chores, heating and cooling (one place I went to has cantankerous wood stoves in some buildings for heat, another in a tropical setting has open windows that let the mosquitoes swarm in), clothing (for example, some centers have people wear white, others don’t tolerate skimpy or revealing outfits, some don’t care), fragrances, chemical sensitivities, incense, morning wake-up bells (too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all), schedules, roommates (particularly those who snore, have body odor, are noisy, talkative, or messy, etc.), strictness of silence, eye contact or lack thereof, etiquette around teachers (whether to ask challenging questions or not, limits on the time we have access to them, their personalities and quirks, whether they speak the language we speak, etc.), etiquette of entering rooms with Buddhist teachers or images (for example, whether to bow three times or not), the presence of Buddhist images or not (and which images), and issues around the orthodoxy of ritual, dogma, posture, hand position, eating, chanting, vows, and so on.
Speaking of bathrooms, proper etiquette regarding bathrooms, common spaces, and shared resources makes retreats much easier for all involved. Remember, small slights can get magnified by high concentration into huge issues in the minds of retreatants, so be respectful and tread lightly, or, in simple language, clean up after yourself, replace the toilet paper roll when you know darn well it’s time, etc. A little consideration goes a long way in creating harmony and good morale, and is a beautiful expression of applied morality.
The list above omitted the nearly perennial issues of corruption, miscommunications, personality cults, crushes, affairs, romances, vendettas, scandals, drug use, power plays, politics, agendas, financial concerns, cliques, physical and mental illness, and all the other challenges that can show up anywhere there are people. In short, whatever you imagine that you or other people might have issues around, these are bound to occur sooner or later, or even to be exponentially magnified, if you spend enough time in spiritual circles or retreat centers. While solo practice is an option, it doesn’t get you away from these and has its own set of downsides, such as making you think you have fewer issues than you do. There is nothing like interacting with others to show us our blind spots in relation to our issues, whether we are great meditators or not. Most people practice more diligently in group settings, as is human nature, like going to a gym versus working out at home.
The crucial point is to realize that great practice can occur in conditions far from perfect, particularly if we realize that all the sensations that make up these inputs and our reactions to them are all worthy of investigation and thus as much a source of ultimate and often relative wisdom as any other sensations. I have rarely had what I considered perfect practice conditions, but I have done well and you can, too. That said, some centers, retreats, and teachers are better than others, and it is worth exploring and asking around. The quality of retreat centers can also vary with time, since institutions, like people, can also mature, morph, and decay; so this can add further confusion. All these aspects can be particularly distracting and distressing for a first-time retreatant who may have naive hopes, however unacknowledged, of walking into the Garden of Eden, sitting with the Buddha, and hanging out with the most evolved individuals on the planet.
When off-retreat, progress is still possible, particularly if we have used retreats to get past some of the initial hurdles (hills) and gotten a taste of what is possible. Do not underestimate the value of careful and honest awareness of what we are going through during our life off the cushion. I know a few very solid practitioners who did it all in daily life without retreats, but with very strict technique for every second they could spare along with good time-management skills and innate talent.
On the other hand, if you want to significantly increase your chances of tasting the fruits of the path, do your best to make time for retreats in a way that honors your spiritual goals as well as your other commitments. One of the reasons for monasticism is that your commitments become your practice, but there are plenty of people who have figured out how to live in the world and use retreats and strong daily practice to achieve the same basic results. In fact, at this unusual time in history, there are plenty of places to sit for very little money where you can get great support for practice without having to deal with the additional demands and commitments involved in monasticism.
Some of my favorite places to go on retreat are: The Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts; Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia; the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre (MBMC) in Penang, Malaysia (teachers vary there: check before going); and Gaia House near Totnes, England. Worth mentioning are the Mahasi centers in Burma (Myanmar), such as Panditarama in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), and particularly Panditarama Lumbini in Nepal, to which I haven’t been but know many people who have. All these are easy to find on the internet. For those who are really into Mahasi Sayadaw style practice, as I am, the three-month retreat at IMS, or a few weeks to months at a place such as Panditarama, Lumbini, or some of the Thai or other Asian Mahasi centers, are highly recommended. There is also Tathagatha in San Jose, California.
I often marvel at the things we spend our time and money doing. As Kenneth once said, “If you had to flip burgers for thirteen years to save the money to do the three-month at IMS, it would be well worth it.” I prefer more pragmatic centers due to various cultural factors, such as their tendency to be less comfortable talking openly about states and stages, but IMS has helped a lot of people, including me. Burma is a great place to go for the real deal, but there are some issues that need to be carefully weighed involving the government, the oily food, the cultural barriers, the water, the heat, the parasites, and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. I personally haven’t been to Burma as of writing this, though I have been to plenty of places with similar issues, and if you can avoid these, you may just live a bit longer.
I should also mention that it is common these days for logistical and financial reasons for people to go on retreats at centers and with teachers that teach a technique different from the one they decide to practice when they go there. To use a common example, people go on easily accessible and financially doable ten-day retreats in the Goenka tradition, which teaches meditation on the breath for three days followed by a body scanning meditation technique, yet do some other practice, such as noting. Or people go to an IMS or Spirit Rock retreat with a laid-back teacher advocating a more relaxed version of practice than we might get out of a book such as this one, and, instead of following along with that center and teacher’s approach and instructions, might have a hardcore attitude involving rapid, blazing investigation.
There are ethical and practical problems with using available and more affordable retreat facilities to do your own practice. For example, if you are doing some technique other than what the teacher is teaching, that teacher might not be able to identify the territory you are likely to get into and the potential traps and side effects of the practice you are doing, so you reduce the chances that you will get good guidance if you run into anything unusual, complex, difficult, or destabilizing. For example, the laid-back teacher with a gentler style may not be expecting or even know how to handle the potential energy imbalances and irritability that more rapid and hyper-investigative styles can produce.
If you are not telling your teacher what you are doing, and instead lie about your following their instructions, not only is this deceptive, and in contradiction to the first training of morality required to embark on a safe journey to awakening, but it can be very confusing to everyone involved. You may not be able to determine if the teacher’s advice is based on whatever lie you told them, or on something more about your mood, way of being, or another aspect of how you present. Said another way, they may pick up on something off or imbalanced in you that has nothing to do with whatever lie you told them, but you can’t hear, much less apply, their perhaps skillful and beneficial advice. Specifically, if you are frying yourself and they can see that and are trying to get you to chill out, they just might know what they are talking about.
If you do tell them that you are using techniques and frameworks that are different from what they are teaching, at best they are likely to be annoyed, and at worst they can get really pissed off, though how much of that they will show you is anyone’s guess. They may not even know what the heck you are talking about, or might have opinions that are contrary to yours about those techniques, maps, models, and attitudes. Sorting all that out in the limited time usually given to daily or every-other-day interviews is unlikely to occur, as those discussions generally take much longer than the allotted or available interview time.
This ill will and complexity then gets back to those who might have advocated that you use those techniques, attitudes, maps, models, and the like, such as myself and my fellow hardcore practitioners, as the world of high-end meditation practice is a very small one. Flipping this around, were someone to come on a retreat with me and blatantly not follow my advice, not listen to my instructions, not attempt to use a common set of terms and concepts that would allow us to communicate important and/or subtle points of practice, not heed my warnings and the like, I would not be amused. I know for a fact that teachers in other traditions have understandably similar reactions. Thus, discord, prejudice, disharmony, tension, disconnection, resentment, bitterness, and the like are sown far too often in the small and incestuous world of meditation, whose foundation was supposed to be the truthful and non-harming first training of morality.
For all these reasons, I ask that you please avoid using centers for practices other than those they teach. While logistics, finances, and scheduling issues may make you think using centers in this way is a really good idea, please don’t. I recommend that you try to find places to practice that embrace the style you practice, the attitudes you bring, the techniques and concepts that you use, as things will go much better and the world of meditation will be happier and hopefully healthier.
The flip side of this advice is, if you have access to retreats where they are doing something other than what you generally do but that is still reasonable and time-tested, give that a shot. You might just be surprised by what happens. While there is something to be said for cross-pollination, at this point the meditation world is not quite there, and so instead bad feelings and possibly bad outcomes are increased.
I have learned from all sorts of teachers, some of whose styles were very different from mine. Later, I will give an example from my own practice of why not following the non-map guy’s advice was a very bad idea. I could also tell plenty of stories from other people about situations that went weirdly or badly in some way when they tried to mix up techniques or combine techniques that were never meant to be combined to yield their optimal effects.
Some people will go on retreats on their own or with friends. This can be good if done well. Digital communication has also opened many logistical possibilities, including practicing with others who are remote from your location, getting teachings and instruction remotely, and reaching out to wider bases of support from across the world while on retreat. The number of online dharma talks that might also help support retreats has exploded in recent years.
For those practicing on their own who haven’t done a retreat, here is a sample schedule like one you would see at a Mahasi center. This is a slightly modified version of something that was posted on the wall for some people doing a residential retreat:
4:30 a.m. Awaken, dress, wash, brush teeth, bathroom, etc.
5:00 a.m. Walk
6:00 a.m. Sit
7:00 a.m. Breakfast
7:30 a.m. Walk
8:00 a.m. Sit
9:00 a.m. Walk
10:00 a.m. Sit
11:00 a.m. Lunch
12:00 p.m. Rest, wash, walk, etc.
1:00 p.m. Walk
2:00 p.m. Sit
3:00 p.m. Walk
4:00 p.m. Sit
5:00 p.m. Walk
6:00 p.m. Sit
7:00 p.m. Walk
8:00 p.m. Sit
9:00 p.m. Walk
10:00 p.m. Sit, perhaps do Metta
10:30 p.m. Recline
1) Don’t indulge in your crap!
2) When in doubt or struggling, note those sensations and everything else.
3) If you have a question, the answer is in the three characteristics.
4) Analysis is not the same as practice.
5) Practice at all times when awake; be mindful during transitions between sessions.
6) When nobody is around, practice just as hard: this is for you, not them.
7) Remember how precious these moments are and how rare the opportunity to go on retreat is.
You can modify the above to suit your needs if you are creating your own retreat, but that should give you a good idea of what the schedule on retreats can be like for those who haven’t been on them or are thinking about doing one. Not all styles have schedules as intense, but that sort of intensity does tend to make for rapid progress. Those styles with less hours per day make for easier integration and may reduce side effects.
Lastly, there is the problem often referred to as “yogi mind”, a phrase meaning that, as our sensitivity and concentration increase, we meditators can spiral off into very strange mental pathways with a degree of intensity that might otherwise be totally out of character for us. The more intense the retreat, the higher the probability of an episode of yogi mind. Yogi mind can make us have much stronger and more neurotic reactions to situations we find in retreat centers than we normally would. If you go on retreat, it is worth actively mentally compensating for this by expecting it in yourself. You seriously don’t want to go on a retreat, let yourself get all jacked up on the dharma, become totally yogi-minded, and start talkin’ out yo’ head, as we say in the South.
Unfortunately, a reasonable number of theoretically mature adults who consider themselves already very moral people would have likely benefitted greatly from a retreat where the training was all about more formal training in Buddhist morality, specifically how to handle our minds, speech, and behavior skillfully in relative terms. Even more unfortunately, there are vastly fewer resources for people to acquire this sort of formal morality training than there are for them to go on intensive retreats where that sort of training in morality would have mitigated or at least reduced yogi mind and the many other possible problems that regularly plague people when they go on insight retreats.
Instead, many insight retreats end up being a painful crash course in just how lacking these foundational skills are. This lack is an obvious and glaring shadow side of the modern world of spiritual training and practice, whose advocates predictably want to jump into practices for which they deem themselves ready and qualified. Let me repeat: there is a reason that the Buddha’s three trainings are in the order they appear: sila, samadhi, pañña, or morality, concentration, wisdom.
One significant problem with yogi mind is that it can temporarily impair the very meta-cognitive faculties that would allow us to diagnose and temper it. I know of no perfect solution to this problem except to have a firm commitment to honestly diagnosing yogi mind in yourself and a high degree of receptivity to others should they politely inform you that you seem yogi-minded. Yogi mind can persist for some period after a retreat ends, so watch for it in the days that follow a retreat. Speaking of the period following a retreat …