by Peter Carlson

In thinking about the topic for the Wednesday night meditation and discussion group, I reflected on why I go to retreats myself. I begin a two week self retreat in our back yard this Saturday, and I thought it would be useful for me and for the Sangha to talk about the benefits of the intense training that retreats support. The dialogue was recorded and posted through our web site, but I feel inspired to write this article to supplement the talk. The talk included bullet points, and they won’t be included in this article. I hope it is helpful.

Buddhism combines two tracks of spiritual development: conceptual and experiential. The concepts are what we read about and talk about, including the value of ethical behaviors, the importance of truly seeing the conditions of the mind as they constantly change, and so on. The experiential development comes about through meditation, which we are encouraged to practice daily. The purpose of a meditation retreat is to provide a structure for deepening the experiential part significantly. I believe that this emphasis on direct experience through meditation is what sets Buddhism and Hinduism apart from the monotheistic religions. This is not to say that meditation, prayer and contemplation are not found in the monotheistic religions—it’s not emphasized as much. Conceptually understanding the impermanent nature of reality is one thing; the direct encounter with the changing structure of mind states is what actually accomplishes what Buddhism sets out to do, which is to see the impermanent, interdependent nature of reality, and the stress that comes from craving and clinging. Conceptually, I intend to do the right thing, but in the press of urgent feeling, my behavior is too often not reflecting that right thing!

The word retreat has some interesting implications. The most common use of the word involves withdrawing from a battle. Interestingly, one of the Buddha’s quotes goes like this: He who conquers himself is more worthy of praise than he who conquers ten thousand enemies ten thousand times! The experience of retreat is deeply embedded in Buddhist tradition. There is a cycle in spiritual practice: a cognitive structure, which in the Buddhist tradition includes the teachings and the rules for monastic life, and an experiential training, which is the meditation practice. In a sense, each time one meditates, there’s a retreat from the normal external focus and reactivity of life, followed by the return to normal daily routines, presumably including studying the teachings. A formal retreat amplifies the withdrawal from normal life routines, through silence, introspection (on the retreats I and many others facilitate, yogis are encouraged to not make eye contact with anyone), and simplifying the daily routine. At the end of the retreat, the yogi returns to normal life, hopefully with more capacity for self observation, compassion and tranquility.

A retreat, whether for one day or for many weeks, is structured to provide support for this self observation. Meditation is a craft, a training to develop competency in ongoing mindfulness. Some folks will go to tennis camp for a week, to learn the craft of tennis; the same intention sends folks to music camp, gymnastics camp, and so on. The end result is increased competency in the procedures involved in the particular endeavor. When going to such training, one expects a coach, and an environment that maximizes opportunities to become more skillful, including lots and lots of practice. Buddhism involves the craft of deepening one’s understanding of subjective reality—the craft of the heart and the mind.

During a retreat, the setup is intended to support practicing mindfulness from the moment of waking up in the morning until going to sleep at night. The structure includes group participation, which has the advantage of empathic support; it’s harder to not show up for a sitting when you know your fellow meditators (typically called yogis) will also be there. There’s something remarkable about sharing such experiences for a week with others in silence—a mysterious fellowship develops, a quiet dance through the shared spaces of the site.

Another important aspect of retreat experience is the repetitive nature of the process. Typically, one meditates once a day at home, while on a retreat the meditation setting encourages multiple encounters with subjective experience, both formally, on the cushion or chair, but also informally, while moving around the retreat site. This repetition establishes strong neural associations, routines of awareness that are then more easily experienced at home. The mind becomes sharpened by the process; one metaphor for this would be the repetitive strokes of a file in sharpening the cutting edge of an axe. The mind becomes sharp and cuts deeply into moment-by-moment experience.

The silence of a retreat allows time for non-distraction; the retreat structure minimizes the need to speak, and yogis are encouraged to not read or write. This outer silence sets the stage for experiencing inner silence. We are “energy transformers”, and much of that energy is diverted and dumped into useless, stressful commentary. The silence, combined with the repetitive effort to examine each breath, supports releasing that energy, and the mind becomes more alert, more sensitive and more responsive.

This sort of consciousness is noticeably different than what is normally experienced. The clarity, expansiveness, balance and stability of the mind is called samadhi, tranquility, and the retreat reinforces this state of being. I’ve found that the tranquility stays with me. Combining the reserves of tranquility built up during the retreat with a daily sitting practice after returning home creates a buffer against stress reactivity; events that would normally rattle the mind tend to not stick.

I hope that reading this will inspire you to attend a meditation retreat and have this experience. A weekend retreat is a good start, as it helps establish the repetitive routine; it’s even better to attend a one week retreat. After the first three days, during which the mind releases attachment to the churning commentary that normally soaks up so much energy, a yogi can experience the samadhi, and then understand the practice of vipassana, which is insight into the conditional, changing nature of subjective experience. Subjectively, it becomes clear how the mind shifts from one focus to another, often with no noticeable justification. This sudden shift of focus becomes the target of ongoing practice, through a persistent, gentle intention to observe what happens in the mind just at or just before the shift of focus occurs. With enough consistent practice, it becomes increasingly clear that self experience can be observed as a series of rapidly arising and passing away “selfing” moments. Alternatively, during this vipassana phase of a retreat, it becomes more apparent how spacious the mind is, and there seems to be no value or interest in differentiating different areas of experience. That is, there seems no need to determine the direction, meaning or cause of a sound, or to determine where the body leaves off and the rest of the universe begins. Finally, it’s possible to directly observe how tension arises when the mind grasps at a thought, rather than simply observing the thought as just a passing event, with no preference as to the meaning or value of the thought.

I wish you well.