While meditation retreats have always been challenging, rewarding, and in some ways, deeply moving experiences for me, I believe that they don’t sufficiently foster two key aspects of our practice: our ethical, socially-conscious engagement in the world and our active participation in sanghas.
In a previous blog post I raised concerns about the negative effect of having, as a goal of meditation, the achievement of nirvana, whether as a momentary release from greed, hatred, and delusion or as a permanent way of being. I argued that the notion of nirvana is not only inconsistent with a secular Buddhist perspective, but can actually limit our efforts to shift the balance toward more skillful ways of being in the world. In this blog post I want to address what I believe is another limitation of mainstream Buddhist practice in the West: the overemphasis on individual, self-development in a retreat setting, arguably seen by many Western Buddhists as the most important context within which to develop and deepen one’s practice.
The Value of Meditation Retreats for Our Practice
These reflections were prompted by my participation in a recent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, MA, one of the two main insight meditation retreat centers in the U.S., along with Spirit Rock in California. I’ve attended retreats at both centers since 2011 and have always been impressed by the commitment of staff and teachers to create a retreat experience which fosters greater insight, wisdom, and compassion. My suggestions for restructuring meditation retreats are thus not a criticism of how these centers currently fulfill their stated goals, but a proposal to reconsider and expand those goals.
I don’t have personal experience with retreats offered by other lineages, such as the ten-day Goenka vipassana retreats, Zen sesshins, and retreats offered in Tibetan Buddhist centers. But based on my readings and conversations with practitioners, while there are significant differences between lineages with respect to the retreat schedule and types of meditation practices, there are some important commonalties:
- The retreat day runs from early morning to the night, ranging from 15 to 20 hours.
- There is a structured schedule of meditation practices (sitting, walking, etc.), along with “instructions” and talks from teachers, group interviews, and individual interviews.
- Retreatants maintain silence with each other, but communicate with a teacher in a structured setting.
- Retreatants commit themselves to basic ethical guidelines – the five precepts.
- Retreatants spend a portion of the day doing work tasks to maintain the retreat. The encouragement is to do the work in as mindful as way as possible.
In the insight meditation tradition these five features of a retreat are intended to enhance one’s continuity of awareness, which is essential if one is going to develop the capacity both to concentrate and collect the mind and to gain insight into core realities of our human experience: dukkha (suffering in all its forms), anatta (not-self), and anicca (impermanence). By removing the typical stimuli of daily life –smart phones, computers, and other electronic technologies; phone and personal communication with others; and the various modes of distraction and amusement, etc. – one can, through a structured series of meditation practices, become more continually aware of what one is experiencing and how the mind habitually reacts to such experiences with clinging (craving and/or aversion) and delusion.
There is no doubt that retreats do enhance continuity of awareness and thus help to deepen practice. When one has the opportunity to focus more continually on sensations, feelings, and thoughts, the mind not only begins to settle down and become calmer, but one can grasp more deeply the insubstantial, impermanent, and unsatisfactory aspects of our experience.
We know that things change; that is a common understanding. But it is one thing to know that as a saying and another to experience, on a moment to moment basis, the arising, shifting, and ceasing of pain in one’s knee or the way a thought flutters through and away from the mind in its brief existence. A meditation retreat can have a powerful impact because it provides an environment in which one is more likely to have such experiences of impermanence.
At a meditation retreat one also has more time and an environment which is more conducive to seeing that our “default” mode in response to our experiences is reactivity – grasping after and/or pushing away – and how this reactivity creates additional suffering. Finally, one gains more understanding of the ways in which a human being is not some isolated entity (an independent, self-sufficient self), but integrally connected to other human beings and other beings.
As the mind becomes more concentrated and collected, these insights become more available. When combined with an ethics and life style based on care and compassion, we can make significant progress toward becoming more skillful in our thoughts and actions; in short, we gain the capacity to become happier and more fulfilled as human beings.
Problematic Aspects of Meditation Retreats
Yet, as anyone who has attended a meditation retreat knows all too well, a retreat can also be a time of considerable anxiety, sadness, and/or confusion. Sitting, walking, working, and resting with one’s sensations, feelings, and thoughts non-stop is not always a pleasant experience. Difficult sensations, emotions, and thoughts arise during retreats and it is not always possible to experience them as “not-self”, impermanent phenomena.
Instead, the direct, continual experience of difficult phenomena can often prime pre-existing, neurotic patterns of self-judgment and self-hatred. As dharma teachers have noted, many Western practitioners are drawn to Buddhist meditation as a way to resolve neuroses or life experiences that have caused suffering. Yet, a meditation retreat can actually magnify these issues insofar as we lack many of the coping mechanisms which we normally use, including various diversions (e.g. TV, computer), to deal with troubling states of mind.
There are two other factors which make the retreat experience difficult. Since most retreats are composed of individuals who don’t know each other rather than, say, a group of sangha members who come together to a retreat, one can often feel quite lonely in a retreat setting. The sense of being alone with one’s difficult issues and cut off from the social supports we normally have makes the experience of problematic emotions and thoughts even harder to bear. At every retreat that I’ve attended, when retreatants report how their meditation practice is going in group interview sessions with the teacher, a significant percentage of retreatants report strong feelings of anxiety, disappointment, and sadness, pervaded by a sense of being alone in their struggle.
The other factor which makes the retreat experience more difficult is the commonly-held belief that the ultimate goal of meditation is to achieve nirvana – a complete release from clinging and delusion. I have previously argued that such a belief is not only mistaken, but that it can feed into a negative self-judgment and self-hatred insofar as we believe that we have not yet achieved or are not capable of achieving that goal. Combined with the feeling of aloneness that retreatants often have, the individual striving for nirvana can exacerbate suffering.
All of this is not to contend that meditation retreats should be just a time for contentment and ease. There is a tremendous value in experiencing difficult sensations, emotions, and thoughts as part of the process of gaining greater wisdom and developing a compassionate way of being in the world. We often have to go through what St. John of the Cross in the Catholic tradition called the “dark night of the soul” to make significant personal transformations. When one comes through such an experience, intact and even strengthened, our practice becomes deeper, richer, and more relevant to our lives.
It’s also the case that there are resources within the Buddhist meditation toolkit to ameliorate the suffering experienced in retreats which focus on continuous mindfulness of phenomena. For many years, dharma teachers in the insight meditation tradition have integrated the four brahmaviharas (loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) into mindfulness meditation in their writings and in meditation retreats. Thus, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and others view mindfulness as the integration of a non-reactive direct awareness with a sense of unconditional love and kindness – what Kornfield calls “loving awareness.” Metta and other “heart” practices allow one to gain more insight into how we experience sensations, emotions, and thoughts within and through a matrix of interrelatedness and care. They provide a kind of “antidote” to the difficult feelings and thoughts that come with mindfulness practice.
While recognizing the value of spiritual struggle and the important role of the brahmaviharas in meditation retreats, I believe that the structure and goals of meditation retreats often result in unnecessary suffering and promote an overly individualistic orientation toward self-development and spiritual transformation. What’s needed in meditation retreats is adequate time and space to foster a stronger sense of solidarity among retreatants and a greater emphasis on socially engaged, ethical action in the world.
Creating More Time and Space for Sila, Solidarity and Sangha in Meditation Retreats
I offer below some practical suggestions on how solidarity and support between retreatants, as well as a greater focus on our engagement in the world, can become part of meditation retreats. The challenge is how to make these elements more prominent within meditation retreats without undermining the core objectives of fostering continuity of awareness in order to gain insight and developing the capacity to be more compassionate.
- First, it’s important that retreatants acknowledge each other’s struggle to develop greater wisdom and compassion, and support each other in the process. One way of doing this is to have, at the beginning and end of each day, some structured activity in which retreatants can offer best wishes for and solidarity with each other. I think it would be very helpful to “bookend” each day with this type of social support. Perhaps in small groups, the retreatants could use a guided meditation based on one of the brahmaviharas to highlight the struggles connected with the meditative process as well as affirming the bravery and goodness of each retreatant in taking on the challenge. The theme of such an activity is: “We are not alone in this process. We wish for each other that we are happy and that our efforts are fruitful.”
- Another important way to build solidarity and lessen loneliness, but also to affirm diversity among the retreatants, would be to offer affinity and/or interest group meetings during the retreat. In the recent retreat I attended at IMS the teachers had a People of Color group meeting in addition to the schedule of group interviews. What a wonderful idea! When, at the end of the retreat, there was some time for comments and reactions to the retreat, several people of color commented, with emotion, of how much it meant to them that their identity was recognized and affirmed by the teachers. I believe that this type of meeting ought to be extended to other groups and made a regular part of meditation retreat. Why not have meetings for other groups based on, say, sexual orientation, gender preference, age, social activism, etc.? Let me be clear: this is not for the purpose of transforming the retreat into a diversity workshop, but to provide both needed social support for retreatants and to facilitate social connections and bonds that will help to develop stronger sanghas. I also want to stress that attendance at this type of meeting should be voluntary; if a retreatant prefers to continue doing sitting or walking practice, they should be encouraged to do so.
- As with other lineages and traditions, the importance of being part of a sangha is almost always discussed at insight meditation retreats. I have always found that, at the end of a retreat, I feel a warm connection with the other retreatants; it is as if we have created a wonderful sangha during the retreat. However, aside from the brief opportunity to talk with fellow retreatants after the retreat ends, there is no time during the retreat to discuss the sangha we are currently participating in and to learn about the activities and practices of other sanghas. I think it would be very useful to offer – again on a voluntary basis – the opportunity for retreatants to discuss in small group settings their sangha experiences: how the sangha has supported their practice, what the goal of a sangha should be, etc. The sharing of experiences and ideas would be extremely valuable. Those who aren’t in a sangha might learn about a sangha in their area or perhaps consider creating a “virtual” sangha with similarly-situated retreatants. In short, a meditation retreat is a wonderful opportunity for dedicated practitioners to learn from each other and think more broadly about how to build stronger and more vital sanghas.
- Every retreat begins with setting an ethical intention by acknowledging and agreeing to abide by the five precepts. This is crucial; our practice is not just about becoming calmer and more concentrated, but it’s also about how we develop the capacity to live ethically and skillfully in the world, based on care and compassion for ourselves and all other beings. But while the vital role of sila is always stressed in meditation retreats, retreatants never have the opportunity during the retreat to discuss with each other how one actualizes the ethical values of care and compassion in family, work, and social life. Structured, small group discussions on this issue during a retreat would, I believe, be quite useful in this regard. First, it would help to situate our meditation practice in a larger context, reinforcing the notion that our path is not just one of personal edification but of transforming the world. Second, retreatants would have the opportunity to learn from each other about how to deal with the challenges of integrating our values into our life activities. And finally, retreatants would gain a broader perspective on the range of activities that dedicated practitioners engage in.
Is It Still a Meditation Retreat?
Would the cumulative impact of adopting all of these suggestions so change a meditation retreat that it no longer facilitates the core objective of enhancing continuity of awareness as a means of gaining greater wisdom and developing more compassion? I recognize that this is a valid concern and, of course, the devil is in the details. Clearly, if the retreat schedule has too many small group meetings with retreatants talking with each other, the opportunity to develop continuous awareness will be limited and reactions to social relationships will become more prominent.
However, I don’t think that has to occur. I can envision modest changes in the current retreat schedule while including the suggested group sessions and discussions. At the beginning and end of each day, as noted above, small groups of retreatants would come together to offer each other support and best wishes. In addition, each day an hour would be allotted – perhaps after dinner – for voluntary participation in affinity/interest groups, as well as discussions of sangha experiences and how we actualize our values in the world.
What I’ve offered in this blog post, then, retains the basic structure and objectives of a meditation retreat, but includes a more explicit emphasis on social support, solidarity, and ethically-based engagement in the world.
While worthy of our respect and serious engagement, forms of Buddhist practice – such as a meditation retreat – should never be sacrosanct. Which is better? 20 hours of meditation practice a day, as in some lineages, or more time given to rest? What combination of walking, sitting, and work meditation is more fruitful for our practice? There is no one, right way to have a meditation retreat. We always need to evaluate the usefulness of these forms in the light of our evolving values and needs. For Buddhism to continue to become a vital current in our culture, I believe that more emphasis on the social, ethical dimension of Buddhism is needed in meditation retreats.
 Some links to retreat schedules in other traditions and lineages: Goenka 10 day retreats – https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/code; Zen Center of Los Angeles – http://www.zencenter.org/Programs/Retreats/documents/scheduleSummerSesshin2013final.pdf; and Shambhala (Tibetan) lineage – http://www.shambhalamountain.org/spring-meditation-retreat/
 Kornfield has commented that “I like to translate mindfulness as loving awareness — an awareness that knows what’s present, and also brings a quality of compassion and lovingkindness to that.” “Buddhist Teacher Jack Kornfield On Gratitude, The Mindful Revolution, And Learning To Embrace,” Huffington Post, May 5, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/05/buddhist-teacher-jack-kor_n_5249627.html
 The brahmaviharas are more than just antidotes. As Sharon Salzberg asserted a week-long IMS metta retreat that I attended in February 2013, while mindfulness practice opens up a space between our experience of phenomena and our response to it, allowing for more skillful ways of being in the world, metta and the other brahmavihara practices help to shift our “default” responses to a more skillful place.