Author Archives: june

Why Attend a Residential Retreat

Why attend a long retreat? And how silent are they, anyway?

When I returned home one spring from a four-week meditation retreat, the main comment from friends was, “You didn’t talk for four weeks? Really?”  

If you haven’t been on a long retreat before, it can feel a bit scary to commit to what sounds like a total communications shut-down. But once you’re there, it’s not that big a deal. At the end of a retreat, I’ve never heard anyone complain they hadn’t talked enough.

Besides that, yes, you do get opportunities to talk. At Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, anyway, the retreat begins with a non-silent dinner, and some short exercises in conscious talking in the meditation hall with other individuals or in small groups before we all go into silence.  

During the last two days of the retreat we gently returned to talking, with more structured mini-sessions in the hall. There were also voluntary non-silent periods outside, when those who wished could chat with others, but a choice to be silent was also respected.

In addition, most longer retreats schedule some group and one-on-one practice meetings with a teacher throughout the retreat. In the March month-long retreat I attended, each participant met with a teacher every two to three days for 15 minutes.

The teachers want to hear how your practice is going, and you can ask any questions that may have come up. Sometimes you can also publicly ask practice questions of the teachers in the hall, at the beginning or end of a group sit.

If you haven’t tried a long retreat, you might want to consider it. A five-day or seven-day residential retreat is a great place to start. (And if you do intend to go for a month or longer retreat, there’s usually a prerequisite of having attended at least three seven-day retreats beforehand.)

It’s hard to say how much benefit a long retreat will continue to have once we’ve returned home, but it’s definitely a valuable way to spend time with yourself. We may well develop deeper understanding of the teachings. We may have blissful experiences, or deep, even life-changing insights. Perhaps we will even stumble closer to enlightenment.

Back at home after one long retreat, I found to my surprise that I was less likely to get lost in feelings of fear or anxiety. Instead the discomfort drew my attention inward. I was less swept up by the story, and more aware of what was happening in my body. I was better able to be present with the discomfort, give myself some compassion, and skilfully regain some calmness. I was now much clearer that I didn’t want to dwell in that discomfort or overwhelm, so it became harder to feed it and keep it going.

Please don’t get the impression that happened magically, however. I learned I had a choice only by making the wrong one enough times! When there are few distractions, the pain of staying in a story that creates anger or fear can become very obvious. Over time, we learn to accept, more and more, that things are the way they are.

In a longer retreat, you get the chance to really relax into and dwell within a deeper space than normal. In the midst of mostly silence, ideas and teachings heard in daily dharma talks can go deeper and live longer. Often the teachings come much more alive for me – something I’ve heard many times before may feel not just true, but riveting.

This past retreat, I was particularly inspired by the Four Noble Truths. It felt as if I was hearing for the first time that once we really understand them, liberation will be attained. It was good motivation to spend more time for the rest of the retreat pondering them, and seeing how they played out in my daily life.

Another teaching that reverberated deeply was one mentioned as the Buddha’s shortest liberation teaching: To see nothing whatsoever as ‘me’, ‘myself’, or ‘mine’…

Another aspect that always amazes me at retreats is watching the degree to which my body relaxes as my mind quiets down. Walking mindfully down the hill at Spirit Rock one day, my feet seemed like the soft pads of an animal’s feet, that spread out with each step. I’d have to say normally they feel like they have more in common with golf clubs! I had no idea how much tension I’d been holding in my feet. (Not to mention my back, neck, hips, shoulders, face, etc.)

In most of the longer retreats I’ve attended, we are given the opportunity to learn and practice the Forgiveness Meditation, as well as the Brahma Viharas (usually translated as the four Heavenly Abodes:  Metta, or Lovingkindness meditation, Karuna or Compassion, Mudita or Sympathetic Joy, and Upekkha, or Equanimity).

The Brahma Viharas are all purification practices, which means they can really bring up your stuff!  For instance, I was dismayed and humbled by how quickly my ego jumped in to interfere, as I tried to practice Mudita for a dear and deserving friend, who had gone through a terrible time just before I left for the retreat. But humbling is very good for us. When we see how little we really know, how imperfect we are, it helps us to open our hearts more to others and their imperfections as well. And it’s certainly not all discomfort – practicing the Brahma Viharas can also create insights, as well as many pleasant and even blissful states.

The Forgiveness Meditation is well worth spending time with. I’ve found it a beautiful way to begin healing some relationships, including my relationship with my self.

A whole week or month of meditation practice allows us to see and to become much more intimate with our own mental patterns, and our habitual responses of aversion and grasping. We can take the liberating opportunity to spend time witnessing them, instead of going along for the usual ride. There is also time for insights to arise. Sometimes they’re relatively quick and simple, like seeing my own limited ability to practice Mudita as wholeheartedly as I wished.

Sometimes the insights are surprisingly big and seem to arise from nowhere. I remember hearing a teacher talk about how he’d done some volunteer work overseas when he was young. As part of the preparation for working in third-world countries, participants had been taught to kill a chicken. He dutifully killed his chicken, went off overseas, and continued living his life. Years later, during a meditation retreat, the event arose in his mind and he said it took three days of sitting with it to process the horror he had actually felt at killing the chicken, but had repressed till then.

I too have re-experienced painful events from my childhood or past, and often found I was seeing them from a different, wiser, and sometimes less personal perspective.

Another very valuable part of attending a longer retreat is the greater possibility of integrating our awareness throughout the day. We are encouraged to be mindful both on and off the cushion, while doing work meditation (usually one period a day), and as we transition from one activity to another.

And there is so much support. I was simply awed by the kind and generous level of support available at Spirit Rock. There is really good, wholesome food, and they try hard to accommodate everyone’s real needs (not necessarily everyone’s desires, of course!). Accommodations are simple, warm and comfortable enough. The setting is lovely – on a nature preserve in rural California, with visitations from wild turkeys, lizards, hawks, and deer, among others.

Unscented soap, shampoo and conditioner are provided for everyone, in order to make the environment safer for those whose health can’t tolerate perfumed products.  Several scooters are available for those who aren’t able to walk up and down the hill to the dining hall.

Spirit Rock also has a commitment to make their retreats as accessible and welcoming as possible to everyone, including those who can’t afford them. Scholarships are available for several groups: those on limited incomes, young people, people of colour, and those with health challenges.

There’s something very special about spending time in silence while also being in community. For one thing, it keeps us out of a lot of trouble! Perhaps we are inhabiting our bigger, more beautiful souls, as we are temporarily less able to express our smaller selves. Many of us feel some reluctance at the end of the retreat to begin chatting normally with each other. It can feel like something very precious is being lost along with the silence.

If the Buddha’s teachings resonate with you, you might well enjoy an opportunity to spend a longer time on retreat, dwelling on the teachings, and deepening your practice. Most of us enjoy the time as a lovely break from demanding and stressful lives.  Many find a deeper sense of peace and even joy in being with ourselves, and with nature. And for some, a long retreat can be a life-changing event, when deeper truths have the time and space to make themselves known.

— Grace


Retreat Etiquette Guidelines for Monastic Retreats

The following are guidelines for being in the company of ordained monastics – both monks and nuns:

  • It is respectful to place your hands in anjali (prayer pose) when greeting or speaking to a monastic.
  • It is respectful to fold your legs and not point the soles of your feet at a monastic, or towards the altar.
  • It is respectful to wear clothing that is not too tight or revealing.
  • If a monastic is sitting, please do not stand over them; sit below or at the same level.
  • If you are walking beside a monastic, let them pass by you or offer for them to go ahead of you.

Media tech support opportunity

We are looking for people interested in working with audio and computer media. Perhaps you know, or would be willing to learn how to set up microphones and PA equipment? The media team would also like help with recording talks at retreats and special events using our digital recorder. If you own a PC or Mac, we would appreciate help with trimming audio files, uploading them to the website and linking them to webpages. All software, training and support will be provided. You’d work as part of the team.
Bruce MacRae, Rod House and Lawrie Thicke would love to hear from you, if you’re interested in one or more of these three areas. For more info, email them c/o


Guest teacher Kate Dresher from Washington State will lead the Sunday Night Sit.

Kate Dresher photoKate Dresher has been practicing meditation since 1998 and was authorized to teach by her root teacher, Michele McDonald, in 2010. She has studied with both Asian and Western meditation masters, most notably Venerables Chanmyay Myaing Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Vivekananda, and practiced for a time as a nun in Burma.  She has also trained to offer spiritual care, as a Buddhist chaplain, for those facing difficulty or loss. Kate is involved in teaching metta and vipassana retreats primarily in the Northwestern U.S. and British Columbia, where she resides. She emphasizes practicing right where we are as a doorway to the natural unfolding of wisdom and love. She is inspired by people’s wish for happiness and freedom.

2014/05/24 Non-residential retreat with Eve Decker

Home in the Present Moment
Music and Dharma Retreat with Eve Decker
Saturday May 24 2014 9:00 – 4:30 pm
Sunday May 25  2014 9:00 – 4:00 pm
Goward House
2425 Arbutus Road, Victoria BC

 Eve Decker

Experience a replenishing weekend of teachings with Dharma teacher and musician, Eve Decker who will lead an experiential two-day retreat of sitting and walking meditation, listening and participating with dharma-related songs, and deepening our connection to the teachings of the Buddha.
This retreat is suitable for both beginners and experienced meditators.
Buddhist teachings, including the practice methods of mindfulness and lovingkindness offer us a doorway to refuge and peace, found in the present moment. This weekend offers rest, reflection and learning through meditation, music, and Buddhist teachings such as the four Noble Truths, impermanence, and compassion.

About Eve:
Eve is a long-term student of the dharma and teaches in the San Francisco Bay area. She began practicing Vipassana/Insight Meditation and Metta meditation in the early 1990s. She trained in mindfulness based social action through the two-year Path of Engagement program and in 2012 became a certified Community Dharma Leader.  Both programs are offered by Spirit Rock Meditation Center, California.

Eve is also a performing artist. She co-founded and toured with the American feminist folk trio Rebecca Riots from 1993 – 2009.  In 2006, Eve released a solo CD, “Commentary on Perfections of the Heart”, 10 original songs based on the Buddhist teachings of the Ten Paramis.  She has recently released a CD, “Simple Truth”, a culmination of years of inner exploration of her meditation and music practices.

Participants at Eve’s retreat with Victoria IMS in 2012 asked that Eve return to Victoria. Many found a new pathway to the teachings through the combination of music and instruction.

Eve will perform on May 23rd, at the Garry Oak Room, Victoria, BC  7pm.
For more information – click here.

2012/06/24 Ajahn Sona One Day Retreat and Meal Offering

Guilt, Self-Loathing, Compassion and the Colour Blue
Sunday, June 24, 2012   9 am – 4:00 pm.
Goward House, 2495 Arbutus Rd. Victoria, BC

We are honoured to have Venerable Bhikkhu Sona – abbott (Ajahn) of Sitavana – Birken Forest Monastery return to offer teachings in Victoria.

Ajahn Sona ordained as a Theravada monk under Ven. Gunaratana, at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, where his first years of training took place.  Ven. Sona further trained for over three years at Ajahn Chah’s forest monasteries in northeast Thailand, particularly Wat Pah Nanachat. He returned to Canada in 1994, and established the first Birken Forest Monastery. Ajahn Sona offers the Buddha’s timeless teachings in a profound and refreshing way.

LUNCH:This retreat will include a “dana – meal offering”  at 11 a.m. open to anyone who wishes to participate.   Please see information below for what to bring to offer to Ajahn Sona and to share in the “pot luck” lunch.
COSTS: In keeping with the monastic code, Ajahn Sona offers the dhamma freely and receives no money. If you would like to make donations to the Birken Forest Monastery that supports Ajahn Sona, they will issue receipts for tax purposes. Suggested donation to Victoria IMS: $20 for venue rental, accommodation and organizational costs.  Cheques and cash accepted.
Sitting Gear
Please bring your own cushion and mat for sitting. Chairs are available. Consider bringing a mat for under your feet as we ask that you not wear shoes or slippers in the meditation area.

Food Offerings/Pot Luck:
You are welcome to offer vegetarian dishes or meat/fish and any kind of non-alcoholic drink.Those with food allergies will  appreciate labels on dishes.

  • Fruit is best served in cut up pieces. This includes tomatoes.
  • No raw fish please
  • If bringing chocolates, please check that they do not have alcohol fillings.
Utensils, Plates, Cups 
  • Serving Dish or bowl and utensils for serving your offering.
  • Your own plate, cup, cutlery.
    We cannot use the kitchen supplies at Goward House except for their kettles. There is a cooler/fridge. Please consider bringing your dish in a cooler if you own one.
While Ajahn Sona is very comfortable and understanding of our cultural norms, we ask that you consider practicing with monastic etiquette for this retreat.
What to Wear and Not Wear
Moderate dress wear is appreciated. Please, no tank tops or shorts.
Greeting Monastics
Placing your hands together (palms facing) in anjali is a sign of respect and a way of greeting a monastic.  It is considered impolite to have the souls of your feet pointing at a monastic. Please try not to hover over or stand above a monastic.
Supporting a Meditative Environment
Please leave electronic devices at home or ensure they are turned off. Water bottles and thermoses can be placed on shelves for use during breaks. We request that you remain in silence, except for when needing to ask a specific question.
Please email us at if you have any questions.

“During the Buddha’s time, he established a unique and radical relationship between the monastics and the lay community, which continues today in the Theravadan tradition. The monastic code requires the ordained Sangha to live in dependence upon the laity for all their physical needs. Monks and nuns do not grow or prepare their own food, and they can only accept food that is freely offered by laypeople. This tradition has been successfully implemented for more than 2500 years.”    Pacific Hermitage.

2013 Awakening Joy online course with James Baraz and App

James Baraz, a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center  leads an annual on-line experiential course Awakening Joy beginning February 2012. Register at

The  course uses dharma principles and practices to cultivate 10 wholesome states over a 5 -month period (Jan-May). It’s a way to bring practice into daily life with the intention of greater well-being. When people actually do the practices, they work.  The book, Awakening Joy, is coming out in paper-back in November 2012.

The course is done as a nourishing experience and fun. No failing, no guilt, no pressure. Doing it with dharma friends in a group makes it even more powerful. Though not essential, the added dimension of sangha creates a feeling of connection that enriches the experience. Many dharma communities have formed Awakening Joy groups.

If you’re doing the course online, you’re welcome to offer any amount that works for you as an alternative to the suggested donation. I want to share the course with anyone who really wants to take it.   To register go to the website and click on Sign Up button.

“I don’t read a lot of self-help or inspirational books, but even if you never read anything in this genre, this book is one you should try. Baraz teaches a very popular course and has an online lecture series on this. Melinda and I actually went to one of his seminars. He’s a very nice guy, and Awakening Joy is very good.”  Bill Gates  –