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