Going on retreat is an important practice in many spiritual paths. Leaving home takes us away from the distractions of our attachments – family, friends, pets, and property that demand our constant care. In addition, going someplace new and relatively unknown disrupts our habitual patterns – there is no answering of cell phones, replying to email, interacting on social media, binge-watching TV programs, or browsing the internet. Silent retreats free us from the need for the social niceties that take up so much of our energy and focus. All of this allows us an opportunity to direct attention more exclusively to practice.
Retreats can be teacher-led or self-directed. Teacher-led retreats offer guidance and support. Specific topics are explored and the teacher is available to answer questions. Self-directed retreats require more experience and discipline from practitioners, but allow the freedom to follow one’s inner knowing of what will be useful. Retreats can be residential where participants stay onsite, or they can be “householder” style where they go home at night to sleep. Retreat centers tend to be away from the fray with beautiful grounds for mindful walking and solitary exploration in a natural setting.
The accommodations at most retreat centers tend to be basic, but adequate and facilities are often closely shared with others. The food is healthy and usually vegan or vegetarian. At some centers, the cooks take great care in preparing home-grown, organic ingredients and serve their culinary creations with love and respect. The schedule for insight meditation or mindfulness retreats tends to be very similar everywhere you go. Retreat participants are guided through alternating periods of sitting meditation and mindful walking from early in the morning to late at night with breaks for meals.
The length of a retreat can range from a half day to a week, several months, or even years. Serious mindfulness practitioners are encouraged to take at least one 5-10 day, silent, residential, teacher led retreat every year. The longer and more frequent periods of meditation allow for a depth of practice that is hard to achieve at home with the demands of daily life. Many practitioners find it is useful to start with a shorter retreat period and work their way up to a longer retreat.
Some people feel reluctant to leave their loved ones for any significant period of time, but the calm, balance, compassion and wisdom cultivated by a devoted mindfulness practice may be one of the most valuable gifts you can offer your relationships. Some people worry about the expense involved, but there are so many types of retreats to choose from these days, including some that are entirely donation based, so a little research will likely uncover one you can afford.
The practice of all the bodhisattvas (enlightened, compassionate ones) is to leave behind one’s homeland,
Where our attachment to family and friends overwhelms us like a torrent,
While our aversion towards enemies rages inside us like a blazing fire,
And delusion’s darkness obscures what must be adopted and abandoned.
– Gyalse Tokme Zangpo, The Thirty-Seven Practices of All the Bodhisattvas