How a Retreat Works
Since ancient times all wise cultures have known the value of retreat. Time in retreat allows us to step out of the complexity of our life, to listen deeply to our body, heart and mind. For 2,600 years, meditation retreats have been a central part of the Buddhist path of awakening. Meditation retreats offer practical instruction and group support for discovering inner understanding and freedom. Spirit Rock retreats combine the fertile atmosphere of silence with extensive time for meditation and walks in nature, supported by systematic Buddhist teachings. Careful guidance and training is offered in meditation. Most retreats are suitable for both new and more experienced students of meditation.
Since 1974, the Insight Meditation community has held hundreds of silent retreats throughout the United States. In 1998 we expanded our California schedule of residential retreats to Spirit Rock Meditation Center, offering practice periods lasting from three days to two months. At the same time, we continue to offer a wide-ranging program of daylong, non-residential retreats, classes and applied spiritual practices.
How Does a Retreat Work?
A retreat provides an opportunity and a caring container for undertaking intensive meditation, like an immersion course in a language. The central practice on retreats is mindfulness, which enables us to see the ways we create difficulties in our lives and to discover a freedom of heart in the midst of all things. The mindfulness practice on retreats is often accompanied and complemented by training in loving-kindness meditation.
Spirit Rock retreats involve a gathering of thirty to one hundred or more participants. Most of the retreat is held in silence; retreatants do not speak to one another. Writing and reading are also discouraged, so that retreatants can better stay with their own present experience as it unfolds, moment to moment. In this silent and mindful environment, awareness sharpens, the body quiets, the mind clears, and space opens for insight and understanding to develop.
With no diversions there is nothing to distract us. Since there is no place to hide from ourselves, there is a good possibility that we will know ourselves better after a retreat than we did before. Self-knowledge and understanding grow as we see that we can live each moment either with inattention, fear and judgment, or with clarity, kindness and wakefulness. By cultivating the power of awareness, clarity and kindness, we discover our path to liberation, inner freedom and a peaceful heart.
Retreats are led by a team of experienced teachers from the Spirit Rock teachers collective, or by other well-known and beloved visiting teachers from our broader Buddhist community. The teachers offer instructions, Dharma talks and regularly scheduled practice meetings to provide guidance throughout the retreat.
The daily rhythm of a retreat usually involves alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, eating and work meditations, as well as practice meetings, Dharma talks and rest periods. The first sitting usually begins at about 6:00 am, and a typical day includes seven sitting and six walking periods of 45 minutes apiece. Each morning the teachers offer continuing meditation instructions for the day. The whole retreat is a succession of mindfulness training, breathing practices, deep awareness of the body and environment, meditations on the nature of feelings, and awareness of mind and the laws that govern it. These are the same fundamental teachings of insight meditation offered in the traditional Buddhist monasteries of Asia.
Sitting Meditation: Sitting meditation is a beautiful practice, at the heart of silent retreats. In sitting practice silence and stillness develop, concentration deepens, and awareness expands. The training of the heart brings kindness and compassion for all that arises. In sitting we can find for ourselves the wisdom and freedom discovered by the Buddha. Beginning meditators are encouraged to use the breath as a focus for mindfulness. The arising and passing of breath shows us in a direct way the universal truth of impermanence. After an inner calm and steadiness are established through breathing, the meditation is systematically opened to include mindfulness of all experiences, external and internal, of body sensations and emotions, of thoughts and the nature of mind itself.
Walking Meditation: Walking gracefully and wisely on the earth is also one of the great Buddhist meditative practices. On retreat, periods of walking meditation alternate with periods of sitting meditation. Just as in sitting meditation, where attention is brought to the rhythmic pattern of breathing, in walking meditation, mindfulness is cultivated by resting the attention on sensations of the body as one walks. In walking meditation we become aware in the midst of activity. Sometimes a slow, careful, practice walk is taught. At other times retreatants are encouraged to walk more leisurely or move at whatever speed cultivates mindfulness for them. Throughout the retreat we learn to cultivate a mindful awareness in all postures prescribed by the Buddha--sitting, walking, standing up or lying down.
Eating Meditation: An awareness of food, and the mindful understanding of the entire process of nourishment and eating is included in the practice at retreats. Retreatants are encouraged to bring the same calm, focused attention to eating as is brought to sitting and walking. Mindful eating is a wonderful context for the arising of insights. The simple, mindful eating of an apple connects us to the orchard far away from our dining table, to the sun and rain and earth that nurture the tree, to the grower, the picker, the trucker, the grocer, to the truth of the interconnectedness of all existence. On retreat, carefully prepared vegetarian meals are served. Retreatants may assist the cooks in meal preparation and clean up through work meditations. The most substantial meal is served at mid-day. The lightest meal of the day is the "evening meal" usually offered around 5:30 pm.
Work Meditation: In Zen monasteries it is said that only if one works with one's whole body, heart, and mind, has one truly realized Zen. Similarly, in a mindfulness retreat, work meditation is an important part of the retreat practice. Through it we learn how to bring the spirit of wakefulness to the activities of our life. Work meditation also supports the community and assures the smooth running of the retreat. At retreat check-in retreatants are offered a selection of work assignments to choose from for the course of the retreat (such as helping in the kitchen during preparation of meals, cleaning up afterwards, tidying up the dining room, or ringing the bells). The daily completion of the task is understood to be part of the continuous cultivation of mindfulness. Often meditators report important insights that surprise them as they wash pots or wipe table tops in a mindful way.
Dharma Talks: Dharma talks are the vocal heart of a retreat. Each day, for about an hour, the teachers present a different set of teachings from the central practices of Buddhism, offering ways to apply them to our own experience. Sometimes the talks focus on retreat practice, and sometimes they offer teachings for wise living in the world. In the talks the teachers may speak about the nature of wisdom or address Right Livelihood, explain the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, explore the Five Hindrances, speak of loving-kindness and equanimity, or tell stories from personal experience that help illuminate practice. The Dharma talks are not Buddhist tenets to be believed, but are spiritual principles offered for students to consider and use in ways that bring benefit to their daily lives.
Practice Meetings: One of the most valued parts of intensive retreats is the opportunity to speak intimately with the teachers about one's own inner life. Teachers hold individual and small group meetings with retreatants on a regular basis to answer questions, discuss problems, give guidance, and explain meditation practices more fully. Students are also welcome to consult with teachers at any time during a retreat as need arises. This teacher support facilitates a deepening of the student's meditation practice and encourages further development of the student's understanding.
Specialized Meditation Retreats: Most retreats at Spirit Rock Center present the teachings of mindfulness and insight (vipassana) meditation, which are based on the traditional Buddhist teachings of the four foundations of mindfulness. Regularly scheduled metta (loving-kindness) retreats are also held and instructions for metta are included in most mindfulness retreats.
Retreats are also offered for specific groups of students: Specialized retreats are offered for groups such as the Dedicated Practitioners Program, Dharma Intensive retreats, people of color, lesbians and gays, women only, men only, lawyers, artists/writers, young adults, and families. The program committee of teachers and staff meets regularly to evaluate the retreat program, and community members are invited to offer suggestions and recommendations.
Leaving the Retreat: Whatever you think a retreat is going to be like, it will probably be different. Most participants find it deeply refreshing and healing, often life-transforming. While spiritual truths can be seen every day of our ordinary life, the stillness and simplicity of retreat brings a wonderful and unique possibility for renewal. At the retreat's end, talks and instructions are given for wise ways to leave the retreat and continue the practice at home. Our task is to return to our communities and bring a reawakened spirit of awareness and compassion to all we touch.