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The Practice of Retreat

How Retreat Works

A retreat provides an opportunity and a caring container for undertaking intensive meditation, like an immersion course in a language. The central practice is mindfulness, which enables us to see how we create difficulties in our lives and to discover a freedom of heart in the midst of all things. Mindfulness practice on retreat is often accompanied and complemented by training in lovingkindness (mettā) meditation.

Spirit Rock retreats involve a gathering of 30 to 100 or more participants. Most of the retreat is held in silence, and retreat participants 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, the tendency toward distraction is reduced. In this space of intimacy with 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 the 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.

Retreat Schedule

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 a.m., 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 Theravāda Buddhist monasteries of Asia.

Sitting Meditation: The beautiful practice of sitting meditation is the heart of silent retreat. In sitting, silence and stillness develop, concentration deepens, and awareness expands. The training of the heart brings kindness and compassion for all that arises. Beginning meditators are encouraged to use the breath as a focus for mindfulness. 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. For those who have severe physical limitations and cannot sit, teachers can help with modified positions.

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. 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, and lying down.

Eating Meditation: Awareness of food, and the mindful understanding of the entire process of nourishment and eating, is integral to retreat practice. 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. The most substantial meal is served at midday, with the lightest meal of the day in the early evening.

Work Meditation: In the Insight tradition, work meditation is an important part of retreat practice. Through it we learn how to bring the spirit of wakefulness to all the activities of our life. Work meditation also supports the community and assures the smooth running of the retreat. At 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). Often meditators report important insights that surprise them as they engage with their work 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. Dharma talks offer principles 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 challenges, 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. Teacher support facilitates a deepening of the student's meditation practice and encourages further development of the student's understanding.

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.

Types of Retreats

Insight Meditation Retreats: Most retreats at Spirit Rock present the teachings of mindfulness, concentration (samādhi), lovingkindness (mettā) and Insight Meditation (vipassanā), which are based on Theravāda Buddhist practice forms. The primary source for the meditation instructions on these retreats is the Buddha’s discourse on The Foundations of Mindfulness (MN 10).

Lovingkindness Retreats: Retreats dedicated to mettā (lovingkindness) practice are regularly held. In these retreats, practitioners work with lovingkindness practice throughout the day instead of the foundations of mindfulness. The primary source for the meditation instructions on these retreats is the Buddha’s discourse on Lovingkindness (Snp 1.8).

Retreats for Specific Communities: Specialized retreats are regularly offered for affinity groups such as BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, self-identified women or men, young adults, and families. Affinity retreats strengthen community and equity by providing dedicated containers for practice that allow the distinct experience of members of these groups to be held in the support of beloved community.

Retreat Guidelines & Agreements

Attendance: As a participant, you agree to stay for the entire retreat and commit to participating as fully as you are capable. This type of retreat is not the kind of experience that you can drop in and out of well. If you are not able to stay for the entire retreat, please contact the Registration Department as soon as possible. Partial attendance is not allowed unless it is approved by the teachers in advance of the retreat start.

The retreat will include sitting and walking meditation periods, Dharma talks, guided meditations, and practice meetings with teachers. We ask that you attend all sessions, as they provide an important foundation for the retreat, and will periodically include important announcements.

Practice Forms: The teachers will be giving instruction using specific Buddhist meditation practices during the retreat. We ask you to embrace these practices while you are on retreat. This is not a self-retreat facility for you to do any practice or take instructions from other teachers. You do not need to identify as a Buddhist to come to Spirit Rock and benefit from this retreat, but while here, we do ask you to participate and sincerely try the practices offered.

Silence: The retreat will be held in “noble silence” apart from practice meetings with the teachers and necessary communications with the retreat staff. Practitioners do not speak, leave notes, touch, or make eye contact with each other. As an attendee of this retreat, you agree to put aside such things as cell phones, computers, email, listening to music, reading, and writing while on retreat. Please take care of all of your business before you arrive so you can unplug and drop into the silence.

If you are coming as a couple or with a good friend, we ask that you agree to give each other the gift of a fully silent, solitary retreat. This means agreeing not to write notes to one another, not to walk together (even in silence), not to sit near each other in the hall or dining area, and not to speak to each other or even have eye contact with each other. At first this practice may feel unusual or challenging, but it will benefit both of your retreats, and create a non-distracting retreat for others. 

Work Meditation: You will be asked to engage in some kind of mindful work meditation once a day while here, for example: chopping vegetables, wiping tables, vacuuming residence halls, dusting, washing pots, or sweeping. This is an important part of our community practice. You will sign up for work meditations at check-in on opening day. Your work meditation supports the entire retreat community.

Fragrance-free: In an effort to be inclusive and practice compassion, Spirit Rock requests that all participants at all Spirit Rock programs refrain from wearing scented products.

An increasing number of people have allergies, asthma, or other chemical sensitivity to a variety of common chemicals and fragrances. These individuals often find themselves faced with the choice to stay in a fragrance-rich environment and get sick, or leave and be excluded.

For more information about being fragrance-free, please read this article and visit our sister sangha, East Bay Meditation Center, for an excellent resource list of fragrance-free products.

Accommodations: The two-story residence halls contain simple, comfortable single and double rooms with shared bathrooms. There are dedicated floors for those with environmental sensitivities, and all of the ground floors are wheelchair-accessible. Retreatants are asked to practice “taking what is offered” around rooms and food, part of the ancient Buddhist practice of renunciation of preferences. This kind of renunciation cultivates simplicity for oneself and generosity for others. Read more about our accommodations here.

Food: Retreats include breakfast, lunch, and a light supper. Spirit Rock serves ovo-lacto (egg and dairy) vegetarian meals during our retreats. We provide wheat-free and vegan alternatives at all meals, and we thank you in advance for gratefully accepting the food that we offer. Spirit Rock cannot accommodate individual dietary preferences. We provide a separate full-sized refrigerator and small microwave oven so that those with medically-necessary dietary restrictions can store and heat a private reserve of food. Coffee and tea are supplied, as well as dairy, soy, and rice milks.

Trauma & Other Challenges: Intensive silent meditation retreats can be a beautiful and growthful experience. However, they can also invoke challenging emotional and mental states that are best engaged when physically and psychologically healthy. If you have experienced trauma and suspect that it would be difficult for you to be alone in silence, intensive retreat may not be the right practice for you at the moment. 

Though our teachers are trained to recognize the symptoms of trauma and severe distress, they are not in the role of therapists or psychological professionals (even if they hold that training professionally). Retreat teachers are unable to give the kind of individual psychological care necessary to care for acute trauma symptoms.

If you are currently under the care of a psychiatric professional, please discuss your attendance with them. Practitioners should be in a stable period of mental well-being and have adequate self-regulatory resources to attend an intensive silent retreat. You will be asked for your mental health professional's contact information on the pre-retreat practitioner questionnaire.

Dāna: Generosity & Giving

The cultivation of generosity is at the heart of the Buddha’s path. Dāna is the Pāli word for giving, and refers to the spiritual practice of generosity and letting go. Your giving supports our teachers and staff to continue offering the Dharma in an accessible and open-handed way. To read more about the practice of dāna, go to Dāna: The Practice of Generosity

Dāna for teachers: At the end of your retreat you’ll be asked to offer financial support to your teachers. Registration fees do not support retreat teachers and most retreat teachers receive no compensation for teaching at Spirit Rock beyond what practitioners offer. Your gifts support teachers to continue their Dharma practice and teaching. Please offer what makes sense for you, giving from the heart.

Dāna for Spirit Rock Staff* & Operations: Spirit Rock depends on the generosity of our community (saṅgha) to continue offering the Dharma in an accessible way. Retreat registration fees gather only about half of our budget, and donations are needed to supply the rest, including scholarships, staff, and all other expenses.

* Changes in “staff dāna”: As of Fall 2021, retreat staff are no longer paid through dāna contributions at the end of each retreat. Retreat staff, including cooks, managers, and retreat coordinators are now paid as employees, which increases stability and equity for these valued members of our community. Please consider this change as you plan your dāna contributions to Spirit Rock both at retreat and throughout the year.

Any amount you pay above the base rate of the sliding scale registration fee, or any dāna or donation, is tax deductible to the full extent of the law. Please retain your payment information as evidence of your gift. Deep appreciation for your generosity!

Go here to support Spirit Rock with your dāna contribution.

After Your Retreat

After retreat, participants receive an email with a link to the recordings from the retreat on the archive website Dharma Seed, where you can stream recordings from Insight Meditation teachers and Theravāda monastics worldwide. Participants also receive a link to a feedback survey, which helps us continually develop our offerings and support practitioners better in their practice.

It can take time to integrate our experiences on retreat into the rest of our lives. Some helpful supports for integration are continued connection with Dharma friends, daily practice, and knowing when your next retreat will be. Here are a few resources we find helpful:

Next Step Dharma is an organization started by Spirit Rock teachers to support practitioners integrating after retreat. They offer structured connection with Dharma peers and teachers in the months following your retreat.

Buddhist Insight Network is a directory of Insight Meditation communities, centers, and meditation groups worldwide. Sitting with others is the most supportive factor for many people in continuing their practice in daily life.

And of course, keep joining us at Spirit Rock! Explore our drop-in groups, online programs, upcoming retreats, and Dharma training programs to find a path of practice that supports you best.

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