The Gifts of Silent Retreat
by Susie Harrington
"Why go on retreat?"
As a meditation teacher, this is one of the most common questions I hear. We lead busy, full lives, and prioritizing days of silent practice runs into one of the central dilemmas of our age: Not enough time — for family, for work, to exercise, to do the laundry, to get it all done! So how in the midst of all this activity can we possibly carve out the time to go on retreat?
I’m reminded of the story of an engraving on a tombstone: “Got it all done. Died anyway.” What is important? What matters? Often we are moving so fast, we forget to ask. And forgetting to ask, we stay in patterns that keep us from asking. To extricate ourselves from our daily lives long enough to attend a retreat is to say sincerely with the action of our body that the question is important to us, that we are willing to stop long enough to consider with care the way we want to spend this precious human life.
When we go on retreat, we commit to attending to what is here. Setting aside our plans and agendas, our endless efforts to get somewhere else. We set aside our cellphones, computers, calendars and to-do lists. We invite the world to go on without us while we come to a full stop and watch from the shore this river of life that we are traveling upon. Sitting on the shore, sitting quietly in the relaxed and alert posture of meditation, attending with mindfulness, we have a chance to look at something more fundamental than the surface layer of activity that fills our days. Just this stopping is a gift! When we stop the external activity, most people find that the mind continues at full speed for some time, but with patience and wise attention, it begins to slow. And as it slows, we have the opportunity to turn with curiosity and care to our relationship to ourselves and to the world we live in. It is not uncommon to remember, almost immediately, that we are much more alive, interesting, complex and nuanced than we generally take the time to see.
We can discover and connect with who we are — the full, undefined, complex mystery — and not limited by the roles and obligations of daily life. A big part of retreat is the safe and supportive environment in which we can welcome and reconnect with the fullness of who we are. We can welcome our sometimes compartmentalized experience of ourselves, allowing ourselves to move towards wholeness and integration. The limitations, expectations and old stories with which we define ourselves can be opened, released or at least temporarily softened, allowing us to welcome the full range and expression of who we are. Our ancestry, ethnicity, sexual identity and preferences; our joys, challenges, histories, cultural and economic origins; our successes, failures, doubts and fears; and all the complexity of our experience can be welcomed with kind attention. We can also connect with our goodness, our kindness and our desire to be happy. We may connect as well with our desire to share happiness and compassionate action with those we love and those far beyond.
In going on retreat, our process can be facilitated by hearing teachings, sitting and connecting with teachers, and allowing what we hear to be tested and assessed in the laboratory of retreat. At the end of a retreat, one practitioner shared that he had read 40 books of meditation and Buddhism, but he hadn’t realized, until he went on retreat, that he had missed the whole point! To see the truth for oneself. Although innumerable books, online dharma talks, articles and other resources can support our practice, it is when we take the time in a supportive environment to observe, test and understand our experience directly that the teachings can take hold and transform us.
On retreat, we also have the opportunity to sit with others. There is an often repeated phrase: Meditation is a solitary activity best done in groups. Many people are challenged to maintain a consistent daily meditation practice; it is hard to do alone. On retreat, we have the support of community, teachers and the retreat center. The whole environment and everyone there serve to support each of us in our practice. Though we each come to retreat with our own specific intentions, we are pointed in the same direction. Our words may be different, but we share the movement of the heart toward kindness, happiness, integrity, peace of mind and freedom.
Retreat isn’t easy, it is not a vacation, at least not in the way we usually think of vacation. It can be challenging and uncomfortable. And it is never what we expect. I’ve heard that Chogyam Trungpa once said, "If you can't meditate, then travel," implying that the biggest adventure available to us is that of meditation. We may think we will be unable to be in silence, unable to sit that much, or anticipate a host of other fears or ideas. It is always different than we think; just like traveling to an unknown land, we won't know until we give it a try. While retreat may not be our idea of a vacation, it can also be deeper, more intentional and potentially more transformative. In the space of silence and stillness, we can connect with what is most important. We can see clearly into our own nature and into our lives. We may see our past, our present and our future with fresh understanding. We can cultivate the clarity to break free of old patterns and the opportunity to make new choices in our lives.
The effects of retreat often extend far beyond the limited time we spend. We may understand in new ways who we are, who we have been and what is most important to us. We may find a growing patience and an ability to be responsive without being reactive. We may find new joy in our interactions with those we love. Old stories, resentments, and misunderstandings that have flavored our relationships may be transformed. And perhaps, most importantly, our commitment to staying connected to what we value most deeply may be re-inspired. With the support of retreat, we may find that the day-to-day challenges and joys of a wise and heart-full path and life is more possible. With the help of a steady practice and retreat, we have increasing skill and capacity to make the choices that support us on our journey through life. To do this is a gift to ourselves and the world, a gift far greater than finishing our to-do lists. Set the list aside, and consider giving yourself the gifts of retreat.
Susie Harrington teaches meditation nationwide and is the guiding teacher for Desert Dharma, which serves many communities in the Southwest near her home in Moab, UT. She has trained in the Vipassana tradition since 1989 and has been teaching since 2008. She often offers retreats outdoors, believing nature to be a profound teacher and a gateway to our true nature.