Ever since I started meditating 5 years ago, I have made the time and space to go away on a retreat at least once per year. Last year I was fortunate to go away twice: once to Vermont in the Spring, the second trip to Limoges in Central France. This year I’ve not been able to commit to an organised retreat, leaving me consider other ways to get a period of intensive meditation practice and study. I’ve always thought that a physical removal from one’s normal environment was a necessary factor for a retreat, but when I read this account from Susan Piver, one of my trusted spiritual teachers, I thought “why not dedicate some time to doing this at home?”.
To be honest, I struggle with retreats. Normally the first few days are spent wondering “why am I doing this to myself?”, the next few calculating “when do I get to go home?”, and then in the final days “I don’t want to leave!” Ok, so that last one isn’t entirely true, but I do find myself surrendering – not ‘like it or lump it’ but rather the resistance seems to drop away. I have reflected on these struggles and realise that its less about being unable to escape my mind (I have discovered my mind to be quite crazy company when I am sitting alone with it for 6 to 8 hours a day!), and more the projection of being away from home and missing my life there. Was this intensive practice at home going to help me understand this a little more? What would I blame my struggle on now?
Reading Susan’s account of her home retreat experience opened my eyes to the need of planning and preparation – I was under no illusion that I could just plonk myself on the cushion at 8am Monday morning, sit all day and go to bed at 10pm; repeat for 5 days. In Buddhist parlance, I was aware I needed to pay attention to ‘the Middle Way’: not too tight, not too loose. I needed a schedule – this would help me keep a container (which is normally provided by the teachers and assistants on retreats), and with that taken care of I could relax in to it. It was important that I was disciplined, as ‘right effort’ is a very important component of the meditative path. I also pinned a copy on to my office door (where I was to be camped for the week) so that my partner also knew my plans. We were careful to discuss the implications of this retreat on our home and our movements. Whilst I was to eat breakfast and lunch alone (that was important for me to keep my flow of practice during the day), I was happy to share our evening meal together. On organised retreats, participants cook and eat together but are encouraged to consider their speech: Sometimes the instruction is to abide by ‘Golden Silence’ (no talking at all), sometimes by ‘Functional Silence’ (“Can you pass me the salt please?”), but at all times to be mindful of how much we break the silence. During this home retreat experience, my partner and I used our shared meal times to be mindful of the communication between us.
I also gave a lot of thought to what I wanted from the retreat. One of the reasons I chose not to go away this summer was to ensure I took a break. My on-going therapeutic training takes a lot out of me (quite rightly, it is a very involved and introspective process necessitated by the depth of stability we need to offer our clients). About to embark on the next stage of that training in the autumn (a two year Masters in psychotherapy), staying at home to recharge of my batteries became a priority. Staying here also allowed more control over the study component of the retreat – looking ahead to the next phase of my therapeutic training I was keen to dedicate time to ‘relationship issues’. In the Humanistic psychotherapy tradition, the vehicle for healing is the relationship between therapist and client; furthermore, the school of Buddhism I practice within is committed to the relationship with other. In my personal life too, I have experienced how critical the relational field is for growth. The gardening metaphor is taken up by Dr Jeffrey Rubin, a Buddhist psychotherapist in his book “The Art of Flourishing“. Dr Rubin recently taught a course based on his book at The Interdependence Project (where I studied to be a meditation teacher) so this became my study material for the week. Being able to bring together my two paths – the therapeutic and the meditative – is an area I continue to explore on a personal and professional basis.
Other logistics included setting my email to auto-respond, setting up a voicemail on my work and home phones and telling close family and friends I was ‘offline’ until Saturday.
My daily routine included around 4 to 5 hours of sitting practice – this was mainly breath awareness or ‘shamatha’, but I also included some work across ‘the Four Foundations of Mindfulness’, which invites the meditator to shift from the breath as ‘object’ towards the body, the feeling tone, the mind and then a more open awareness of the now. There were also meditations included within the IDP online classes. The classes gave a taught element totalling up to about 4 hours a day and I dedicated about another two hours a day for the class reading and journalling exercises. Add on 30 minutes of pre-breakfast yoga and a one hour walk after lunch each day and its no wonder I slept like a log: don’t let anyone tell you that retreats are laid back! These activities easily filled my 7am to 10pm day. I made one adjustment to the routine mid-week, taking the opportunity of the beautiful weather to meditate and do my yoga on the beach at 6am – I think that was the highlight of my week.
Of course it is not all about what is done on retreat, it is more about the attitude we bring to those activities. I kept to a simple mantra ‘one thing at a time’. For example, I normally walk listening to a podcast or some music – for this week I walked with nothing, instead allowing myself to experience the world ‘as it is’. When I ate, I simply ate. When I had a tea, I sat just with my tea. No multi-tasking. Just this alone noticeably slowed my pace and opened up space. I noticed things more – both in my external world and in my internal space.
The outcome? I feel very rested, but also emotionally ‘raw’…as if I have come closer to my core of being. I was keen to try this as an experiment as very often I come home from an organised retreat and wonder how I can keep the deep rested feeling and the enhanced clarity with which I see my world (and my reactive patterns) – is it the longer sittings, the opportunity to study the Buddhist teachings more consistently, being with like-minded people who are committed to a similar path, or is it simply the unplugging from the ‘real world’? Doing this at home has enabled me to rule out that a geographical re-location is needed ‘to get away from it all’. In fact I think one of the biggest influences on my state has been getting away from email, the internet and self-imposed expectations regarding ‘to-do lists’. I strongly advocate the turning down of external chatter.
The account so far might lead you to the conclusion that it was rosier than the reality. This has been an incredibly hard experience. I cannot compare the difficulty with an organised retreat as there are too many variables. I certainly benefitted from being at home on one level: not having to travel, and the knowledge that during a tough sitting I was in a safe space are two that come to mind. Being at home however also contributed to some of challenges, namely:
- Switching on and switching off. When I am away, each and every 24h feels contained. Removing myself from home allows me to cross over a line for the entire period of the retreat. This home retreat has meant repeated crossings of a self-policed boundary. Getting up from my bed to cross in to the retreat arena, likewise at evening meal times it felt like I came out momentarily before heading back in for my evening practice, and out again for bedtime. That movement to and fro took energy.
- Freedom and separation. I noticed several times during my retreat how alone I was feeling (some people may read that as ‘lonely’, but I don’t mean it that way). On one level, which the existentialist view would follow, is that the retreat helped me appreciate how ultimately we are alone in this world (by that I mean we self-responsible). I noticed that as I went deeper inward, I was drawn to total separation from the world. Indeed, the temptation of ‘cave-dwelling’ has cropped up in conversation with Buddhist friends of mine!! To call again upon ‘the Middle Way’ teaching, I think it is a fine line someone on this path has to tread – spending energy connecting to self but not at the expense of being-in-the-world wholeheartedly.
- Interdependence. This continues in the same vain as above. The irony didn’t escape me: my chosen topic of study (around relationships) and the withdrawal from the world by doing this retreat on my own. Remaining in the space I share with my partner, walking around my home town and risking bumping in to a friend that I would have to (politely) walk on by are examples of what seemed to amplify some of the emotional obstacles that came up during the week. The study material held up a mirror to some of my relational shortcomings, and this was hard to digest at times*. What made it so hard was being isolated from loved ones when they were so still tantalisingly close, close enough to reach out to – all I had to do was break the retreat container and share all. Each evening meal time became a challenge – I knew to share some of my experience would tempt me to blurt out everything**. So on one hand I was aware of my aloneness, yet inspired by what was being thrown up by my study and practice: to create what Rubin refers to as ‘evolutionary relationships’. I had to exercise patience, to rest with the material and know the time would come to put things in to action. As a human being, I cannot (and don’t want to) live in isolation – I need relationships to thrive.
Would I do it again? In all honesty, probably not! And that is a conclusion based not simply on how tough I found it. Maybe the biggest shortfall of my week was doing this alone rather than within a community of others – especially with the relationship teachings I was studying. However, I’m very glad I have had this experience, and I have learned an awful lot to feed in to my personal and professional psycho-spiritual paths. Looking ahead, what this week has set up for me is a profound desire to take my understanding of Buddhist psychotherapy deeper – for future retreats my priority is to study with the world’s experts in the growing area of contemplative psychotherapy.
I hope this post has been useful. I’d love to hear about any home retreat experiences readers may have had. I’d also be happy to answer any questions if you are thinking of doing something similar yourself.
*I use the word digest deliberately, for two days I was affected my severe stomach cramping – I am not dismissing it being emotionally rooted.
**Sage advice is always given on the final day of an organised retreat – remember that your loved ones haven’t been through the same thing as you, be kind to them and don’t flood all over them!