On Retreat

At the end of this month the Dharma Friends Community retreat, Developing Breath Meditation, will be held at Durham’s Avila Retreat Center. This post was initially written to assist the people who are coming to this retreat. It is offered here as a support for participation in retreats in general.

What makes a retreat? Well, there is a place designated for the purpose of holding the retreat. There are retreat teachers and retreat managers creating and supporting the structures that contain the retreat (e.g. a schedule, bells). There are retreat activities: meditation, dharma talks, meals; there are boundaries that ask us to let go of much of what normally fills most of our days – no entertainments; no phone calls or emails or texts; no reading or writing except as included in retreat activities. And there is the practice of noble silence. In keeping silence for much of the time, we extend the environment of practice into every moment of the retreat. While all of these factors contribute, the primary necessary component of creating retreat is the intention on the part of each participant to be on retreat.

Retreat begins with a decision – a choice to set aside space and time for developing practice. Once that choice has been made, retreat is present in the mind. You know that you have the intention to go on retreat, and whatever that knowledge means to you is with you from then on.

We move through the days before a retreat knowing that the retreat is out there waiting for us. During this time, the opportunity exists to note any thoughts or feelings, hopes or concerns that may arise in association with the coming retreat.

If you set particular goals or expectations for what you plan to accomplish, check these to determine how holding them affects you. To what degree are you supported by your clarity of intention? To what degree are you overly constrained or pressured by preset expectations. A lack of keen purpose can lead to a sense of aimless wandering about. Too much of a predetermined agenda doesn’t leave room for surprises, for allowing something new to make a beneficial difference. Finding the balance is key here as it always is when we work to bring right effort to any practice.

You may want to take steps ahead of time in support of your retreat experience. Ask yourself the question: are there things I can do now that will help me feel more at ease when I get to the retreat? And, if so, consider tending to those issues. This could mean anything from stopping mail delivery over the retreat time to attempting to resolve a troubling relationship conflict. Remember the lighter the load that you carry in your mind when you arrive the easier it will be for you to settle into the stillness of retreat.

If possible, you may want to increase your time for practice in the weeks before the retreat. Making an effort to study dhamma or practice meditation more often in the period prior to the retreat is a way of expanding the retreat experience and of helping the mind to come to the retreat in a more peaceful focused place.

Those who participate in retreat on a nonresidential basis will need to take extra care to create a well-supported retreat environment at home. Particular attention will probably need to be given to setting up the necessary boundaries for being in silence and for refraining from non-retreat activities during your time away from the retreat center.

In the spaciousness and silence of the retreat environment, we are invited to deepen our individual practices. In sharing retreat with others, we form a community of practice. In deciding to go on retreat, we open up the opportunity to enjoy the process of creating retreat for ourselves and with our dharma friends.