General Advice on Retreats

Posted by on Oct 1, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments
[Part of the Daily Lectio series, named after the Benedictine tradition of lectio divina, “divine reading.” For instructions and background on the series, click here. Subscribe to Daily Lectio. Send comments or suggested readings to nathan@artmonastery.org]

Whether Buddhism is compelling to you or not, Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is a down-to-earth, in-depth outline of some of the various maps of the spiritual journey, and many of the various views of its outcome.

In honor of the coming week’s Augustine Rule Retreat at the Art Monastery, and the announcement of the upcoming Artmonk Retreat (January 8-17th 2011) in Joshua Tree, here’s Ingram’s advice on meditation retreats (and some good advice for daily life):

General Advice on Retreats

Plenty of people ask me for advice on retreats, and while each person, retreat, teacher and venue is different, there are numerous points that apply to them all.

Remember how precious an opportunity to practice on retreat is.

Thus, do not waste it. Rare it is to be born a human. Rarer still to hear the dharma. It is even rarer to have the motivation, time, political conditions, money and freedom to go on a retreat. You are the hope for the future, one of the very few people who has a chance to really understand the dharma and then perpetuate it. Remember this when times get hard or you are feeling sorry for yourself.

Your own practice is the essential thing.

Regardless of what happens around you on the retreat, how good or bad the teacher are, how good or bad the practice conditions are, or how good or bad the food is, your progress and success will depend on the precision, consistency and inclusiveness of your own awareness of your sensate reality.

Follow the instructions.

Barring exploitive situations and blatantly stupid instructions, when on retreats by teachers you trust, listen carefully to the instructions and follow them with everything you’ve got. You would be amazed at how many people, having been told to do something simple like “Notice the sensations of breathing”, do nothing of the kind. They will make the sort of progress you would expect: little to none. Do not be one of these people, no matter how many of them you are surrounded by.

Report your attempts to follow their instructions when you meet with the teachers.

When you have a chance to meet with a teacher alone or in a small group, report on your careful attempts to follow their instructions and the results of your attempts. Following this advice will help you follow their instructions. A good report goes something like, “I understood your instructions to be this. I did this as well as I could all day long. I experienced the following difficulties and apparent successes. What can I do to practice better?” Don’t report on your “stuff” if at all possible, which brings me to the next point.

Avoid wallowing in your “stuff” at all costs.

Wallowing in your issues, traumas, childhood pains, relationship difficulties, work issues and “stuff” on the cushion and without the reference points of ordinary life or ability to do anything about these things tends to make people extremely neurotic and produces very little that is useful except finally, in a lucky few, the dawning comprehension, “Wow, wallowing in my stuff all day long sucks and gets me nowhere!” So true. Ground your mind in physical sensations (e.g. the breath) or the recommeded object of attention (e.g. a mantra, visualization, etc.).

Don’t kill your knees or back.

While many people, centers and traditions can be all kinds of macho about posture and sitting position, if you are having pain in your knees or back that persists after you get up off the cushion, figure out a way to sit that is not hurting you. You may need to consult with a teacher. Respect for the health of your physical body is an integral part of sane spirituality.

Don’t project your stuff all over the other retreatants.

It is extremely easy to begin to imagine that certain people around you, about whom you probably know very little and may never have even heard speak, are either extremely wonderful (e.g. such as your perfect soul mate, a walking saint, the sexiest person on the planet, etc.) or very horrible (e.g. angry, disrespectful, unspiritual, the most obnoxious bitch/bastard on the planet, an incarnated demon sent from Hell specifically to torment you, etc.) On Vipassana (insight) retreats, these are called the “VR” (Vipassana Romance) and the “VV” (Vipassana Vendetta). Not only are you very likely to be wrong, even on those rare occasions when you are right, dwelling on these will just screw up your practice and slow you down. Do not trade a precious opportunity for insight for this kind of nonsense. Notice these thoughts and the related physical sensations as they arise and go back to your practice.

Don’t worry if they are or are not all smiling at you.

Some people on retreats make eye contact and smile at everyone, while some others trudge around looking like the merest glance at them will cause them to explode or tear someone’s head off. Don’t worry about this; it is not about you. Your job is to practice well, not to save or restrain anyone else.

Realize that anywhere there are people, there will be trouble.

Wherever people go, there will eventually be scandals, affairs, exploitation, robberies, misunderstandings, arguments, substance use, psychopaths, power plays, and neurosis. These things and many more like them can be minimized but past a certain point are inevitable. Texts 2500 years old describe them happening in the early Buddhist Sangha just as they happen today. Do your best to avoid being a part of any of these things, and contribute to the honesty, clarity, sanity and upright conduct of wherever you find yourself.

Similarly, realize that wherever there is good spiritual practice, there will be neurotic religion.

Despite endless attempts at reform throughout the centuries, people in each generation continue to twist the basic teachings of perennial wisdom and kindness and come up with sectarianism, heirarchy, division, cliques, arbitrary adherence to rites and rituals, secrecy, fascination with dogma, wars over terminology, fascination with contumes and funny hats, disempowering views about how impossible enlightenment is, cults of personality, and so on. It is the bickering and stupidity of thumb-sucking children on the spiritual path. While you are unlikely to be able to reach or change these people, set a good example and do not be a part of this useless craziness if at all possible. Real wisdom is not bound up in these things, but its development may be hindered by them.

Realize that learning and growth always involves suffering.

Just as studying for a final exam involves the pain that comes from stretching ourselves out into realms of knowledge and skill that are beyond where we currently are, just so is the pain of learning to meditate. There is no free lunch. Spiritual practice always pushes the growth envelope, and even the most spectacular plateaus give way to new mountains to be climbed, new hurdles to jump, new parts of our minds to develop, new spiritual muscles to exercise. Just as when we work out there is the inevitable burn as we find the limits of our strength and endurance, so it is with spiritual practice. While it may let up at times, it never stops showing up. That’s life.

Go on a long enough retreat if you possibly can.

The level of concentration and increase in perceptual abilities that can be generated on retreat generally far exceeds what is possible in daily life. There are a few days at the beginning and end of any retreat that tend to involve adjustment, meaning that it takes at least a 5 day retreat to get any sort of momentum for most people, so think about making time for longer retreats. There is simply no substitute for them.

Aim high.

Unfortunately, most people on the spiritual path do not seem to believe that they could really master the practices and get the attainments described in the old texts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Real attainments are attained today by people who practice well. Never, ever underestimate your ability to drink deeply from the well of wisdom and tranquility in your own heart and mind, and do not be discouraged or dissuaded by those who say it cannot be done. Set your goals high and you will have a significantly greater chance of achieving them. On the spiritual path, the key to goal oriented practice is to realize that it involves comprehending what is right here right now.

Practice hard, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

A sense of humor, the realization that you are human and will make mistakes, and an appreciation of the fact that we all have lots to learn will get you along way. Just as a guitar string will make no sound if it is too loose and will break if too tight, just so you should not be too slack or too uptight about practice. Smile, apply yourself, and blaze! When you fall down, don’t forget to smile as you pick yourself up or to cry if you need to.

Good luck.

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