Below are reflections by three Center teachers on the meaning of retreat.
I recommend retreat to students if they are drawn to it. It is a process of simplification, in which we are given the opportunity to examine our immediate experience through deepening practices of sustained Attention. This examination is supported through temporarily laying aside the prevailing stories and conditioned fixations of worldly life.
For me, attending retreats served as a kind of crucible for grief during a dozen years of frequent 'personal losses.' Retreats provided a nurturing silence within an embrace of safety: the perfect setting for allowing deep fears and sadness to be infused with restful Attention. When seen clearly, attachments to false beliefs lose their credibility. Through sustained attention, particularly while on retreats, movements of denial or 'grief resolution' were quietly exposed. True grieving openly allows the energetic imaginations of sorrow to remain, without denying or fixating; simply allowing them to be as they are, without expectation. If expectation arises, this too is allowed and observed. If we can call this a process, it is one of simplicity embracing complexity; softening, allowing. Retreat provides us the opportunity to listen.
We do not need frequent deaths to motivate us to retreat. Simply paying attention to immediate experience with a degree of commitment, humility and detachment, we begin to notice that we constantly lose everything, and that we can't actually 'have' anything at all. Seeing that our life ultimately has nothing to do with acquisition, attention rests. In such a moment of opening, our fixations and delusions cease to drive attention and the world becomes transparent to itself.
As many of us have discovered, the first few days after a silent retreat can be overwhelming, especially if busy worldly activities resume too abruptly. Within the safe and protective environment of retreat, attention tends to become very sensitive, tender and open, whereas on return to the coarseness of the world, the full flood of circumstances may seem extremely loud and disruptive. The mind may begin to protect itself through familiar reactive mechanisms of grasping, ignoring, and rejecting, and if awareness closes down around these (identifying with them), mindfulness is obscured. On the other hand, allowing reactive states to be embraced by awareness, identification with them loses its hold, openness is sustained, and mindfulness is nourished.
Grasping at familiar states of clarity may arise, but we come to see that clarity can never be found this way. Rather, it is through noticing grasping and other feelings of reactivity that stability of attention is tethered and clarity realized. Just to be aware of them as they arise, these difficult mind-states, though uncomfortable, are great teachers for us. We may be caught up in them repeatedly, yet blessings arise as we discover mindfulness through them, again and again.
I've been doing solo retreats at a little cabin down in Umpqua nearly every Fall for the last 5 years. Why? Why do I go for a walk? Why do I breathe? I love to. The leaves fall from the trees. Why? They love to. Is there a 'real' answer as to why? Ask yourself, why do you go on retreat? Do you really know? What is it that calls you? Is it wanting to find something? If it is, look right into that and see what lies within the images of wanting. Rest there a while. When you see what is truly there (Here), is there anything to attain; anywhere to escape to? Do you find an answer to the 'Why' Question?
Retreat is a breath of fresh air of big-clear-sky possibility; an opportunity to let go of duties and feel the depth of the ocean beneath the waves of daily concerns. Habits dictate our lives. Awareness informs our lives.
Retreat is an opportunity for awareness to shed light on our habitual tendencies. Maybe we can experience more space and creative play where we have felt solidified and hopeless about our 'bad habits,' as the impermanence of every mental phenomenon burns its truth through our hearts and minds as we JUST SIT together, and discipline is allowed to reveal its liberating effect. I always can use some help with discipline!
We are all enlightened beings playing the game of forgetting. While awake, we sleep. There is an inner war being waged to remain in Truth, while habit tendencies continually flood 'my' mindstream with deluded patterns of thought and reactivity. If this mind struggle is not seen as conditioned, dependent, and illusory, it quickly degenerates into an outer war with the projected objects of my aversion and grasping. Retreat offers an opportunity to simply get used to resting in the true nature of mind.
When mindfulness remains in the illuminated source, habit energies can dissolve in that all-encompassing awareness. In every moment there is the truth of ignorance overwhelmed by awareness, or there is the truth of ignorance playing out samsaric complexity.
If it were not for Retreat, it would be impossible to keep the boat afloat on the turbulent sea of samsara. There are so many predispositions and habits too close to be noticed, and often one is just acting on what remains invisible and powerful, in its capacity to run us karmicly ragged.
I observe this process of ignorance in daily activities; if I don't take time to just sit and see where space becomes revealed, these unconscious forces wreak havoc in mind and body. Sitting, remaining presence, habit energies can dissolve in the purity of the nature of that conditioned mind.
It takes constant intention and devotion to be awake in every moment, and to remain detached from the conditioned desires and aversions that continue to emerge. I need to Retreat regularly to be able to do this!
When these tendencies simply display in the space of awareness, there is a chance for them to simply dissolve without habit energy reacting and reconditioning them to reappear. This is not an easy process, but it is a simple one, which requires no less than everything. In everyday life it requires ceaseless mindfulness to stay with the display. I often fail as attention wanders, wallowing in conditioned experience. I recognize the need to Retreat—to simplify, slow down, take notice, recommit, pay attention, detach, surrender.
The discipline of daily sitting and Retreat time is imperative for my practice to continue to purify ignorance and blossom as the wisdom that outshines ignorance. Practice, Practice, Practice! Some of us may be superior practitioners who can practice (remain awake) in any situation. I am not one of these. I need to take and consecrate time and space to remain on track. Discipline and ceaseless Devotion and Intention, practice of Precepts, and time out illuminate the way. To just sit with commitment, attention, detachment, and surrender strengthens the muscles of mindfulness of the spiritual warrior, so that we can perform our activities in the world with strength of awareness. What joy to hear the call to prayer. What joy to practice enlightenment so that all beings may benefit.
Retreats are a sweet balm that helps dissolve the delusion that we are separate selves. This delusion is constantly being reinforced in our day-to-day lives, so if we are interested in discovering our True Nature, which the mystics claim is a Non-Dual Reality, it is very valuable to find the time to step away from our worldly life periodically and see what we can learn in silence and solitude.
A retreat can be a short break in your day like a 20 minute meditation, or it can be a multi-day (or even a multi-year) retreat taken with a group or solo. Different religions have traditional retreats and lengths of time they recommend, but since most of my experience is with a five-day or nine-day retreat that CSS offers, that will be my focus here.
What are some ways that this balm can be applied? One of the main ways is by maintaining silence. At the core of the problem is the fact that all words and speech create distinctions, so most of the everyday chatter we engage in with others serves to reinforce the sense that the world is filled with an untold number of objects and our body/self is one of those. When we are able to withdraw from this external "noise" for several days, the seeming rigidity of the world starts to loosen. Of course, what immediately becomes prominent is the internal noise—the never ending drama that runs through the mind all day, this "story of I" where we encounter the world in terms of protecting this self from harm or finding ways for the self to be happy. We then apply the balm of internal silence. Through meditation practices, we practice detachment from this internal dialogue so our attention can be freed up to rest in the spacious awareness that begins to become more prominent and out of which everything arises.
As Sufi master Farid Ud-Din Attar says, "Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road..." We have been building and clinging to this belief in a separate self for our entire lifetime, so at least initially it takes some effort to turn the tide of convention. Therefore, to help the balm penetrate deeply, we commit ourselves to a constancy of practice both day and night. Even when formal meditation has ended and we are doing chores or going to the bathroom, we still try to maintain a relaxed, clear mindfulness of the reality of every moment. The same thing applies when we are falling asleep. We try to enter sleep with the intention of becoming lucid in our dreams, so we can gain insights into such things as the emptiness of objects.
We maintain our focus on applying the balm by practicing such things as sexual restraint/chastity. The emotional power of human love and desire is very potent and contains within it the seed of True Divinity. However, precisely because it is so powerful, it is easy to become distracted and focus our attention on our self-centered desires. When this happens, we forget that it is this very "self" that must be sacrificed on the altar of love.
I would recommend the sweet balm of retreats to anyone, or at least to anyone who is able to balance the competing inclinations of pride and humility. It takes a healthy degree of arrogance to think we can discover the divine reality that animates the world, but at the same time we need to be able to entertain the notion that all we think is true—about ourselves and the world—is nothing more than a fleeting thought that dissipates as quickly as "the flash of a firefly in the night (or) the breath of a buffalo in the winter time"[Chief Crowfoot, of the Blackfoot Tribe].