The Benefits of Long-term Meditation

by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Spending time in a retreat is like recharging a battery. Once you have charged a battery, you don't let it just sit around. You install it in an appliance and use it until it runs out. Then you recharge it. Similarly, when you need to recharge yourself you go for retreats.
The difference between charging a battery and going for a retreat is that the length of time spent in a retreat cannot really be equated with the time you charge a battery. If you charge a battery longer, that does not mean it can run longer. Once the battery has reached full capacity it cannot be charged any more. Charging after that point is useless. But this does not happen when you go on a long-term retreat.
First, before you go for long retreats, you should have undertaken short weekend retreats. Also, be aware of the length of the longer retreat you hope to accomplish -- ten days, twenty days, a month, three months, or a year or two?
You have to prepare your mind and body for a long retreat. You do this by attending several graduated short retreats that last a weekend, three days, a week, ten days, two weeks and a month. Once you know you can handle a weekend retreat comfortably then go to the next longer one. When you know you can handle that retreat easily, move on up to the next longer one.
Sometimes even a weekend retreat is boring and painful if you are not prepared. How can you prepare your mind? When you go for a retreat, donít bring your office with you. Leave it behind. People are generally unable to let go of their work. They are used to their daily and weekly routines full of TV, company, gossip, uncontrolled eating, drink, drugs, sex, travel, etc. When they go for retreats they have to let go of most of these routines.
Since they are accustomed to working under great pressure, even in retreats they are tense and anxious. They want to get something out of meditation as quickly as possible and then get back to their work. Donít go for retreat in this frame of mind. Try to think that you have left everything behind for a while and now you have all the time in the world. Nobody -- no work, nothing -- is going to bother you. Use all the time for your practice.
What happens to you if you do not have this kind of attitude is that you begin to feel bored and tired of meditation. You find meditation is a waste of time. You are in the same situation as when you were at work or at home or with company. If you start your retreat with this attitude, you will wish to achieve some benefit as quickly as possible, and to go home or to work to enjoy what you have been doing before you went for the retreat.
Moreover, in a short retreat you experience a great deal of pain and discomfort. As you become impatient, your aches and pains become more acute. Naturally, in a short retreat you experience more physical discomfort, for you are not used to sitting in one place for a long time or to staying in one place for a long period of time by yourself without listening to radio or watching TV, or without chatting with somebody or reading a newspaper, or perhaps doing some computer work. When you try to look at yourself introspectively, taking stock of the garbage you have within yourself, you experience a great deal of discomfort.
How much time do you have in a weekend retreat? Not more than two days. Before the body gets adjusted to the new situation, the new practice, the new discipline, the retreat time or your holiday time is over. Then you may conclude that all you got from a retreat is aches and pains all over your body. Or boredom. Then you decide never to go for a retreat again. As you have not had any previous retreat experiences, what you donít know is that it takes a couple of days for your body to become adjusted. Short retreats, however, are beneficial for preparing yourself for a long retreat.
People who have done meditation by themselves on their own should expect to face courageously whatever arises in their bodies and minds. Meditating alone by oneself is also beneficial in that you can make your own schedule. You can avoid any human contact. You can chose a quiet place. Even when you go to a group meditation, you meditate by yourself without worrying about other meditators.
However, group meditation also has its own benefits. When you are in a group you receive silent group support. When you feel depressed or disheartened or disappointed you can notice others meditating. When you see them, you feel encouraged. You may think: ìIf they can do it, I can, too. Let me try.î Also, in group meditation there are times for Dhamma discussion and you can benefit from that.
In a short-term retreat, you hardly settle down and get used to the new way of looking at yourself before the retreat is over. Moreover, as we have mentioned earlier, your mind is fully preoccupied with the pain and discomfort you are going through during the whole period of a short retreat. This does not permit you to pay any attention to the changes taking place all the time.
The benefits of a longer retreat are many. You can see the changes in the aggregates taking place every moment. In long-term retreats, you have plenty of time to get over those difficulties. Noticing changes in your body and mind is a very good way to learn to overcome your hatred which keeps nagging you all the time. As long as anger troubles you, you cannot meditate properly.
Secondly, you can see clearly the connection between your intense greed and continuous suffering. Third, you can very succinctly notice the total phenomenon of your life operating without anything permanent in it, just like an ever-running machine. You realize there is nothing you can do to stop the process of growing, but to accept it cheerfully. This is where you will achieve real relaxation, real joy and real happiness, which can be equated with eternal bliss. This is where you see that all the aggregates are inseparably functioning together.
This acceptance of yourself is the beginning of an entirely new life. This is where you are firmly rooted in your practice. Prior to this experience you would go from retreat to retreat, looking for a better teacher or a better meditation system. Now you realize you have found it within yourself. You donít need to go anywhere, seeking another new teacher. Prior to this you would have been pretending to know meditation, possibly even teaching meditation, without knowing what you yourself were doing. Now you realize that this entire rat race is simply a waste of your time and energy.