How to do a meditation retreat

In the Buddhist cultures of Southeast Asia, the faithful traditionally mark the days of the full moon, half moon, and new moon by visiting temples, meditating, making offerings, and observing the precepts. In the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, observing the Sabbath can be a profound weekly practice of letting go of work and ordinary concerns and turning hearts and minds toward spiritual matters. In a kind of extended Sabbath or "holy day," retreats are times for dedicating oneself to spiritual life, and their roots are ancient. Some Christians look for inspiration to Jesus' desert retreat in enacting their own retreat of prayer, contemplation, and renewal. Each year, the monks of Southeast Asia remain in retreat for the rainy season, as monastics have traditionally done, going back to the time of the Buddha.
Retreat is not only for the professionals, though. Anyone can undertake a retreat and reap its healing and transforming benefits. Think of it as a learning, growthful experience, or as a service to your highest, deepest, wise spiritual self. It is a gift to yourself and a gift to your loved ones, your colleagues, and all whom you encounter, who will benefit from your increase in focus, energy, physical and spiritual health, and productivity.
I went on my first retreat one weekend in 1968, while a freshman at the University of Buffalo. I had read some books about meditation, and I had heard about the teacher, Philip Kapleau Roshi, and about Zen in some Gestalt workshops I had attended that year, and was favorably impressed by the depth and clarity of the teachings, and by Kapleau Roshi's wisdom and serene presence. But after the weekend was over, I was not able to keep up the practice on my own.
I only learned how to meditate on a daily basis a few years later, by going to several ten-day Vipassana (insight) meditation courses in India during the early Seventies. The master U Goenka was the teacher, and he stressed the continuity and simplicity of practice. At the beginning, it was tough going. The retreats were silent, austere, and physically and psychologically demanding. We slept on mats, and there were no flush toilets, no hot water, no diversions, no news from the outside world, no meals after noon in accordance with the tradition of monastics at the time of the Buddha. The day began at 4 am, and we meditated for twelve one-hour periods, in which we determined to sit without movement and follow the breath. This was interrupted only occasionally with some chanting or an interview or a dharma talk or a meal.

For the first five or six days, I struggled with the discomfort and pain of trying to sit still and relax in the midst of mosquitoes and extreme heat, but then something mysteriously happened, and I began to experience peace, relaxation and even bliss. My mind was sharply focused as a laser beam, and my awareness seemed incandescent, as never before. When I later told my teacher that, he laughed and said, "Beginner's luck! Don't get too excited, just keep meditating."

Without this valuable experience of actually doing meditation in a protected environment under the guidance of an experienced teacher, I doubt I would have been able to continue with daily practice and month in and month out, through whatever doubts, difficulties, challenges and distractions came along the way. Going to occasional refresher retreats with Goenka-ji and other Vipassana teachers during that decade kept me going. Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield were very helpful in leading retreats in America in the late Seventies that I could really enjoy.

I recommend spiritual retreat both to enter a particular practice path, and also as a way to recharge the inner battery, remain motivated, and overcome the inevitable hindrances and obstacles to going deeper on your spiritual path. Undertaking a personal retreat can benefit one on so many levels. If you want to experience an authentic Buddhist meditation retreat, try one of the Vipassana retreats, Zen sesshins, or Dzogchen retreats that you can participate in at a low cost throughout the country, for a period of time of between a weekend and three months in duration. There are also excellent hermitages where one can practice spiritually in solitude and nature, but I recommend that you experience group retreat and learn from a teacher before going off for too long on your own.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a tradition for committed practitioners to make a three-year, three-month, three-day "Great Retreat" once in a lifetime. In the Eighties, I twice completed this Great Retreat at the Dzogchen monastery and hermitage of my teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The group of dharma students retreating there, most of whom were Westerners, did nothing but meditate, pray, chant, study, and practice Tibetan yoga and "noble silence," which includes periods with no eye-contact, no reading, no writing. The beauty of "noble silence" is that it greatly deepens one's sense of solitude and facility for contemplation. We were ordained as monks or nuns for that period, during which time we took vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience to our teachers, shaved our heads, and wore maroon and yellow Tibetan Buddhist monastic robes. We lived under the direct guidance of Khyentse Rinpoche and his colleague, the beloved teacher Dudjom Rinpoche.
Our lives were ordered by a precise schedule, which broke the typical day into two- or three-hour periods, beginning with our 4 am wake-up gong, during which I, along with the other students, meditated and practiced alone in our five-by-nine foot cells sparsely furnished with only a bed, an altar, and a storage trunk. Some years our bed was actually a meditation seat -- historically known in Tibet as "the Box" -- in which we sat up all night doing Tibetan dream yoga and clear light practice. For some periods of time, we concentrated on Tibetan tantric yoga exercises to awaken the energy body, develop inner heat (so-called "mystic incandescence"), and purify karma. During this time, we sat outside in the garden daily for two hours before dawn, dressed only in shorts, even in the winter. There was also a short work period every day after the lunch hour, during which some of us gardened, cleaned, and did household chores in the cloister, while others worked on translations, and copied scriptures and study materials.
We had no weekends, days off, or vacations. But we did celebrate Buddhist holidays, visits by grand lamas, initiations and empowerments, and auspicious full moon days, with various and extensive rituals, tantric feasts, round-the-clock chanting, and elaborate offering ceremonies.
As severe as all the regulation and structure may sound, retreats are set up this way for a reason, and offer great benefit to the retreatant: life becomes much simpler when pared down to the most basic routines, such as waking up to a gong, living according to a schedule marked by bells throughout the day, and wearing the same clothes and hairdo year in and year out -- not to mention remaining entirely cloistered and focused solely on one's spiritual life.
While such retreats are logistically difficult for most people to manage, there are many opportunities at Buddhist centers today to enter deeply into the same practices I learned while on retreat. American practice centers offer an abundance of weekend, weeklong, and ten-day meditation retreats. Even one-day "retreats" are available. I myself lead two dozen retreats each year, through my Dzogchen Center. And I continue to spend at least two or three weeks every year in personal meditation retreat. The seclusion helps me reconnect more deeply with myself, my prayer life, and spiritual practice, and keeps me in touch with my teachers and lineage. And just as important, it integrates my spirituality into the path of everyday life throughout the rest of the year.

There are many kinds of retreat. There are meditation retreats, yoga retreats, wilderness and travel retreats; prayer retreats, writing retreats; solitary retreats and group retreats, men's retreats and women's retreats and young people's retreats; activists' retreats, business people's retreats, artists' retreats, parents' retreats, and family retreats; there are silent retreats, there are seminar-like studious retreats; there are prayer vigil retreats and healing retreats and vision quest retreats; there are fasting retreats, there are special-diet retreats (vegetarian, kosher, fruitarian, etc.); there are retreats centered on specific subjects or practices.

Retreats can be undertaken according to different kinds of guidelines. They can be done by time, such as a one-day or weekend retreat, a weeklong retreat, a month retreat, a 100-day retreat, a one year or three year retreat, etc. They can be undertaken according to place, limits, subject matter, activity, etc. Some retreats provide tightly structured schedules, while others leave retreatants with a lot of free time.

In order to choose a retreat, you could ask your spiritual friends for suggestions and recommendations, or your spiritual director if you have one. Or ask yourself questions like: What are my aspirations for doing retreat, what are my spiritual interests and experience, and what environment would best facilitate their actualization? What are my limitations, physical, mental, financial, time-wise, etc.? Do I want to be silent and solitary, or am I looking for new like-minded friends? Some retreats are silent, with minimal (overt) interaction with other retreatants, while others facilitate group sharing through discussions, group practices, evening activities, etc.

For how long should I retreat? This will depend a lot upon your prior retreat experience. For some people, it may be best to start small with a half-day, daylong, or weekend retreat rather than jumping into a week or ten days of silence and/or solitude. What kind of structure would suit me: many scheduled activities, or lots of open time for my own established practices and interests? What kind of surroundings would be most conducive? (Workshop center or retreat center? Urban or rural? Basic or luxurious accommodations?) Do I need to conduct other activities while on retreat, or can I sequester myself entirely from the world during that period of time? What specific practices might I like to engage in? Do I want and need lots or little teaching? How much personal guidance or time with teachers and mentors?

There are various kinds of Buddhist retreats; each stress different kinds of practices, different schedules and practices. In our quarterly Dzogchen Center intensive retreats, we structure our time, place and activity and attitude according to the what I call the Ten S's.

The Ten S's:
1. Silence
2. Solitude, seclusion
3. Self-discipline, morality
4. Slowing down/stillness
5. Softness, gentleness
6. Sati (mindfulness)
7. Self-inquiry
8. Satya (truth)
9. Selflessness, unselfishness
10. Sacred Outlook

The first three are mostly outer; the second four internal; and the last three are innermost guidelines. Using this structure, you can really do a retreat almost anytime you choose, and structure it according to what is most conducive to accomplishing your goals during the period of time you can set aside for this worthwhile pursuit. One could even do this at home, by freeing oneself from all obligations, commitments, and responsibilities; turning off the phone, email, radio, and doing a news fast; and simply turning inwards for some period of time.

Solitude and loneliness are not necessarily synonymous. The great Tibetan master of old Marpa sang: "When I am alone in the mountains, I am never alone. All the Buddha and gurus accompany me. I feel blessed and delighted!"

I love to go on retreat. I think it is one of the greatest spurs to spiritual growth and realization. The secret of spiritual life is actually doing it; this means practice, not mere theory, belief, or membership. Take the opportunity to try it for yourself. I think you'll love it.


1. "Retreat: Time Apart for Silence and Solitude", by Roger Housden (may be out of print - available used or in libraries)
2. "Transformative Getaways, for Spiritual Growth, Self-Discovery, and Holistic Healing" by John Benson (may be out of print - available used or in libraries)
3. "Sanctuaries: A Guide to Monasteries, Abbeys and Retreats", by Jack and Marcia Kelly
4. "Inquiring Mind, the Journal of the Vipassana Community" for Insight Meditation retreats