Forum: Long-term Retreat—The Challenges and Benefits

In this Buddhadharma Forum, Guy Armstrong, Elizabeth Mattish-Namgyel, and Geoffrey Shugen Arnold explain what to expect from going on a long-term Buddhist retreat. Introduction by Christine Skarda.

By Christine Skarda

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, Guy Armstrong
Photo by Owen Wassell

Sometimes when I tell people that I live in retreat, they raise their eyebrows in amazement—or is it perhaps disapproval? I seldom go on to say that I have been doing this for twenty years. What I am unable to share is how this form of spiritual practice has deeply enriched my life. In retreat, spiritual practice becomes one’s sole occupation. This contrasts sharply with life in the modern world, where religion has been relegated to the margins. Retreat affords us the “space” to create new forms of meaning by living in a radically different way. This is a great privilege as well as a great challenge.

Retreat also provides the opportunity to engage in forms of practice that require sustained effort and relative isolation. Some meditative goals cannot be attained through part-time practice. I have found this to be especially true for the Vajrayana tradition, in which certain yogic practices require full-time application, but it is certainly also true for other traditions and forms of practice. My experience has shown that if I try to start and stop certain practices, or do something in addition to them, I suffer from severe physical and psychological ailments called wind disorders. There is a reason that these practices were traditionally done in isolated retreat: this is where they can be done successfully—and safely.

Over the years, my views on retreat have changed. I’ve moved from viewing it as it is portrayed in the popular imagination to what I would call a more realistic view. At first I tried to live according to the models I found in accounts of great meditators of the past. It didn’t occur to me that they were highly edited accounts, sort of like the baseball highlights on the evening news. “Life in the cave” is not all home runs, nor is it accurately understood as a vacation from life. For those who engage in it, retreat is life itself. It is a way of living, replete with all of life’s ups and downs. Some of us do it all the time; others do it for a while and then put on “another hat.”

If people are to have the opportunity to engage in this form of spiritual practice, it is critical that retreat continues as a living tradition. Retreat may always have been the occupation of a small minority of people, but unless the tradition is maintained, it will turn into a dead language. We need living role models; we need people to turn to for hands-on advice.

In the following discussion, panelists explore the challenges and rewards of retreat practice and the steps that may be needed to keep this rich tradition alive.

Buddhadharma: What is the value of doing a long retreat, dropping your usual day-to-day life altogether to deepen and intensify your practice? And by “long” we mean retreats devoted utterly to practice and silence that last at least a week or ten days, up to retreats that last years.

Guy Armstrong: Long-term retreats have been really important in my life. What may be long to some may be short to others, but each person will define for themselves what retreat means in accordance with their own life circumstances. Retreats lasting from a month to three or more months have always been a key part of my practice. It’s important for the evolution of dharma in the West that we continue to make retreat opportunities available to people because it seems that’s where the deepest understandings of the Buddha tend to get realized. When people make that kind of commitment and put that much time into retreat, it permanently shifts something in their worldview.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: I’ve seen incredible transformations take place with people I’d known for a long time before they came into retreat at Samten Ling, our center in Colorado. It’s common to do one-hundred-day retreats here, and when they come out, I see noticeable shifts in their understanding and in how they are as human beings. For myself, I don’t think I really understood what practice was until I went into retreat. When you meditate, you get an  incredible flood of thoughts and emotions and experiences. It can be quite intimidating. Retreat is so concentrated, it allows you to be with that mind longer, to really get to know it. In retreat, I started to understand my mind, to understand how to work with my experience. Above all, I learned how to find pleasure and enjoyment in my own mind.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: What retreat means can vary widely—in terms of the container, what’s being asked of the student, the amount of guidance they’re getting, the challenges they’re encountering, how those are handled, and so forth. Retreat encompasses a wide spectrum of experience between traditions and even within a given tradition, but what first comes to mind for me is the Buddha speaking of going to a quiet and secluded place. That’s so important. Though retreat may often be discussed as an advanced practice, certain types of retreat are a helpful way to encounter the dharma in the beginning, when everything is so restless and agitated and we’re so easily hooked by things. Stepping away from that and into retreat helps us begin to genuinely encounter the dharma and get some sense of what practice actually is, to encounter our own mind in a way that’s a little bit more naked and transparent. As we continue, then, retreats become even more important because we’re able to practice more deeply, more effectively—so the retreat time is better utilized.

The commitment we make is essential. In our sesshins, we ask people to make a very clear commitment to the length of that retreat, which means that no matter what, barring family emergencies, they’re going to stay there. Closing off the escape door has always seemed to me to be a vital aspect of retreat. It’s very easy to look for an escape, and commitment can be very hard to find or to draw upon within ourselves when we’re on our own. When we practice within a community, particularly under the guidance of a teacher, and we are pressed to follow through on our expressed intention, that leads to a deep engagement with the practice.

Buddhadharma: In retreat, when you begin to relax, what you may have been suppressing in your daily life begins to bubble up to the surface and puts you in a position to process it. Can you get to that deep place without doing retreat?

Guy Armstrong: I’ve seen a lot of people who feel they’ve had transformative experiences with meditation just from working on a daily basis. They report a real growth in self-acceptance, equanimity, spaciousness of mind, access to calm, and greater loving-kindness and compassion in their life. I do believe that’s true, but I would say there is another level of understanding and realization that comes from the silent retreat experience that isn’t available to most people in daily practice. Some extraordinary people may have the kind of depth of mind to get there quickly, like Dipa Ma. But even Dipa Ma was only enlightened in her first seven-day retreat. For most people, to get to a depth that we would call realization requires a longer retreat.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: I would never say that any particular thing is absolutely required. The world is vast and human beings are as well, and all things are possible. For most people, though, stepping out of worldly life for a while is essential. The unceasing, moment-to-moment experience of practicing, of going deeper, and the intimate contact with one’s motivation—these are precious. Very often when people come in who are shaky or ambivalent about what their motivation is and what their practice is about, intensive retreat clarifies that. It helps them to come back into direct contact with what is important to them and why they began practicing in the first place.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: The closing of the escape hatch that Shugen was talking about is so important. You come to the point where you’re able to bear witness to experiences you would continually distract yourself from if you weren’t in retreat. There is no substitute for immersing yourself in that kind of intensity. Consistent daily practice is important and wonderful, but the deep silence of retreat takes practice to another level.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: It’s interesting to compare what we mean when we refer to an intensive. Elizabeth would generally be talking about something longer than what we do. The sesshin is a unique form of intensive, though. It is completely in silence, but it is a group retreat that follows a unified schedule that includes a work period and also meetings with a teacher. They are generally a week long. Although, since we do them every month, people in residence at Zen Mountain Monastery would do a full-week sesshin every month. In our tradition, though, we don’t do the kind of lengthier group and solo retreats you see more often in Vajrayana and Vipassana communities.

Buddhadharma: Clearly there is a distinction between doing a long solo retreat and a series of sesshins, but perhaps in the end it’s a distinction without that great a difference.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: In the sesshin approach there is a kind of pulsing back and forth. You have a very demanding week of sitting within a very strict container. Then that releases a bit and people have to return to daily life, and then once again they return to sesshin. The moving back and forth can be quite awkward and troubling in the beginning. For me, it felt like everything would come apart after sesshin, but over time those boundaries begin to fall away and there’s continuity, a dissolution of the difference between retreat and not retreat.

Buddhadharma: Retreat, then, is not about an escape from the world, because you know you have to go back.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: I find that common perception very humorous because retreat is the opposite of escape. It’s about no escape. When you go into retreat, everything you’ve been trying to avoid surfaces. So often we don’t have a very sane relationship with our mind. It’s all about what you want and what you don’t want rather than being there. Practice is about seeing that for what it is. And that is a challenging prospect.

Guy Armstrong: It is. You get into a retreat setting, and you go through a period of homesickness. You’re missing your partner, your children, the comforts of home. You spend some time adjusting to the schedule and your body being unaccustomed to so much stillness. There’s a pressure-cooker effect. You have nothing left to deal with than the mind at that point. In seclusion, we’re not spinning our wheels trying to deal with shopping lists and babysitters and commuting to work. While that simplicity is a kind of escape from the hassles of daily life, you are plunged into the maelstrom of the untrained mind. Working with each klesha as it arises becomes the biggest challenge and biggest obstacle in our life.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: As Elizabeth and Guy were talking I was struck with the thought of human beings’ uncanny ability to get used to anything. Those early experiences of struggle and homesickness and aching body and so on get settled. And then there is a comfort we can develop within retreat which is not altogether a bad thing. We’re learning how to practice more effectively and in a more relaxed and refined way. Intensity is no longer necessarily grueling. But there is a danger in that refinement. Once we develop some skill and adeptness and the surface frictions no longer affect us, we need to discover a deeper level of motivation to challenge ourselves to genuinely practice rather than just stay on for the ride.

Guy Armstrong: The quality of samadhi, or one-pointedness, the refinement and stability that develops, which is hard to generate as strongly in daily life, is so strong in retreat that when something new comes into the present moment—such as a flash of anger or loneliness or despair—we can fully recognize it and form a relationship to it. Samadhi gives the mind the strength to form that relationship in a positive way, whereas in daily life we might just be overwhelmed by the force of it.

Buddhadharma: Shugen was suggesting that when we become accustomed to retreat, we can perhaps be wooed into a kind of false comfort. We know that ego is a tricky customer. Can ego subvert retreat at that point?

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: It can happen and probably will happen to some degree, but if the container of the retreat is strong, we will find ourselves back at the main point of the retreat. I did a six-year retreat. When retreat became much more refined and comfortable, it became important to me to notice when I was actually practicing and when I was not practicing. I found I could sit in a lotus position, follow the breath, recite mantras, and do all of it without practicing at all. At other times I might have a blissful experience or a very pleasurable experience and then want to hold on to those. What does it mean to practice with whatever arises?

The ego is extremely adept at holding onto experiences and thinking that that’s the practice. After I had been on retreat a while, I started to realize that the postures and the methods support practice, but the actual practice has much more to do with how I’m responding to my experience. How much of mind can I bear witness to? In the beginning it might be very little, but as we go on, it could become much more if we choose to really practice rather than cling to results. It’s not about an answer. It’s about the question keeping practice alive.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: Each of our traditions has forms, rituals, and liturgies. In Zen, they are strongly emphasized. There’s a formal way of taking meals, of walking, of carrying oneself, there’s a formal way of doing almost everything. The student is immersed in so much tradition that it’s very easy, if not inevitable, to just step into the flow of all this and think it’s going to automatically do something to you. But, as Elizabeth said, we can very easily be traveling through all of that and be just as lost as we ever were. What seems so important in the beginning—showing up on time, staying on the cushion, dealing with physical pain or tiredness—is just the part of the iceberg we glimpse above the water. But it’s the subtle fabric of the mind, the nonmaterial aspects of spirit and motivation and all the habits of mind, that are the real stuff of retreat. A teacher can help us to penetrate to that, but it is up to us to notice whether we are actually getting to depth. That’s an ongoing process, because we’re really quite adept at fooling ourselves, even when we have the best of intentions.

Guy Armstrong: On that same point, I’d like to ask Elizabeth what you do or ask yourself to find out if your practice is just routine or if it’s really alive.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: I find it very helpful to simply ask myself, “Am I practicing?” Since we become familiar with the quality of struggle and grasping, and the free and courageous quality of being with the mind, it becomes easier to discern whether we were there or not. When I am engaged, I feel the freedom of it. I don’t mean “liberation” as some highfalutin thing we have to attain, but as a moment of bodhichitta, the difference between focusing on myself and the feeling of kindness and love for others. One of the beauties of retreat is being able to clearly discern that. Even though I had a diligent daily practice, I’m not sure I really knew what it meant to practice.

Guy Armstrong: I’ve been working with a suggestion from a Burmese teacher named Sayadaw U Tejaniya. He says to ask, “Is there greed, aversion, or delusion in the mind at this moment?” It’s all about how I’m relating to my experience in the moment. He says there’s greed present if you want something else to be happening, there’s aversion present if you want something to stop happening, and there’s delusion present if you’re not in touch with what’s happening. I often use that question, and if the answer comes back, “No, I don’t really see greed, I don’t really see aversion, I don’t really see delusion,” then I tend to run through the seven factors of enlightenment and see which of the positive qualities are alive and functioning in the mind at that moment, because if greed, aversion, and delusion aren’t really so strong, then some of the factors of awakening are going to be there.

Once we get somewhat comfortable in doing the physical schedule, the hard part is staying alive to what’s happening in the mind—and that involves a lot of investigation, inquiry, and deep listening.

Buddhadharma: If we engage in that kind of deep inquiry, could retreat become so threatening to our central reference point that we freak out? How do you avoid becoming dangerously unstable and terrified in retreat?

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: In sesshin, we do everything together throughout the day. In our community, it could be from fifty to a hundred people. We wake up together, enter the zendo together, have breakfast together, and work together. We’re doing everything together, but there’s silence and no eye contact. Within this deep solitude is a real experience of sangha, which provides a grounding so that you don’t become freaked out or spacey. There’s a constant emphasis on going very deep and forgetting the self entirely, yet there’s daily contact with the teacher. The teacher can see what the student is doing. As a teacher, you may look out at one hundred buddhas sitting in the meditation hall, but when you meet them one on one, you realize everybody is not doing the same thing, and some aren’t even practicing. If somebody is getting into trouble, throwing themselves into a pit, you can help them.

We also have hermitages and people do solitary retreats that generally last a week, but we reserve those for people who have more experience because you don’t have the sangha there to direct you and you don’t have the access to the teacher. The Zen tradition has many stories of teachers and practitioners living in solitude and practicing for a long time by themselves, but that usually came after a period of communal practice.

Guy Armstrong: At both IMS and Spirit Rock, we’re doing retreats of two months and three months every year, and at the Forest Refuge people may be in retreat for as much as a year. In all those centers, we try to keep a close eye on people’s ability to relate to their fear. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for fear to come up in retreat. In fact, it’s something we value, because normally in daily life people feel overwhelmed by their fear and don’t know how to find any space in relation to it. Seeing fear as another emotion is very liberating, and an important part of retreat.

If at any point we feel someone’s fear is pushing against the workable edge for the person, we back them off the intensity of the schedule, encourage them to take more walks, interact with staff a bit more, and make sure that a teacher sees them every day for fifteen minutes or more. If someone can get through a shaky patch, often they come back in, learn how to moderate their own intensity in the retreat, and learn to experience fear with more equanimity.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: It’s also quite important to determine whether someone has the stability to enter retreat. We only allow people to enter whom we feel are ready to go deep with themselves. No one should be pushed overly hard into retreat, by themselves or by others.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: We too are very careful to be sure someone is ready to enter retreat. And as retreat master, I am there to support somebody to work through extreme difficulties, which we’ve all experienced in retreat. These experiences are incredible opportunities to develop a new relationship to suffering. In retreat, we have the space to ask ourselves what it really is that we’re experiencing before we immediately close down around it.

As you learn to not react through greed, aversion, and delusion, as Guy was saying, you start to see that maybe what you fear is something different than what you thought it was. For me, that was the most strengthening thing to come from retreat, to be less intimidated by my own mind. Freaking out is an opportunity to let your attitude shift. If you can go into retreat with that in mind, it will help you. Otherwise you may take the approach of simply trying to manage your experience, as we so often do in the patterns of our outside life.

Buddhadharma: Ironically, the restrictiveness of the retreat container provides the space where a question mark could leak in.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: Stravinsky said that within discipline we find spaciousness, liberty, and freedom. But that discipline must be held in a way that’s based in wisdom.

Guy Armstrong: Retreat places us in a position to work with the painful parts as well as the sublime parts, and working with the painful parts is really what opens the door to compassion. You see the full impact of negative states on yourself and you look around and realize everybody is going through the same thing. Compassion emerges naturally.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: At a certain point, the realization may also dawn that although you leave so-called regular life and enter a seemingly artificial environment, you are doing nothing more than living. It’s in a slightly more concentrated way, and there’s more emphasis on zazen, but it’s actually teaching us how to live our normal lives. It becomes not just about transferring into our daily lives what we discover during retreat, but about actually living retreat as just another day of life.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: Very much so. I feel fully engaged in retreat, just as I am fully engaged in life. The challenges turn out to be the same. Seeing this helps us to be more ordinary about our retreat and more ordinary about daily life

Buddhadharma: You live and you breathe.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: It’s not all that complicated.

Buddhadharma: Or dramatic or romantic.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: In fact, it’s a very practical thing to do.

Buddhadharma: Yet there is not a lot of encouragement in Western culture to do this sort of thing. It’s seen as exotic and impractical. Do you have any advice about how to carve out time or come up with the money to go on retreat?

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: It depends on what your focus is. If your intention is to wake up, then you do have time to do it. If that’s not your intention, then you won’t.

Guy Armstrong: Motivation is the central question, and that usually builds in a series of steps that begins with learning to meditate and progresses through lengthier and deeper periods. Most people, apart from parents with small children, seem to find the opportunity to do retreat once the motivation sets in. Even people who have a busy work life tend to get at least two weeks of vacation a year and can carve out some time. Helping people find the time is mostly about helping them discover their own motivation and then letting it develop to the point where retreat seems like the sensible next step. And in terms of cost, a retreat can be pretty modest compared with most vacations.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: I’ve also been inspired to see people with small children, with full careers, with partners who aren’t practitioners—the whole gamut—find time to do retreat not just once, but repeatedly throughout the year. And they do it in such a way that they find balance with their families. In fact, retreat can help us to establish priorities in our lives. In general, it’s to say “no” to things you don’t want to do or that clearly cause you great pain. However, intensive practice also can help us to say “no” to things about which we might really be passionate but which are going to give birth to a whole stream of energy needs and time and resources. You may learn to be more discerning about what you take on. You may become clearer about what the most important things are and give them the time they need. You understand why the great spiritual traditions regard simplicity as such an important virtue. I live in New York City, so I know what an uphill battle that can be in our culture, but living simply is always a choice.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: Recently, I have noticed a surge in interest in retreat. We have thirteen cabins and they’re almost always full, and a lot of the people are parents. We have a strong community, like an extended family, so that children have support. Last year, I visited Sogyal Rinpoche’s center in France, and there were 500 people in a strict three-year retreat and another 300 doing an in-house style three-year retreat. It seems people are becoming more and more attracted to doing retreat these days.

Guy Armstrong: I definitely see a growth in interest in retreats. We had 94 percent occupancy this past year at Spirit Rock and the three-month course at IMS was full. It’s part of the momentum of dharma’s growth in the West.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: We have generally been at capacity, which I think is part of the maturing of Buddhism and the fact that it’s reaching more people, but it’s also a result of people responding to a feeling of deepening despair and the crisis that we’re in the midst of, which generates a very sincere searching. In the early years, we would get mostly people living on the fringes of society, now we have people coming in from the full spectrum of society.

Buddhadharma: You’ve talked about how being in retreat and being out of retreat can begin to take on the same quality. Nevertheless, the transition back to home life can be challenging for many people. From the top of the mountain everything looks orderly. When you walk down into the middle of the fray, things can feel more threatening. Is returning from retreat also an important part of retreat?

Guy Armstrong: We often say at the end of retreats that the first half of your retreat is over. The second half begins as you make the journey back home. It isn’t an easy journey most of the time, especially for people who are going through it early in their meditation career. You’ve slowed down but the world has maintained its fierce and brusque and often unkind pace. But the bumpiness tends to smooth itself out after a bit of time.

Buddhadharma: But is that the point, simply to adapt? How do you not only survive the transition but maintain continuity with the quality of the retreat?

Guy Armstrong: We long for the beauty of the retreat experience and that reminds us of the potential of our human nature. It builds motivation and even urgency. It may cause us to adjust our life to make the qualities we cultivate in retreat have a bigger place in our lives. It may also cause us to go into retreat more often.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel: The longing is quite beautiful. It’s an expression of buddhanature. We may judge ourselves harshly at times for not being as connected as we would like, but when we feel that longing it shows how truly connected we are. As retreat begins to mature, our feelings of being isolated can decrease. We feel more engaged with life itself, so returning to everyday life from retreat has less contrast—it’s just living your life, as Shugen said. And yet, there is some difference. Dudjom Rinpoche said that while it’s good to do solitary retreats, it’s also really important to mingle in the world.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: It’s necessary to leave retreat so we can dissolve the duality. An old master said we need to test our understanding against the sutras. We need to test our retreat against life itself, where the messiness will challenge our composure and compassion. The retreat is the extraordinary in some sense and we need to bring it to the familiar, and vice versa. As Master Dogen said, we need to harmonize the inner and outer. Gaining insight on the cushion is the easy part. Harmonizing that with how we actually live our lives is the hardest part. There’s always a lag, it seems, between what we’ve understood to be true and what we’re able to embody.

Buddhadharma: Given how important retreat seems to be, is there anything we need to do to help so that more people can do it?

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: At our sesshins we’ve had more and more young parents come in. There is a tension between trying to maintain the integrity of sesshin or retreat as a cloistered environment and yet acknowledging that most practitioners these days are lay practitioners. They have families and other obligations. We draw the line at phone calls and conducting business during the retreat, but for young parents we’ve begun to find ways of having them relate to their children without breaking the retreat. Sometimes that means bringing a child in once or twice during the week or allowing the mother to call every day to say hello.

We’ve been experimenting because of the eagerness and enthusiasm of the parents. They want to do this and yet they have commitments and we don’t want them to renege on those commitments. We’re seeing what works, keeping in mind how easy it is to lose the baby with the bathwater.

Guy Armstrong: Scholarships are also vitally important. There are segments of the population that find retreat costs really difficult. When I started, I was paying seven dollars a day, and now retreats are sixty to eighty dollars a day, and that is subsidized by donations. In a year at IMS and Spirit Rock, we typically grant about $90,000 in scholarships for long

Christine Skarda

Christine Skarda is a philosopher, scientific theorist, and Buddhist nun based in Northern California. She has spent the last twenty-five years in retreat.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is the abbot and resident teacher of Zen Mountain Monastery and abbot of the Zen Center of New York City. He received dharma transmission from John Daido Loori Roshi in 1997.
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel has been a student of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche for almost forty years. Founder of the non-profit The Middle Way Initiative, she is also the host and creator of the Open Question podcast and the author of The Power of an Open Question and The Logic of Faith.