When I was in my twenties, with a handful of sesshins under my belt, I decided to do a meditation retreat on my own. It seemed like a good idea; after all, I had a dedicated daily practice, knew the sesshin schedule by heart, and wanted to save some money. So while my parents took a vacation, I spent seven days alone in the suburban house I had grown up in, ignoring the phone and doorbell, trying to recreate our practice at the monastery.
The retreat was a dud. I read and slept more than I wanted and meditated less. I can recall only one insight from those seven days: I’m not ready to do a retreat on my own.
About fifteen years and that many group retreats later, I tried again. Motivated by scheduling conflicts with my regular vipassana center and a curiosity to try something new, I headed for a friend’s charming but simple lakefront cabin in northern Vermont. The cabin had no electricity or running water, but it did have a lovely view of a lake and the surrounding hills. During the nine days I was there, I heard many loon calls, but only a few distant human noises.
Going solo worked much better this time around. Although I often lost my moment-to-moment focus, I was able to stay on task. I restricted my reading to inspirational dharma books, didn’t linger after meals, and meditated twelve hours a day. There were no dramatic realizations, but I felt that being on my own allowed me to see some things that I might have missed in a group setting.
Afterwards, I wondered what had made the difference between my first attempt and the more recent one. Was it simply years logged on the cushion, or were some other factors at play? Did a solitary retreat differ meaningfully from a group retreat? Was going solo a more effective way for experienced practitioners to do retreats? If so, why?
Initially, I seized the solo-is-better line of thinking. After all, didn’t Siddhartha Gautama become enlightened only after he left his teachers and ascetic companions and went out on his own? And once the Buddha had disciples, he often sent them into the forest to meditate by themselves, a practice considered to be so helpful that, despite the risks posed by tigers and cobras, it continues in Thailand today. There’s also a healthy list of legendary Buddhist masters, both past (Asanga, Bodhidharma, and Milarepa) and present (Maha Gosananda and Venerable Sheng-yen), who had their ultimate realizations while meditating in seclusion.
Fortunately, several teachers dismissed this theory before I had a chance to get too attached to it. “There are as many, if not more, accounts of monks and nuns in the Buddha’s time who got enlightened in the context of the sangha,” says Joseph Goldstein, author of One Dharma and a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). “I don’t think one kind of retreat or another is necessarily a faster or better way. Each way just offers different aspects of practice. So, for each person, one kind of retreat may be more appropriate at a particular time.”
Tenzin Palmo, a British woman who became a Tibetan Buddhist nun and is best known for spending twelve years in a Himalayan cave in solitary retreat, acknowledges the importance of first establishing the proper training and discipline in group retreats. “It’s wise first to do some group retreats and gain confidence in how to practice, and then, ideally on your teacher’s recommendation, try some short solitary retreats before extending the duration,” she says. “Some people thrive in solitary retreats, and some people absolutely freak out. And you can’t know beforehand.”
Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia, a Theravadin teacher associated with Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California, points out that one of the fetters that gets uprooted at the first stage of enlightenment is clinging to rites, rituals, and practices. “It’s important to remember that freedom is not dependent upon form,” says Ambrosia. “When Ajahn Chah was a young monk he tried stuffing beeswax in his ears, looking for peace. All he got was a hum in his ears. People tend to think that if they go someplace really peaceful, they’ll find peace. But of course that’s not what happens. As long as we have greed, anger, and delusion, it stays with us wherever we go.”
While it’s true that a retreat’s format doesn’t bring freedom and not everybody is ready or suited for a solitary retreat, practicing on your own does offer something valuable. Less than a year after sitting her first weekend meditation retreat, Ambrosia spent the better part of two years, more or less on her own, in a brick room affectionately called the Cave in the basement of IMS. “Looking back now, I’m not sure how I did it,” she says. But it’s clear that those two years were invaluable in helping her to deepen her understanding and practice on the dharma. Six months after leaving her basement cave, she was encouraged to teach introductory meditation classes.
During the first seven years of his practice in India, Joseph Goldstein lived in a supportive group setting where he received some direction from his teacher, Anagarika Sri Munindra. But Munindra would sometimes go away for months at a time, leaving Goldstein to practice on his own. When Goldstein returned to America, he emerged as one of the foremost Western-born Buddhist teachers in the United States. A few years ago, he helped found the Forest Refuge at IMS to give others the opportunity to undertake intensive, long-term practice in a supportive environment, under the guidance of a teacher. The Forest Refuge offers prepared meals, general practice guidelines, and twice-weekly teacher contact, but basically allows one to do an independent retreat in a tranquil setting.
Looking for further evidence of the benefits of solitary retreats, I considered the five teachers I interviewed for this article. All had spent considerable time in solitary retreats, and as a group they struck me as an unusually relaxed and present bunch. Tenzin Palmo, who has spent more time in solitary retreat than almost anybody anywhere, was particularly delightful. After I hung up the phone with her, a grin still on my face, I said to my wife, “She seems light as a feather.” Unconsciously I had assumed that someone who had spent twelve years alone in a cave must be somewhat of a misanthrope and I assumed her seriousness as a practitioner meant that she’d be serious. Later I looked at the photos of Ani Palmo in her book of teachings, Reflections on a Mountain Lake, and noticed that in most of the pictures she’s beaming with a large, infectious smile.
Wondering if I was reading too much into such a tiny, subjective sampling, I e-mailed Bill Porter, author of Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, and asked him if the meditators he’d met, who had spent years practicing in seclusion, seemed more peaceful than the monks and nuns he had encountered elsewhere. During the years it took him to write Road to Heaven, Porter ferreted out and met with more than a hundred spiritual hermits (no small feat, given that Chinese recluses tend to hang out in inaccessible and often restricted places). Prior to that he had spent three years in a Taiwanese Buddhist monastery.
“They do appear more serene compared to monks and nuns in monasteries,” he replied. “But what stands out is their happiness. They’re without doubt the happiest people I’ve ever met. Simple, happy, and unpretentious.”
Jane Dobisz is a teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center and author of The Wisdom of Solitude, an account of her one hundred-day solitary retreat in an isolated cabin during a New England winter. “I don’t think it matters that much whether one does a group or solitary retreat,” says Dobisz, “as long as one does retreats.” Over the years, Dobisz has done all kinds of retreats—group and solitary, short, medium, long, and very long. “I can’t imagine having any real breakthroughs without doing retreats,” she says.
Buddhist scholar and teacher Reginald Ray agrees. In Secret of the Vajra World, he writes, “Retreat practice is critical because it provides the most direct and effective way to attain personal realization of the teachings that one has received. A month of retreat can bring about a maturation of practice and understanding that might take years of daily meditation while living an ordinary life.”
Odds are, what accounts for the unusual happiness of long-term solo retreatants is that they’ve simply spent so much time in intensive practice. “It not magic,” says Dobisz. “If you really give yourself over to the practice, your thinking settles down so much that you click in to the way things are.”
As anyone who has done a retreat of any length knows, this doesn’t happen right away. John Milton is a longtime practitioner who leads wilderness spiritual retreats and is author of Sky Above, Earth Below: Spiritual Practice in Nature. “It’s the first few days of a retreat,” says Milton, “when people face their busy mind and swirling emotions without distractions, that are often the most difficult.”
The essence of a retreat is heightened mindfulness. “When the mind is scattered or distracted,” explains Goldstein, “and we’re struggling to keep bringing it back, it’s very difficult to develop penetrating insight. During a long retreat, there comes the deepening power of concentration and attentiveness that is necessary for seeing the nature of the mind and the body more deeply, and for opening to different levels of insight and understanding. A longer retreat provides the space for people to cultivate this greater focus, which allows us to see more clearly both the obvious and subtle places of attachment.
“The Buddha was very straightforward in his teaching: liberation happens through nonclinging. This is a radical and uncompromising statement. But to me it’s also very inspiring—we know what’s necessary. The first step is using the power of increased concentration to begin seeing all the different places of attachment, identification, and fixation of mind that are there.”
The next step is to keep at it. Tenzin Palmo compared going on retreat to cooking food, pointing out that it’s not very effective to turn the heat up high and then turn it off again, and then the next day turn it on for a while and then off again. What’s needed is a constant flame that gives enough time for all the ingredients to cook thoroughly. “A slow cooker is probably best,” she says. “It will take longer, but the food won’t burn and it will turn out delicious.”
Since the core of all retreats is the same (after all, even in a group retreat, you’re still largely on your own), the differences between practicing with others or on your own tend to be subtle. Perhaps the most nuanced of these is one’s physical setting.
Most monasteries and retreat centers are in quiet, rural spots. And for good reasons: there are fewer distractions, and the peacefulness of the surroundings makes it easier for the mind to settle. But, still, even monasteries in remote places are man-made compounds that act as something of a buffer between us and nature.
Milton believes that being alone in the wilderness has a healing, calming effect, which naturally fosters greater awareness, and he has the experience to back up his conviction. Part Native American, Milton did his first four-day, three-night solo vision quest when he was just seven years old. By the time he was fifteen, he was spending as much as a month alone in the wild, surviving solely off whatever the forest offered. In the 1950’s he began a serious zazen practice and often spent long stretches of time meditating alone, without provisions, in remote mountains. Milton’s adventures induced powerful spiritual openings. Hoping to share his insights, he has helped thousands of others experience solitary awareness retreats in the wilderness. “Even without any [awareness] training, we’ve found that spending a week alone in the woods has the equivalent effect of spending time in a meditation retreat,” says Milton.
I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical, but then I thought about sitting by a brook in the woods or standing in a forest meadow. The sounds of water and wind encourage one to simply listen, generating a heightened sensitivity that makes it easier to drop one’s internal chatter and be more attuned to things just as they are. “When we step out of culture and all the cultural frameworks that define us,” says Milton, “we step into a context that’s primordial and ancient, which is very supportive to a meditation practice.”
None of the other teachers I spoke with felt as strongly as Milton about the importance of doing solitary retreats in the wilderness (Milton believes even meditating in a cabin creates a subtle obstacle), but all felt it’s helpful to meditate in an environment surrounded by nature. “Some of my happiest moments have been by myself in the woods,” says Goldstein. “The wilderness has a timeless quality; it also helps us be more aware of the immensity of things, especially at night. It’s harder to be quite so neurotic in nature.”
Spending time in nature can help us come to understand two fundamental truths that we might otherwise forget: the interdependence of all things, and their impermanence. “Like us,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in an essay in Dharma Rain, “plants are born, live for a period of time, and then return to the Earth.” When we’re in the woods, these facts are harder to ignore. I’ve come to think that one reason my second solitary retreat worked so much better than the first was because of the setting. My first retreat—in a house filled with strong memories and in a suburban neighborhood—was probably in one of the worst places I could have chosen.
The most obvious differences between group and solitary retreats come from what happens when there is no teacher to talk to, no fellow practitioners around, and no chimes to tell you “time to meditate.”
“Whether it’s a solitary or group setting, the value of right understanding and right intention is often overlooked as one of the benefits of doing a retreat,” says Ambrosia. “We could be doing lots of things with our vacation time. Dropping everything in your life to do a retreat is a wise and powerful decision.” In Jamgön Kongtrul’s Retreat Manual, which in the Kagyü and Nyingma Tibetan traditions is considered the guide for the traditional three-year retreat (which upon completion earns one the title of lama, or teacher), Kongtrul advises that to prepare properly for a retreat, we have to make our intention to practice irreversible.
Naturally, for most new practitioners, this is difficult. “The advantage of a group retreat,” says Ambrosia, “is that most people go to all the sittings because they’re embarrassed not to. It’s an ego-based motivation, but it moves them in the right direction.” Once our understanding is clearer and our motivation purer, we no longer need that external pressure. Until then, those who tend to dog it at a group retreat—trying to squeeze the last possible moment from rest time, coming into the dharma hall just before the sitting bell rings, and lingering over yet another cup of tea—are probably not good candidates to head off on their own.
Making the decision to do a retreat, and sticking with it, is that much harder when you’re by yourself. But the payoff is that it builds confidence and strengthens one’s best intentions. “The mere fact that you can do it, while adhering to the regime, and staying to the end without going crazy or leaving, is something in and of itself,” says Dobisz. “Apart from the quality of what happened there, you at least did that and you’re not relying on any authority figure or the group or what other people will think.”
In Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, the late Ayya Khema wrote, “The spiritual path is all about letting go. There is nothing to achieve or gain.” Still, during a group retreat, who hasn’t compared their practice to that of those around them? During my solitary retreat, I was happily free of such thinking. Sitting on your own, it’s easier to drop any notions, conscious or unconscious, of competition or of practicing for some kind of recognition.
“When you’re all by yourself, especially for extended periods,” Tenzin Palmo explains, “it gives you the opportunity to completely open and to strip off the layers of false self-identification. In a group, you never actually do that because you’re always maintaining a form. When you’re by yourself, who are you going to put on the mask for? Losing the need to maintain an outer identity gives you a chance to relax on many levels and to really ask and explore the question, who am I?”
For some experienced practitioners, a solitary retreat also offers a better setting for staying focused. Before settling down, newer practitioners tend to do a fair bit of sighing, shifting, and generally showing their agitation. Of course, this isn’t a problem, and a truly calm mind isn’t disturbed by it. But for most of us, hearing others struggling makes it harder to concentrate and settle down ourselves. During Ambrosia’s two years in the IMS basement, she occasionally joined retreats that gathered above her, but only after the retreat had been going for a few days. Bill Gray, an American expatriate living in New Zealand who’s been practicing for more than a dozen years, prefers solitary retreats at a nearby monastery that provides meditation huts. “Group retreats are distracting,” he explains. He also prefers not to have a set schedule.
For most, though, sticking to a meditation schedule is important, even on a solitary retreat. “All you have is your schedule,” says Dobisz. Without it, especially for a shorter retreat, time spent on the cushion is apt to dwindle.
Once you find a rhythm on a longer retreat, an exact routine doesn’t matter so much. In fact, trying to follow a strict timetable could be a hindrance. Consider what happened to the legendary Chinese monk Hsu Yun, better known as Empty Cloud. He spent most of his life in solitary retreat and wandering between monasteries, earning a reputation as one of China’s most accomplished Buddhist masters. He died in 1959, purportedly at the age of 120. In his autobiography, Hsu Yun recounts,
One day, after putting a pot of potatoes on the fire to cook, I sat cross-legged waiting until they were done. Suddenly, I entered samadhi.
Fu-ch’eng and several other monks living nearby were puzzled that I hadn’t called on them for some time and decided to pay me a visit to exchange New Year’s greetings. Outside my hut, they saw tiger tracks in the snow, but no human footprints. When they opened my door, they saw I’d entered samadhi. One of them struck a stone chime. As I returned to consciousness, they asked me if I had eaten. I said, “Not yet, but the potatoes must be done by now.” As I lifted the cover of the cauldron, I found the potatoes covered by an inch of mold.
Most of us would be so eager to eat the potatoes, or at least concerned that they not burn, that we’d be distracted from focusing within or just being content in the moment. This is one of the difficulties you encounter when practicing on your own: you must do your own chores. The advantage to attending a well-run group retreat is that your functional needs are taken care of, allowing you to devote yourself to meditation practice.
Yet this advantage also comes with potential pitfalls. Practicing in a meditation “lab” can make it harder to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life. We’re more likely to try to hold on to insights experienced in protected conditions, turning them into special moments. And of course once we grasp at any experience, even a valuable one, we get stuck and miss what’s happening right now. Most of us have a tendency to turn our insightful moments into a kind of “best of” film, and then use those highlights as a basis for judging whether we’re now having a good retreat. We may even use those peak moments as a way to keep ourselves going during the hard work that a retreat demands.
This tendency to hold on to highlights became easier for me to see during my solitary retreat. At the cabin by the lake, the cooking, cleaning, and various chores required an attention to practical details that made it harder, especially initially, to concentrate as well as I might at a retreat at the vipassana center. Longing for a spectacular insight or two, I found this frustrating at first, until I recognized that lighting the propane stove could be just as worthy a moment as time spent sitting. Naturally, a superficial reading of almost any Buddhist book tells you this, but as always, it’s one thing to read about it or even know it in theory, and another to experience it. I saw how I tended to separate “practice” from life.
One of the benefits—if it can be called that—of practicing alone is that it tends to create more genuine encounters with discomfort. Of course, discomfort is part of every retreat, but at retreat centers (particularly in Western countries), even if accommodations aren’t cushy, our culture demands a certain minimum level of safety, comfort, and convenience. Yet there’s nothing like real-life hardship to get your attention and to force you, eventually, to be more accepting. In Reflections on a Mountain Lake, Tenzin Palmo recounts:
I remember once when the spring snow melted and the cave became completely flooded. It was May, and the ground was no longer frozen, and it was snowing and snowing, which meant the snow penetrated through the roof because there was no longer any ice to hold it out. It was just dripping down and everything in the cave was soaking wet. I also had a cold or something. I remember feeling extremely unwell. I was thinking, “Yes, they were right in what they told me about living in caves. Who wants to live in this horrible wet?” It was cold and miserable and still snowing. Then suddenly I thought, “Are you still looking for happiness in samsara?”
This led Ani Palmo to one of her most profound moments of insight and relief: “In my heart, this whole weight of hope and fear just dropped away.”
No one is suggesting that we seek out unpleasant situations or put ourselves in harm’s way. Yet, Tenzin Palmo’s experience reminds us that in order to truly face whatever life brings, we may need to expose ourselves to raw, uncharted territory while in an open state of mind. A solitary retreat offers its own middle way between a “protected” retreat at a monastery, which is generally free from worldly responsibilities, and our ordinary lives, which are typically overburdened with them. In that some-of-both environment comes an excellent opportunity to integrate mindfulness into our lives.