How to Have A Successful Buddhist Retreat Experience

Christine Skarda’s advice for a successful meditation retreat .

By Christine Skarda

Photo by Cory Kohn.

Christine Skarda’s advice for a successful retreat.

First, let go of the idea of a perfect retreat place.

There is no such place! After all, this is samsara, not nirvana.

When we think about doing a retreat, we tend to recall famous practitioners and want our retreat to be like theirs: done in perfect isolation, with no distractions, no interruptions, and filled with spiritual accomplishments. Sounds good, but this ideal comes from a selective reading of their actual retreat circumstances.

We remember the yogi Milarepa spending years alone in his cave but forget that he was often visited by robbers, hunters, demons, and—last but not least—his well-meaning sister, who wanted to reform him into a respectable lama! And Lama Tsongkhapa was pursued by the Chinese emperor, who wanted a court lama.

In our own retreat, we may not deal with emperors or demons, but our sister or brother may check on us, despite our protestations. Thus our first task is to make peace with reality. The real retreat is not created by circumstances but by the mind.

How do we create a retreat mind?

Dedicate yourself completely. No wobbly intentions! Before actually starting, generate as strongly as possible the conviction that this is the best way to spend your time in this life. You will renew and strengthen this conviction during retreat. However, you must have it in place when you begin, or you will soon be doing something else. To generate conviction, study the life stories of great meditators and take inspiration from your own teachers, as they share their experiences.

Doing retreat is not a spur-of-the-moment decision, say after attending a teaching on a great practitioner and deciding we must do the same. After a few days in retreat, this “teaching high” abates and we lose our way. The problem is not that we are inadequate, only that we did not prepare by doing our homework.

A retreat mind has a sense of renunciation.

It’s important to understand the benefits of retreat and to view the ordinary way of living in the world as basically meaningless. This insight requires study and may take years to develop. The starting point is Buddha’s most basic teaching: the four noble truths. If we do not understand the nature of suffering and its pervasiveness, there will come a time when the well-meaning sibling will visit and convince us that we are wasting our time.

Milarepa was not swayed by his sister because he was a genuine renunciate. He knew that what his sister was holding out to him as a worthy goal was actually unsatisfactory. His songs are the songs of a person who deeply understood the four noble truths. No one could shake his renunciation because he knew there was nothing else worthy of his effort. We, too, must study and contemplate the Buddha’s teachings before rushing off to retreat. Milarepa did not study them after Marpa walled him in. Milarepa developed renunciation and then did retreat. There is a profound lesson for us here.

Generate humility.

Although we look to the great practitioners for motivation and inspiration, when we model ours lives on theirs, there is a danger that we might begin to view ourselves as their equal. Imagining ourselves to be modern-day Milarepas could be fatal for us and our retreat. Remember at all times, we are ordinary—albeit ordinary people trying to do something extraordinary. It is the activity that is extraordinary, not us. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Without this accurate vision of ourselves, we might skip practices we consider “too basic.” As a result, we would lack the required foundation for later practice and reach a dead end. Then it is easy to get discouraged, believing meditation is not the solution to suffering that we thought it was. We fault the practice, when in fact the real problem is how we are practicing. It’s a bit like trying to graduate from college before learning how to read, then blaming the college for our failure.

A lack of humility can also lead to severe mental and physical illness. Meditative retreat is perilous. A set of practices that can transform ordinary mind and body into the mind and body of a Buddha is a powerful thing. Practitioners who have enormous egos but little preparation and experience often end up mentally destabilized and/or physically ill. I have seen practitioners develop problems ranging from severe wind diseases to actual psychoses. You might have severe bodily pains, you might not sleep well or at all, or you might lack focus or feel distraught, angry, or miserable. It can become difficult for you to be around other people. Once ill in this way, it takes a long time to recover. Not only does retreat then become impossible, but even ordinary living becomes a burden. No wonder we are urged to remain close to our teachers, who never seem to tire of reminding us how ordinary we are!

Get advice and instruction from a qualified teacher.

We need the advice of teachers who have actually done long retreat, not those who have simply read about the process from texts. We can read the texts ourselves, but we can’t read between the lines: what it is like to do the practice; how we should feel or not feel; how to know when we are pushing too hard or not enough; when to move on to the next step. This information is not in the text. It has always been passed directly from teacher to student. The texts are generalized instructions; our teacher personalizes the instructions for us. We really do need a teacher.

Start modestly.

Begin with short retreats. A weekend is a “long retreat” if you have not done one. You have to get used to being alone—forty-eight hours can be a long time. For beginners, it might be helpful to start with a couple of other people to help motivate and pace one another. Take frequent breaks and get enough sleep.

OK, I’m in retreat. Now what?

If it’s noisy outside, do you wear earplugs or grit your teeth and press on? If you become too tense, too tired, or distracted, don’t force yourself to sit and do focused meditation. It won’t work. Get up and read or take a walk or do your laundry. Or maybe try another meditation instead: repeating mantras or generating compassion. The important thing is not to try to do the activity that you found impossible. It’s a matter of common sense: if it’s not working, don’t do it.

Compassion, compassion, compassion!

The stronger your sense of compassion, the better your retreat will be. For this reason, I find having a pet around very helpful. A pet forces us to think of its needs, and this is very helpful when we are only thinking of ourselves and our retreat.

If you want to remain in retreat for a long time, you need to develop an enormous sense of compassion. Staying in retreat for years is impossible if you are doing it only for yourself. After some time, you’ll leave, convinced you are needed “out there” and that remaining in retreat is selfish. This feeling that you are being selfish happens if you don’t incorporate all other beings into your retreat from the start.

If you are doing retreat only for yourself, you’ll run out of steam after a few years. It’s hard work, day in and day out, with no vacations. It becomes too demanding and too lonely. But if you are doing this work for all others who presently cannot do it for themselves, others who need you so they can stop suffering, you gather courage to go on. Compassion is the key that keeps the retreat door locked until the goal is achieved.

Always focus on the basics, no matter how advanced your practice.

Dedicate and accumulate merit. Review fundamentals so they become ingrained and continue to until your automatic reactions become dharmic ones. Take refuge inside your retreat hut to strip away habits that trap you in samsara and replace them with responses befitting a Buddha. The walls protect you in your nakedness while you develop that buddha body, that buddha mind. You are not escaping the world; you are getting ready to fully embrace it. This is the most important thing you have ever done, the most important work you can possibly do. Don’t ever give up.


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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.