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Ask The Teachers: When is it appropriate to do a long-term meditation retreat?

The teachers are asked: At what point is it appropriate to consider doing a three-year retreat or very long-term, isolated meditation?

By Lion’s Roar

Narayan Helen Liebenson: I have an enormous love for retreats of any length so I am answering from the perspective of this joy in the contemplative life. My first encounter with Buddhism was in meeting a friend who had just returned from a three-month retreat. I was so happy to find out that this was possible, even for lay practitioners.

Still, retreats aren’t right for every yogi. It’s a good idea to speak to a teacher about it, because there are some practitioners who should be encouraged to do a retreat and others who should not. As for timing, a good time to go on a long retreat is when you don’t have many responsibilities. Few of us are able to sit three-year retreats in the midst of family life. Shorter retreats ranging from three months to a weekend are more the norm in the insight meditation tradition.

As for your question about what brings the greatest benefit to others, it depends on how you are in your everyday life and how you practice as a hermit yogi. In family, work, and community life, are you dedicated to openheartedness? Are you committed to being mindful and aware in the midst of your life? If you are sitting a retreat, are you sitting a self-retreat or a not-self retreat? By this I mean, is your intent to try to get something, or is it to learn more about letting go? What’s key is whether you’re living your life with awareness and nongrasping—regardless of whether you’re alone on retreat or with others in community.

Although Buddhist communities generally stress the value of retreats, if you are not able to do retreats—perhaps because of physical or emotional vulnerabilities or because of responsibilities to others—it’s essential not to view this as a problem, and to embrace your life as it is. Attending to what is happening right now is the key to transformation. I’d like to stress this point because I come in contact with so many yogis who suffer from self-doubt because they are no longer able to sit retreats due to chronic illness. There are many ways to attain the kind of understanding that liberates the heart; it is not confined to any particular form, such as a retreat.

Beginning practitioners sometimes ask me if it’s selfish to go on retreat. This strikes me as curious given that daily life activities such as watching television, playing video games, and spending hours on Facebook are not normally questioned. As with all things, it’s important to examine your motivation. Ask yourself why you want to do a retreat.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman: I have no direct personal experience of long solo dharma retreats, as the Japanese Zen tradition in which I have trained puts great emphasis on training in close interaction within a group. I have spent many years practicing in a residential sangha.

I do, however, have two friends whom I deeply respect who have trained in other traditions in which solo retreats are highly valued and they have shared with me some of their experience. First, they chose to do a solo retreat (months, but not years) because their teachers recommended it. Second, they planned ahead with their teachers a daily schedule of meditation, meals, work, study, and devotional activities (prostrations, chanting, etc) which they followed meticulously. Both are now mature and respected dharma teachers and they both continue to do solo retreats.

As you suggest, motivation is a paramount consideration. I hope you continue to make choices in your life guided by your question, “How can we be of greatest benefit to sentient beings?” Each of us has different karmic tendencies and conditioning and circumstances, so there is no “one size fits all” answer to your question of whether participating in everyday family and community life or practicing as a hermit yogi is of greater benefit. Also, one might find that the most appropriate response to this or similar questions may change at different times in one’s life. That is why it is helpful to make significant decisions in consultation with a teacher whom you respect and who knows you. If you have already made a commitment to family life, the whole family should be included in such a decision.

I am confident that if our vow is to live our life so as to benefit all beings, we will find a way to cultivate the wisdom and compassion necessary to do so wherever we may be practicing. And I think the three treasures of Buddha, dharma and sangha are invaluable supports in fulfilling our vow.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: There is no question about the benefits of going into a three-year or long-term retreat. This has been traditionally done in many schools of Tibetan Buddhism, where there was much support from family, community, and the culture to do so. This support is necessary in addition to one’s own preparation and knowledge.

In the West, while I have seen longer retreats benefit students, I have also seen times when this was not so, where someone entered a retreat driven by enthusiasm and excitement, which of course does not last even a few months. Perhaps one learns techniques and rituals, but the true purpose of the retreat—to ripen one’s own mind—is not realized.

When you have been in the dharma long enough to know the ups and downs of your practice, and you have the full support of your teacher and your community, you may be ready to consider such a venture. A retreat can minimize the distractions of daily life, make our confusion more obvious, and afford the opportunity to connect directly with one’s natural mind. The recognition of one’s natural mind is wisdom, and it is only through wisdom that one is truly free of the poison of ignorance, the root of all suffering, and able to be a true guide for others. A longer retreat can provide the opportunity to mature one’s familiarity with the natural mind.

The question of benefiting others, however, is not simply one of being a hermit versus being in the world. I know of a young man who did retreat after retreat. All the while he was having big problems with his mother. His mother would complain, “You have done so many retreats. Haven’t you done enough? I’m getting old. Maybe it is time to help me?” This young man saw his mother as an obstacle to his practice. At one point after a disagreement he went to the mountains with a lama where he sat on his cushion in a beautiful crossed-legged posture, cultivating compassion by saying, “I generate a mind of compassion for all sentient beings, all who have been my mother.” Yet how ironic that he could not stand to be with the only mother he has for even one hour!

While this example may sound exaggerated, it illuminates the split between the lofty ideals expressed in our dharma practice and the reality of the life we are actually living. This split is not uncommon. The real question becomes: Are we willing to recognize this split as it manifests, to recognize it as a manifestation of our own moving mind, and to bring it directly into our practice? Or are we using our practice to reject our challenges and to provide the temporary relief of avoiding them?

I lived a strict monastic life for fifteen years. I’m living a family life now. As a husband, father, and teacher, I do not live an isolated lifestyle. When I am with my family, it is my practice. When I am teaching, it is my practice. When you are willing to see all that occurs as your teacher, you have a constant mirror in those around you and your practice can progress rapidly.

If you are able to make the connection between the challenges of your life and the openness of your practice, whether you go into retreat or live in the world, you will be of benefit to others and your dharma practice will be fruitful.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the San Fransico Zen Center.

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet.

Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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