Mingyur Rinpoche recently spent more than four years on wandering retreat in India and the Himalayas. In an interview with Buddhadharma, he shares his most challenging moments as well as practical advice for returning home.
Let’s start with what people can people do to support and cultivate the insights they’ve gained on retreat once the retreat is over?
First, you need to sit in formal meditation every day. It doesn’t have to be for long—perhaps half an hour, depending on your time and willingness. Consider meditating more than what you already do, but don’t promise too much. It’s important to build up the habit, whether ten or thirty minutes, because even if people love meditation, when it comes to regular practice, many do not meditate.
Some people say they don’t like to look at Facebook so often and think that it’s wasting time, but when it comes down to it, they cannot control the habit. In order to end one habit, we need to develop a new one. Building up a new habit will take twenty to thirty days. So set a goal for formal meditation that is doable in your life and keep at it—whether you do or don’t like it—and after thirty days it will become easier to maintain.
You also need to do informal meditation, which you can do anywhere, anytime—while you’re walking, eating, having a meeting, watching TV, or checking Facebook. There’s no need to look for a cushion or have a particular meditation posture; just be aware of your breath, even for a few seconds. Making this practice part of daily life can help maintain the retreat experience.
After a retreat, it can be difficult or even disappointing to go back to everyday life. Why is that? Are our expectations too high?
It depends on your meditation technique while doing the retreat. There is a lot of misunderstanding about meditation—many people think it means to have no thoughts, or just to concentrate or bliss out. If you think the purpose of a retreat is to make your mind calm and peaceful, free of thought and emotion, you may become attached to that state of mind. But the point of meditation is actually to transform, not to look for peace and calm.
Even thought and emotion can transform into meditation. Just as you’re aware of your breath coming and going, so you can watch your thoughts, emotions, and pain come and go. Slowly, everything becomes support for meditation, and the gap between being in retreat and out of retreat lessens.
You endured very difficult conditions during your wandering retreat, and even got quite sick. Yet you have described it as the best time in your life. Why is that?
Ever since childhood, I had wanted to do a wandering retreat in the mountains because I loved mountains and caves. I like to explore, and this was an adventure. I also wanted to go on this retreat to enhance my meditation experience and to learn more about life. I had a fantasy about the wandering retreat, but the reality was quite different.
At the beginning I had some money, about 2,000 rupees, but after three weeks that was all gone, so I lived on the street. The first night was very difficult. I had to beg for food and got sick from something I ate. I had vomiting and diarrhea for three days and thought maybe I was going to die. I was very nervous, wondering whether I should continue or go home. Although I had been practicing meditation for a long time, I still had a lot of attachment and I was trying to let it go, peeling off layers like an onion, but still there were more. After three or four hours I decided, Okay, I’m going to stay, and if I’m going to die, just let it be. I began practicing dying meditation. My body was dissolving, everything decaying. I could not see or hear. My body became paralyzed, but my mind was so clear—beyond time, no inside or outside, like a blue sky with sunshine. I stayed in that state for about six hours.
When I opened my eyes and looked around, everything became precious. The streets felt like my home, and the trees, even the broken walls behind me, looked so nice. I felt such gratitude and happiness. When I finally stood up, I felt a bit thirsty but only walked about two steps before I fell unconscious. Fortunately, someone took me to a hospital. Because I grew up in a nice family and always had good friends and students taking care of me, I had lived in a bit of a cocoon. If I hadn’t done the wandering retreat, I never would have had this experience.
It’s been about a year since you completed your wandering retreat. How did that experience influence you? What has changed for you?
It has greatly benefited my meditation—my meditation before and after retreat are completely different. Also, I now have more confidence, faith, and grounding. Even if there are negative emotions, pain, or problems arising, on a deep level, my mind is at peace.
What would you say to someone who is trying to decide if a retreat is right for them?
Three things are most important: motivation, balance, and not attaching to the meditation experience. Don’t put so much expectation on a retreat. Just think, I’m going to do retreat, whether it will be good or not. As long as I don’t kill anyone during the week, that’s okay. Try your best, and for motivation, think, I’m going to do retreat not only to benefit myself but also my friends, family, colleagues, society, and the world. If you are a Buddhist, think of rousing bodhicitta for the benefit of all sentient beings, so they may recognize their true nature and completely awaken.
Sometimes a retreat is a wonderful experience, and sometimes the mind is wild, full of thoughts and emotions. Don’t concern yourself about whether your experience is peaceful or not. Just try what I call “zero meditation.” Zero meditating means you just try to meditate, not caring if you have an experience of meditation or not. That effort of trying will bring you authentic meditation in the future. So don’t stay with the meditation experience; just stay with the wish to meditate. That’s how you will find balance—try your best, but don’t hold too tightly to the results. If you experience some joyful or clear nonconceptual state, don’t think “I achieved enlightenment” or “This experience will last forever.” That is the mind of grasping and attachment. It’s okay to feel good about your meditation experience, to have gratitude for it. But don’t attach to it. Today you had a wonderful meditation experience; who knows how tomorrow will go?