If you’ve sat a meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, IMS, Insight Retreat Center, or any of the other Insight Meditation spots around, you know the standard retreat schedule well: basically a day of alternating 45 minute sitting and walking meditation periods, dharma talk in the evenings. All in silence except for a 15 minute check-in with a teacher every other day or so, without eye contact or other communication between students.
The 10-day silent vipassanā retreats used by the Goenka school are similar, but without the walking meditation or the teacher interviews, so basically 10 days of back-to-back hour-long sittings. Intense. Similarly intense are the formal retreats in many styles of Zen, called sesshin, which have as much meditation, but more chanting and ritual, and a different relationship to the teacher check-ins. But in all of these styles, the focus is on silence, stillness, inwardness, and continuity of effort, all supported by a schedule that depending on your tradition leaves little or no wiggle room, either in the form of breaks or choice of activity.
One of the qualities developed in this kind of fixed-schedule-and-activity practice is that of surviving the practice, which includes things like the common teaching that just making it to the end of the sitting without running out of the room constitutes success. While this teaching and its implications are unfortunately relevant to many practitioners who struggle with self-discipline and laziness (and in a different way, with the symptoms of trauma), I believe a better antidote to those hindrances is to invite maturity and engagement with practice from the very beginning.
In a stark contrast to the asceticism of the Buddhist retreat world, yoga retreats offered by Western teachers are often the opposite in many ways. Rarely silent, they often have a strong social element. The daily schedule can be quite open, with long breaks and personal time. In many yoga retreats, the formal practice aspect of the retreat may be two longer yoga classes each day, one vigorous and one restorative. The centers and amenities can be more spa or vacation-like, and the retreat may include aspects of adventure or cultural tourism, including educational activities or service work. More concentrated kinds of yoga retreat exist, of course, but I know of few that are as silent and discipline-oriented as the Buddhist ones, including ashram-style residential trainings. These “spa retreats” may be less structured and therefore very flexible, but often don’t emphasize the qualities of continuity of effort and detailed inquiry that the Buddhist lineages emphasize.
Though I practice in both Buddhist and Hindu Yoga traditions, I was always drawn to the formality and silence of the Buddhist retreat style more than to the relaxed, social feel of the yoga retreats. But within the formality and simplicity of the Insight Meditation retreats I loved, I found myself hacking the format over and over: bringing in other practices, working outside of the prescribed daily schedule, and in many ways adjusting the form to better serve my evolving needs. Some of my desires and hacks were toward these ends:
- Deeper and more integrated yoga/movement practice, including breathwork
- More autonomy around length and frequency of sittings
- More chanting and other traditional Buddhist devotional practices
- Less emphasis on external discipline, more on discernment and inquiry
- More support for difficult experience, including trauma and repetitive hindrances
Here’s some theory on how to think about practice choices, then a bit about the structure I use when teaching my own retreats.
[This post is the sibling to this one on changing how you time your meditation practice.]
All practices are interventions
For years I had struggled in my relationship to the practice forms, until I had a realization that dissolved that struggle: every practice choice is an expression of Wise Effort. The Eightfold Path defines Wise (or Right) Effort as the active cultivation of wholesome states and the prevention of unwholesome ones. From this ethics-based perspective, we can assess any practice, which I’ll define as “repeated action dedicated to the cultivation of qualities, states, and developmental stages.”
Everything does something, which means that all practices are interventions: remedies for harmful conditions or cultivation of helpful conditions.
Chanting does something, forcing yourself to sit still through physical or emotional pain does something, “bringing the mind back when it wanders” does something. And as is true for any medicine: everything is only helpful if it’s matched to its ailment. Medicines for ailments you don’t have either do nothing, do irrelevant things, or cause harm.
I hope that the obvious conclusion here is actually obvious: different people need different practices and therefore structures, which are themselves practices. A corollary would be that the more inflexible a structure, the fewer people that will be served well by it.
So we should just make really flexible practice structures, right? Basically, yes BUT. The shadow of openness is delusion and inertia. The trouble with open structures is that lots of folks, including of course folks looking to a spiritual practice to help them relieve suffering, don’t actually know what would best serve them. If they did, and had access to it, they would do it!
More damaging is that because the force of bad habits (harmful actions based in unwholesome states) is so strong, lots of seekers actually choose the very practices and structures that sustain their most impacted delusions. People (like me) who tend toward overwhelm and isolation love silent retreat, people who grasp at social stimulation and sensual distraction love spa retreat, etc.
So some percentage of students in any strict form (yoga studio class, vipassanā retreat, the public school system) thrive within it, but many others don’t, and would be better served by another practice… but don’t know what.
For them, closer teacher contact can often help, in which the teacher can help them hack the system to get it closer to what would serve their process. Maybe the biggest elephant in the room here is that there are so few teachers, and it’s so hard to get substantial access to them!
WAY more people want close teacher/mentor contact than get it. I think of this as a wound in our culture. Part of the same cultural wound is the breakdown of extended family, apprenticeship, monasticism, and elder veneration structures. Literally every way that spiritual seekers of the past got attuned guidance in their practice has been shredded by the modern marketplace. Unless you can afford an expensive therapist or coach, or score the rare individual relationship with a teacher that could give you real mentoring, you’re on your own.
A vastly under-taught quality contemporary spiritual seekers need, therefore, is discernment. Discernment is the wholesome quality of accurate assessment and analysis that is based in Wise View and clear perception. It takes work to develop, which means that there’s a chicken-and-egg situation for a while. This thing that’s necessary for effective practice is itself only a result of effective practice. So you have to start practicing something, even if it’s usually the wrong thing! After a while, everyone tunes up their practice toward something more useful to them or drops it. Part of tuning your practice is knowing what you want, which is also chicken-and-egg.
“Practice” always has a goal, whether implicit or explicit, and turning the former into the latter is part of discernment. Whether a spiritual or developmental goal is expressed in terms of difference (developing qualities and realizations) or singleness (recognizing what’s always already true), all practices can be assessed by their results. Again, this is an ethical orientation. The Buddha’s personal story, as recounted in the Pāli texts, demonstrates exactly this. He studied with two highly regarded teachers and mastered the painful and difficult ascetic practices, and in each case assessed the practice in relation to his goal of liberation and found that something else was needed. Eventually he had to invent a new way of practicing because the received forms hadn’t served him.
Based in this model of ethics and intention, I want a retreat structure that is open enough to serve many different kinds of practitioner, a diverse menu of practices, and substantial teacher contact to help guide students as they develop the discernment and maturity that are the basis of independent spiritual seeking.
A new meditation & yoga retreat format
I’ll propose here my current attempt to square the circle and structure a retreat that does these things. With Insight Meditation as a framework, I draw on elements of Buddhist monastic practice (more open practice time, chanting and Buddhist foundational recollections), Organic Intelligence® (OI) (interpersonal contact, more flexible instructions, careful teacher guidance), Classical Haṭha Yoga (āsana and prānāyāma oriented around stabilizing and cultivating energy), and Authentic Movement as a contemplative discipline oriented toward the awakening of agency, witness consciousness, and the unbinding of impulse in the body-mind.
I didn’t invent any of these forms, and there are others who have experimented with retreat structure, including the modern teachers who invented all of these, so I don’t claim that what I’m doing is new, other than the specific mash-up I’m proposing.
I propose that retreat can be more orienting, grounding, and pleasurable than many of the standard forms often are, and still be a powerful container for spiritual growth. Part of this depends on the qualities we are aiming to cultivate. In this format I’m going for orientation, ease, discernment, agency, energy, and maturity. Total beginners may not be perfectly served by this form, since it requires some maturity of discipline, but they’re not served well by traditional retreat either. I think a very broad spectrum of practitioners will be served well by forms like this, and particularly folks who resonate with deeply embodied practices and have some access to curiosity and exploratory energy in their practices.
Like the standard Insight Meditation retreat style, participants will each have one short work period each day (kitchen & housekeeping), and the bulk of the day will be in silence. One meal a day (lunch) won’t be silent, and we’ll have space then for conversation and connection. Here’s an approximate daily schedule.
5:30am: Open warmup into sitting meditation, ending with chanting (Refuge & Precepts).
7: Breakfast, into the morning work period or break time.
9: Morning semi-guided practice, based in the Haṭha Yoga Sadhana (intuitive āsana, prānāyāma-bandha-mudrā, open movement), framed by meditation.
12pm: Lunch not in silence, with open conversation, into the afternoon work period or break time. Silence maintained outside the eating area, and resumed fully after lunch clean-up is done.
2: Afternoon open practice, during which practitioners will be supported to craft a personal practice that uses the tools of yoga, meditation, movement, stillness, and rest.
5:30: Dinner, into break time
7: Evening session of meditation, teachings, and chanting.
9: Formal close of the day, into rest or open silent practice.
The biggest divergences from the standard Insight Meditation form are the much more integrated yoga practice, including the breath-energy practices and open movement, the open practice period in the afternoon, which is more like Buddhist monastic style than IM retreat style, and the talking lunches.
My hope for this structure is that it develops the qualities of discernment and maturity in practice rather than the old discipline of learning to survive the schedule. The talking meal is based in the understanding from OI that social contact is profoundly regulating for the nervous system, and actually will support more integrated silent practice. Likewise the chanting and more substantial individual guidance.
As we mature as practitioners, my generation is creating new forms and styles of practice, which I hope meet the needs of practitioners now in the way that the old styles met the needs of the people who crafted them and those who thrived within them. This has always been the case. Both the forms I’m updating (yoga class and meditation retreat) were themselves invented in the 20th century by teachers who felt a need and crafted the ancient guidelines into concrete practice structures that could have beneficial results. Again, it all comes down to ethics, which means karma: all practices do something. And adjusting the received forms to better serve living practitioners is as ancient as the Buddha himself.
May our practice be grounded and effective, heal not harm, and serve committed practitioners in their search for happiness and liberation.