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The discipline of home retreat

Some notes on the difficulties and benefits of home retreat as we develop this new form for intensive contemplative practice in the Covid era. Written as part of the welcome letter to our Summer 2020 home retreat: Living the Dhamma.

Home retreat is similar and different from retreat at a center, of course. The schedule and practices are almost identical to those we would do if we were in physical space together, but the setting matters, and home retreat has some unique difficulties (and benefits). Let’s get the difficulties out of the way first. 😉

1. Other people! Home retreat means that your family, or housemates, or neighbors are around. And they’re not on retreat. For family and housemates, it’s helpful to connect with them about what you’re doing so they can give you space, support you to be in some amount of silence in a way that works for the household, and support your intention to be oriented toward practice. It’s not a weekend for social gatherings, but you may find that the interactions you do have are tender and direct in a way that’s really precious and lovely.

2. All your stuff. One of the beauties of retreat centers is that you’re protected from your stuff: your mess, your tech, your beloved distractions, your refrigerator. Retreat fundamentally is an environment constructed for less stimulation. Trees and hills to look at instead of buildings, cars, and wires; Buddha statues and simple decorations in minimalist spaces instead of all your books, clutter, and devices. On home retreat it’s helpful to spend some time tidying your space before you begin, putting away clothes, books, and anything you don’t need to have at hand for the weekend. If you have the luxury of a private space — even the corner of a room that can be undisturbed — make it as clean, simple, and beautiful as you can, and protect it through the weekend as sacred space.

3. Work and news. Especially for weekday home retreat days, the worlds of work and culture will hurtle forward in your absence. Being at home it can be very tempting to check email, texts, or in whatever way stay current with the streams of information you always track. I strongly encourage you to avoid doing so as much as you can! Close applications like email and messages that you’re not using for the retreat. Turn your auto-responder on.

The practice for all 3 of these types of difficulty is to protect your space, which is a version of the most ancient of all the contemplative practices, the first formal yoga practice, taught in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and emphasized throughout the teachings of the Buddha: restraint of the senses. Turn your home (even just the spot you use for meditation and yoga) into as sweet and welcoming a practice space as you can, with whatever boundaries around stimulation you need to feel like you can relax into practice, rest deeply, and let go of enmeshment for a few days.

And… all of these difficulties are places where we can also find deep benefit. Each difficulty suggests a fruitful practice:

1. Other people: love them. The practice of retreat opens our heart to suffering and to the blessings of calm, clarity, and compassion. Everybody is suffering, every body aches, every heart wants safety, kindness, and fulfillment. Consider all the people around you as reminders to hold the heart of kindness in the foreground of every interaction. Practice silence when you can, and wise speech when you have to talk. Send everyone mettā, moving through your days with kindness and patience for everyone, as much as you can. If strong feelings based in interpersonal challenges take over your heart, slow down, talk less, and turn the heart toward compassion and understanding.

2. Stuff: feel the pain. Your stuff is basically a collection of things you’ve accumulated in the attempt to find satisfaction, comfort, and refuge in an uncertain world. Whenever you feel like something is pulling on you to engage with it — clothes, books, tech, decor — don’t (unless you must for some logistical reason, like putting on a layer if you’re getting cold), but slow down and feel the pull of wanting to do something with whatever it is. Feeling the pull, see if you can feel how it interrupted whatever state you were just in, and the tone of dissatisfaction that usually accompanies the pull. Dissatisfaction (dukkha) is why we’re doing all of this, so investigating it in order to understand how we get pulled off balance by things is the heart of developing insight.

3. Work and news: protect your mind. This is one of the most difficult practices for many of us now. We’re so used to constant stimulation, and the forces of advertising, productivity, and social life have convinced us that we have to be constantly available. We don’t. But stimulation is more… stimulating than silence and stillness, even if it’s negative, so we have to contend with boredom, restlessness, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and many other kinds of anxiety and worry. The benefit here is that we can learn to feel the effects of constant stimulation, and start to fall in love with calm and steadiness of mind. Right on the other side of boredom and restlessness is a vast open space that is luminous, quiet, and profoundly nourishing to body and mind. But to get there we have to learn to tolerate being less stimulated for a while, and get through the hangover from constant intoxication through words and images. It’s worth it.

In the end, home retreat isn’t all that different from retreat at a center. Your mind is your mind. All the hindrances will appear, but also the miraculous windows of silence and well-being. Other people, and the rest of the world, will continue to frustrate you, inspire you, and otherwise trouble your waters. The task is the same as ever: build tolerance, see clearly, grow in kindness and compassion for everyone.

Blessings for your practice.

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