On Sunday, January 27th I gave the Sunday evening talk about my experiences on a three-month solitary Buddhist meditation retreat this past summer, and what it has been like in the past few months since coming out of retreat in September. We first discussed the definition of retreat, which in Tibetan has been translated as a set of rules or boundaries, and then discussed why one goes on retreat.
The boundaries come in many different forms. For instance, during my retreat I stayed within the confines of my solitary cabin and its immediate environs, only visiting the main house late at night or very early in the morning for necessary supplies. I interacted only with the retreat master who brought me food, water, and supplies every week or so, and the meditation instructor with whom I met every three weeks. Behaviorally, I abstained from sex, intoxicants, lying, stealing, and killing (i.e. the 5 precepts), shaved my head every 5th day, and committed to a practice schedule of 8-9 hours of formal meditation practice and 3 hours per day of yoga.
Interestingly, while these boundaries may seem harsh - as they certainly seemed to me at the beginning - they are designed for simplicity rather than asceticism, and I developed an increasing gratitude for them as time went by. Setting up these boundaries slows down the mind's activity, facilitating one's working directly and clearly with mind itself rather than its products. You begin to realize on an experiential level that it is easier to work directly with unpleasant thoughts and emotions than to brush them away, and the natural spaciousness of mind can be experienced.
In a sense,
the boundaries of a
retreat enable you to get a bit less in the way of expressing your true
and experiencing reality. Coming back from retreat was initially
shocking, and I had to give myself some time to readjust to the faster
mental demands of living in a large
I offered the metaphor of it being like learning to dance, where at first there is a claustrophobic feeling, and you are running into other people, stepping on your partner's foot, and your movements are quite gross and ungraceful. But after some time there is a feeling of greater space, even within a crowded dance hall, and while obstacles still present themselves, you can move around them, dance with them, and you slam into things less often. There is plenty of room. Similarly, psychological turmoil and the basic neurosis of daily living arise, but they have a space to rest and, when dancing with them, there is enough space within mind to negotiate the rest of one's experience.
Numerous insightful questions and comments followed. It was inspiring to have the opportunity to share an intimate personal experience with a lively and engaged audience. Thanks to all!