Retreat is a precious opportunity for deepening our practice and re-connecting with our fundamental sanity. When body, speech, and mind calm down, we can actually realise what we have previously heard and studied. Inspired by Llew’s Places That Harboured Me, this is the first post in a series on the more practical aspects of retreating, based on my personal experience over the years. May these words be helpful and inspire others to go on retreat.
Retreat practice could refer to any length of time: a day, week, month, year – or an entire lifetime. Generally speaking, being clear about one’s intentions and motivation for retreat is crucial. Moreover, retreat can and should be tailored to one’s specific capacity and situation. As with many things, it is advisable to build up retreat experience gradually, and with the assistance and support of a mentor or teacher. I would therefore advise against solitary retreats, especially longer ones, if there is neither supervision nor a working teacher-student relationship.
Psychologically, it is extremely helpful to enter retreat without unfinished business. During retreat, maintaining predetermined healthy boundaries – external as well as internal – is necessary, as is establishing a well-defined conclusion or end point right from the beginning. This could be based on time (nowadays probably the most common approach), signs of accomplishment (in my opinion the best approach), or, if applicable, number of sessions or accumulations et c. Attention should also be paid to the overall structure of the practice schedule as well as the mindset, and the transitions between everyday life and retreat setting, and also the transitions between formal practice and post-meditation during retreat.
Reflecting on the key points of body, speech, and mind is recommended. In terms of body this includes an appropriate amount of body work and exercise or walking, along with a carefully balanced and nourishing diet. In terms of speech this includes the helpful use of noble silence on the one hand, and chanting and voice work on the other. And in terms of mind this includes re-establishing the view and the repeated focus on one’s aspirations and dedications, particularly at the beginning and end of the retreat, and also at the beginning and end of each day and of each session.
As a rule of thumb, shorter retreats should have a stricter schedule. Regardless of length and intensity, the starting times for sessions should be non-negotiable. Retreating from distraction and returning to what is fundamentally important can take place at any time and place, depending on one’s capacity. This, too, can be learnt and developed gradually. In the beginning, it may be helpful to find retreat places in relative isolation, surrounded by supportive environmental factors, such as pristine nature, open sky, mountains, or lakes and the ocean. Nevertheless, with skilful application, it is equally possible to conduct retreats at home, provided one’s capacity and supports are sufficient.
Paul Gerstmayr is a student of Sanskrit and yoga teacher. He lives in Oxford.