Both secular and traditional Buddhists believe that the path toward a less distressed, more fulfilling life includes the cultivation of three dimensions of human activity: the pursuit of wisdom, living ethically, and cultivating certain meditative practices. These are the three dimensions encompassing the eight aspects of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path; each is equally important and progress in each depends on progress made in the others.
If each dimension is essential to engaging in a path which leads to a more compassionate and mindful life, why are meditation retreats, which focus only on one of the three dimensions of the Eightfold Path, the pinnacle of practice for many western Buddhists? Why is this dimension seen as the crucial, focal point of our spiritual endeavors rather than the other two? Why are we not going to week-long wisdom conferences or ethical conclaves?
In this article I argue that meditation retreats, while extremely valuable, are limited in some important respects and that we need to develop more inclusive forms of intensive practice which help us cultivate each of the essential dimensions of practice in an integrated way.
Why meditation retreats are so important for western Buddhists
Most Buddhists in Asia don’t practice meditation. Instead, they engage in devotional practices, celebrate special days, and give alms to monks and nuns. In the west, however, meditation has become central for Buddhist practitioners of all traditional schools and lineages – Theravāda, Zen, Vajryana, etc. – as well as most secular Buddhists. To be a Buddhist in the west is virtually synonymous with being a meditator.
Putting aside the historical reasons why meditation has become the core of western Buddhist practice, the fact is that serious practitioners view meditation as essential to their practice and typically meditate daily. However, even if someone meditates regularly, the obstacles to making progress along the path are quite significant. The routines of daily life, particularly in the high-stimulus, commercial, and competitive society that we live in, tend to push us away from mindfulness and compassion.
That is why meditation retreats are such a special, vital experience for western Buddhists. They provide us with an opportunity to get away from our normal, stressful routines as we move from one ‘doing’ to the next and devote a significant amount of time to the steady pursuit of mindfulness, concentration, lovingkindness, and other essential meditation practices.
In the retreat environment, with a fixed schedule, necessities provided, and limited sources of external stimulation, we have the time to develop a more robust continuity of awareness, bringing mindfulness to the present moment. We develop a greater capacity to concentrate or collect the mind. And we cultivate in a steady way the ‘four immeasurables’ of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, the emotional qualities or tones which both bolster mindfulness and concentration and create the space for a new way of living.
While there are significant differences between lineages with respect to the retreat schedule and types of meditation practices, in virtually all retreats individuals follow a structured schedule of meditation periods for most of the day and night (typically, sitting meditation followed by walking meditation, then more sitting meditation…). With a few exceptions, silence is maintained throughout the retreat to avoid external stimulation and to encourage the retreatants to focus solely on cultivating mindfulness, concentration, and the four immeasurable during their waking hours.
In the context of this type of environment, as mindfulness becomes more continuous, as concentration deepens, and as the four immeasurables become more our default mode, we can gain important insights into why life is often so difficult, why we experience stress and suffering. With greater understanding of the cause of our distress, the path forward to a less difficult and a more fulfilling life becomes clearer.
In short, a meditation retreat can ‘supercharge’ our practice, helping us to become more proficient meditators while leading to important changes in our ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world.
While meditation retreats certainly can be valuable in the ways noted above, their impact is not always long-lasting and retreats can have negative effects as well.
First, the gains made in meditation retreats can dissipate quickly once we return to our daily routines, particularly when we experience difficult interactions at work or home and are faced with the demands of modern life. Without the constant supports provided by a retreat, we can easily slip back into old ways of thinking, feeling, and doing.
For this reason, some meditation teachers have begun to offer post-retreat programs which help individuals integrate what they’ve learned and accomplished on retreats into their daily lives. One example, from teachers in the Insight meditation tradition, is Next Step Dharma, a six week online course designed to ‘bring the values and intentions of contemplative practice in the complexity of our lives.’
Second, retreats can often be quite difficult precisely because they’re structured to emphasize individual meditative experiences above all else. As I previously noted in Meditating with and for each other sitting, ‘walking, working, and resting with one’s sensations, feelings, and thoughts non-stop can often prime pre-existing, neurotic patterns of self-judgment and self-hatred…..a meditation retreat can actually magnify these issues insofar as we lack many of the coping mechanisms which we normally use,’ including talking with a friend or loved one.
The traditional meditation retreat, with its focus on individual meditative attainments and the lack of social interaction, not only can create a sense of isolation and alienation in which problematic emotions and thoughts become dominant, but severely limits the development of the two other essential dimensions of the dharmic path: cultivating an ethical life and the development of wisdom.
The missing dimensions of a retreat
Typically, when a retreat begins, retreatants make a commitment to follow the Five Precepts, the basic guidelines in Buddhism for living ethically. They are the core of the factor of ‘Right Action’ in the Eightfold Path. The Five Precepts in their traditional form enjoin us to abstain from harming others, from stealing and dishonest dealings, from harmful sexual behavior, from false or harmful speech, and from intoxicants.
While it’s vital to affirm these key guidelines as part of one’s meditative practice, for the rest of a retreat the ethical dimension of the dharmic path is not a subject for exploration, unless a teacher offers a dharma talk on some aspect of this topic. As the sole focus of the retreat is individual meditative experiences, there is no opportunity to discuss with others or reflect on how the Five Precepts can be actualized in the context of our daily lives and in response to various social problems.
Just as the Five Precepts are usually unexamined, the other two factors in the ethical dimension – ‘Right Speech’ and ‘Right Livelihood’ are not a focus of a retreat either. Since the retreatants are almost always in ‘Noble Silence’ to limit distractions and to encourage the mindful awareness of one’s inner and external experiences, ‘Right Speech’ receives virtually no attention. The same is true of ‘Right Livelihood.’ How we earn a living, or perhaps engage in some form of unpaid work, is one of the most important and impactful aspects of our lives, but this factor of the Eightfold Path is almost never the subject of sustained and careful examination.
In one respect, the wisdom dimension of the Eightfold Path is strongly emphasized during a meditation retreat. The ultimate purpose of meditation is, after all, to gain wisdom or insight into our experiences and the world as we develop the capacity for mindfulness and collecting the mind in meditation. However, while the ‘embodied wisdom’ found in meditation is vitally important, other crucial ways of gaining wisdom are foreclosed in a traditional meditation retreat.
Reading, studying, and reflecting on topics related to the dharma is essential if we want to develop a greater understanding of our existential condition and how to flourish as human beings. Virtually, all lineages within Buddhism recognize the value of this method of gaining wisdom, but it generally is seen as secondary to the ‘embodied wisdom’ achieved in meditation. Thus, in a meditation retreat, reading and study is discouraged as it presumed to interfere with developing a continuity of awareness by attempting to be mindful in formal meditation sessions and any other activity engaged in during the retreat.
Further, we gain wisdom and insight in the context of social interaction, through dialogue and common activities with others. Sharing experiences, exchanging ideas, working together for a common end – all these modes of social interaction can have a profound impact on our ability to live a mindful and compassionate life. For example, we often gain a greater appreciation of the sense in which all human beings share a common experience of suffering and a common desire for happiness when we connect with other individuals in a sangha.
Toward dharma path immersives
If we want to deepen our commitment to and understanding of the dharmic path in all its dimensions, we need to develop a new type of intensive practice which encompasses and integrates these dimensions in its format and aims.
This new form of intensive practice – what I tentatively call a dharma path immersive – needs to include significant periods of individual meditation, but would also have:
- Mindful dialogues in dyads and small groups about issues related to meditation
- Discussion and reading groups on key topics, including the different aspects of the Eightfold Path
- Group discussions on how to integrate key dharmic insights into our family and work lives, as well as in response to contemporary social problems
- Opportunities for affinity groups (e.g. people of color) to meet to share experiences, exchange ideas, and support each other
- Presentations and panels on various topics related to the dharma
There are, of course, a variety of ways in which these activities could be combined with periods of individual mediation to help us develop the three dimensions of dharma practice. Here’s one idea for a daily schedule in, say, a week-long dharma path immersive:
Morning: Individual meditation periods for most of the morning, ending with dyads or small groups to discuss our meditation experiences.
Afternoon: Study and discussion of key dharma topics, including how to integrate the insights and ethical guidelines of the dharma into our lives.
Evening: Presentations and panels on key issues, as well as an opportunity for affinity groups to meet. The evening would end with a period of reflection and meditation.
This format is quite a departure from standard meditation retreats, but secular Buddhists have not been afraid of critically examining other aspects of traditional Buddhism. We have questioned the beliefs in rebirth and karma, as well as the hierarchical, teacher-centric model of authority found in all lineages. It’s now time to consider whether the meditation retreat is problematic in several respects and whether we need to create a very different form: an intensive and multi-dimensional immersion in the dharma which helps us move toward a more mindful and compassionate life.