The Allure of Meditation Retreats

Tenzin Palmo’s newly renovated cave in the Himalayas © Tsunma Kalden

Tenzin Palmo’s newly renovated cave in the Himalayas © Tsunma Kalden

Most Dharma centers these days offer people the chance to deepen their meditation practice by offering retreats, anywhere from one day to a few months in duration. For many of us, even to take one day out of our lives to attend a retreat can be difficult, but the benefits are lasting and well worth making the effort to attend.

When I first started practicing meditation, I originally started with just 10-20 minutes a day; slowly working my way up to one-hour sessions. As I continued to read and became more inspired, I began doing semi-retreats at home on the weekend. I would practice noble silence and do up to seven hours meditation on the Saturday (breaking up my sessions with 45 minutes Shamatha meditation and 15 minutes walking meditation). Then on the Sunday I would attend my local center’s Sunday morning session and come home and do more practice.

After a few weekends of practice at home, I had the opportunity to attend my first group meditation retreat. It was a 3-day intensive Shamatha (Calm-Abiding) meditation retreat, complete with noble silence the whole time. It was exactly what the enthusiast in me was looking for. Here were three full days to really see how I could progress in my practice. Although I had a couple of difficult sessions in that retreat (notably pain), I remember bouncing out of that retreat feeling like I had just been given a new life; it was the most uplifting experience for me.

I don’t necessarily advise that everyone should start out as intensively as I did, but when the conditions are favorable for us, e.g. we have the money, time, freedom and ability, sometimes the only thing stopping us is our lack of determination (aka laziness). I have to admit I’ve never been one to take the middle ground when I find something I’m passionate about; I often dive right in with the wish to explore it to the fullest extent. Interestingly, Buddhist practice and meditation is a journey of unlimited terrains as we explore the inner landscape of our mind. It’s also the gift that keeps on giving, because as long as you keep up the practice, the more you will be surprised and delighted at your own inner transformation: in your relationship with the world and others.

I might not have the means to do more extensive retreats at the moment, but I certainly can relate the desire to do them. When I think of practitioners who inspire me, one of the most inspirational is Tenzin Palmo. She is an English nun who traveled to India in 1964 at the age of 20 to learn Buddhism from the Tibetan Buddhist monks living there. She subsequently spent 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalayas and the book about her, Cave in the Snow, is one of my all-time favorites to read.

Apparently an American nun has been following in her footsteps, using the same location but with a newly renovated cave. Looking at her photo (above) makes me long for my old retreat hut and the intensive practices I did there…

Whenever we get the chance to do a retreat, even a group retreat for a couple of days, we should grab the opportunity with both hands. Doing a retreat is not about escaping from our problems and responsibilities. It’s about having the courage to sit with our mind to find a way to mold our thinking so only beneficial actions of our body, speech and mind can spring from it. The practices we do in retreat are the very fertilizer we need for encouraging this transformation.

Recently I had the joy of attending a group meditation retreat for a few weeks. It made me realize just how much I wish to do intensive practice again… Ah well, maybe one day. Meanwhile I look forward to creating more videos for you all again soon.

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