What Happens on a Spiritual Retreat?

Going on a spiritual retreat is like entering a hole in the universe.

If it was just a break from your normal routine, I think that would be enough to have a big impact, but it’s more than that.

I used to resist spiritual retreats, thinking they were a waste of time. Now I know better. It helps to put some space between ourselves and our ordinary lives. A lot of people are resistant to retreats, I think, but that’s the ego causing those feelings. That’s our small self that is looking for ways to become distracted—to avoid seeing things as they really are. There is a part of ourselves that wants to continue dwelling in delusion.

On my way to a two day retreat I said, “I feel like we’re going on a trip even though we aren’t leaving town.” Going on a retreat is going on a trip—a trip out of the world, out of your self.

A spiritual retreat is a journey within—a journey to another world—because there is a whole other world inside you. A spiritual retreat creates the space to make it possible to see that.

But you have to be open to it.

I’ve been on numerous Buddhist retreats and I’ve gone on retreats in several of the major branches of Buddhism. I’ve gone on retreats with Zen Priests and Masters and Theravada teachers and Vajrayana Tulkus and Rinpoches.

I’ve went on a oneness initiation retreat and a native American sweat lodge twice.

I’ve gone to Pagan camp.

These are not all the same. They all have things about them that are different and unique. Even different Buddhist retreats at the same place are remarkably different sometimes.

But, they all had one thing in common: They took me out of my ordinary life. They separated me from my day to day self.

At times I can separate from my day to day self by meditating and engaging in a few rituals at home, but a retreat gives extra sacred space to engage my true self. Sometimes meditating by myself at home isn’t enough. I can have different breakthroughs on retreat. It can really shift your perspective and change the way you look at things.

If you’ve never been on a retreat I suggest you find one in your area.



Retreat with Maezen

I went on a retreat at the Rime Buddhist Center over the weekend. I am still feeling incredibly inspired by it. It was my first ‘sesshin’, Soto Zen retreat. It was the best retreat I’ve ever been on. The retreat was led by a visiting teacher named Karen Maezen Miller. She lives in California but comes to visit the Rime Center every few years. There were thirty of us attending.

She started with a talk about the meaning of Zen and ‘the beginner’s mind’. We had a completely silent lunch, which was an odd experience, and then we engaged in mindful activity, walking around the building wiping up dust with rags.

Then she held private one-on-one interviews for two hours. During this time, we alternated between twenty minutes of ‘zazen’, sitting meditation, followed by ten minutes of ‘kinhin,’ walking meditation.

Only eight of us got the chance to go meet with her one-on-one. I was the last person to go.

I knew the customary ritual. I entered the room where she was sitting. I bowed and said, “My name is Daniel. My practice is counting the breath.”

The way she looked at me, the way she looked at everyone, she seemed to radiate compassion and wisdom. I’ve never really seen that before, but it’s how Bodhisattvas are described. It reminded me of how Ram Dass described the Guru he met in India.

I asked her some questions about the differences between Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen. She told me that although she is known as a Soto Zen Priest, she practices both and her teacher practiced both as well. Rinzai is known for relying heavily on Koan practice and Soto is known for relying heavily on meditation. She pointed out that Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen wrote many Koans. There is plenty of overlap between the two schools of Zen. So, while I’ve been studying with a Rinzai group, I shouldn’t be worried about wishing it was Soto instead. (Or, for that matter, worried about the fact that the other group I study with is Vajrayana).

She said that now that we’ve met and had this retreat together, all of her lineage, going back to the Buddha, has now touched me. I certainly felt touched.

But, at the same time, she said lineage doesn’t matter too much. Meditation and mindfulness are what’s important. And it doesn’t really matter whether I study under a Soto or Rinzai teacher.

I’ve studied with many Buddhist teachers from many different traditions. Maezen is by far the most inspiring. I don’t want to say anything negative about any of the other Buddhist teachers. I only want to say that she really inspired me.

At the end we got to say some parting words to her in front of everyone.

I said, “I first read your book ‘Momma Zen’ because I wanted to learn about Buddhist parenting, because I’m a Buddhist parent myself. And I run the children’s program here at the Rime Center. I just wanted to tell you thank you for coming and you’ve been a big inspiration to me.”