One City

One City

Enlightenment without retreat?

by Davee Evans

How about a year off? NY designer Stefan Sagmeister does this every seven years. He shuts his design firm, and heads off to work on personal projects for creative renewal. Watch his views on taking time off at the TED conference. Stefan’s suggestion is outrageous for the working world, but not news in the spiritual. Retreat of some form seems to be a necessary component of contemplative practice. But how many of us as Western Buddhists can afford more than two weeks off for retreat, much less fifty two?

As Buddhism comes to the West, a major question on my mind is if the emphasis on retreat needs to change or if it is still a crucial component. In a certain sense, the retreat principle is in all forms of meditation. Even a few minutes a day is a kind of mini-retreat; of separating from both our daily, hectic schedule. But can we achieve anything from just an hour a day? For me personally, having day long and weekend long intensive practice sessions are significant experiences. I have no idea how to weigh their value vis-a-vis daily practice, but a day long takes me to a more subtle level.

What do you think? Can Western Buddhists be as successful a contemplative tradition, in the midst of busy lives? Or do you think it’s just always been this tough to retreat?

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posted October 16, 2009 at 8:11 am

Try lazy-yoga for Insight Meditation or Vipassana.

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posted October 16, 2009 at 9:28 am

Good question. I’ve thought about this a fair amount about this too. I think the question gets to core issues of what practice is for, and what must be put into it to make it worthwhile, and what the motivation for doing it is.
I think for someone with a more casual interest in Buddhism who just wants a little more clarity and peace in their life, a big emphasis on retreat practice would be totally unreasonable.
For someone who is more invested in traditional models of enlightenment and believes them to be viable and relevant, I think it would be hard to get away from retreat. In this second instance, it would be sort of like saying you want to be a gymnast but you can only train for fifteen minutes a day.
But I think finding time for it is much harder than it was even 30 years ago.

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posted October 16, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Thank you for continuing to raise this question. I deactivated my facebook account (temporarily) today, partly in response to the compelling concept of modern retreat.

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Detached Observer

posted October 17, 2009 at 8:55 am

Greg, your gymnast metphor was brilliant. I agree that it depends upon one’s desired level of practice. Along with this idea is the fact that many of us Westerners have created a life dependent upon regular paycheques and have not built in a cushion for long financial absences. In general our workplaces, unfortunately, do not recognize the benefits of spiritual retreats and have not considered or implemented a structure that would accommodate such leaves of absence for their employees; be it a week, month or year.
My experience with weekend retreats has been incredible and I am sure that longer and/or more frequent focused sangha activities would deepen and propel my spiritual path.
Alas, so far, I have not been able to get out of mainstream schedules. Learning to incorporate spiritality into each activity of everyday in and of itself is the next best thing and will have to suffice for a while longer.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 1:50 am

Thank you for raising the question! It is something I ponder often and even more so this week as I passed on going into retreat week due to the expense and time.
I have been on week long retreats before and I have also been to intensive days and weekend retreats. There is a window of time after retreat that I feel my commitment deepens and something shifts. However, inevitably the day-to-day takes over and the retreat and the restful/grounded residue of the retreat are nothing but a distant memory. A thought takes hold — how do I go back to that place during and immediately after the retreat.
I agree with DO we have a life tied to the mainstream. My thoughts revolve around how to engage with mainstream without getting sucked in and maintaining a spiritual practice. How do I work with what arises day-to-day in the absence of retreat?

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posted October 19, 2009 at 11:04 am

Perhaps applying the idea of “being in the world but not of it” would allow retreat to be present even in action. Seeing the phantasmagoria of every day life unfold from a place of equanimity (easier said than done) could maintain a sense of retreat even when life seems busy.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 11:35 am

Could it be that we have the ability to strengthen our spiritual dedication, right here, right now, exactly as we are? The essence of enlightenment is that it is not a goal to be attained, that it is not something to be achieved..i.e it does not require DOING.It is the experience of allowing what already is, our clear, unconditional compassionate presence to be unfiltered in this moment.Therefore, within the very definintion of enlightenment is the answer…its not about where you are or who you are, its beyond it, it is infinite, it is touched at any moment from any place. While there is much benefit to practicing in stillness and quiet, we can all (with dedication, patience, practice) get ourselves to the point of incorporating this into our schedules. At the same time, every person is unique and those of us in western society have been given this lifestyle for a reason. We are all not meant to renunciate society, for if we all did this, we would all be the same, and there are too many people on this earth for meaning to be found in being identical. No, what if instead, we take our practices and make them fit our lives. Not that changes cannot be made, but what if we accept where we are and deepen our practice this way? This is the essence of compassionate presence anyways.Thich Nat Hahn as well as mindfulness practices in general are the basis of this, that you can be practicing meditation no matter what you are doing, continuously being the observer and noticing your observations through your 5 senses, intuition, thinking mind, bodily sensations, feelings, and emotions wherever you are at anytime. And in addition, we all know it can be more difficult to do this when there is so much stimulation and high energy input in a highly technological society, imagine the potential we have to quiet our minds with such an intense way of living to challenge it. I say that spiritual western practice is a feat to be respected and humbled by, for the strength one must dedicate to it.

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Honora Lee Wolfe

posted October 19, 2009 at 12:29 pm

While it may be devoutly wished to find more time for formal retreat, it is not, as Lama Surya Das is fond of saying, where the rubber meets the road.
The retreat is more likely found inside, every minute, and to bring the awakened state to each moment, each encounter, each part of our life is, perhaps, the true unfolding of Buddhism in the West, where most of us must work for a living and find our illumination right there, not somewhere else, not something else.
Thank you for everyone’s posts.

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Soapy jones

posted October 19, 2009 at 12:46 pm

10 years ago I found myself living in los angeles with my new wife and baby daughter ,I had been a musician in London ,a live and studio guitarist I had met and played alongside many famous and established artists ,being around these people often in combined spaces for long periods of time either travel or recording gave me a valuable insight to the world of fame and celebrity ,during my time as an on call player I became disillusioned with the fame game as I now call it ,I was introduced to the rinzai ji zen centre in LA,many people came to sit zazen and many to retreat some lasting a month some longer ,the roshi would always advocate not doing retreat ,but would say real retreat is in the thick of it all ,among the chaos of everyday life ,in the to-ing and fro-ing ,the ups and downs ,by doing things we don’t like to do even as little as the washing up
,life must be tackled to be enjoyed he would say ,at the time I did not have the capacity to understand ,now many years on I have incorperated his wise and timely words into my everyday ,thanks to him ,in gassho,

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Ella Wagemakers

posted October 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Although not labelling myself as a Buddhist, I nevertheless notice that I am drawn more and more into Zen meditation, and finding the centre of things even in the buzz of work and everyday life. I’ve noticed that it’s actually when you’re in the thick of things that meditation works very well. It works for me even in quiet settings, but I appreciate it the most when it’s busy. It’s like being inside the television screen and being outside of it at the same time. This may be difficult to describe, but maybe it’s because there is something to shut out, which makes it work. When it’s quiet, I tend to get distracted by the silence. Now that might sound contradictory, but I’ve found it to be true.
I think that our lives are challenging, even for Buddhist practices. It can even act as a stimulus — ‘How can I meditate in the middle of my work / social circle / schedule / etc.?’ My habit is to look for the middle, and to look ‘deep’, go to the point, and focus on it. I’ve kinda trained myself not to sidetrack — look for the positive, look for an energy source, concentrate on the now, and recognize the direction of The Flow. I remind myself of that every single day, and can slip into a meditative mode in a matter of minutes. Everything is part of the Whole, and as long as you keep your perspective right, you can’t go wrong.
It’s actually difficult to describe, and I imagine everyone will have his/her own experiences, and, I guess, learn from them.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 11:57 pm

I dont think retreat, or anything else, is necessary for enlightenment

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posted October 19, 2009 at 11:59 pm

In fact retreat, may lead away from enlightenment…if indeed such a direction exists

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posted October 20, 2009 at 12:07 am

Sit. Focus on a point in the middle of the room. Focus on the “air” at this spot. It seems sort of to be composed of subtle microscopic ‘speckles’…now see the ‘clearness’ the speckles are floating in. (or the ‘space between the speckles’) This is the Clear Light. It’s not something ‘spiritual’, it’s the light that illuminates your room, your corn flakes. See the clear light that the air is floating on. When you do, this is enlightenment. It is really extremely simple, and very close. It’s effortless, yet incredibly difficult. It’s sort of like maintaining complete and deep relaxation throughout an orgasm.

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posted October 20, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Thanks for the link Davee! I’ve been pondering this very question lately. I took last summer “off” to go on retreat, teach myself digital photography, and be outdoors. It wasn’t really time off, it was time “on,” and I found it deeply renewing.

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posted October 21, 2009 at 8:46 am

Retreat is very much required to asses where we are on the journey to I.
One may follow whatever methodology he/she likes. It surely gives clarity on future approach.

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Your Name

posted October 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

i know a guy who teaches buddhist meditation. he lives in a group house with other buddhists and they all go away to england and italy for a week at a time on retreats. then, they organize these fund raisers at indian restaurants to get others to contribute money so they can get their group house fixed up (electrical wiring, new windows, etc). see, they have to save up their own money to afford the air fare for the retreats and of course none of them has real jobs, dealing with real assholes. they make a part-time living teaching meditation but it won’t pay for the house repairs. that’s where we lay-buddhists come in. we contribute our hard-earned money in return for good karma so they can live a comfortable existence and still go away to charming temples overseas. as jung said, organized religion is a safe haven for the frightened, lonely, world-wary but eventually you still have to individuate and mature into a whole human being who takes on real responsibilities i.e. goes to work and deals with real assholes in the real world. i meditate and work on myself to avoid the shenpa that my co-assholes assault me with everyday in the workplace. and i’ve never been on a retreat in my life.

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