by Susan Higginbotham
The current economic climate has put a damper on the lives of many of us—and this includes taking vacations. For some of us, what was an annual expectation has become a drifted off dream and our concern has been more about having a job or not losing our savings. Yet despite the lack of financial flourish, we can still retreat into our practice and transform our vacation mindset into one of a deeply resonant inner journey, one where we can indeed take a break from our normal routine to jumpstart and nourish our practice. And this can be done for little or no cost…perhaps by acquiring a few items to study, or dusting off a book that you already have, waiting to be read.
If you are new to Buddhism, this article may be of particular interest to you. It will not address three-year retreats or anything of a more formal nature. But the information here will give you some ideas about how to design a general retreat for yourself that offers you time—time to be with yourself and have a supportive space to explore, meditate and reflect. And in this space you can create a nourishing atmosphere to familiarize yourself with some basic Buddhist concepts. The retreat can be as long or short as you like and will be set up to meet your purposes and fit in with your lifestyle. What you do is all up to you.
THE RETREAT ITSELF
Since you are creating this retreat, it’s important to start out with a sense of what you would like to do. Do you want to refocus? Recharge? Connect with an inner, deeper purpose? And what activities call to you? Meditation? Reading? Listening to teachings? Writing? Whatever you’re planning to do, you’ll want to set yourself up in a way that eliminates distractions and the stimulation of outside thoughts. First, it’s important to get some things out of the way. This is not the time to think about finances, so settle whatever needs to be tended to before you begin. You’ll also want to do some preparation to clear your space and make some advance arrangements, as well as bring in some things that will be useful to you. The idea is to take your retreat without interruption—at least as much as possible. Here are some guidelines…
Preparing your retreat space
Do your best to de-clutter any space that you will be using. Yes, this includes your kitchen, bathroom, where you sleep, and all spaces in between. If this means that you temporarily box up papers and chatchkas, then just do it, without sorting through them (a project unto itself, and definitely not in keeping with the retreat!). And also be sure to remove items that have a negative association for you.
Keep in view only what you need. Get rid of “transient objects” such as bills, paperwork, and laundry—anything that stimulates you to do or think about something waiting or needing to be done. Simply getting things out of sight will create a more calm environment.
If you can, give your home a good cleaning. Not just your “retreat space,” but your whole living space. Vacuum, dust, wash floors. Let your home breathe with a feeling of clear uninterrupted flow. If your budget permits, or if you have some “non-travel funds”, you might consider hiring someone to help you with the windows and other heavy duty chores. This is not about winning an award from Good Housekeeping and making things perfect. The idea is to do the best you can to get the old stagnated dust and energy out. Even more so, this is about preparing and cleaning your space as a way to create clarity and connect with it.
Look at your space and decide how you want to set it up and “live” in it. This is more than a visual concern and involves all of your senses, doing what you can to create a space that responds to your needs. You might want to use your space differently than you normally do. For example, you might choose to sit on a cushion on the floor to eat rather than at a table, or sleep on a mat, rather than your bed, etc. The thought behind this is to bring more mindfulness into these activities and to see your space in a fresh light.
Decide on the length of your retreat. Avoid having a random attitude about the timeframe. This is about making a commitment to yourself.
Preparing your inner space
• Just like a “real” vacation, ask the post office to put your mail on hold. This helps eliminate intrusion into your space from the outside world. You can leave a note on your doormat that says, “Please do not ring the bell. Leave any packages here.” You can also add “please only ring the bell in an emergency” so that you don’t feel you have to answer your door if the bell rings.
• If you receive home delivery newspaper service, put this on hold too.
• Put an auto reply on your email. The last thing you want to do is use the internet or e-mail. Think about how distracting it can be in your everyday life and how easy it is to mindlessly waste time with this.
• Pay bills in advance—anticipate what might come up so that you don’t have to deal with finances and paperwork or have it weighing on you.
• Eliminate or put aside any pending decisions. Notify those who might need to hear from you regarding these. Having decisions hovering in your space will weigh on you and surreptitiously leech energy.
• Shop for food and household supplies ahead of time so that you have all of the provisions you will need. If you have animal companions don’t forget their food and supplies as well.
• If you’re planning to use candles and incense, etc. check that you have the supply you need.
• Do your laundry so that you have enough clothing and linens for your retreat period.
• Let your friends and family know about your plans and request that they not disturb you unless an emergency comes up. You can always check your messages once or twice a day if there is a need for this, and of course you can make other arrangements, depending on any particular circumstances.
• Do your best to eliminate or at least reduce distracting sounds. If you live in a noisy area, it would be helpful have a “background CD” on hand to help you keep your focus. There are many CD’s available that would provide a conducive aural backdrop. Some suggestions include Bell of Tibet, Golden Spa Tones and Seven Metals: Singing Bowls of Tibet. You can sample many CD’s online to find what has personal appeal to you. Whatever you choose, find something that is tonal rather than melodic. If you use a melodic CD, the melody itself might distract your attention.
• Arrange for any in-home services that you might want during your retreat.
…and don’t forget to
• Send “wish you were here” cards to family and friends!
For those who live alone, setting up this retreat is simply a matter of planning. For those who don’t, or who have difficulty delegating personal daily obligations, clearly more planning is needed and more alternatives need to be taken into consideration.
If you live with a partner or spouse and you both want to do the retreat together, or separately together, this could be a wonderful opportunity to share your path with each other. It would be important to discuss how you want to do the retreat so that you can support each other and agree on how things are set up. If this is something that is only of interest to you, you might still be able to work out an arrangement where you stay in a private, undisturbed space of the home for set hours (possibly a guest room?). You might even ask to be supported with prepared meals or juices, etc. This would be quite a generous gift to receive!
For those whose schedules are jammed and don’t feel that they can put the time aside (and this includes workaholics), you can still make a small commitment to yourself by taking a weekend afternoon, or perhaps use some saved up personal hours from your job. Choose a time when no one else from your household would be home, and then give yourself the gift of time to retreat. If you’re a caregiver, see if a friend can help you out, or even hire outside help. In the end, it always comes down to quality, not quantity. A few hours taken on a weekday afternoon to sit and breathe, meditate, read, or listen to an audio teaching can truly bring much benefit.
If you have put aside some savings for vacation that you might want to use towards your retreat, you can think of these as your “stay-cation” funds for purchasing dharma items and other small household comforts, like new towels or sheets. Even if you have a small budget, simply allowing yourself to buy some incense, a cushion or other items that would spruce up your practice area would be a small useful luxury that would be a great non-travel souvenir to keep using after your retreat. You might also want to consider arranging for a massage or other kind of healing modality treatment at home.
Some things to keep on hand
• Pen and pad or notebook for thoughts, ideas and study.
• Incense—helps create the atmosphere and keep your focus. You can use whatever incense you like. If you’re interested in Tibetan incense and are new to this, you might find it to be a thicker, more complex scent than what you’re used to. You can get an incense sampler kit to try some kinds out. Additionally, Tibetan incense is often blessed and many varieties have healing properties and can be used for stress, etc.
• Candles/tea lights and matches.
• Books. This “supply” can be the defining focus of your retreat. More about this below.
• Audio/Video Teachings. Ditto.
Retreat activities and suggestions:
Meditate. No matter where you are in your practice, meditation is likely to be an important part of your retreat. In fact, it can be the focus of your retreat. If you’re just learning about Buddhist meditation you might want to read a book about this as part of your main activity, or perhaps use a recorded guided meditation. Thubten Chodron’s Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path would be a good consideration for this. And for basic meditation instruction there is How to Meditate with Pema Chödrön. Gen Lamrimpa’s Calming the Mind takes you through the steps of shamata meditation. And of course, you can choose your breath as a subject of meditation.
Read. If you’re new to Buddhism you might want to read several books with different perspectives. One book might take you through the general ideas from a Western point of view. Another might have a more factual tone, so that you have an easy reference point. And yet another might be more discursive with a more traditional Tibetan feel. As we are prone to resonate more deeply with particular teachers, taking this kind of approach can round out our foundational understanding. Possible combinations of three such books would be Buddhism for Beginners, An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism or A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama’s Kindness, Clarity and Insight or The Buddhist Path. Buddhism through American Women’s Eyes would also be a wonderful introductory book as it presents varied points of view on how Buddhist principles are applied in daily life and personal situations. Heartfelt Advice is a small book with short sections where you can stop, meditate and digest the information. For those who have been on the path for a longer time, there might be some topical issues you would like to explore, or perhaps you’ve been planning to put aside time to pore into a classic teaching.
Audio/Video Teachings. There are so many to choose from and so many wonderful teachings! This too could be the center of your retreat. Imagine having the luxury to listen to one teaching over and over again in your retreat setting. You might already have something on hand that you’d like to use. If not, you can get an idea of the variety available on the Shambhala website.
Self-work through Buddhist teachings. Two possible ideas are working with anger and working with unwanted behavior. Related books include Healing Anger, where the Dalai Lama clearly and warmly walks us through Chapter Six of Santideva’s timeless Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life; Thubten Chodron’s Working with Anger; and Enough!: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns. Enough! is a small but broad-based step-by-step guide that can be used to help transform compulsive habits. It also contains detailed meditation instructions, including how to meditate if you have pain, can’t sit on the floor, etc.
You might have a particular prayer, or verse from a prayer, that you would like to focus on throughout the day. For example, in Tsongkhapa’s Foundation of All Perfections:
I must remember that death is quick to strike,
For spirit quivers in flesh like a bubble in water,
And after death one’s good and evil deeds
Trail after one like the shadow trails the body.
Reflection on the Buddhist concepts of interconnectedness and impermanence, etc. can be brought into all of your activities. Keep a sense of simplicity and mindfulness, letting everything that you do reflect the spirit of the retreat. When you cook think about the food, where it came from, and all that had to come into play for you to have this so readily available. Bring a sense of true appreciation to your meals and feel the nourishment of the food as you slowly chew it. Eat simple foods like grains, beans and fresh vegetables. (Organic brown rice would be an excellent choice as it is particularly known for its centering properties.) When you bathe you can think about purification practice, and as with your food, think about the comfort and true luxury that it is to have this clean water. Do your daily chores in the sacred context of your practice. For example, a task like cleaning out the cat litter box can be viewed as raking a Zen garden!
Continue your normal exercise and health routine as much as possible. And if you can, without disturbing the quiet tone of your retreat, take contemplative early morning or evening walks. If you can do this in nature, all the better.
Avoid expectations of accomplishing anything. Do your best to remain present with what you are doing—and be open to discovery!
Your retreat is about connecting with yourself and your practice. Buddhist wisdom has been around for more than two and a half millennia and the concepts can take many reads and perspectives to sink in. This material has been taught and re-taught, carefully handed down through different lineages, passed from one master to another, presented and re-presented and so on. And there are so many teachings and ideas to become familiar with—each with its own benefits.
As you read and come upon questions, accept that it does take time to get familiar with the concepts. Keep a log of your questions and note what you’d like to go back and review. Permit yourself to stop, re-read and ponder. You don’t have to read a whole book, or even a whole chapter. Round robin between different topical books. The goal isn’t to finish a book, but rather to develop your understanding at your own pace.
Allow yourself to go slowly and digest the teachings and experiences that arise. The Tibetans always say “kali, kali” which literally means “slowly, slowly”. As hurried and anxious as we might feel to begin and/or move forward with our practice, it takes time to understand dharma deeply. His Holiness the Dalai Lama advises us to take what makes sense and not go with things on faith. He tells us that we have to think through the teachings for ourselves.
Buddhism is a new language, a new way of thinking, and it takes time to get familiar with. There is no race here. The idea is to be able to integrate the practices into our lives—slowly—so that the principles of Buddhism can be used in our daily lives, offering us a practical vision. Mini-retreats will make your progress easier and enhance your practice focus.
Please don’t judge yourself and expect specific kinds of progress. Thoughts about being a good enough Buddhist and such will only get in your way. Just take in what you can—and keep going!
At the end of your retreat ask yourself: “What have I learned that I can bring back, even on a small scale, into my daily life?” Instead of jumping back into life as usual the day after, allow some time to slowly ease out of the retreat, being present with some of the changes you’ve made.
Obviously, an article such as this can only give some suggestions that I and others have found useful. This kind of retreat is not about strictly following instructions. Rather, it is about creating a sacred space and practices that YOU are choosing to implement. Eliminate as many distractions as you can, keep things simple simple simple, step inside your retreat and see what you discover!