On the Curious Benefits of Long Meditation Retreat

Retreat cabin

Retreat cabin

When I took a semester off from college in 1997 to do a 5-month meditation retreat, people thought I had lost my mind. Avuncular mentors cornered me at parties to talk some sense into me. My best friend's father asked me in total earnest whether what I was about to undertake wasn't dangerous.

Since then, the world has come around to mindfulness. Studies have been published. Pronouncements have been made. And now everyone I know is either sitting down for 10 minutes a day with their eyes closed - or feeling guilty because they're not sitting down for 10  minutes a day with their eyes closed.

Retreat practice, though, is still a hard sell. 

Why, people wonder, would anyone walk away from everything to sit alone in a cabin for 3 months? What good could possibly come from watching the mind for 16 hours a day? And - well, let's be real here - isn't this whole enterprise just a little selfish?

Since I'm about to walk away from everything to sit alone in a cabin for 3 months, I thought I'd share some thoughts.

First, let me outline a day for you. When I'm on retreat, I get up around five. I stretch and drink some tea. Then I sit till breakfast. After breakfast, I sit and walk until lunch. After lunch, I read a bit about meditation, and then sit and walk until dinner time. I don't usually eat dinner, but I do usually go for a slow, mindful walk. Then I sit until bed. 

So that's the schedule. Pretty much every day. For 100 days or so. Nothing to do but watch the mind. Moments of bliss, moments of boredom, all the uninterrupted churning of a mind with no external distractions.

What comes of it?

Well, in my early retreats it was easy to recognize clear outcomes. That 5-month retreat I just mentioned? Before I sat that retreat, I was a mediocre college student. I got by, but didn't excel. After that retreat, I earned straight As straight through my bachelors, masters, and PhD. 

The same held true for my anxiety. Through college I suffered from crippling social fear. Then I had an experience of clarity during a retreat. Gradually I was able to use that clarity as a touchstone. My anxiety diminished, then more or less disappeared.

Pretty heady stuff. But, as anyone who has ever done intensive meditation practice will tell you, there is always more. Deeper layers, more entrenched habits. Or in my case, shocking ways in which I'm still a giant pain in the ass.

Which brings us back to the nagging quandary I mentioned earlier: isn't this all just a little selfish? 

My answer: No. 

When I learned to focus during that five month retreat it didn't just benefit me. I was finally, for the first time in my life, able to offer people my full attention. 

When my anxiety up and vanished, I wasn't the only recipient of that magic. The energy that had been bound up in my own head went outward, toward others.

And so we come to the great paradox of retreat practice: it is through removing ourselves that we become most fully available.

But don't take my word for it. Try it out. If you haven't done a weekend retreat, book one at Tergar. Or try a classic ten-day at Spirit Rock or IMS. You might find yourself fascinated, exhilarated - just by the sheer nuance of experience when you spend all day simply paying attention.

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For information about upcoming mindfulness workshops with Devon & me, please click here.

Craig Hase