More shorter retreats, or fewer longer retreats?

S M, modified 2 Months ago at 1/16/23 9:49 AM
Created 2 Months ago at 1/16/23 9:45 AM

More shorter retreats, or fewer longer retreats?

Posts: 11 Join Date: 12/30/22 Recent Posts
I have 160 hours of use/lose leave each year and am wondering the best way to spend this time with retreats. I feel I am ready for retreats longer than 10 days and want to work towards that but am not sure if there is something I'm missing with more frequent retreats. The way I look at it, I can afford:
- three to four 10-day retreats
- two 14-day retreats
- one 20-day retreat and maybe one 7 day retreat
- one 30-day retreat

Again, the last two options are almost no-go since my work will only approve of so much time-off for a specific time period; my office is way too busy and understaffed to have someone out for three weeks or longer. I haven't asked but I'm pretty sure it's clear that these options will not happen. Either way, would it be better to strive for the longer 14-day retreats instead of the more numerous 10-day retreats? FWIW, I plan on this year having solo-retreats in my house - if I were to go to a 20 or 30-day retreat, this will be at a center elsewhere.

EDIT: added clarification on 20/30 day retreats
Jim Smith, modified 2 Months ago at 1/16/23 4:22 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 1/16/23 4:22 PM

RE: More shorter retreats, or fewer longer retreats?

Posts: 1290 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
S. M.
Either way, would it be better to strive for the longer 14-day retreats instead of the more numerous 10-day retreats?

I would advise you to do the more numerous 10-day retreats. In my opinion the most valuable thing you get from the retreat is the motivational boost it will add to your home practice. I don't the think the boost comes as much from the length of the retreat as it does from getting away from home meeting other people and practicing intensively. So doing that more often spread throughout the year would be better.

Another benefit from going on retreat is the enforced renunciation. Anyone can be non-attached starting right now, if they wanted to, just by giving up their attachments. But no one really does this, they want the meditation technique to make them non-attached because they don't actually want to give up their attachments. But when you go on a retreat and you give up your favorite foods, your cell phone, your internet, your car, your friends, your family, your TV, your music, and your other entertainment you are giving up your attachments. Once you give them up it is not so hard to coast along but the act of giving them up is the hard thing so maybe for that reason more retreats would be better you have to make the decision to renounce the things you like more often.
Olivier S, modified 2 Months ago at 1/17/23 8:13 AM
Created 2 Months ago at 1/17/23 8:07 AM

RE: More shorter retreats, or fewer longer retreats?

Posts: 795 Join Date: 4/27/19 Recent Posts
 Opinions on this will vary widely...

It's a great question though. There is a similar one at a smaller timescale about sit length : is it better to sit for shorter durations more frequently, or longer durations ?

Some say that "new territory" opens up after 45 min of continuous sitting approximately. Generally speaking, there is a school of thought that says that momentum builds based on the continuity of practice, which means that taking breaks would slow your progress down significantly: Bill Hamilton for instance explicitely belonged to this camp, and I think Daniel and lots of pragmatic dharma people, and generally speaking mahasi-inspired theravadin practicioners would agree. The thinking would go something like: "do longer sits of consistent duration, and maintain some degree of practice in-between formal sits". 

However, some tibetan authors (e.g. Tsongkhapa in vol. 3 of the Lam rim on shamatha and vipassana practice) argue that "one should stop sitting when one still wants to sit", which means a sit might last 10 min, or 16h, depending on the practitioner.

I once went on a retreat where all our sits were 24 min long. This was in a tibetan dzogchen school of practice (which tend to favor short but frequent practices), and the rationale for the sits included extensive references to many traditional tibetan authors, but also modern day scientists who studied "peak performance" in athletes. The latter were saying that shorter, higher-quality, higher-intensity, frequent repetitions of any training, yielded the best results overall. During that retreat, there weren't that many sits during the day compared to a mahasi retreat. However, this was the deepest, most fruitful and transformative retreat I have done, in terms of short as well as, I can now tell with three years of hindsight, long-term impact. This could be related with where I was on the path and other factors too, though.

To go back to the more macro question of short and frequent retreats VS longer, again it would be hard to find a consensus and a universal answer, because that also really depends on lifestyle (how much vacation does one have per year ?), inclinations, proneness to weird experiences, stability, sensitivity, motivation, energy levels, etc., etc. But I think the previous discussion applies too. 

In my case, in retrospect and currentspect, it is clear: shorter practice with more frequency is a much more functional combination for me than longer with less frequency, both in terms of numbers of sits per day and sit length, as well as number of retreats per year and retreat length. It leads to something much more integrated, pleasant, sustainable, continuous and enticing. It maintains a higher average level. But this also depends of one's motivation to practice at the time: I think for a beginner short frequent is best, but for someone whose hair is on fire, then long frequent might be best. MCTB has a bit in it that goes something like "10 minutes of great practice is better than 10h of lousy practice". 

So, my best advice is: you should experiment with honesty and see what works best for you. As Jim said, you don't want to burn yourself out. It can be tempting to think there is something superior in being able to do a 3-week/month/year retreat, some sort of accomplishment in that in and of itself. I honestly think that's basically incorrect: longer is not necessarily better * wink wink *.

Taking the long view might make things easier too, as in: is a 4 day difference in terms of length of retreats gonna make that huge a difference on your long-term development ?

My guess is, if you are committed to this in the mid- to long-term, then probably not ! 

Best wishes,

Olivier S, modified 2 Months ago at 1/17/23 8:33 AM
Created 2 Months ago at 1/17/23 8:33 AM

RE: More shorter retreats, or fewer longer retreats?

Posts: 795 Join Date: 4/27/19 Recent Posts
 Copy-pasting a bit about shorter high-quality practice in athletes I mentioned above. Not saying it's all perfectly true or translates well to meditation, or that striving to be a world-class champion of meditation is a good idea, but interesting to read anyways:

Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence on the “10,000-hour” rule for success in 
any field:

Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise 
spawned the 10,000-hour rule of thumb, told me, “You don’t get benefits from 
mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to 
your goal.”

…Ericsson argues that the secret of winning is “deliberate practice,” where an expert 
coach takes you through well-designed training over months or years, and you give it 
your full concentration. Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, 
but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a 
crucial difference.

…Smart practice always includes a feedback loop that lets you recognize errors and 
correct them—which is why dancers use mirrors. Ideally that feedback comes from 
someone with an expert eye—and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If 
you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks. The feedback matters 
and the concentration does, too—not just the hours.

…Learning how to improve any skill requires top-down focus. Neuroplasticity, the 
strengthening of old brain circuits and building of new ones for a skill we are practicing, 
requires our paying attention: When practice occurs while we are focusing elsewhere, 
the brain does not rewire the relevant circuitry for that particular routine.
Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic 
connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing. At least at 
first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers 
control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits 
that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don’t need to think about 
it—you can do the routine well enough on automatic.

…And this is where amateurs and experts part ways. Amateurs are content at some point 
to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training—
whether in skiing or driving—people get to that “good-enough” performance level, 
where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly.
The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the 
brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have 
yet to perfect.

“The expert performer,” says Ericsson, “actively counteracts such tendencies toward 
automaticity by deliberately constructing and seeking out training in which the set goal 
exceeds their current level of performance.” Moreover, “The more time expert 
performers are able to invest in deliberate practice with full concentration, the further 
developed and refined their performance.”

…Focused attention, like a strained muscle, gets fatigued. Ericsson finds world-class 
competitors—whether weight lifters, pianists, or a dog sled team—tend to limit arduous 
practice to about four hours a day. Rest and restoring physical and mental energy get 
built into their training regimen.They seek to push themselves and their bodies to the 
max, but not so much that their focus gets diminished in the practice session. Optimal 
practice maintains optimal concentration
S M, modified 2 Months ago at 1/17/23 12:28 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 1/17/23 12:28 PM

RE: More shorter retreats, or fewer longer retreats?

Posts: 11 Join Date: 12/30/22 Recent Posts
Thank you all for the tips. I know asking this invites much debate about proper protocols especially about how one practices. This is the first time I've heard about the frequent shorter periods as being more beneficial - the closest I've heard from this is when Sam Harris stated that he thinks it's better to meditate 1 minute 100 times compared to 100 minutes straight.

Longer sessions provide a different stimulus that shorter sessions don't for me. Specifically, they add an element of perseverance and letting go that shorter sits by default don't provide by nature. I found this to be helpful on a number of levels, especially considering that I agree that 45 minute sits or longer bring more concentration via momentum; there's only so much concentration I can develop in 30 minutes or less There are many times when I want to sit longer than even an hour but get up anyway.

In my second retreat, we had sessions lasting 45 minutes and this was too short in my opinion. Even when I sit in my weekly sangha for 30 minutes, I feel these are far too short. There are times when I feel my hour sessions are too long but these are just things to let go as always. My walking/standing sessions are my times to relax and rest my mind while also maintaining the concentration.

Maybe in the future I'll try the shorter sessions but another side effect is that my mind gets used to sitting for shorter periods and transitioning to longer periods takes some adjustment. I'd like to see more research on this honestly but I can admit that 7 day retreats feel far shorter than a 10 day retreat. The extra 3 days adds another layer I can't quite explain. I wonder if others have this same experience.