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Open-ish thread on retreats

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Open-ish thread on retreats
Answer
1/7/13 12:07 PM
I'm considering doing a retreat this spring, but I'm having trouble deciding (a) where to do it and (b) whether it's even worth doing. I've only done one retreat longer than a day at this point, and that was at IMS back in spring. I managed to sink in enough to get some good practice going, but I find the culture to be defeatist, disempowering, even a little reactionary. As nice as the center itself is, and as well-intentioned as people can be, there's a lot that's needlessly distracting.

There are factors besides this which will determine what and how I do it. (Money, how much time I can get from work, distance, etc.) But I'd like to hear from some of the hardcore practitioners here about your favorite places to do retreats, which teachers are worth working with, or anything else regarding retreats that you think would be useful.

For that matter, how important do you think retreats are? I feel this almost romantic urge to go on one so I can get my head straight and clear, but when I think back to the retreat I actually did, a lot of it's really hard, and I'm not sure "straight and clear" are the adjectives I'd use to describe my experience at the end of it.

Thots?

RE: Open-ish thread on retreats
Answer
1/8/13 10:11 AM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.

RE: Open-ish thread on retreats
Answer
1/8/13 10:39 AM as a reply to Some Guy.
I was looking at this yesterday! Thanks. I wonder if anyone here has been there. I was browsing the archives and didn't find anything.

RE: Open-ish thread on retreats
goenka
Answer
1/8/13 11:35 AM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.
I'm a fan of Goenka retreats, I've done 4, I like them a lot. I haven't had any other retreat experiences yet. Here are my thoughts on Goenkas:

• they promote a strong work ethic. the atmosphere, which is re-emphasised several times a day, is that you will only make progress based on your own efforts, that capital E liberation is possible and it depends entirely on you. plus the retreats are done in silence, so even if you are surrounded by lousy meditators, you're never going to communicate with them at all until the final day after the retreats are over. though, returning goenka students are often known for their rigid disciplined sitting regimes (and also often rigid narrow thinking).
• first three days they focus on shamatha, next 7 days on vipassana, last day metta (you suggested in another thread that you wanted to have better metta practice - i know lots of people don't like goenka's metta, it is very much worth doing as long as, like any meditation, you don't have expectations about what to experience ((ie. i want to feel love and bliss)).)
• price is totally free, except travel fees. you can give a donation afterwards if you feel so inclined, but you aren't forced to. and you shouldn't feel like a douche for not doing so, it's not an informal way of paying your ticket, the whole ethos they have going is that the dhamma should be freely given from ones dana, which means from the point of view of the volunteers, they are giving you this retreat environment and food out of goodwill and if they harboured any secret desire to get paid back then they wouldn't be freely giving and it would inhibit their own dana. having said that, the retreats wouldn't be possible without the donations, but most of these centers are really well off because lots of people genuinely feel they want to give because they had great experiences.
• total retreat time is 12 days, 10 days of meditation plus the day of arrival and the day of departure.
• there is no formal teacher training system, so teachers can be a mixed bag, you have the voluntary option of having a quick 2--10 minute interview with the teacher each day and discuss practice, and who knows if they are into maps or models, etc. it is to be expected however that they are into goenkas own maps and models which probably don't line up perfectly with ones own, but that is rare to find anyway, and that doesn't mean your teacher isn't an advanced practitioner in their own right. they do have controls and processes for choosing teachers, which i've heard anecdotal evidence for but don't know what is exactly (anecdotally: measurements on their equanimity and metta abilities and things like that)
• goenka can be quite funny and gives an interesting/funny dhamma talk at the end of each day which have funny stories and lots of parables and metaphors for understanding practice. whether you like the talks or not, listening to them can still be a good way to practice noting ones judgments/reactions/etc as well as giving you some space to analyze, think about theory, etc
• food is often good, but of course varies immensely from centre to centre, country to country.
• centres are usually in the countryside away from noise, cities, busy life, etc.


some downsides:
• goenka seems to believe that vipassana isn't practiced outside of his own tradition and sometimes this leads to an unhelpful attitude of "we're the only ones doing real practice, everyone else is doing ritual". though he does say that anyone who is trying to understand impermanence and develop equanimity is doing vipassana, even if by another name, he does unfortunately still claim sometimes that his tradition is the only place where vipassana has been preserved in the world. doh
• some people don't like the chanting audio tapes which are played at the beginning of some meditation sessions.
• sometimes rigid attitudes towards practice and theory, though definitely skewed to the side of effort than the side of do-nothing


my opinion on retreats:
i think they are invaluable, it's like a gym, perfectly designed and equipped to training certain faculties, and very useful for people who want to develop those specific things. obviously daily life practice is crucial, but retreat time offers an opportunity for practice unlike any other. incidentally straight and clear is the way i felt after all my 10 day retreats, many times the straightest and clearest i had ever felt in my entire life.


dhamma.org - S.N. Goenka Vipassana Course website

RE: Open-ish thread on retreats
Answer
1/8/13 1:38 PM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.
I am probably an outlier here, but I really have enjoyed my stays at the monasteries associated with Thich Nhat Hanh (Three in U.S. - California, Mississippi, New York).

Granted, their approach to Dharma is about as far from Hardcore as you can get in the sense that there are no marathon sits, no talk of attainment, etc (never once have I heard the word Jhana during my several weeks of stay). This kind of appeals to me, however, as it gives their centers a quite laid back feel that might feel like a vacation if it weren't for the subtle sense that there was practice going on.

RE: Open-ish thread on retreats
Answer
1/8/13 2:32 PM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.
If you feel like just doing silent noting and nothing else, the retreats at TMC in San Jose are quite good and very decently priced. See http://tathagata.org/ The teachers are excellent, though some of them have heavy Burmese accents. It's technically a monastery, so there are some formalities like bowing and not eating after noon that some people might not like, though coming from a ritual-heavy Vajrayana background, I found that there was a refreshing lack of religiosity. If you say stuff like "I have X path", they won't buy it, but they will deal just fine with precise descriptions of phenomena that happen during noting practice, including varieties of fruitions.

What we think of as hardcore is what they think of as proper practice, though they are very conservative in terms of meditative technique, in that they only want you to do noting (or noticing, if your concentration is continuous enough, which yours probably is) and don't want you to try anything else, even if it's an effective shortcut, like self-inquiry, deliberately entering into jhanas (as opposed to spontaneously entering into jhanas during noting practice, which is fine), any sort of energy practice, or anything else that isn't what they're teaching. If you stick to Kenneth's 1st Gear and report using their very specific reporting format (which they have a handout for that you need to ask for), the sayadaws will be very happy with you, will generally give helpful advice and won't get in the way of your practice, which you obviously know how to do. If you want to do 2nd or 3rd Gear types of practices, I'd recommend doing it somewhere else.

They also don't want you to do any exercise other than walking meditation, so make sure your back is in great shape before going there.

In terms of advantages, other than basically locking yourself into a meditative jail for a month and putting in about 300 hours of practice, you'll also get great energy accumulation from the sheer amount of stillness, if you care about that sort of thing and know how to keep from losing it.

Since you basically never get to talk to anybody other than the sayadaws and the retreat coordinator except on the first and last day, it's hard to get a feeling for the community's perspective. A lot of them are local Vietnamese retirees, a lot of which are older nuns. The center in general seems to have a sort of unspoken taboo about talking about attainments, whereas the sayadaws make it very clear that they expect a person practicing properly to get the 1st path within a month. There's a bit of a disconnect there. Since 1st path is long behind you, if you're discreet about where you think you're at and just stick to phenomal descriptions of things, you'll be fine.

Also, the food is quite good, assuming you like vegetarian Vietnamese food.

RE: Open-ish thread on retreats
Answer
1/8/13 2:54 PM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.
Alternatively, if you're willing to spend more money, you might find Shinzen's Young residential retreats interesting. His system is very flexible. I haven't tried one of these retreats, but I'd like to at some point. See http://shinzen.org/