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Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)

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Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
goenka 10 day retreat meditation retreat
Answer
3/26/15 9:55 PM
I'm planning on doing some retreat practice for the first time (10-day Goenka retreats have been recommended), and I'm a little worried about the whole 5-6 hours of sleep, 2 meals a day thing. And exercise is usually prohibited, too, right (beyond walking medtiation)? It almost feels like a fetishization of physical weakness. I feel like I would have a very hard time concentrating if I was always sleep deprived and malnourished. Is that the point? Does making it more difficult make it better? (I guess I could include enforcing painful sitting postures here). Do these ascetic practices mostly come out of religious ideology, or are they just as consistent with pragmatic dharma? I can see the value in how enforcing painful postures and some food deprivation might strengthen the will, but the sleep deprivation and exercise prohibition are harder to understand. 

I've read about how these new-agey self-help cults like Landmark Forum have people sit through multi-day16 hour conference sessions with minimal food and water, with the heat turned up in the room as inspirational speakers inspire from on stage, and people have these ecstatic mental breakdowns at the end and commit their lives to the purpose of the organization. It seems like an obvious strategy to weaken people and overwhelm them until they break down. Do you think the reasoning for making retreats so ascetic is similar? Is it about weakening your ability to resist, so it's more likely that you'll reach unusual mental states?

Are there some retreat centers that are more or less ascetic (especially in the San Francisco area emoticon). Would you recommend just going along with the asceticism or could there be a benefit from doing a more comfortable retreat (like concentrating better or being able to last longer on retreat). 

Thanks!

*This is my first real post on this forum, sorry if this question has already been asked or if I posted this in the wrong area. 

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/26/15 11:17 PM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
There are certainly less rigorous meditation courses out there.  Some googling will yeild them if you're interested

I've sat a number of retreats of the sort that you're refering in to, and they are no doubt intense, but they also yeild results.  

The reason for waking up early is to spend as much of the day meditating as possible.  The reason for no strenuous exercise is because it tends to bring the mind out of a concentrated sate (at least for beginners).  The reason for two meals a day is becuase you'll find that you only really need two, and that more is sometimes not conducive for deep meditation.  The reason for a straight upright posture is because it promotes alertness, but if you need to recline at times, then do so.

These may look like acsetic practices, but they are all actually tools so you get the most out of your experience.  Personally, if I'm going to take 10 days to do something like this, I'd like to go balls to the wall and get as much out of it as possible.

If you're not into it, then thats fine.  Some people read the description for those kinds of courses and feel an immidiate draw, and others are repulsed.

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/27/15 10:19 AM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
Is perception (of this being an ascetic retreat) constant or not? Is it stressful or pleasant? What autonomy is there over perception?
Mind training is hard, especially coming from western convenient minded conditioning. The fruit of the labor is an exquisite taste, worth all the effort. Good news is good man you only have to train the mind one breath at a time...
the last retreat I completed was at a forest monastery, and there was plenty of food. That happen to be donated by truly good people. I began questioning if I was worthy of the food. I thought of not eating one day because of this. So I decided to eat a handful. I tossed an turned that night, considering my worth. Couldn't sleep, so I figured it  would be more productive contemplating this I sat up all night missing a breath here and there. Daylight broke and I kept the pressure on waves of bliss and gratitude filled my heart. I didn't feel tired as my mind was unified. I stayed up all day fighting off drowsiness almost jogging back and forth on the walking path, yelling buddho in my heart... And no I didn't get enlightened, I did however build confidence and worth in my heart. So I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be sustained through generosity. 

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/27/15 10:39 AM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
I went on a Goenka 10-day fairly recently. I had your same concerns for food and sleep, but I can say that in my experience, it wasn't a problem. I did have some problems and frustrations with posture, and my biggest recommendation would be to get comfortable with your chosen sitting posture before you go. They have those kneeling benches if you need them, and may accomodate you with letting you sit against a wall or even in a chair if you have too much of a problem. Though some states  (nanas) will naturally excabarate/produce physical discomfort... and that is part of the work, seeing the sensations that make up the discomfort. 

As for food, sleep and excercise, I wouldn't worry about it. I found the meals to be more than adequate, nutritious, and conductive to practice. You serve yourself from bigger dishes (at least, at the center I went to) so you are free to take more if you need to, but you'll find that if you over-eat, you'll get foggy and sleepy. When you're sitting and expending relatively little amounts of physical energy all day, you'll find that your need for food and sleep will go down. I found that simply walking around and stretching was an adequate amount of exercise.

As Teague suggested, the "rules" are actually just tools to allow for better practice. Good luck! 

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/27/15 1:39 PM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
Because low blood sugar and sleep deprivation are major (and common) migraine triggers, I wish this unfortunate characteristic of retreats would just go away. I get stroke-like auras that can persist for days; if that were to happen, then the retreat would be wasted on me. Considering how widespread migraine is, this rigor seems less than useful for awakening to me (ie, not pragmatic or balanced). 

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/27/15 1:54 PM as a reply to Jenny.
Is it? Food and sleep deprivation that is?
For years I have woken up at 5 am. Still do most days. I go to sleep somewhere between 10 and 11 pm so I think that's about the same hours most retreats start of at. ( my only retreat experience started with sleep between 10pm and 4 am. Slowly decreasing that an hour at the time.)
As for food. a large breakfast and more than ample lunch with a small serving of milkpudding and a little chocolate in the evening.

I have not felt deprived of anything.
I agree it can seem daunting before the retreat, but I found as you don't expend much physical effort during the day. The rest from sleep and deep meditation combined wit at least 2 more than adequate meals is hardly deprivative.
I have also not yet heard of anyone who felt deprived. Ususally there is no one checking in if you go to sleep a little early or not. So if you feel you really need the sleep i think you can just do so.

I feel the idea behind it is not so much renounciation as a chore or an effort in ascetisism. I see it more as an excersise in moderation. getting enough without overindulging in the sense pleasures of food and the escapeism too much sleep can give.

Did anyone here on a retreat feel deprived? If so did you feel you could talk about it with the staff or your meditation teacher?
I have only the one retreat experience and could be different centers apply the rules more strictly.

With Love
Eelco

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/27/15 2:49 PM as a reply to Eelco ten Have.
Needs are individual. Usually one has a genetic predisposition for required sleep, food etc. Lots of people for example have a biological clock of 25 hours. Teenagers have a tilted clock so they are awake longer into the night and require longer sleep periods (and no it has NOTHING to do with computers etc). Sleep and brain patterns stabilize around 22 years for women and and 24-25 for men I think it was. So there is an age component as well.

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/28/15 7:43 AM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
After doing some of these retreats myself and finding the regimen set me up for more productive days, I've adopted the early rising and 2 meals thing outside of retreats. Since the majority of humanity for the majority of the time we've been on this earth would consider themselves well-fed to have one filling, nutritious meal a day, and well-rested to get a few hours of solid sleep, I'd say it's not so ascetic, but that our modern first-world lives have become too soft to empower us to take charge of our minds. Hence why so many of us rush off to retreats - to get in touch with a measure of reality again. 

To go deeper, when we meditate, we expend less brain energy than when we spend our days worrying over every little first-worlder problem. So we can get by with less sleep without any flagging of energy levels. Same goes for food, and when you gorge yourself on all the good food they usually have at retreats, you'll find you're content.

So I'd say forget the worries, dive in, and be happy!

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/28/15 2:00 PM as a reply to Andreas.
Andreas:
Needs are individual. Usually one has a genetic predisposition for required sleep, food etc. Lots of people for example have a biological clock of 25 hours. Teenagers have a tilted clock so they are awake longer into the night and require longer sleep periods (and no it has NOTHING to do with computers etc). Sleep and brain patterns stabilize around 22 years for women and and 24-25 for men I think it was. So there is an age component as well.


I won't argue that.
It just seemed the OP with wordings like  ascetic, deprivation, fetish for physical weakness etc. Is more fearbased mountains being build than actual experience in ascetisism, deprivation and fetishes.
Anyway I didn't feel any of those things on my retreat. And I wondered if anyone did experience the retreat regime as hard as the mind thinks it is before hand. Thats all.

With Love
Eelco

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/30/15 5:16 PM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
Thanks, everyone! After reading your responses, 5-6 hours of sleep and 2 meals a day sound reasonable, and not like "deprivation."

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/31/15 1:18 AM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
re: Matt Lorean (3/26/15 9:55 PM )

"I'm planning on doing some retreat practice for the first time…I'm a little worried about the whole 5-6 hours of sleep, 2 meals a day thing. And exercise is usually prohibited, too, right (beyond walking medtiation)…"

"Are there some retreat centers that are more or less ascetic (especially in the San Francisco area ). Would you recommend just going along with the asceticism or could there be a benefit from doing a more comfortable retreat (like concentrating better or being able to last longer on retreat)"
(3/30/15 5:16 PM)
"Thanks, everyone! After reading your responses, 5-6 hours of sleep and 2 meals a day sound reasonable, and not like "deprivation.""

Most bases have been covered here – responses to the 'hardship' issues vary by individual in adapting to the daily regimens; many find it no problem to adapt, and beneficial. Retreat venues and rigors vary themselves.  You questioned about less 'ascetic' retreats and in the San Francisco area – so I can add info about that.

At least 3 retreat centers in the BayArea, all relatively non-ascetic, that hold retreats regularly, and several other organization holding retreats occasionally. (Probably SF area has the most active and broadest range of retreats this side of Southeast Asia.) Those I'm familiar with:

I) 'Vipassana/Insight Movement' (VM/IM) organisations – relatively comfortable, 3 meals/day (s/t really good food, and adapted to individual needs), non-obtrusive exercise (e.g. yoga, qigong) allowed but not where it might bother others. At these the schedule doesn't need to be followed exactly, your can vary if it doesn't disturb others – coming late or leaving early from group sits is discouraged.

The VM/IM retreat schedules resemble (based-on) typical Asian formats –- start 6 AM or so, to 9-10 PM. Alternating periods of sit-walk-sit walk… eat,… sit-walk… all day BUT typically odd times, like sit 9:30-10:15, walk 10:15-10:45,…; instructional talk AM, 'dharma' talk evening.

1) Spirit Rock Meditation Center (Marin Country, off in the country near San Rafael) – at the luxurious end of the spectrum; (someone who teaches there once referred to it as "the upper-middle way"). Private rooms (common bathrooms), heated floors… But pricey $1000-$2000 for 7 or10 day retreats. One or two retreats almost every week. Wait lists /lotteries for most all retreats. 3 meals/day, vegetarian/new-agey, nutritious. Every one also must do a 'yogi' job – an hour or so daily cleaning or helping in the kitchen. Wide range of teachers, usually 2-4 per retreat.

2) Insight Retreat Center (ScottsValley in the Santa Cruz Mountains, off Hwy 17) – much like Spirit Rock (the main teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is also a heavy-weight at Spirit Rock), Also running retreats every week, and wait-lists / lottery selection. BUT run (uniquely among VM/IM centers) on a pure 'dana' system – everyone pays only what they want to pay. (The clientelle – Silicon Valley – is relatively well-to-do, so it seems to be doing allright at surviving.) 3 meals/day, vegetarian– much like Spirit Rock. The place is even more modern and squeaky-clean than Spirit Rock (Gil has a background in Zen, and Japanese-style, almost ritualistic cleanliness is de rigour at IRC).Range of teachers, but most often including Gil Fronsdal.

3) Insight Meditation South Bay – 2 or 3 retreats/year, usually near Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, or Santa Rosa. Main teacher Shaila Catherine (trained in IM and PaAuk Sayadaw Visudhimagga Burmese; speciality in jhanas) Comparable comfort and food, but not rigorously vegetarian, tho individuals wil lbe accomidated for that, vegan, gluten-free etc. Accomodations run, usually, from tent/camper van, to dorms, to single or double rooms, with price range ca. $800-$2500 "sliding-scale".

II) Tathagata Meditation Center (TMC -monastery and retreat center, central San Jose) Vietnamese community but genuine Burmese (Mahasi) monks. Four 30-40 day retreats every year (March, June, Sept, Dec), and in the other months 1 or 2 weekend retreats (Sat 6 AM – Sun 4 PM). Long retreats cost $25/day (+dana); weekend retreats NO CHARGE (+dana). Two meals/day (runs on "8 precepts"), donated by Vietnamese "devotees" (largely vegetarian, but nothing strictly; Vietnamese diet is among the healthiest on the planet). Schedule a bit more rigorous – starts 1st sit at 5 AM, AND sits/walks/meals etc ALL run on the hour (5 AM, 6, 8, 9, 10, …), which I find easier to cope with. Daily chanting (refuges, precepts, metta, Satipatthana Sutta, etc.) in in English, Pali and Vietnamese, but always cross-translated.

The weekend retreat here might be a good place to start (for someone like Matt Lorean), as the daily format is the same as on long retreats. The 8 AM Saturday instructions always the same – virtually reading Mahasi's PMI (PRACTICAL INSIGHT MEDITATION BASIC PRACTICE). The 4 PM Dharma talks generally very good (IMO).The weekend retreats are "residential"– you get a room and bed for Saturday night (and can come Friday evening & sleep there to get a head start 5 AM Saturday). Some people do come just for Saturday, from 8 AM (instructions-hour) to 9 or 10 PM. They discourage (forbid) coming for just part of the day. For the month+ long retreats, it turns out one can go just for the opening week, 10-days, 2 weeks, etc.

Amazingly (to my mind), TMC retreats are not sold-out (no wait-lists, lotteries, etc.) EXCEPT for month-longs with, say, Sayadawgyi U Pandita teaching, which used to happen regularly. (He was scheduled to teach this June, but that's recently been changed to one of his senior students – the Sayadawgyi is 93-94 years old. He showed-up on Vessak two years ago, which happened during a weekend retreat I was at; physically quite senile).

III) General comments

In the SF Bay Area also multiple Tibetan, Zen, Thai, etc. centers and retreats – which I'm not familiar. And, up near the California-Oregon border, a major Chinese Chan center.

Another aspect (particularly at VM/IM retreats) – one doesn't have to walk-sit exactly with the schedule, can structure the practice s/w more privately, given it's not conspicuous or disturbs others. On retreats longer than 1 or 2 days, there are 'interviews' with the teachers. At VM/IM retreats these are free-form – whatever you or the interviewer want to talk about. At TCM retreats (but not weekend), there's a rigid (Mahasi) protocol that's spelled-out in the booklet with instructions, chants, etc.

So, a strategy (e.g. for Matt Lorean) might be to first attend a weekend at TMC, to see how the regimen suits you (the ascetic or not aspects).

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/31/15 1:53 AM as a reply to CJMacie.
Thanks for all that knowledge! My teacher had recommended TMC, and I'm planning on going to their next weekend retreat, then hopefully doing the month-long in June. 

RE: Why are retreats so ascetic? (sleep and food deprivation)
Answer
3/31/15 11:49 AM as a reply to Matt Lorean.
There are plenty of Tibetan retreats which entail a lot of daily protien intake, because a lack of is considered common cause of lung in Tibetan and Chinese medicine.