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Tips and Insights on How to Have a Successful Retreat

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  • Tips and Insights on How to Have a Successful Retreat

    Hello Venerables,

    I hope you had a blissful rains retreat, a pleasant abiding here and now. Venerables, would you be so kind as to share what lessons or insights you gained from this year's rains retreat?

    I also joined in on this year's retreat by meditating for more hours a day at home and I hope to continue this commitment even outside of Vassa season.

    So Venerables, I would appreciate it if you could share some insights and tips from personal experience and otherwise on how to conduct a successful individual retreat.

    For example, when we have a lot of time on retreat, our mind can consciously or subconsciously fool us into thinking that we have plenty of time to attend to our meditation after we attend to some issues either mentally or physically. Thus, the mind might meander into dreams and fantasies. Or perhaps so much time to ourselves might trigger more papancha (mental proliferation).

    Of course, there are moments of deep peace and contentment, but then soon we find ourselves musing over how advanced we have become, only to realize that our minds can still often act as if we are beginners on the path. These are just some examples.

    So it would be very kind of you Venerables to share your advice and insights on how to benefit the most from a solo retreat, including all its highs and lows, joys and pitfalls, things to watch out for, etc. for the sake of sincere practitioners.

    Thank you very much.

    With metta.
    Last edited by Haca Ce; 5th-November-2020, 06:16 AM.

  • #2
    Dear Haca Ce,

    Just saw your email...after a long break!

    Good question - it is something I have been pondering as well, having been on long retreat too.

    Let me gather my thoughts, and get back to you.

    With metta,
    Ven Upekkha


    • #3
      Dear Haca Ce,

      First of all, I must say you ask thoughtful questions, and I hope I can do justice to them. None-the-less, here are some rambling thoughts...

      Retreats are a great time, where sensory activities are much reduced and the mind has less opportunity to distract itself. Then, the sheer continuity of practice gains momentum. This is one thing I think is important, to keep alert throughout the day, minimizing 'down-time'. For me, my mind gets most carried away during the midday meal, the most excitement for the day! Also finding fascinating Dhamma articles that I never knew I had.

      But, despite oneself, causes have their effect and the mind becomes clearer.

      Then, like yourself, the mind says 'ah finally a chance to think things through'. And you find yourself several minutes (hours?) later wondering what was so fascinating. One thing I found most helpful this year, was asking myself (when there was some strength in the mind) why I delighted in thinking so much. This was one of the most useful insights I gained, realising that I think simply because being still meant I had to die a little. The mind just wouldn't do it.

      That was useful - to keep investigating and opening up to any experience. I found Ashin U Tejaniya had good pointers in this regard. (I wonder if you have read some of his books like 'Don't Look Down on the Defilements, They Will Laugh At You')

      I developed a few strategies to inspire myself to accept and let go. The one that works best was the thought 'this is for the benefit of all beings'.

      Listening to a Dhamma talk everyday was a good reminder of where to keep my attention. And of course, every few weeks we visit Ajahn Brahm which is a great boon - to see the Dhamma embodied.

      Yesterday when I read your question, I asked a fellow nun what she does to not lose track and end up wasting time. She gave a succinct answer.

      It was to ask herself what were the fundamental qualities to be developed. And these have been clearly, simply and repeatedly enumerated by the Buddha.
      - The five hindrances to reduce
      - The enlightenment factors to be developed
      - The five indriyas to strenghten.

      That is, keeping the goal in mind.

      I hope this answers your question somewhat.

      Please do share with us what YOU learnt from your retreat.

      With metta,
      Ven Upekkha


      • #4
        Hello Venerable,

        Thank you for your thoughts. They are much appreciated. All of your insights were quite relevant to me on a deep level and I had some similar ones myself during the retreat. For the sake of brevity, I will mention only some of my most pertinent thoughts.

        Deeper reflection has increasingly made me realize that many conditions had to come together for me to be earnestly practicing Dhamma in this life. This realization intensified by death contemplations has made it acutely clear that this current life is a precious opportunity and there's no point wasting time with worldly and frivolous distractions, unnecessary pursuits, and thoughts, all of which seem like fake gold by now, not the real thing, not true happiness.

        I finally appreciate Ajahn Brahm's advice in his book "Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond" on giving our mind clear instructions at the start of our meditation. When I tried it before, it really did not have much of an effect. But as the mind has gained a bit more clarity and mindfulness, the technique is starting to work. So now I use a modified version of Ajahn Brahm's advice.

        Verbalizing the instructions in my mind is not suitable for me. Often, in my case, the same broad categories of thoughts with their accompanying defilements come up again and again. So, at the beginning of the meditation session, I non-verbally give gentle, yet clear instructions to the heart regarding the thoughts I especially need to watch out for and let go of.

        I visualize the type of thoughts to be avoided, familiarize myself with the feeling of raga, tanha, or kilesas behind them, and gently, but resolutely make a note to let them go when they come up in meditation. I notice that now when such unwholesome thoughts and distractions come up, the mind immediately recognizes them and almost automatically lets them go like a piece of burning coal. This practice naturally carries over into daily life as well.

        Then, with disbelief, one recalls the minutes (or hours!) of getting lost in thoughts and fantasies, wondering (as you note), what was so fascinating about them and how we got duped into it (once again). However, with constant reflection, the heart and mind start to turn away from traveling down these dead-end valleys again. The mind becomes a bit more comfortable with dying a little ... Otherwise, the deeper contentment that begins to settle into the heart as practice picks up is an easily lost pearl.

        When the mind reaches a degree of stillness, one also begins to see why even sensory contact itself can be a thorn, along with other thorns to deeper states of meditation (AN 10.72, Kantakasutta).

        I find it beneficial to sit for longer sessions starting with early morning and throughout the day. It gives more time for the mind to get into the rhythm of things and settle down. So sleeping and getting up early is helpful. Nothing is to be forced, though. These things happen naturally as Ajahn Brahmali often reminds us during his Sutta Study classes which I listen to every night.

        I appreciate the resource by Ashin U Tejaniya you have suggested which I'm perusing through.

        I also try to remember that our practice is, as you say, for the benefit of all beings.

        I'll leave it here for now. I don't want to give you a lengthy article to read. Thank you again for your time and wonderful insights.

        With metta.


        • #5
          Dear Haca Ce, I invited a friend of mine to also share her experience of this year's retreat.

          She says:

          'Rains Retreat time is a wonderful time for practising meditation. With hardly any work we have more time to focus our mind on meditating and also feeling less tired, we can be more alert mentally.

          Sitting longer is a very good way of improving oneself. Also, I maintain mindfulness (i.e. sati-sampajanna) even when not in formal sitting. That is, attention on the body, whatever it is doing - whether we are dressing, eating, going to sleep, walking…so we try to keep our mind on all the actions of the body. Then the mind does not go into other directions like worry, restlessness etc.
          If we continue this way, ‘ardently’ – then when we sit down to meditate it goes into focus much quicker. Having joy, the mind just leaps onto the meditation object. So, if the meditation is going well, don’t just stop – continue on!

          From reading your post, your practice seems to be going very well, and so your method must be working for you!

          Wishing you every success in your practice.

          With metta,
          Ven Upekkha’s friend'


          • #6
            Hello Venerables,

            Thank you for taking the time to read my post and replying. I appreciate your meaningful words which highlight the continuity of practice, to stay on the Path and let the momentum of practice carry us.

            Reminds me of a quote I once read by Ajahn Jayasaro: "The only mistake Buddhists make in their practice . . . is to stop practicing."

            With metta.


            • #7
              Dear Haca Ce,

              I had been meaning to say (but here in the monastery, we are very slow to get on the internet), thank you also for sharing your insights. It is heart-warming to know that there are such dedicated practitioners around the globe. Perhaps together we will have an effect on the well-being of the world.

              With metta,
              Ven Upekkha


              • #8
                Hello Venerable,

                Thank you for your kind words. I also find it heart-warming to know that there are still devoted practitioners who live the life of forest renunciants in the footsteps of the Buddha and early Sangha.

                For whatever reason, the Dhamma, which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end, came into my life. As some traditions say, we don't choose the Path. The Path chooses us.

                Hence, I have gravitated towards a reclusive life that is much closer to a forest monastic lifestyle than an average layman's way of life.

                It's the least I can do, to put all my heart into practicing the Dhamma which the Buddha compassionately taught for the welfare of all sentient beings, seeing that there were at least some beings with little dust in their eyes. For that, I am grateful.

                May we stay steadfast on the Path till the end.

                With metta.
                Last edited by Haca Ce; 17th-November-2020, 08:44 PM.



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