From ancient times to the present, seekers of truth have felt the call to dwell in mountain silences, to live in the hush and shadows of the forests or even to go to the deserts where nature is shorn of all excess, to get away from the throng and maddening crowd, and discover an invincible peace. A retreat has been seen as an ideal situation for the spiritual aspirant to work intensively on himself or herself.
In my own case I have spent some years in various types of Buddhist retreats from the Theravada Vipassana, the retreats of the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, to solitary retreats where one is immersed in total darkness for a period.
Generally, Buddhist retreats are informed by a particular view or perspective and contain specific structures and daily regimens of practice. In some, the structure is very demanding, involving silence, restricted diet and long hours of practice. The structure is a kind of alchemical container in which the work takes place. Often, the initial experience is not of peace or wellbeing but of the onslaught of thought when the contents of the psyche in all their glorious contradictions are revealed to the conscious mind. To use the alchemical image—there is a heating of the contents and an experiencing of blackening. The student, in theory, sits through the storm and watches carefully the flux and detritus of consciousness as it displays itself and disappears in a seemingly endless stream.
In the Vipassana, for example, there is a strict daily programme of sitting and walking meditation. There is a simple focus on the breath coming and going and the cultivation of mindfulness, which means the mind is with whatever it is experiencing in the present. The aim is to see directly that all things, including the body, mind and the outer world are impermanent (Pali, annica), no self (annata) and suffering (dukha). The word dukha refers to a whole range of experiences, from a kind of underlying existential angst to the most palpable aspects of both physical and psychological suffering. This insight, in principle, can release the mind from the grasping and the craving, which were taught by the Buddha as the causes of suffering.
In the three-year Vajrayana retreat one follows a kind of curriculum of practices. These have specific aims and operate in the field of the known. Basically, there is an attempt to purify the body-mind complex and to deconstruct our habitual notions of who we are and what reality is. It is important in this endeavour to examine motive, to loosen the knots of selfcentredness and to develop a concern for all living creatures. This is seen as essential groundwork for liberating insight to arise. By liberating insight I mean a direct perception of the mind as being empty in nature. I will return to this later. These retreats presume acquaintance with the main Buddhist teachings on the nature of suffering, emptiness and primordial wisdom.
In the solitary dark retreat there is no technique, although one may get a simple instruction. There is no support or structure apart from the period of retreat, which could be anything from a few days to forty-nine. Since one is immersed in pitch darkness it is not possible to know the time. So, one may not know whether it is day or night. One may experience time as incredibly slow or fast or non-existent. The emphasis is on awareness, free of any object. All methods are seen as fabricated, useful up to a point, but in themselves binding. This kind of retreat has its dangers and can bring up the most fundamental fears, such as the fear of annihilation, of not being. Attention is directed to the nature of the mind. The mind being the root of all problems, when the root is cut, there is liberation. This metaphor is used in the tradition. Its meaning is that when there is a direct perception into the nature of one’s mind, the source of all problems is cut through. We could say the self or thought is abolished, or that the mind is revealed as emptiness. Meditation in this context is unfabricated, resting within the space of awareness. Although these words imply a subject resting, in fact there is none. Awareness is centreless.
I have led various retreats or, as I prefer to say, co-created these with the participants. Retreats now attract a range of people with a variety of backgrounds and interests. Some are Buddhists, others are interested in meditation as a way to solve or answer their questions and problems. There is also the image of the meditator as someone at peace, dwelling in some kind of blissful state of absorption. This is an illusion, of course. In the past few years, although maintaining some features of the traditional retreat, such as sitting meditation, I have tried to frame retreats as part of the natural inquiry into living rather than practising with an aim. We have dialogues and a different approach in terms of tradition—for instance, instead of passively studying a text we examine and inquire into it. I feel that only in an atmosphere of freedom can any seeing and flowering happen. The strict containers may have their point in certain contexts, such as in the three-year retreat. The result, however, can be further contraction in the body-mind and a hardening of will. Thus, you have the ambitious meditator seeking more and more experiences, which lead not to liberation, but to further entanglement in thought, and a spiritualized ego.
The problem with methods and structures is well articulated by Krishnamurti, who dismisses all of these as themselves constructs of thought and therefore unable to move a person beyond conditioning. They give continuity to conditioning and create new forms of imprisonment. He also questions the motive for such things, stating that where there is motive, there is distortion.
In relation to retreats Krishnamurti states:
I think it is essential sometimes to go on retreat, to stop everything that you have been doing, to stop your beliefs and experiences completely, and look at them anew, not keep on repeating like a machine whether you believe or do not believe. You would then let fresh air into your mind. That means that you must be insecure, must you not? If you can do so, you would be open to the mysteries of nature and to things that are whispering about us, which you would not otherwise reach; you would reach the God that is waiting to come, the truth that cannot be invited but comes itself.
Thus, approaching a retreat in the context of Krishnamurti’s teaching is subtle and demanding in a way that is not obvious. Can one have a retreat without any structure? Can such a retreat happen without degenerating into distraction and endless talk? Can one have a retreat where the very first step is freedom? Or, is it, as traditions say, that one needs structure, one needs guidance, otherwise the participants may just follow their own particular proclivities and the deeper layers of conditioning are left under the carpet?
A few years ago we attempted such retreats at the Rajghat Besant School. There was minimum structure. We chose a theme, decided certain parameters. The parameters were a period of sitting quietly in the morning and evening as well as a time for dialogue. There was complete freedom to come or go. We did not watch any videos. It was very simple. We agreed to carry the inquiry and inward dialogue throughout the day.
On one occasion we used the following as a pointer:
We often live with a sense of tremendous speed propelled towards a vague future in the company of the twin terrors: hope and fear. Life seems always to lie in that future. We miss completely the in-dwelling life and the life around us and live in the realm of thought and projection. Thus the greater background, the space of awareness and the mystery and depth of being-in-itself is obliterated by the hard speed of thought and habit. W hat does it mean to be fully present in our living? Is it possible to be present to the world around us; to the wind in the trees, the bird in the air, the woman sweeping the floor and the man at the gate, to beauty and sorrow? Is it possible to be present to the internal world of thought and feeling and of speech, action and reaction? And going further, what is presence in itself, free of any object, presence without becoming?
Although it is difficult to pin down exactly what was taking place, there certainly was a movement of listening and watching, both outwardly and inwardly, and a gathering of energy. Watching in the quiet darkness of the morning, seeing the light grow and the shadows draw back as the sun rose. Seeing the silver and gold on the waters of the Ganga. Hearing the rustle of the leaves in the morning breeze. Watching the boatmen and the delicate white birds and the shadows moving over the waters. Noticing all the details of everyday life coming into clear view as in a mirror. Inwardly, one noticed the thoughts, feelings and moods moving and changing like clouds in the sky. Watching the watcher.
At lunch or tea, a question might occur, which we would discuss and examine as part of the ongoing movement of inquiry. In the evening, there was another period of sitting quietly together. There is something lovely about sitting in silence without any kind of compulsion or rules. Afterwards, the dialogue started with a natural silence and from that silence questions emerged. Then, a return to silence.
So, what is a retreat here? We might call it taking time out or stepping out of time. Simply allowing a gap in the hurry, a gap that allows space to emerge, allows stillness to be heard, beyond the word, a gap where thought loses its insistence and the mystery of being and not knowing pervades.
When there is no fixation, no concentration or direction, we may find that the senses relax their grasping quality, their hold on the spontaneous unfolding of being-in-itself. At a certain point, the residues of the past, residues of memory, may emerge and vanish in open awareness. Although this takes place without any effort or structure, it has its own rigour, its own demands, which are not an imposed burden but a quickening and a vital awakening to the whole. The essential point is, as Krishnamurti said, that ‘people bring their own seriousness, interest and enquiry’.
Can such an approach also uncover the deeper currents of conditioning? Can it move from the surface to the depths of being-in-itself? Can it open into the immeasurable? One cannot say yes or no, but leave the question there, as an open door, a welcoming without waiting.