Finding Refuge in Retreat
Retreat is a time-honored tradition on the Dhamma path, a way of life that consists of meditating and learning how to contemplate the Four Noble Truths in a way that is sufficient to the task of overcoming the first truth, dukkha (discontent). I can remember my first retreat, taken shortly after discovering the Buddha’s teachings in 1998. Thirty days of silence, sitting all day and into the evening on a small cushion, then pushing the cushion off to the side and rolling out a foam pad to sleep at night. In the morning I would roll up my sleeping pad, swap it out for my meditation cushion again, and begin to follow the same schedule as the day before. I quickly learned there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do besides sitting and walking meditation, with the exception of brief forays to the dining area for food. It wasn’t easy, but the simplicity, predictable routine, and rhythm began to connect me to something I longed for, yet could not name. It would be many years before I fully understood how form and structure were both a mirror and an ally, helping me to see myself and my habits more clearly.
Though the basic structure of retreat eventually appealed to me, as someone who was new to this type of practice, my mind kept imagining other things I might do. While I sought a clear understanding of the Dhamma, as well as peace, my mind occupied itself with habits that prevented both. I saw for the first time how habituated my thinking was, and also that I had a certain way of approaching everything I did that added a layer of difficulty that was both problematic and unnecessary: I tried too hard, pushed at life rather than embracing it, and as a result, my mind and body were both contracted. Reflecting on that first retreat, it is possible that I might have left early had it not been for the other meditators who sat beside me, day after day, and for the generosity and kindness of the teachers, particularly one nun from Canada who seemed to be looking out for me.
That first retreat didn’t free me, yet it offered a direct experience of the obstacles to my freedom—they were right in front of me nearly every moment. I could not deny, repress, or ignore what I was seeing and therefore learning. That same retreat offered moments of remarkable stillness and quietude, experiences I had already become familiar with through my practice, though on retreat they were more substantive. If I had not, prior to retreat, felt as if I had stepped fully onto the path of Dhamma, I certainly had now—retreat put me so much closer to my own mind compared to anything I had previously experienced, and in so doing offered me a visceral relationship to a practice tradition thousands of years old, while putting me in touch with the “here and now” in a manner that seemed to me to be inseparable from retreat life. I fell in love with retreat, and was overcome with feelings of gratitude, despite my discomfort. But really I wasn’t falling in love with something outside myself, but rather, I was starting to develop a friendliness with myself, with my own mind. Retreat left me with a much clearer impression of what was meant by the word practice, along with a pivotal understanding and confidence: meditation works, and retreat amplifies and substantiates how it works—the cultivation of mind is supported by certain factors that are naturally fortified on retreat.
Historically, aspirants on the Dhamma path took refuge in the Triple Gem—Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. Some students still take refuge today, either by way of ceremony or a less formal dedication. If a refuge is a sanctuary or place of safety, a commitment to the Triple Gem can be considered a form of protection.
On retreat the notion of taking refuge becomes less cerebral and more felt, as if we entered into something that had previously been a mere mental impression. On retreat taking refuge is less an idea than it is something we do and experience. It has a reciprocal quality to it; our investment in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha yields certain fruits that we benefit from directly and personally.
Taking refuge in the Buddha is to recognize that our awakening occurs in the context of a stream of teachings handed down from generation to generation, teacher to student. This has transpired since the time of the Buddha. There is proven practicality in that history, as well as momentum—we can enter into retreat and submerge ourselves in a stream of practice that has been replicated and strengthened for thousands of years. When we come to understand this, we can leave our worldly expertise at home, and come forward in relationship to the teacher and to the whole tradition of practice with a type of humility that renders the mind more open, pliant, and favorable to insight, to seeing things differently than we ever have before.
Ultimately, however, the act of taking refuge in the Buddha—which means one who is awake—is to turn the mind towards one’s own potential to awaken. Knowing this, a well-trained and kind teacher recognizes the student as a peer, despite certain differences that might exist due to the teacher’s longer exposure to the Dhamma. Unlike when we visit our local Dhamma center for a few hours in the midst of a busy week, while on retreat we elect to reside at the retreat center, and in turn, the teacher makes a 24-hour-a-day commitment to the sangha, and to each student. So the teacher(s) and students are in it together full-time, sitting, walking, and contemplating the teachings. The teacher makes this commitment wholeheartedly, to live and practice every day in sangha, alongside the students. They leave their family and the comfort of home behind because they believe in something and they wish for the student to have access to the same confidence in the Dhamma that they have. When the student recognizes this generosity in the teacher, it can uplift their practice. Transmission is very natural and effortless under the right conditions.
To take refuge in the Dhamma is to more fully rely on the teachings of the Buddha. Retreat is a precious opportunity to focus our attention on one thing—Dhamma practice and how it frees us from dukkha. On retreat we are exempt from other duties and obligations: there is no email, no television shows, no social media, no laundry, no work responsibilities, no people looking to us for their own needs. Someone else even cooks meals on our behalf, so that we can focus on our practice. Eventually we come to realize, with enough experience, that this is both a gift and a joy.
In 2009 I was nearing the end of a three-month retreat in Myanmar and was overcome by a sense of wanting to give back to the monastery and to the people who had taken care of me while I practiced every day and night. One afternoon when this feeling was very strong I passed by an elder monk who was sweeping the hallway that led to both his room and mine. Countless times I had walked by him during those months, vaguely aware that he was cleaning. Until this moment I had been so focused on the movement of my own feet, following a strict Mahasi style of practice, it was as if the man was hardly there. However, on this day I instinctually picked up another broom, glad to help, and started sweeping. The old monk immediately came over, and without speaking, took the broom and looked at me with kind eyes (he didn’t speak any English). I had been at the monastery long enough to know what he meant. His job was to sweep, my job was to meditate.
From a certain perspective, retreat provides a unique opportunity to put many of our long-standing views aside, views about who we are and how the world works. Retreat becomes a container, and inside that container we take refuge in the Dhamma, leaving—at least in principle—our accumulation of more coarse concepts and ideas outside the container. While on retreat, the Dhamma is all we need, and the simplicity of that way of life can be hugely refreshing, a relief actually. On retreat you don’t rely on your knowledge of spreadsheets, technology, engineering, carpentry, or even psychology. Most of what you have learned and relied upon, you put aside when you go into retreat, you take a break from it, and in so doing, the self who is identified with—and by—those things, has fewer reference points, and so the whole container is more spacious, less bound by what you think you know. Once you do that, you stand a chance of seeing the truth, the way things are. Despite how subtle the Dhamma can be, it unfolds quite naturally, particularly on retreat. When we take refuge, we choose to apply and explore a new view, which is that there is much to be learned in surrendering to the powerful stream of Dhamma.
To take refuge in the Sangha is to acknowledge that, while solitude helps to quiet and stabilize the mind, our sense of harmony (or lack thereof) with others shows us how attached we are to our own views and habits. The sangha becomes a mirror, reflecting back to us the things we need to learn in order to mature, both in relationship to ourselves and others.
On retreat we come to a better understanding of what it means to be part of a sangha, a community of like-minded individuals. Imagine sitting with the intention to follow the schedule and participate in the various forms of retreat fortified by your motivation to wake up, and imagine that force magnified by the presence of twenty or thirty people with the same aspiration. It is palpable, a collective charge—do not squander this life!
Gradually there is a sense of being held by the sangha, being supported by the collective effort made by the other practitioners. We might be tired and want to sleep, and the image of a fellow practitioner doing walking meditation inspires us to keep going. Or we might feel fidgety and want to leave the meditation hall, but when we open our eyes we see someone sitting still, and so we stay, straighten our posture, and return to the breath. Or in the midst of our own practice, we see how strong our conditioning is, and also how impersonal, and yet somehow we suffer from it. We see the universality of kamma, cause and effect, and with that a keen awareness of others’ suffering emerges, often along with a natural compassion. We might wonder where this came from. As the years roll by and we practice more, we eventually come to see the arising of compassion as a force so natural as to be reliable, inseparable from suffering itself.
When we first set out on the Dhamma path, and until our self-awareness has matured, we need the help of others. Taking refuge in the sangha is to reject one’s own ill-fated pride, releasing oneself from the erroneous grip of independence that leaves us alone in the world, and instead relishes in the communal embrace of waking up together.
While the notion of path conveys going somewhere, retreat is about settling in, staying put, and observing one’s mind. It is about learning how to be simple. We don’t need to go anywhere or do anything special to investigate and understand the mind. We can just sit and walk. Retreat helps us to strip away everything that gets in the way of that. We take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and we are protected, mostly from ourselves.
On retreat we can make a total dedication to understanding ourself, how the mind works, and how to be free. Retreat is where, and how, we begin to see the whole of the dharma for what it truly is, and for what it might offer us. The first step is to take refuge in the Triple Gem, and eventually those forms come to expose and highlight inner qualities and capacities that are conducive to the task of seeing dukkha and being free from it. Eventually this leads to ultimate refuge—refuge from avijja (not knowing) and our many unskillful habits. Our own mind becomes the one true refuge.
Buddham saranam gacchāmi – To the Buddha I go for refuge.
Dhammam saranam gacchāmi – To the Dhamma I go for refuge.
Sangham saranam gacchāmi – To the Sangha I go for refuge.
Upcoming Residential Retreats
March 7–11, 2024: Wisdom Pure & Simple, Connecticut
2024–2025: A Year of Refuge: An Immersion in the Triple Gem, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies
Groundlessness and Coronavirus
Life amidst a pandemic is unlike anything we have ever experienced. I’m stating the obvious. You have witnessed this in novel thoughts that pass through your own mind (will the grocery store ever have frozen vegetables again?). You may have noticed physical tension, reverberations of concern in your body, higher than normal stress.
However, many of the mind states and emotions that we are likely to be experiencing right now are not out of the ordinary at all, even if they are dramatically elevated, more chronic, and harder to regulate. The way a health crisis affects us doesn’t necessarily introduce new mental states, but rather brings to the surface states that might not be as prevalent when our environment is more predictable and familiar, but are nonetheless features of our own mind: worry, fear, overthinking, problem-solving, anxiety.
We may have never had the experience of waiting for state or federal government to tell us it’s safe to resume our normal work life, but we may have felt alienated from our work at times of illness, or during a time when we found ourselves between jobs. We may have felt financial stress during a layoff or when an organization we worked for had to cut our hours, or when a project we were involved with got cancelled for some reason. We may never have been forced to reduce our social interactions, but we might know what loneliness feels like when our apartment or home has the eerie empty feeling after a break-up or divorce, when the hum of activity and companionship is replaced with the more spacious silence of aloneness.
Despite how remarkable an event the coronavirus is, the cause of distress during this time is not the unpredictability or lack of familiarity associated with it, but rather something else that is harder to recognize: the fact that we are wired to do everything we can to ensure predictable terms for our own life.
Our habit of avoiding that which is uncertain and unwanted is one of the ways we try to keep ourselves safe; this sometimes (though rarely) works in our favor. It’s also one of the ways we seek happiness and spiritual liberation; this never works in our favor. If meditation practice has not revealed fully that we cannot control the world around us, the world offers us this lesson in the form of a global pandemic.
Right now, in particular, all bets are off in terms of predictability and familiarity. Personally, I don’t know if I will have a place to live, because the house I rent has sold, and the local fire department will not enter the house I am moving to in order to satisfy the inspection requirements for an occupancy permit. My barber pointed out recently that “people are at home and suddenly realize that they have a whole family there,” implying that many of us are not used to being at home all day with our family, and how finding new rhythms that work for everyone can be challenging. Even for those who choose to live alone, they may not be used to the level of detachment caused by social distancing. For those who enjoy living alone, their ability to do so is often made possible by how they balance solitude with forms of social connection that are likely no longer available.
There is the six-foot shuffle happening everywhere in public spaces, the semi-gracious slide across the grocery store aisle to get as far from others as possible. It’s happening in parks too and on the sidewalk. We all share in common an inability to resume activities that bring us closer together with others, and the odd feeling that leaves in our bodies, an imprint of separation. So strange it is to withhold something dear to us.
A more distressing scenario might have you wondering if aging parents or relatives will survive if they become infected. You may have thought about how difficult it would be if someone you loved were to become sick and you were not allowed to visit them in the hospital.
When this is over, we might look back on the time that we devised a system for dealing with incoming mail: bring packages in the house, wash hands, leave packages on floor for 24 hours before opening. Most of us have never lived in such a time, with such a unique set of conditions, all of which work together to completely strip us of any sense of normalcy.
There is a groundlessness that surrounds us, and which fills us in any moment that we allow ourselves to grasp the truth that we do not have any control. Groundlessness is often more obvious in times of crises. Groundlessness reveals itself when we don’t try to close the gap between known and unknown, don’t try to fix what appears out of place. We are returned to a state of groundlessness when we resolve to feel a thing we are avoiding because we have come to terms with the fact that it is bigger than us, more complex. Sometimes we understand that we don’t have the authority, the power, the capacity, to change conditions outside of ourselves. This is not because we are flawed, but rather because the causes and conditions that make up any given moment in time are so complex that both their comprehension and control evade us.
The universe is fundamentally unpredictable. By this I do not mean that the world itself is flawed or even unsafe (though sometimes it is), but rather simply that things are not what they seem. We fight against groundlessness because we believe in permanence, the idea that we can contort our world, other people, our environment, and even our own mind into behaving in a way that conforms to our preferences. This view is accompanied by a parallel illusion, the idea that once we get the world, other people, our environment, and our own mind to do what we want, that we will somehow be able to keep it that way, lock it down. This approach—which amounts to willing ourselves into a better version of ourselves—is upheld by a superficial notion of mastery, so pervasive in our culture that we hardly recognize its existence, let alone question it. This better version of ourselves will somehow do a better job of controlling the world. When this happens, rather when we make this happen, we will be both happier and safer.
From this point of view, so much of our behavior is based on the idea that we are trying to get somewhere and we are in the driver’s seat; once we arrive, we will finally be happy, happy forever, with no interruption. The “place” we are trying to arrive at is one of full control, a place defined by having commanded our affairs to align with whatever new fabrication of contentment we have conjured up. To accomplish this, nothing must get in our way.
In the strange case of a pandemic, we are no less subject to this habit; in fact, we may be seduced even more by it. Even if we have temporarily released our attachment to social fulfillment, happiness derived at the gym, the party, the movies, the work meeting, we might find that we are still trying to outsmart a fast-moving virus that has touched down in almost every country in the world and intercepted people at every stage of life. It is the same mechanism that seeks conventional happiness that now turns itself toward feeling safer, more in control. We crave something concrete: When will it end? Where will I get groceries? Will I get sick? When can I go back to work, visit my family, read my book at the coffee shop? We want answers, answers to wield against the next obstacle the disease presents. Knowledge is power, right, or at the very least, a little more comfort?
The pandemic’s reach exceeds inconvenience, serving a larger role of rendering us very suspicious of our own ineptitude. We are small. Reality cannot be bent. It is solid, not even a little malleable.
The coronavirus is playing the role of shattering our delusion. It is waking us up. It is the Dharma right before our eyes. It doesn’t wear robes. It doesn’t sit on a meditation cushion. It rings no melodious bells.
If I am at all correct, and the coronavirus puts us in touch with a sense of groundlessness, it is a proxy for wisdom. Groundlessness is the largest truth we come to through years of dedicated meditation practice. Groundlessness is inseparable from the deepest wisdom that reveals how suffering is created and alleviated.
What we learn through meditation practice, when all the variations of behavior are distilled into one recurring theme, is that we are consumed with trying to avoid the groundlessness of life, and what we miss out on as a result of this conditioning, is the experience of real freedom.
We grasp for what we want but don’t have.
We push away what is before us that we don’t like.
In both cases we are not present to the truth. We are missing life entirely, living in hope, fear, and expectation, rather than something more immediate, more visceral. In the Dīgha Nikāya, as elsewhere in the suttas, we are reminded that groundlessness is the only permanent thing in a changing world. The detachment taught by the Buddha is one which allows to marvel at the world even as our control of it slips away before us.
Impermanent truly are compound things,
by nature arising and passing away.
If they arise and are extinguished,
their eradication brings happiness.
When we are truly in touch with the groundlessness that is now before us—the felt sense of it, not the idea—then there is nothing to gain or lose. Predictability relinquished, everything is already lost. And in that loss, life has taken on a fullness that is greater than anything our grasping has ever afforded us. The effort to control our environment having subsided temporarily, it has taken with it the conceptual boundaries that leave us susceptible to attack from something outside ourselves. The Dharma calls this anatta, not self. It is the highest freedom.
Lanesville, Gloucester, MA
March 26, 2020
At the heart of yoga and Buddhist meditation lies an invitation that appears as impossible as it is compelling – to realize our true nature, or true Self as a human being. The perennial question – Who am I? – may very well be the master koan of contemplative practice: it’s resolve the ultimate goal, its elusiveness ensuring a life-long path of self-inquiry.
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