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Buddhadharma : Summer 2011
winter 2005| 66 |buddhadharma primordial and ancient, which is very supportive to a meditation practice.” none of the other teachers I spoke with felt as strongly as milton about the importance of doing solitary retreats in the wilderness (milton believes even meditating in a cabin creates a sub- tle obstacle), but all felt it’s helpful to meditate in an environment surrounded by nature. “some of my happiest moments have been by myself in the woods,” says Goldstein. “The wilderness has a timeless quality; it also helps us be more aware of the immensity of things, especially at night. It’s harder to be quite so neurotic in nature.” spending time in nature can help us come to understand two fundamental truths that we might otherwise forget: the interdependence of all things, and their impermanence. “Like us,” writes Thich nhat hanh in an essay in Dharma Rain, “plants are born, live for a period of time, and then return to the earth.” When we’re in the woods, these facts are harder to ignore. I’ve come to think that one reason my second solitary retreat worked so much better than the first was because of the setting. my first retreat – in a house filled with strong memories and in a suburban neighborhood – was probably in one of the worst places I could have chosen. The most obvious differences between group and solitary retreats come from what happens when there is no teacher to talk to, no fellow prac- titioners around, and no chimes to tell you “time to meditate.” “Whether it’s a solitary or group setting, the value of right understanding and right intention is often overlooked as one of the benefits of doing a retreat,” says Ambrosia. “We could be doing lots of things with our vacation time. Dropping everything in your life to do a retreat is a wise and powerful decision.” In Jamgön Kongtrul’s Retreat Manual, which in the Kagyü and nyingma tradi- tions is considered the guide for the traditional three-year retreat (which upon completion earns one the title of lama, or teacher), Kongtrul advises that to prepare properly for a retreat, we have to make our intention to practice irreversible. naturally, for most new practitioners, this is difficult. “The advantage of a group retreat,” says Ambrosia, “is that most people go to all the sit- tings because they’re embarrassed not to. It’s an ego-based motivation, but it moves them in the right direction.” Once our understanding is clearer and our motivation purer, we no longer need that external pressure. Until then, those who tend to dog it at a group retreat – trying to squeeze the last possible moment from rest time, coming into the dharma hall just before the sitting bell rings, and lingering over yet another cup of tea – are probably not good candidates to head off on their own. making the decision to do a retreat, and stick- ing with it, is that much harder when you’re by yourself. But the payoff is that it builds confidence and strengthens one’s best intentions. “The mere fact that you can do it, adhering to the regime and staying to the end without going crazy or leav- ing, is something in and of itself,” says Dobisz. “Apart from the quality of what happened there, you at least did that and you’re not relying on any authority figure or the group or what other people will think.” In Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, the late Ayya Khema wrote, “The spiritual path is all about let- ting go. There is nothing to achieve or gain.” still, during a group retreat, who hasn’t compared their practice to that of those around them? During my solitary retreat, I was happily free of such think- ing. sitting on your own, it’s easier to drop any notions, conscious or unconscious, of competition or of practicing for some kind of recognition. “When you’re all by yourself, especially for extended periods,” Tenzin Palmo explains, “it gives you the opportunity to completely open and to strip off the layers of false self-identification. In a group, you never actually do that because you’re always maintaining a form. When you’re by yourself, who are you going to put on the mask for? Losing the need to maintain an outer identity gives you a chance to relax on many levels and to really ask and explore the question, who am I?” For some experienced practitioners, a soli- tary retreat also offers a better setting for staying focused. Before settling down, newer practitioners tend to do a fair bit of sighing, shifting, and gener- ally showing their agitation. Of course, this isn’t a problem, and a truly calm mind isn’t disturbed by it. But for most of us, hearing others struggling makes it harder to concentrate and settle down ourselves. During Ambrosia’s two years in the Ims basement, she occasionally joined retreats that gathered above her, but only after the retreat had been going for a few days. Bill Gray, an American expatriate living in new Zealand who’s been practicing for more than a dozen years, prefers solitary retreats at a nearby monastery that provides meditation huts. “Group retreats are distracting,” he explains. he also prefers not to have a set schedule. For most, though, sticking to a meditation schedule is important, even on a solitary retreat. “All you have is your schedule,” says Dobisz. Without it, especially for a shorter retreat, time spent on the cushion is apt to dwindle. Once you find a rhythm on a longer retreat, It’s wise first to do some group retreats and gain confidence in how to practice. Some people thrive in solitary retreats, and some people absolutely freak out. And you can’t know beforehand. — Tenzin Palmo