By Deborah Brink Wöhrmann
Why is it worth the time and effort to go on retreat?
"Retreat accelerates the opportunity to wake up completely," says Zopa Herron, one of KCC's assistant teachers. "On retreat we step out of our habits, daily routine and rituals of our home—even those we're not aware of. " There is a different schedule, food is provided, "and silence if you're lucky," she says. "You meet your own self in a new way. Retreat makes this possible."
"Retreat allows you to leave problems at home, though we can learn a lot about ourselves when we obsess on what we've left behind. We can see what is our work."
"At every retreat I've been to I've found some gem, some insight into how my mind works. We're not retreating from the world, but from our mental and emotional habit-patterns. As we make some space, we get to see them clearly with compassion. That's where the gems are."
Zopa emphasizes that the texts say we must seek seclusion at least some part of our lives in order to awaken. This alone time can be an hour, a weekend or years. She has had the opportunity to sit the One Year Retreat at SCOL, after having lived for six years at the Sravasti Abbey in Northeast Washington. Altogether, she has lived three years in retreat.
How can one prepare for a successful retreat?
Zopa offers three guiding suggestions for preparing for a successful retreat:
1. Choose with awareness. Consider your own experiences, and check out the teacher to be sure he or she is "authentic"—meaning that you can know who their teachers are and can trace them back to the Buddha.
2. Be kind to those you are leaving behind. Begin early (six months in advance) to prepare them for your departure. Involve them in your plans, answering any questions they might have, and leave clear contact information so they know how to find you in case of an emergency. "Then your mind is more at peace."
3. Take it seriously. Cherish the opportunity. Use time well, yet be relaxed. "The effects of retreat will last. You don't know how or what: Let it unfold," she says.
And, "don't bring your consumer mind to retreat. Don't ask what you're going to get."
How important is the "content" of a retreat? What about a personal retreat?
"Look at your own practice, and look at how you like to encourage yourself in your practice," Zopa says. "Be aware of your experiences. A personal retreat is a higher level of practice and can be of great benefit to someone who has already sat other retreats and has benefited from the guidance of teachers and sanghas." A group retreat provides a teacher's guidance along with a sangha's support.
"The other retreatants are helping you - getting up at 5:00 in the morning is much easier when others are doing it too." She reminds us, "Whoever we hang around we tend to become. We're social beings and copy what people around us are doing."
"When good conditions are set up—schedule, silence—our demons can show up. In group retreat, we get guidance from a teacher and then often can meet with a teacher one-on-one. The beauty of a teacher is that you have a guide and someone who can help you to turn a corner when stuck or confused."
What about cost?
KCC offers scholarships to those unable to pay the full cost of a retreat. Zopa says that, when she could not afford the cost of retreat, she would sometimes send letters to friends, asking for support. In these letters she would explain the benefits of retreat and her reasons for wanting to go. "Most of the people who supported me weren't Buddhist," she recalls.
She encourages people to ask for generosity from friends and family. "Don't think 'I can't go.’ ”
Reminder: KCC is also seeking donations to support the scholarship fund that allows all people interested to attend retreat.
|How One Sangha Member Benefited from the Recent Chenrezig Retreat: An Interview with Cynthia Irvine
By Deborah Brink Wöhrmann
Cynthia Irvine was one of the lucky ones who attended the week-long Chenrezig Retreat in late June—and she did not regret her time at the Ananda Center at Laurelwood. She was not sure what she would learn, "but I hoped to become wiser and better able to remember my true nature."
"I chose this retreat because Chenrezig practice sometimes feels mechanical to me and at other times it opens me to a deep sense of compassion both within myself and from the world. Having previously experienced Bill's teaching, I trusted that he would help me connect to this practice more fully."
Cynthia, a longtime KCC member, says the retreat was both helpful and delightful. "Delightful because it was in a beautiful location with yummy food (I didn't have to cook) and I had hours every day to devote to meditation. Helpful because Bill and Dora both are so experienced and wise."
Though nothing "surprised" her, she was struck by how much time was devoted to shamatha practice. "I think all of us on the retreat felt the strong connection between practicing calm abiding without an object and the ability to visualize and feel the presence of Chenrezig."
Two years ago, Cynthia remembers going backpacking and bringing her scribbled Chenrezig notes with her in order to practice. "After this retreat, I can practice without the text." In fact, she recently did an entire practice while waiting in a parking lot at a strip mall off Interstate-5.
"Bill had a way of weaving Chenrezig into all the meditations we did, and he encouraged us to memorize it so it is portable. Previously I had worried about having all the words perfect, but after the retreat I felt freed up to focus more on the meaning of the text (and doing so, paradoxically, I have now memorized it)," she shares.
The practice of Chenrezig can encompass all senses and the imagination. It is an invitation toward more compassionate being. "Viewing the sounds we hear as Chenrezig's mantra; seeing others as Chenrezig; remembering that I am Chenrezig; all this brings me solace and makes me better able to endure discomforts and be kinder with my actions and words towards others. I am happier, and I hope, those I encounter are too.”
For Cynthia, the practice became immediately beneficial in a very real way. "It was incredibly powerful to do the Chenrezig retreat and to have two friends pass away in the next week... I could see clearly how visualizing Chenrezig and later dissolving that visualization mirrors the process of human birth and death. And having practiced Chenrezig, it made the loss less jarring."