In INSIGHTS by Jason Espada1 Comment

There’s a reason people go on retreat.

When I hear best selling authors saying that we don’t need to step back from our everyday life in order to gain the advantages of meditation, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Really, I do.  A few of their points are sound, that what is found in time apart is also available here, and that ultimately we need to bring the practice home, and I give them credit for saying this much.  But when they deny the value of retreat, they go too far. Their message then, at best, is incomplete, and at worst is misleading, and their methods ineffective for their readers. There is a reason people go on retreat, and that is to gain experience that is not easy to have in a busy work and family environment.

As modern Westerners, we place a lot of value on our being educated.  It appeals to our pride to be told that we don’t need anything more than intellectual understanding, but book learning alone, as most teachers tell us, is not enough to free the mind.  We need to understand ourselves in greater depth, and that takes time, and focus, especially in the beginning of practice, but also throughout a person’s life.

People go on retreat because it enables them to have insight, and access to inner resources, of creativity, intelligence and love that they can’t reach as easily at home.  This has proven itself from generation to generation, and in every culture where Buddhism has become established. When on retreat, we ‘dig a channel to the ocean’, so to speak, and then our daily practice is a matter of keeping this channel open, and drawing forth resources we all have available to use in our daily life, relationships, and social work.

The Buddha himself not only continued to practice meditation after his enlightenment, but he also established a tradition of retreat each year for his monks and nuns.  He is recorded as saying that where there is respect for meditation, his doctrine would continue, but when that respect became less, the teachings would fall away.

Which brings me to the main problem I have with modern teachers proposing that we don’t need to step back from our day to day life to get the full benefits of meditation – which is insight and freedom of mind.   From there it’s just a short step to thinking that we don’t need any formal meditation at all to reach the same freedom, peace, and capacity – and that would be a huge mistake.  This is implied in the such sayings as ‘my life is my practice’, and ‘everything I do I am meditating’ – all very hip and zen sounding, isn’t it?  But while this is worthy as a goal, it needs to be complemented with both retreat and daily practice to really mean anything.

The result of not having a deep practice is that our delusions continue unabated.  That transformation is possible by practicing intensively is excluded from such a picture, while people posing as teachers say only that ‘right where you are is your practice place’.  True as it is, it’s a false presentation of the truth. Usually I don’t bother taking the time to write if it’s just to criticize, but the confusion these days about something so basic weighs on my conscience.

Just as there is a reason people go on retreat, there is a reason people have a daily meditation practice.  With it, they can effect transformation on a day to day basis. Just as in Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan medicine, the teachings on meditation have been put to the test in each generation up until now, and what’s of value in our traditions has been passed on to us to verify. 

Connecting with a tradition, we have the benefit of generations of people’s experience of what works to free the mind and heart.  It seems to me that we’d be wise to take advantage of that knowledge, especially when there’s so much agreement on the need for retreat and for maintaining a practice.  This has been the path people have taken for generations.  Of course, it’s true that someone may find a new and better way, but ultimately the result is all that matters.

If we plant a seed of interest, the result will be that we’ll eventually find the time and energy to do what we set our hearts on.  Without that intention as a motivating force, nothing moves.  And this is where the idea that we don’t need to retreat or practice is a harmful one – in that it discourages what most people need to flourish in their spiritual life. It’s hard enough for lay people to find the time for the contemplative dimension without being dissuaded from it by modern authors who show only part of the Way.

As for myself, I will keep on praising those people who make the time to retreat, and to have a daily practice, of any kind.  I celebrate this because I know that with good teachings, and with these elements as a part of a persons life, they will certainly grow and mature on the path.

People practicing and gaining good results for themselves is what keeps the teachings viable. Think about it.  Test these ideas for yourself and then tell others what you find. 

{For a continuation of these thoughts, see the essay ‘There’s a reason people go on long retreats’.}

About the Author
Jason Espada

Jason Espada


Jason Espada is a writer and classical musician living in San Francisco; a steward of his father’s photography, and the founder of These days his focus is on the connection between spirituality and social action. His website. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

Photo provided by the author.

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