Retreat Advice

“Advice on Retreat”

By Melissa Robinson, former director of Dorje Kyung Dzong Retreat Center for 16 years

“Retreat is a time to think a lot, and a time to abandon a lot of thoughts.” -Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

Solitary retreat remains one of our most poignant practice experiences.  To retreat means to abandon our usual routine and enter into a world of simplicity, focused meditation practice and inspired contemplation.  While solitary retreats are recommended for those truly seeking realization, even those just exploring the spiritual path will find retreat practice valuable.

These days the boundary between the secular world and the religious is melting. Most people go on retreat to deepen not only their appreciation for practice, but also to nurture themselves.  Usually you leave retreat feeling refreshed and renewed and you bring that inspiration into your life and relationships.

Teachers, past and present, have given advice on retreat based on years of personal experience and observation.  In reading some of these treatises, a few consistent themes arise.


“Put worldly concerns behind you. Enter retreat with the sincere intention to attain unsurpassable great enlightenment.” -From Jamgon Kongtrul’s Retreat Manual

Before embarking on any retreat, you should know why you are going and what you hope to accomplish.  For most serious Buddhist practitioners, retreat is the means to attain liberation.  Equipped with the detailed instruction for specific practices, they go on retreat to attain enlightenment, and many people plan long retreats for that express purpose.  For most of us though, our early retreats are envisioned as a time to develop a deeper appreciation of our current practice, or sometimes to get started on a new one.  Other times we might seek to accomplish a specific number of mantras or to complete a retreat cycle such as Chakrasamvara or Vajrakilaya.


A group practice program, such as dathun (month long group retreat), or sesshin (Zen style group retreat), is an excellent way to prepare for a solitary retreat.  During group programs you will gain experience with extended periods of sitting practice and receive a full measure of meditation instruction.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche emphasizes that one should go on retreat when things are relatively smooth.  It is not a time to figure out what you are going to do next with your life or while ending a difficult relationship. The purpose of retreat is to deepen your relationship with your practice.  To do so you must be able to settle in and not be distracted by (too many) worldly concerns.

Before leaving for retreat you should meet with your teacher, meditation instructor, or another senior practitioner who regularly does retreats, and get guidelines from them. If you do not have a regular routine of practice and study, it would be good to establish one a few weeks ahead of the retreat.  Learn all the rituals so you can do them with confidence.  Often people go on retreat, which they feel is a precious time, and have to spend half of it just relearning their practice. Be prepared!

Gather the food, clothing, bedding and other items you will need for retreat at least a week or so before traveling.  Enter retreat feeling prepared, not frazzled by last minute preparations.   Keep it simple.
“Whatever the yogi has is enough.” – HE Dudjom Rinpoche.


It is best to do your retreat at a center that is designed for that purpose and has the support you will need.   If you cannot travel to a center then the ideal environment for retreat is secluded, quiet, and safe and where you can meet your basic needs for food, practice and rest.  Although somewhat isolated, you should have someone nearby who can deliver supplies and render assistance if needed.   It should be comfortable yet simple.  While many people feel it would be romantic to do a retreat in a cave in Asia, how many of us could really withstand the hardships?   Be realistic.

Between highlands and lowlands
There are no human footprints,
Which makes this sacred ground for enlightenment.”  -Jetsun Milarepa (Red Rock Agate Mtn. Garuda Fortress).



photo by M. Robinson

Consult your teacher for advice on how many sessions of practice to do each day. Most teachers recommend that you spend part or all of the first day preparing your cabin and getting used to being in retreat before beginning an eight to ten hour daily routine of practice. Newer practitioners might want to start out with fewer hours and add more after a few days.

Unlike group retreats where meal planning, preparation and clean-up are arranged, on retreat you have to do all these yourself.  Leave enough time to do these things properly and enjoyably.  They are part of the retreat experience.

As for conduct on retreat, be honest with yourself, and do not set up unattainable goals.  Define your retreat boundaries both in terms of the physical situation and your needs and then stick to them.  Avoid contact with others, but seek out help if needed.  Do not go on a radical diet, or give up smoking, or caffeine on retreat.  To do so might add unnecessary anxiety.


Jigme Lingpa, the eighteenth century Dzogchen master, advises that on retreat one should never break one’s commitment.  For that reason, you should plan the length of your retreat carefully.  It is better to schedule a shorter retreat first and then come back for a longer time, than to do a long retreat and find halfway through that you cannot complete it.  Jigme Lingpa goes on to say that one should “take the correct amount of food, balance the length of time you sleep and keep awareness keen.”


photo by M. Robinson

Your attitude on retreat should be like Shamatha meditation instructions: Not too tight, not too loose. Work with your practice discipline diligently, but be kind to yourself. If you find you are having great difficulties it is better to seek out advice from the Retreat Masters than to be stoic and try to tough it out.


Difficulties do arise on retreat.  Reading the Life of the Buddha, Milarepa, or other well known retreatants can be helpful.  They had the same problems we do with fear and resistance.  In talking about Milarepa’s retreat obstacles, the Vidyadhara said that his fear on retreat was a sign of loneliness.  He craved company and conjured up fear as a companion.  Most of us are used to having all kinds of distractions such as cell phones, computers and endless errands.  How often are we totally alone?  Do not be discouraged if you find you are feeling frightened or lonely.  Here again is where a group practice program can be helpful.  When similar issues arise there you will have the opportunity to discuss them and develop a familiarity in working with them.

For some people, it takes time to get comfortable on retreat.  Before his enlightenment, the Buddha felt troubled about leaving his kingdom and young family.  For Milarepa it was a dream of his mother’s death that disturbed his stability.  If these great practitioners faced these challenges and eventually overcame them, we can call on their example for strength and support.  Recalling their experiences by reading a book or listening to a seminar can be heartening.  If they faced these challenges and attained enlightenment, we can follow their example.

Retreat can be delightful too.  Not only can you make progress in your practice and have true insights arise, but also real confidence can develop from just learning to make a fire or by chopping wood.  These experiences should not be minimized; they are part of the retreat too.

Then there is magic on retreat!  Having a remarkable insight, seeing your visualization appear on the mountain, or hearing the songs of the coyotes in the same melody of your mantra—everyone has a story to tell.

“In this sacred ground of solitary retreat,
I, Milarepa, keep to my practice.” -Jetsun Milarepa


Just as it is suggested that you prepare for retreat a week or more in advance, it is also important to continue your practice when you get home.  Do not cling to the experience of relaxation and clarity you developed on retreat, but work with it by establishing some continuity in your daily life.  After retreat, even short periods of practice or study will feel rewarding.  Review your retreat experience with your teacher or advisor and decide how you might continue investigating that in your life.  For instance, you might feel the desire to study more after retreat.  Intensive practice often raises as many questions as it answers.  While you are still inspired, schedule your next retreat.

“The original intention of Buddhism was to place importance on the attainment of nirvana in this present life.” –MasterYin Shun, Rightview Quarterly, Fall 2007