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Apr 20
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Why Go on Retreat?

Lama Tsultrim in retreatCOLUMN: Radical Compassion

Shambhala Times Exclusive Interview with Lama Tsultrim Allione

  • conducted by Cameron Wenaus of retreat.guru and Sarah Lipton, Editor-in-Chief of the Shambhala Times
  • transcribed by Emma Sartwell, Shambhala Times Volunteer
    written by Christopher Schuman, Shambhala Times Intern
  • Going on a retreat is often a large part of our spiritual practice. However, as a society we are caught up in speed and materialism, and retreat seems unfeasible. This, of course, does not mean we should not do it.

    Lama Tsultrim Allione is very dedicated to the importance of the retreat, and we sat down with her over Skype to learn more about its importance. “I do really emphasize retreat, whether it’s a group retreat or solitary retreat, but I’ll speak to solitary retreat because I think that’s something that’s not done so much, and it is such a powerful experience.”

    At first removing ourselves from our social network and the internet is a difficult concept. As a species, humanity is dependent on human interaction. “To torture people, they put them in solitary confinement, so why do it? Well, because so much of our needs and desires are based on connection with other human beings, even negative connection is better than nothing.” The practice of retreat has been part of the Buddhist tradition from the very beginning, and, Lama Tsultrim says, it certainly was always very prominent in the Tibetan tradition.

    This makes it seem more harmful than beneficial, so why go on retreat? Lama Tsultrim understood the difficulty of this question. “The question is why, why would you do that? Well, the quiet that you can find in retreat is something really unique, and then you can really see how much noise you’re making [laughter]. Actually the problem is not out there – it’s inside. But in retreat our practice and our confrontation with ourselves is so intense.”

    “The other thing that happens in retreat,” she says, “is anything that you haven’t looked at comes up. You don’t have any distractions, so it’s like placing yourself in a very pure container in which your own mind becomes very clear.” Whether it’s positive or difficult, you “see where you are,” she says. In terms of practice, because of the isolation and the quiet, “you’re able to go much deeper in your practice than you would, say, in a group situation or your one hour of meditation in the morning before you run off to work.” Retreat becomes truly helpful because it allows us to remove ourselves from these distractions, distractions that have practically become addictions, and truly understand who we are, without the bustle of a routine day.

    “You can sit for hours, nobody’s going to stop you, and when you get up, there’s nobody there to distract you. So creating the continuity between meditation and post-meditation experience is much easier in retreat.”

    It really comes down to learning – learning about ourselves, and creating the conditions to do so. “Whenever you’re trying to do anything, whenever you’re trying to learn something, you put yourself in the most ideal situation possible to learn that. If you’re learning to ride a bicycle,” Lama Tsultrim says, “you go onto a flat, very wide road, where you’re not going to fall off the edge, and then you try to learn. Then after a while you can take it up mountains or into more difficult situations. Retreat is an ideal situation, and one in which you can go much deeper than in ordinary life.”

    Just hearing of Lama Tsultrim’s own retreat experiences was inspiring, providing understanding of the healing situation the retreat provides. “I did a year-long solitary retreat in 2001-2002, and I was very exhausted when I went in. I was sick with chronic lung issues, and because I wasn’t talking, I was able to rest deeply in retreat because I didn’t have other things demanding my attention. My body healed and my energy was able to restore itself in a way that really I can’t think of any other way it could have happened.”

    This understanding of the need for retreat was the root of the founding of the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. “When I was a nun in the early 1970s and living in the Himalayas, all the lamas that I knew had done lengthy retreats, and so when I came back to America in late 1972, and I met Trungpa Rinpoche again, I told him I had this idea to make a retreat center in America where people could go to the depths of meditation that they had in Tibet. We actually joined forces to do that, and did fundraising with Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass tours, which was then used to pay for the what’s now the Shambhala Mountain Center, what used to be Rocky Mountain Dharma Center.”

    So go, go on retreat. See what it’s like for yourself. Lama Tsultrim’s center in southwest Colorado, Tara Mandala, has many beautiful cabins with vast views and profound silence.

    Read more articles in the Radical Compassion column by clicking here.

    Lama TsultrimLama Tsultrim Allione
    first traveled to India and Nepal in 1967, met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1969 at Samye Ling and in 1970 she became one of the first American women to be ordained as a Tibetan nun. She was given her vows by the Karmapa, from the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, who gave her the name Karma Tsultrim Chodron. Allione gave back her monastic vows four years later and married. She has given birth to four children, one of whom died from sudden infant death syndrome. Tsultrim Allione continued her studies and Buddhist practice, which led to the 1984 publication of her book Women of Wisdom, a collection of the stories of six Tibetan Buddhist emanations of Machig Labdron (founder of the Chod practice). In 1993, with her husband, David Petit, Tsultrim Allione founded Tara Mandala, a retreat center in southern Colorado, in the United States. In 2008 Tsultrim Allione’s book Feeding Your Demons was published, an approach based on the Chöd lineage of Machig Labdrön that Allione has practiced since 1973. As well as offering retreats at Tara Mandala, Allione regularly teaches in the United States and in Europe.

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    2 responses to “ Why Go on Retreat? ”
    1. Christina Müller
      Apr 20, 2015

      Thank you so much everybody for this wonderful re-inspiration

    2. Wonderful interview.

      I have always liked Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s description of the reasons for retreat (from Vajra Heart):

      “Students sometimes wonder about staying in retreat and I tell them that the Dharma cannot be practiced properly amidst the many distractions of business, the pursuit of necessities and the noise of the world. To go up to the mountains for retreat is to turm from these diversions. Then, if one can keep some discipline: remaining in solitude, barring outsiders from visiting and not going out oneself, there will be no distractions other than those of one’s own mind. External distractions have been eliminated. That is the purpose of seclusion.

      When distractions have been abandoned one can exert oneself in the practice. Through proper exertion in meditation it is possible to destroy confusion. When confusion falls away, enlightenment is attained. That is the whole reason for retreat (laughs).”

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