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May 12
Advice for Doing a COVID Retreat

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

By Shastri Russell Rodgers, in Nelson, B.C., Canada

“Self-isolating” sounds a lot like being on retreat. It could be very boring. But maybe you’ve finally had your fill of Netflix. Maybe there are times in the day when you feel like you are bored and just spinning your wheels.

Fortunately, we Buddhists know how to handle boredom (even if we are just beginning to work on it).  After all, nothing could be more boring than returning to the breath again and again. Trungpa Rinpoche used the term “cool boredom” and incorporated the analogy of a mountain. It just sits there as the weather, the seasons, and forest fires play over it. The essence of our minds is like the mountain. The mountain seems indestructible because it is so massive. Space is massive too. It’s even more indestructible because you couldn’t destroy it with thousands of bull dozers.

Our minds are the space where sensations, thoughts and emotions appear and disappear. It is more formless than the mountain. But that awake space doesn’t change and is unaffected by temporary events.  Its nature is the awareness that is present in both pleasure and pain.

Would you like to experience that space and overcome boredom? Have you ever considered doing a serious meditation retreat at home? Here are some ideas. I want to explore two themes: taming discursive mind and drala/magic.

If you want to do a retreat at your own home, you will need to have clear intention and a strong sense of renunciation. You will be in the midst of reminders of your habitual, normal life.

Five Steps for Doing a Retreat at Home

First: Look at your normal lifestyle and decide what tends to distract you from meditation practice. It could be Netflix, social media, the news, email or novels—things that occupy your time and are not conducive to meditative awareness.  For email and phone, you could change your personal greeting, saying “I’m on retreat and won’t be available until …..”  Then, you make a promise to yourself not to cheat. You might have a sense that others are holding you to your statement just by being aware of it.

Second: Set up a “container”. You could put a nice cloth over your TV and computer. If books and magazines suck you into mindlessness, put them away. Get your groceries ahead of time so that you don’t have to go out in the midst of retreat.  Make a shrine if you don’t have one already. Put it in a place that is free from clutter. Put some reminders of Buddha and the lineage in general: you are not the first person to do this. You will need the inspiration of the lineage to inspire you. Put some water bowls out—you are offering to the space and to mind in general. Tend the shrine daily. Maybe put some flowers on it.

Third: Restrict your reading to dharma-related topics that will complement your practice.  You can read them after meal breaks, work period, and after the last sit.   You may wish to spend part of these breaks reading books that answer your questions about practice, or that simply provide inspiration from the practice lineage.  There may be some dharma books that you have wanted to read for a long time, and now is your chance, as long as it doesn’t function as mere entertainment.

Fourth: Go along with the covid rules and isolate yourself from casual contact with other human beings. Discursiveness is contagious and lasts after the actual contact is over. If you can’t help but engage, remember the concept of “functional talking” that we use in group retreats: only say what is necessary in the practicality of the present situation.

Fifth: Set up a schedule. Typically, at a dathun (month-long) or a week-long program (weekthun) at a major retreat centre, you would sit for an hour before breakfast, then for three hours in the morning, three hours or more hours in the afternoon, and an hour or more in the evening. Total sitting time would be 8-10 hours, not including meals taken in silence in the shrine room. At home, you could also eat mindfully in front of your shrine, especially if meals tend to be a distraction for you. 

How Long?

Decide how many days your retreat will be. One of the key points of doing a retreat by yourself is to form your intention in advance and stick to it. Intention is huge. Be aware that some days will be harder than others. This is normal, and hard days can happen any time during a retreat. It’s not as though a subjective sense of progress will necessarily be a smooth upward trend. It’s more like you are unpacking your mind in layers, and some layers are more difficult than others.

Your meditator-self will sometimes try too hard and be to tight, or you may be too loose and flaky. You may have an ideal meditative state in mind and be impervious to the energy of the day. Your mind may be full of energy and movement that doesn’t fit to your ideal. When the weather is dull outside, you may feel dull. If it is crisp and bright, you may feel full of mental speed. All of these factors can go in to producing a “difficult” day, but it’s really just a failure to relate to your mood and the mood of the day. Sometimes you will need to be looser in order to ride the energy, and sometimes you will need to be a little more disciplined. It’s like riding a horse:  if you are too relaxed and loose, or too tight and rigid, either way you will fall off. It’s about learning to relate to a living situation.

If you leave because one layer is hard, you do not get the benefit of having seen through your issues. Personally, I find that the first three days are among the most difficult. Trungpa initially seemed to suggest that retreats should be at least ten days, otherwise it is more like an “extended nyinthun”.  I haven’t seen a definition of “extended nyinthun”, but my guess is that he was referring to the experience of re-playing events, conversations, and dramas of the past week. Also, it takes a while to get used to a new schedule, new expectations and the extended practice itself.   

Other Dimensions

With an extended retreat, other dimensions begin to open up.  Many people find that the environment becomes magical and powerful—full of presence that we call drala.  For them, the experience of deep, extended retreat draws them back into retreat practice again and again. If your retreat is short, be aware that you will likely be leaving during the hard part. On the other hand, extended nyinthuns are valuable in their own right because they integrate practice and daily life.

If you have done a group retreat like a weekthun or dathun, it will be easier to imagine yourself sitting for hours on end and for days on end. If you haven’t already done a group retreat, and think the schedule is a bit too challenging, you could take this opportunity to establish a habit of sitting at different times during the day. This could be a beneficial habit that carries on after the covid crisis.

In my life, I find it good to do one long practice at the same time every morning, and a couple of shorter ones. I also make it a point to go for a walk with the intention of cultivating present awareness. To someone else, it wouldn’t look like I was doing any formal walking meditation. However, inwardly, I use the sensations of the air, the sounds, sights and smells to wake me up.

Personally, I need the longer morning session to do the heavy lifting of establishing mindfulness and presence. The shorter sessions and the walk enable me to carry that presence into the rest of my day. I put them at times in my life where I feel that I would otherwise be spinning my wheels and wasting time.

Whichever style of practice you choose, I think it’s important to double down in uncertain and troubling times. Many people think of meditation as a defensive measure against stress. If stress continues in the practice, they think that their meditation is failing. This is missing the profound point. The present moment has its own energy. Tuning into that energy is called “lungta”. It is symbolized by the windhorse that you see on prayer flags. The warrior mounts the present moment and the energy carries him or her through obstacles. If you take a strictly defensive attitude, you will likely be disappointed.

Fear is connected with egolessness and vast, open space that arises as we leave the cozy-familiar behind. There’s lots of that around now. You can use your practice to lean into the space with clarity and compassion. This is the warrior approach to meditation.

Russell Rodgers lives in Nelson, a town of 10,000 in the mountains of British Columbia. It is a place of many dralas. He has practiced there since 1975 with a sangha that owns its own building and has about 50 members.

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2 responses to “ Advice for Doing a COVID Retreat ”
  1. Warner Keeley
    May 17, 2020

    Thanks Russell for this post. I’m inspired to add a couple of thoughts: 1) If you’ve never done a solo retreat before, you might want to work with your meditation instructor (if you have one) or someone who is experienced doing retreats to come up with a personalized plan. (that was always suggested back in the old days…) Doing a solo retreat at home is hard — harder than being at a retreat center. Back in the 1970’s I did my first solo retreat at a friend’s house who was out of town. This was after already doing a dathun. Pretty much a disaster. There were way too many distractions available – and I was just not that disciplined. My next solo retreat was in a retreat cabin at the top of Marpa Point at SMC. That one was great. No distractions – except my mind (wondering if the propane tank outside the cabin was going to get hit by the daily lightning!). 2) If you’ve never done this before, maybe you want to start out by seeing if you can just do one day at home following a precise schedule like Russell recommends. Then move on to longer retreats. I agree with Russell that the first three days are the most difficult — after that it’s wonderful and you don’t want to leave! Doing solo retreats is an amazing experience – a chance to deepen your understanding of yourself and your practice path.

  2. Susie Cook
    May 13, 2020

    Thank you offering these helpful suggestions.

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