What Actually is a Retreat?

meditation at sunset

By Beth Mulligan

As a person who has practiced silent teacher-led meditation retreats for decades and led them for about 14 years, I’ve been reflecting on this question a lot, trying to see it through “fresh eyes” and with a “beginner’s mind.” With my own experience and great mentors to draw from, I thought I would share some of my evolving thoughts and feelings about what a retreat should or could look like, in the hope that these things might interest or inspire people to participate in a retreat.

I’ve practiced mainly in the Soto Zen tradition where a retreat looks like many hours of sitting Zazen (Zen meditation) on a cushion, with an emphasis on stillness, broken by regular periods of walking meditation, and meals in silence. There are opportunities to meet with the teacher; to discuss how one’s practice is going, and a Dharma talk each day.


Meditation retreats traditionally also include a period of working meditation to keep the retreat center going and to offer an opportunity for participants to see that practice, as my primary teacher says, “doesn’t have to look like any one thing”. Personally, I love these periods of working in silence alongside other practitioners. Over the years I have dug trenches with a Japanese Buddhist priest and a British school teacher. I’ve hung drywall with my teacher and a business owner from Brazil, chopped endless onions with a priest from Holland…and cleaned toilets, scrubbed floors, and pulled weeds by myself. One of the hardest laughs I have ever had was in the kitchen chopping red bell peppers with a friend. The head cook was grouchy and under pressure, as she was cooking for some foreign Zen dignitaries. For some reason (like laughing in church) my friend and I got an intense case of the giggles over our poorly chopped vegetables, and the more we tried to stop, the worse it got, until everyone in the kitchen was laughing. This is one of my most cherished moments on retreat. As much as all the tears I have shed and insights I have had, laughing is good practice for sure!

Regarding my attitude towards work practice, I feel that because we meditate formally for hours, since early morning, those hours inform my work practice and give me a chance to see that I can take this present-moment-concentrated mind anywhere. And when I do, I enjoy it so much more – even cleaning bathrooms! It shows me the possibility that I can practice anywhere, doing anything - it’s all a matter of how and where my mind is.  This all means I am a lot more likely to take the practice home with me into what we call ’regular life,’ which is, of course, our life too!

The dictionary says that in its verb form “retreat means: “To move back and away from something or someone because you are frightened or want to be alone,” or in military contexts means you are ceasing to fight. As a noun it means “A private safe place where you can be alone.” None of these quite capture my experience of a meditation retreat.  I so appreciate that my teacher says it shouldn’t even be called retreat! He says it should be called “approach.”

On one level we have moved away from work, family, hobbies, routines, and these days, from electronic devices and even reading. But on another level we are moving toward something: ourselves and the direct experience of being alive. We are allowing the world in more not less. When there is a minimum of external input we can really see that water spider in the stream like it is the most miraculous thing in the world. We taste the simple food. As we practice in the silence, we connect without ourselves and with the community of “spiritual friends” we eat and work with on retreat – even if they may seem like strangers.  

As people look for retreats to deepen their personal practice, they are finding out what can be learned about oneself when they really immerse themselves in it and go beyond the 30 or 40 minutes (or on many apps 5 – 10 minutes) of typical daily practice.

It’s only been about 10 years since retreats based upon the more modern evidence based Mindfulness programs (MBSR ,MBCT, and MSC) have become popular. Prior to this, one could do retreat practice in the Buddhist or Catholic traditions. Leaders in the Mindfulness field recognized a need for retreats that are not based entirely on a particular spiritual pathway (although we certainly explore the practices which do indeed come from ancient wisdom traditions).

When I decided to begin to offer retreats at centers that we rented for the event, there wasn’t really a place to put the work practice that I had found so liberating in my day to day life . So we emphasize the periods of transition as well as the choices we make about what to “do” or preferably “non-do” during unstructured time, with the invitation not to “do” what we habitually do (read, write, catch up on emails, visit Facebook) during these retreat. I learned to also invite participants to bring as much mindful awareness to all the ordinary things we do on retreat that we routinely do at home. This includes everything from putting on our socks and shoes, bathing, dressing, eating, making tea, getting from one’s room to the practice hall, feeling the air on your face, watching a bird…listening to the wind. What I heard in the closing circle was that people so appreciated seeing and feeling the many doorways to the present moment and they were able to really play and have fun in a new way, similar to work practice, because these activities happened after several hours of formal meditation and silence.

The practices set us up to be truly present for joy and perhaps when we get home, to take a risk and pick up a drum or try to draw or write a poem - to do something we thought we couldn’t. These risks often come about quite naturally after facing 5-10 days of silent retreat, which often is preceded by thoughts like “I don’t know if I can do this.”

 And now it’s behind you and you did it!!!

We can build upon the momentum after retreat in many ways. Perhaps we’ll extend our periods of meditation, and perhaps we’ll start having a whole lot more joy too. It may give us the strength and resilience to try other things we  think we aren’t up to, compassionately and realistically of course.

For example I heard form one retreat participant that after the retreat, he went and got himself a long wished-for electric guitar! How cool is that? Or one who started to volunteer for dish-washing at her church because it felt like a way to worship. What great teachers our participants are…

As people came back for retreat year after year, they told me many stories of how these particular retreats gave them a way in to practice and transformed their lives in ways I could not have imagined when I began to train to be a retreat leader. Then when I was ready, I began to offer retreats through the UMASS CFM, the Center for MSC, and now the UCSD MBTI. Seeing so many adults reclaim their child-like joy, their ability to play and to wonder, gave me joy and the feeling that this type of retreat had great value too.  So for fourteen years we’ve been offering these year-round across the US and Ireland. People keep coming back with great gratitude and joy, and because it is a safe place to feel all their feelings and find a variety of ways to hold them, express them, and be held - by the teachers, the group, themselves and the great natural world itself.

To experience this for yourselves, please look at these offerings in the summer and fall.


Upcoming Programs with Beth Mulligan



Awaken Everyday Blog
Writing to inspire mindfulness, contemplation and wholesome living, by Copper Beech master teachers, students and contributors.

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