Download Common Sense Retreat
We are pleased to announce the availability of a free PDF, e-book version of Tarchin’s recently revised ‘Commonsense Retreat’
‘Common Sense Retreat’ is a small booklet introducing some broadly practical considerations that will help support a solitary retreat. It was originally written in 1984 to help introduce people to the use of retreat huts at the Wangapeka Study and Retreat Centre in N.Z. Though based on general Buddhist principles, it will speak to people from a wide range of traditions and backgrounds. It touches on themes such as one’s motivation for retreating, basic preparation, the environment or place for retreat, physical health, diet, basic mindfulness practice, and how to smoothly emerge from retreat.
Click here to download the entire 10 page booklet, Commonsense Retreat PDF.
Karunakarma Series: Volume IV
Excerpt from Commonsense Retreat
Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well ordered life.
So constantly give yourself to this retreat and renew yourself. The doctrines you visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.
– (from chapter 4 of ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, 121 – 180 AD)
‘COMMON SENSE RETREAT’ was first published June 1984, in response to a request from the
Management Committee of the Wangapeka Study and Retreat Centre in New Zealand. At
that time they wanted some written material to introduce people to the use of their solitary
retreat cabins. It was hoped that these basic instructions would serve as a guide for modern
day hermits as well as informing people who were simply curious. ‘What are they doing in
those huts?’ Today there are vastly more teachers and many more published teachings than
were available in 1984. In spite of this, requests for copies of the original Commonsense
Retreat Booklet continue to arise. This e-book version of Commonsense Retreat was
prepared in response to those requests.
The suggestions in this booklet are derived from Buddhist traditions of meditation that are
2500 years old and are offered for retreaters who are without personal instruction before or
during their retreat. The topics are general in nature, in fact to some people – just
commonsense, and though they have surely passed the test of time, they are not meant to be
a substitute for specific, detailed instruction that can come through a personal trusting
relationship, with an experienced living teacher.
Finally, I’d like to thank Bill Genat and Mary Jenkins for their thoughtful editing.
RETREATS ARE AN OLD and venerable tradition. Throughout the course of human history, in
many different cultures, they have been undertaken by both individuals and by groups.
Generally, a retreat allows a person to temporarily get away from the daily routine of their
life in order to engage more fully in an exploration of particular interest. People have
retreated for a wide variety of purposes. It can be a time for study, for writing or for the
creation of art. It may provide space for respite and healing. It may be part of a religious
quest, an opportunity for contemplation, for vision, insight and deepening experience.
In the great traditions of meditation and contemplation, centuries of experience have led to
an understanding of how best to approach and most fully utilize a retreat situation. In
Buddhist traditions a practitioner would usually attend a number of group retreats during
which, with the guidance of an experienced teacher, they would cultivate the skills needed
for successful retreat work. In general, these basic retreat skills would be developed before
any solitary work was attempted.
In schools of Tibetan Buddhism, a three year, three month and three day retreat (three stars,
three moons, three suns) was, and still is, practiced. Traditionally, the meditators would be
cloistered together with a teacher and during that time, in addition to following a rigorous
schedule of meditation practice, they would receive a continual stream of practical guidance
and instruction. At the conclusion, each yogi would then have the option of entering a
solitary hermitage, going out into the community to teach, or repeating the three year retreat.
One of my teachers, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoché, did three, three year retreats, back to
back, before then going into many years of solitary practice!
In the Catholic Cistercian Order, a monk had to be over the age of 40 and well tested in the
communal situation before he was permitted to become a hermit. Even then, a trial period
for a few months was undertaken to make sure this vocation of solitary contemplation was
right for him.
These traditional trainings helped to ensure that a yogi entered solitary retreat with clear
aspiration and intent, with an eager if not joyous outlook on the opportunity, and with a
degree of competence that would enable them to look after their physical, emotional and
mental wellbeing. In essence, a practitioner needs to have a firm understanding of what they
are undertaking. For most contemplative traditions this comes down to cultivating a
continuity of presence, awareness and love.
OVER THE YEARS, I have come across a wide range of motivations for going into retreat; some
helpful and some less so.
Here are some less helpful ones:
- Because someone said that it would be good for me.
- Because my friends are doing it.
- Because my friends will be impressed.
- Because I’m angry or depressed about the world and want time out.
- Because I’m having difficulties with inter-personal relationships and perhaps by going into
- retreat, I’ll sort everything out and then, when I come out of retreat, all will be fine.
- Because I’m in the grip of a medieval fantasy of leaving the messy world of human
- relationships in order to commune with a loving being or some form of pure spiritual energy
- on some other plane.
And here are some more helpful ones:
- Because I have been cultivating mindfulness in daily life and would like an opportunity to
- deepen my practice.
- Because I am beginning to sense how everything is interconnected and I would like an
- opportunity to explore this more thoroughly.
- Because the quiet simplicity of being in a retreat situation can support a more refined
- exploration of the areas of living I am passionate about.
- Because I value the opportunity to strengthen a continuity of loving attentiveness.
The motivation that carries you into retreat will powerfully influence the type and quality of
experiences that occur. If your general attitude tends to be ego-centered and defensive, there
is always a possibility of falling into negative brooding states, a cycle of struggles brought on
by over expectation and dissatisfaction with your results. If, however, your life motivation is
to grow and unfold through cultivating deeper understanding for the benefit of others and
this motif of compassionate involvement and loving-kindness is central to your strivings,
then you have the energy most conducive for successful retreat work. Be honest. If feelings
of insecurity and self-concern are your primary motivations then this is probably not the
time for solitary practice. Rather than retreating in isolation, you would benefit more from
the support of wholesome friends and competent, loving, guidance.
Check your over-all feeling for the work. Do you see it as a time for advance, for new
dimensions and discoveries or is it an attempt to escape? Of course, there is nothing wrong
with escape. ‘Wise is the being who runs away and lives to fight another day’, or better still,
‘lives to love another day’! But for retreats of more than two weeks duration this cannot be
the prime motivation. What you probably need is not so much an escape from the
difficulties of life but new refreshing experiences. Retreat is not a time for stewing in your
So far we have considered our overall life motivation or attitude. Another aspect, however, is
equally important. Many people seem to have the idea that it is enough just to be in retreat.
Unfortunately this is not the case. Retreat is a place to do work, to raise question and to
explore. Are you clear about what you intend to do there?
Namgyal Rinpoché often said that good retreat work is actually advance work. Solitary
retreat should have the feeling of a science laboratory, a place for methodical and systematic
investigation; a place to peel away, with a modicum of loving detachment, the veils of partial
views, hopes, fears and unclear thinking, in order to reveal the natural underlying state of
health and inter-connectedness that is the foundation of all of us.
PREPARING FOR RETREAT requires a little common-sense. First of all you should be in a state
of reasonably good health. How are your teeth? Before a long retreat, it might be a good
idea to have a physical and dental check-up if you have any doubts.
Assuming that you are physically fit enough to function in the environment where you will
retreat then take care of any outstanding business and social commitments that you may
have. For example, if you intend to go into full retreat with no outside contact, it would be
compassionate to let your friends know that you won’t be reading, or responding to
correspondence, during the retreat time. There’s not much point sitting in your idyllic
hermitage thinking, or even worse worrying, about things that you have neglected to tidy
up. Try to fulfill any obligations before starting. In brief, do your best to ensure a physical
and mental ambiance which gives you the greatest space and opportunity in which to
IN MANY OF HIS TEACHINGS, the Buddha would urge people to, ‘pay attention to detail’. This
pithy advice has value in virtually any activity and especially in retreat. Try to take it to
heart. Do what you can to arrange your environment so that every detail in it is resonating
balance, harmony and uplifting inspiration.
On a daily basis your room should be swept clean and kept tidy. In general you’ll probably
benefit from a simple uncluttered space. If you do choose to have objects in the room, let
them speak of beauty and integration. Many retreaters forget how powerfully the mind
picks up subtle messages. A little dust, a pile of clothes, dirty pots. There is a basic law of
mind that you tend to become what you meditate on. Cluttered environment supports a
cluttered mind. Spacious environment supports a spacious mind. Pay heed to this. In
addition to keeping your hut tidy, make sure there is lots of fresh air and during the day let
the sunshine in. An environment that is clean, simple and natural will greatly support the
unfolding of any positive exploration.
MEDITATORS, IN THE NAME of being ‘spiritual’, often neglect their bodies. Try to remember
that everything that happens in your body is reflected in your mind and vice versa. In order
to keep your body healthy and flexible, do some physical exercise each day. This could take
the form of yoga or any other body awareness movement exploration. It could involve daily
practicalities such as mindfully chopping wood, working in the garden or carrying water to
your hut. A lot of unnecessary negativity arises through excessive physical inactivity. If you
are retreating for an extended period it might be a good idea to break the routine once a
week by taking a long walk. You’ll find this change of environment very refreshing,
especially if your practice is becoming a bit stale.
Caring for your body also extends to diet. If you are trying to impress your friends or your
inner judge/critic as to what an accomplished ascetic you can be by fasting, not moving, and
so on, you may as well forget about awakening. The path of awakening is ultimately a path
of balance. The Buddha called it the ‘Middle Way’. You are called to this work of growth
and discovery and for that you need the support of a healthy, balanced diet.
Going into their first solitary retreat, many people come to the shocking realization that they
are not very aware of what foods their body needs or even how much it needs. They may
discover that, even as an adult, they are still eating what ‘mommy’ gave them or, on the
other side of the same coin, they eat some extreme diet in reaction to mother’s cooking. Are
you balanced in this area?
Here are some basic guidelines for a good solitary retreat diet.
- At the beginning, let your diet be similar to what you are generally used to, both in terms of content and in terms of how much you eat.
- As the retreat progresses, if any changes must be made, make them gradually, so that the effect of this new diet doesn’t dominate your experience.
- Whenever possible, eat natural, unprocessed foods, fresh fruits, vegetables etc.
- The question of whether or not to eat meat is a big consideration for some people. For many beings, a meatless diet tends to be a bit more supportive for deep meditation work. However, if you are used to meat in your daily diet and feel unsatisfied without it, then be sensible and eat some. The food you eat or don’t eat is to aid your meditation, not to cause you difficulty.
- Many meditators find it better to have their main meal at midday and eat just a light evening meal. This can help you be less drowsy as you meditate into the evening.
- Since you are probably not getting the same amount of exercise that you are used to, it would be a good idea to eat foods that are easily digestible. This avoids backup in the system with accompanying gas and stomach pains. If you are sitting a lot it may be a good idea to go easy on beans and to make sure that things like brown rice, cauliflower, cabbage and so forth are well cooked. You will undoubtedly learn as you go.
In general have variety in your food. Be creative in your preparation; use both the cooking
and the eating as a meditation. Above all, avoid obsessional extremes. A balanced and
varied diet will support a balanced, interested state of mind.
THE ACTUAL WORK OR MEDITATION PRACTICE
AN INTRODUCTORY BOOKLET such as this is not the place to give specific meditation
instructions. However, the following hints will probably help, no matter what form of
practice you are following.
When beginning a retreat it is wise to ease into meditation, gradually increasing the number
of hours of formal meditation practice, a little each day, until you have reached your full
discipline. Keep in mind that it usually takes a few days for the average meditator to settle
into their practice. The less experienced meditator will probably take a bit longer.
It is helpful to begin each day by reflecting on your aspiration, your reason for being in
retreat. In traditional Buddhism, this might take the form of contemplating refuge, the
bodhisattva vow, the parts of the body, death and impermanence, and the four
immeasurables (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity). These
contemplations can be found in my booklet “Daily Puja”. Whatever outer form these
morning reflections take, the intent of them is to inspire a tone of exploration for the day; a
calm clear mind of interest, suffused with loving-kindness, dedicated to the work of
At the conclusion of each day, a brief review may prove to be useful along with a conscious
aspiring to share the wholesome energies of the day with all beings for the support of their
growth and development.
In this day and age, the opportunity to do retreat work is increasingly rare and precious, so
use your time to the full. Avoid unintentionally drifting into, verbalisation – speculative
fantasy. Uncontrolled fantasy will inevitably lead you down the path of the five classical
hindrances. First, desire for something other than what is happening sneaks into your
experience. This almost always leads to some degree of frustration which then transforms
into irritation and ill-will. The physical and mental tensions of ill-will use up much of your
energy and gradually you sink into a state of lethargy and dullness. This can give way to an
agitated state of restlessness and worry. In the end we come to a great swamp of skepticism
and sometimes even depression. If you find any of these states occurring, gently bring your
attentiveness to your breathing. Cut through negativity with the sword of interest-question.
What is it? How does it arise? How does the universe, in all its wondrous complexity, give
rise to all this!
©Tarchin Hearn 1984, 2011