By John Author
Following up on the death of Megan Vogt, I felt compelled to interview some TTB columnists so that we could prevent something like this from happening again.
Megan developed psychosis after enduring a 10-day S.N. Goenka Vipassana retreat. She leapt from a catwalk under the Norman Wood Bridge, fell through a 120-foot void and met the rocks below (see previous story here).
Retreats can be difficult for even seasoned meditators, so they shouldn’t be taken lightly. I conducted this interview via a popular social network’s chat feature.
JOHN AUTHOR: So I was thinking about writing an article for TTB on how to prepare for a Buddhist retreat. Then I thought, “Wait, I’m dumb, how about I interview some experts and make that into an article.” All three of you come from different traditions, so I think it’d make for a well-rounded piece.
DANIEL SCHARPENBURG: Holy shit. Am I an expert?
BRENT OLIVER: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking too…
JOHN: I’d say so. Of course, I don’t know a lot of people…
BRENT: I’ve never actually done a traditional retreat. Almost 20 years ago I did five Shambhala programs which were the basic intro stuff for people getting serious about it, but they were non-residential, so just Friday evening then Saturday and Sunday from 8 – 5. They weren’t silent, nor did we only meditate: there were talks, discussions, and other activities. I’ve also done three day-long Zen retreats, but they were very relaxed. There weren’t any rituals and they weren’t strict about form; everyone sat however they liked; we did dokusan and maintained silence, and that was about it.
DANIEL: Where was that retreat? Was it Korean zen?
BRENT: Korean Zen. Two of them were here in Lexington, and one was at the Zen center’s monastery/retreat center in a national park about 45 minutes away.
DANIEL: I ask because the retreats I did with FMZO were also not strict about form.
BRENT: I’ve also done two weekend Vipassana retreats, but neither were traditionally Buddhist. There were Dharma talks but no rituals, incense, shrines, bowing, etc. it was pretty secular. Those were residential but only Friday evening until Sunday at noon, so no big deal.
JOHN: Daniel, do you have any tips for people on how to prepare for retreats?
DANIEL: Is there truly a way to prepare? I’m not sure there is. My first three-day retreat, way back when I was in monk training, scared the shit out of me: creepy mental experiences I was not prepared for.
JOHN: How often did you meditate before that?
DANIEL: I had a long stretch where I meditated daily—short meditations each day. I don’t meditate every day now, but I always think to myself that I probably should. I could have been warned that retreats can be scary, but I wasn’t, and the truth is they can be. A one day retreat is probably not a big deal, but anything longer… I used to be really into retreats, but now I sometimes wonder, “Why are we doing this? Isn’t practice supposed to be in the world?”
JOHN: I sometimes think about that too. I’m not entirely sure if escaping from day-to-day life to meditate for a few days is beneficial or not in the long run. Do you think the retreat would’ve been even more terrifying if you weren’t an experienced meditator before then, or would it have been comparably maddening?
DANIEL: Oh. I don’t know. Probably the same. A 30-minute sit doesn’t really compare to sitting all day. I know a Zen priest who says you never need more than a day and a half on retreat
JOHN: I heard something similar from a Zen priest once too. He was even a little more extreme with it, saying that it’s useless to sit more than two hours at a time.
DANIEL: I think that might be true, but I’m unsure. What a retreat does do for you is show you what a crazy person your mind really is.
JOHN: Like a rabid chimp in a banana store.
DANIEL: Yeah. The only ways to prepare I can think of are these: 1) be aware that it’s hard. If someone tells you retreats are easy, don’t listen. 2) eat healthy food for a few days before. Usually, retreats only have healthy food, and if you have an average American diet, it could be a shock to you
I think [going on retreats] a few times is good. But I’m not sure about doing it multiple times a year; sounds expensive. I was a student of [a well known Zen teacher] once. I found out after a while that she expects her students to travel and go on expensive retreats with her. This is very common in modern American Zen. I could probably afford a $400 retreat two or three times a year, I’m not destitute, but I am lower middle class with two kids. It is hard for me to justify that expense to myself. And I do think this kind of thing is very common.
I see people talk about “self-directed retreats” sometimes, but I feel like if I’m directing myself, I probably don’t need to pay someone to use their cool retreat space. I can do it anywhere
JOHN: That kind of reminds of me at-home retreats, which are what I usually do since I’m the only person who lives in this part of the state. I was initially thinking that it’d be helpful for a person to try at-home retreats before taking the plunge into something more formal and foreign to their day-to-day life. Do you think that that’d be helpful?
DANIEL: Yes, if you can do it; there are so many distracting things at home. I think going camping for a night by yourself helps too. I know Shinzen Young, who Brent is a big fan of, advocates home practice, doesn’t he?
BRENT: Yes, Shinzen strongly advocates home practice, as well as practice in action, e.g. walking down the street, driving, talking, listening, bartending, doing laundry, etc. It’s a pillar of his system. It’s a hybrid of Vipassana, Hwadu (Huatou), Shikantaza, and Metta. It works great for me, and it can be offered to others secularly, although I don’t usually use that word anymore.
JOHN: I’ve developed an allergy to the word secular lately.
BRENT: It’s important to me that I’m able to teach people something with no religious connection because I think I can reach more people that way, but the word “secular” just furthers the duality between itself and “sacred.” I think practice is both. And neither. I’ve been calling myself a post-traditional Buddhist for awhile. Also, I like retreats, and I think they’re very beneficial. Not trying to be a monk at all, merely focusing on practice as a householder.
JOHN: I can definitely appreciate that. “Out in the world” practice.
DANIEL: I don’t like the word secular either. I feel like we shouldn’t be forced to define ourselves by what we aren’t. I don’t believe in spirits and rebirth. So what? The difference is in what makes an expert. In a secular retreat, there is bound to be someone there with some kind of health background.
BRENT: Yes, because the secular folks know they’ll be held to a higher standard because they take so much flak from the traditionalists. There’s a lot of training involved, and certification. Also, lots of Vipassana teachers are also mental health professionals.
DANIEL: In Zen, all you need is to be certified by your teacher as a Zen teacher, but Vajrayana scares me the most because it’s a system where—at times—one can suddenly be recognized as [a tulku or lama] and become a teacher with little to no training at all.
BRENT: [Also], what you guys have been saying about maybe retreats not being that necessary is pretty alien in the Vipassana world. Most organizations and teachers maintain that serious progress won’t really get going unless students go on at least one long retreat per year.
DANIEL: From what I understand that’s really been the foundation of Vipassana, and it’s [the case in] most of the Zen world as well.
JOHN: What’s a long retreat in the Vipassana movement, 5 – 10 days?
BRENT: traditional Vipassana retreats are usually five, seven, or ten days. I don’t do much traditional, though.
DANIEL: SN Goenka’s system is ten-day retreats where you sit in silence most of the time, but you also watch video teachings he recorded. I haven’t done one, but I know people who have.
BRENT: And those retreats garner more than their fair share of opprobrium: they seem to be the most culty of the bunch.
He was wholly uninterested in ever changing his methods or approach, ever.
DANIEL: Right. The good thing is they’re donation only. The bad side of that is, of course, they can’t pay a really competent staff.
JOHN: Yeah, as far as I know, the staff isn’t paid at all for the most part; it’s made up mostly of volunteers. I think one misleading thing about retreats is that people can go into them thinking that it’s going to feel communal, kind of like that oneness vibe we get at concerts. But I usually hear that it feels surprisingly solitary because of the silence. Does anyone know of non-silent retreats? Did the silent aspect freak any of you out at all?
DANIEL: I haven’t done one that’s 100% silent. There’s usually koan practice, time for teachings, and time for questions.
But, that being said, there are very long stretches of silence, and it is weird. The weirdest thing to me was eating with other people in complete silence. We are so used to talking while we’re eating with other people.
JOHN: We haven’t heard from you yet, Strib. What’s your experience with retreats?
GERALD STRIBLING: I don’t go to retreats, I am a lone buffalo.
DANIEL: Do you view your time with the monks as retreat-like, or no?
GERALD: Too much fun to be retreat-like. My idea of a meditation retreat is fly fishing.
JOHN: Well, thank you for contributing everyone. So, the moral of the story is: Retreats are tough, and there isn’t a lot you can do to prepare for them except knowing that they’re tough, and maybe eating healthy for a few days before starting one.
I’d imagine that avoiding gassy foods would also be a good idea.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Feel free to check out his Facebook page and his blog, "John's Mind."