Retreat Practice, Part II: What’s With All The Rules?

Last week I offered some general reasons for going on retreat.   However varied, what they all point to is that the retreat center environment, the schedule, and the rules are all designed to make it as easy as possible for you to put aside your concerns and deepen your practice.

It’s not an accident that retreat centers are often located in secluded, rural or rustic settings.  Physical isolation helps create an environment of quiet and seclusion that supports deepening one’s practice.

A typical day at a residential retreat consists of six to ten hours of practice a day, divided up between 30-to-60 minute periods of sitting practice and walking meditation (hikes, hatha yoga or qigong sessions are offered as an alternative to walking meditation, on some retreats).  Time is also scheduled for meals, short daily work assignments, and student-teacher interviews.  Most retreats are organized around a topic or theme, usually some aspect of the Buddhist path of practice, like, “Wisdom & Compassion,” or more secular themes like “Weathering Difficult Emotions,” or “Relational Mindfulness.”  The teachers’ morning instructions and the subject of the evening dharma talks, usually reflect the theme or topic.

A note about work assignments: most meditation and retreat centers are nonprofit organizations.  Every effort is made to keep costs low and free up funds in order to provide financial assistance for those students who might not otherwise have the chance to deepen their practice on retreat.  To this end, participants are usually assigned a short daily work assignment, which also serves as an opportunity to integrate one’s practice into daily life, with short periods of simple, often repetitive activity (cutting vegetables or washing dishes in the kitchen, vacuuming the mediation hall, sweeping the dining hall, walking the retreat center grounds, ringing bells to signal the end of walking practice, etc.).

Mental Preparation: Rules and Rituals.

At the start of the retreat participants will be asked to:

(1) take Formal Refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the historical example of liberation, the teachings leading to liberation, and the community of fellow practitioners);

(2) abide by, and recite the Five Precepts (the code of ethics for Buddhist laypersons): to abstain from harming any living being, from taking what is not freely offered, from sexual activity of any kind, lying, and imbibing intoxicants that might lead to heedlessness:

(3) observe Noble Silence for the length of the retreat: to refrain from speaking, or any other form of communication, unless absolutely necessary.  (In this digital era, this also means agreeing to abstain from using any electronic digital device, i.e., “unplugging,” shutting off our smartphone, PDA’s or any other device – save perhaps simple alarm clocks or watches, which help us stay on schedule.)

(4) recite loving-kindness (Metta) phrases at some point in the day.

If all this seems rather daunting, please don’t be alarmed.   The rules and rituals of practice are intended to help you set helpful, wholesome intentions and deepen your practice, and get the most out of your time on retreat as possible.  I’ve found it helpful to think of the retreat center grounds as a physical “container” from the wearisome concerns of life in the outside world, and the rules and rituals as fostering the “mental container” to minimize the internal distractions within us that we bring to retreat.

Taking refuge in the three jewels can be taken as a statement of piety or religious fealty (and often is, in many Buddhist countries) but here, it serves a protective purpose.  Unpleasant thoughts and strong emotions will arise during practice, and it can be difficult to observe what arises without judgment.  Taking refuge helps us prepare for this eventuality, by asserting our faith, not in divine intervention or heaven-sent grace, but that the path of practice is both practical and do-able, that it is possible to reduce suffering through ethical living and mental cultivation.  Likewise reciting Metta phrases, wishing loving-kindness to others, and especially ourselves, functions as a positive affirmation, reminding us to be kind to ourselves during practice.  We aren’t being asked to believe in anything, so much as being invited to relax, observe, keep an open mind, and see for ourselves.


The five precepts are most commonly viewed as invitations to purify our intentions and improve our relations with others in daily life.  However, even though we purposefully limit our interactions with others when we are on retreat, hewing to the precepts against doing harm, stealing, engaging in harmful speech and sexual misconduct, or clouding our minds with intoxicants – still serve a definite purpose in retreat settings.

For example, observing the first precept, the prohibition against doing harm, gives us an opportunity to embody the virtues of kindness and compassion, and fosters a respect for human life.  Observing the fourth precept against lying, allows us to embody honesty and dependability, and fosters a respect for own personal integrity.

Taken together, the precepts reinforce our mutual confidence that the retreat space is a ‘safe container,’ for us, and our fellow practitioners.   When everyone agrees to act ethically while on retreat, we can relax our habitual defenses, and turn within with peace of mind.

We adopt the rule of noble silence for the duration of the retreat for the same reason we withdraw to isolated, secluded locales, and take on the rigor of a practice schedule – to make it easier to turn within and open ourselves to our mental states within.   Adopting the rule of silence removes one of the primary distractions that make it difficult to be mindful in our day-to-day lives: the habit of communicating with others.

Much of our conversation is based in our need to relieve the tension that arises when faced with uncomfortable feelings we normally try to avoid, and that need to relieve that stress often keeps our minds too scattered to be very mindful of our sensory input and our internal reaction to those impressions.

Silence creates a container where we can fully take in the information coming in from our senses, and observe our reactions to that sense data rise and fall away.  Our senses become more acute, and we are able to see our inner and outer worlds with far greater clarity.  This frees us to focus our attention on maintaining a continuity of mindfulness, whatever object of attention we’re working with at the moment, be it the breath, the body, or the physical sensations that accompany walking or eating.

For the duration of the retreat, participants are asked to observe all their activities, with the same attentiveness with which they place their attention on the breath during sitting practice.  This includes the physical sensations that arise while walking, practicing mindful movement exercises drawn from hatha yoga or qigong routines, eating meals and performing our work assignments.  It’s all fertile ground with which to deepen and strengthen one’s practice of mindfulness.   Once Noble Silence descends, we strive to move slowly, deliberately and maintain an attentive, inward focus at all times.

If all this still seems challenging, this is precisely the reason that InsightLA offers retreats of varying lengths, everything from six-hour day-longs to fourteen-day residential retreats.  The varying lengths of time give practitioners the opportunity to work their way up gradually, starting with relatively short periods of time and moving up to progressively longer retreats, as one’s time and circumstances allow.
7/12/2019-7/15/2019 (3 nights):  “Summer Insight,” Meditation Retreat with Beth Sternlieb and Celeste Young, at the Mary & Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.


7/20/2019-9/27/2019 (7 nights):  “Mindfulness of Heart and Mind,” with Melissa McKay and Lien-Chi (LC) Tran, at Big Bear Retreat Center, in Big Bear City, CA.
7/22/2019-7/28/2019 (6 nights):  “Finding Balance: An Insight Meditation and Movement Retreat,” with Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, and Celeste Young, in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of Granada, Spain.

Click on the links for more information.  Remember that financial aid is available for most of the course and retreat offerings, for those who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend.  You can apply for aid when you register for classes or retreats at

More next week …