Why Do We Go To a Meditation Retreat?

Touching Earth Retreat 2016, Friday May 20, evening talk.

On the first night of a multi-day retreat, there is generally an opening talk to remind us of the reasons why we are here and what we came to do –thus setting the tone for the retreat. So tonight I would like to address a few points that I hope will provide encouragement to all of you as you begin and as you move through the following days.

The first point I would like to address is our actual presence at this retreat or any other meditation retreat for that matter.  Whether it is a work retreat, whether it is a healing or a metta/lovingkindness retreat, or another, doesn’t matter.  And whether it is a Buddhist or secular retreat doesn’t matter.  We need to ask ourselves not only why we’re here, but how is it out of millions of people in Ontario, we have chosen to be here today.  There are many meditation centers and temples in this province, but how many people actually take the opportunity to recognize the benefit and understand the privilege of actually being in places like this that exist only for your benefit and well-being? Why are you here and why are others not? You came in spite of all the logistical demands of work, family, health and life in general. You came in spite of knowing the challenges intrinsic to the meditation experience. Challenges which are basically all the struggles you have in life brought up close and personal by the work you have chosen to do here. You knew that retreats are as exacting as they are beneficial and you still made the choice to come.

Secondly, to be able to participate in a meditation retreat is a rare thing. REALLY, it is extraordinarily rare to meditate together with other people, to sit together in silence.  The silence is also extraordinary.  Here we are sitting in silence without looking at each other but every single one of us feels more connected to each other. Isn’t that interesting?  Our eyes are facing down or closed. We’re not speaking, but there is a sense of connection.  How beautiful, how extraordinary.

My teacher keeps saying that the purpose of retreat is for us to have a direct experience of this thing called “One Mind, One Body”.  The reason we have structure and guidelines in retreat is to help us realize this “One Mind, One Body”.  And this oneness is always here — but we are so noisy – always speaking, always looking for something to be distracted by, either visually or through any of our other senses. So much so that we cannot see this extraordinary one body/mind from which we have never been separate.  So being in silence forces us to notice that.

Words cannot begin to describe when we start to feel this connection with all things; not just with other human beings, but with all beings and things in the world — bugs, trees, grasses, flowers, the sun, the moon, the air, the cushion you’re sitting on, the chair.  In this experience of non-separateness, you may try to write a poem about it or try to describe it, but you simply can’t.  There is nothing you can say that comes close to it but this experience is enough to transform your life.

And because of the experience of this One Mind/Body, when we sit, we sit together as one. When we stand, we stand together as one, we walk together as one, we eat together as one, and we work together as one.  When you have even a glimpse of this oneness, it shatters all illusions of separation, all illusions of aloneness.  It begins to wear away at that feeling of loneliness, of that confusion about what’s going on — Who am I? What is this?  Even that begins to be worn away.

So is a meditation retreat special? Is it something different from other things?  Absolutely yes! It’s probably the most important resource to recognizing and discovering oneself. I know this to be so in my own life.  To recognize or rediscover yourself – your true self, you actually have to drop that little self that is immersed in self-cherishing and constantly complaining.  By realizing that all of us here are really One Self, we begin to experience this One Body/One Mind that my teacher talks about.  So I don’t think it can be overstated that the rarest and most important thing in the universe is to sit in meditation with others, to work together — and be able to do this in spite of all our personal challenges.


Thirdly, meditation retreats are not as many believe to achieve a state of bliss. Although a bliss state may occur, the recommendation is to move past it just as you do with the thinking mind. Retreats are in actual fact simple, but not easy, and unfinished business from the past may rear its head, as do our present struggles.   As mentioned previously, we all came to this retreat in spite of all our personal challenges, the demands of work, family, health and our general day to day struggles.    We all have different narratives from which we come – family culture, society, traumas, life experiences, and so on — and we all have different baggage which we bring. Meditation retreats also provide guidance and support through one to one teacher interviews, formal teachings and the very structure of the retreat itself.

The power and the strength that is generated in retreat by all of us creates an environment of healing, acceptance, safety and transformation. We have an opportunity to face whatever shows up and all we have to do is to keep breathing and putting one foot in front of the other, not thinking or worrying about the next step or the next breath. With this group energy and with one to one guidance of the teacher, we begin to see into the truth (or not truth) of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and beliefs. This exploration happens on a deep level. There is nothing you need to do except just be with your practice and not resist anything that comes up.

Just like the weather the situations of life change. Sometimes it is sunny, sometimes stormy and sometimes we can be hit by tornados, hurricanes or even a tsunami. However, what a retreat teaches us is that just because the weather of our lives keeps changing we don’t have to be more than what we are.  That means that we don’t have to be something different in order to weather the storm.

A loose metaphor here can be a pine tree in a storm, or a pine tree in freezing snow, or if a tornado approaches, or if there are floods or a drought, the pine tree doesn’t say, “I wish I was an oak tree, or I wish I was a great rock, or I wish I was a fast running gazelle.” The tree is able to be a pine tree in the midst of whatever the weather is.  It doesn’t look to become something else in order to escape the weather.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “A flower does not have to do anything to be of service. It only has to be a flower. That is enough. A human being, a true human being is enough to make the whole world rejoice.”

Thus what retreats do for us is help us recognize our capacity to unfold our own innate wisdom and compassion—the power of experiencing our worthiness and knowing that we are enough, to see that we are not separate. In retreats, we are forced to demonstrate that no matter what the weather, we do not have to be something else in order to weather the storm of the human condition—of birth, illness, old age and death.  We are enough and who we are IS ENOUGH.  There is not some kind of mistake making us face the storm and there is not some kind of flaw in us that created the storm.

So we will come through this retreat together not only for our own benefit and everyone who is here but for the whole world. We actually sit for all sentient beings and as my first master used to say, “Don’t take for granted the work of meditation.  Even one consciousness breath that you take may be what is keeping the whole universe together.”

Adapted from the opening talk given in the Spring 2016 Retreat

Theodore Tsaousidis

Copyright 2016