What exactly is it, really, that keeps us coming back to meditation retreats? We know that we feel better when we leave. Clearer in our minds. More focused and more still. Our inner sky is cloud-free. We liberate ourselves from the distractions of our phones and computers and social lives, sure—but there’s something more.
So what is the deeper magic of meditation retreats that we can’t seem to find it in everyday practice? And what about when we return to “normal” life—how are we to integrate all that we learn, all the ways in which we grow, into the sometimes-challenging reality of the day-to-day?
Gregory Kramer, the founder and Guiding Teacher of Metta Programs, is well versed in the language of retreat, and has spent ample time discerning what the magic of this sacred time is really made of.
“From a cynical standpoint, we could say that a retreat is just like a spa. You might have a lovely experience, but when you go home life is lousy again. However, when the mind becomes more refined, it is more amenable to insight. You can see things that you couldn’t see before. In that sense, retreat is very helpful for disentangling the mind.”
Carefully, slowly, and methodically, our time spent in meditation begins to disentangle the knots that accumulate in the mind, like so many strands of thread. These are the knots that create tension, or feel like blocks, or sit quietly at the root of suffering, just out of view. They are the result of the mind’s perpetual fabrication of “reality”, or the reality we’d like to imagine we are creating.
“The quality of your attention settles out during the retreat. This allows us to glimpse a sense of stillness behind the mind’s constant fabricating. In comparison, the quality of our everyday mind is clearly coarse. [In a meditation retreat] we can see how the egoic mind references everything to its search for safety and pleasure…”
It is this search for safety and pleasure that leads us into the less-than-healthy habits of mind and body. Our ego is on a misguided hunt, genearting thought patterns and habitual behaviors that can slowly wear away at our feelings of health and integrity without us knowing — which, Gregory says, is why we return to retreat.
“One of my teachers used to say that meditation is like cleaning out a cup that has a lot of old, rancid coffee in it. Meditation practice is like a stream of tiny drops of pure water. It dilutes the coffee until eventually the cup overflows with clear and sweet and drinkable water.”
And if you return to retreat, again and again? That coffee won’t go rancid anymore.
“The main part of any kind of retreat is that you keep coming back. Your neural networks begin to retrain. Your hormonal system begins to come into alignment. In other words, you keep the stream of water flowing.”
And this, he says, is how we can carry the profound qualities of retreat out into our lives: beyond the knots of the mind and the coarse quality of pleasure-seeking ego, we can move through life with a refined sense of alignment, greater awareness, and an inner quality of stillness that grows deeper and more solidified every time we come back to retreat.
Gregory Kramer is the Founder and Guiding Teacher of Metta Programs and has been teaching Insight Meditation since 1980. He developed the practice of Insight Dialogue and has been teaching it since 1995, offering retreats in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. Gregory is the author of: Insight Dialogue, Meditating Together, and Speaking from Silence.