What is retreat?

This talk was given during the White Tara Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey.

  • The purpose of the retreat is to work with the mind, to see how it works, and change habitual patterns
  • It is important to remain balanced during retreat
  • Working with the mind between sessions, bringing the Dharma to everything you do
  • Suggestions for practice during sessions

White Tara Retreat 02: Introduction to retreat (download)

What is retreat all about?

Retreat is about working with our afflictions. You can sit somewhere aside, on your own, and think, “I’m doing retreat,” but your mind can be very full of afflictions. It’s really about working with the afflictions. We choose this kind of environment because it’s one that is conducive to working with the afflictions in the sense that there is enough quiet time to be able to look at our minds and put into practice the teachings that we’ve heard. Also, there’s enough activity and interconnection with others whereby we can see how our mind works and we can see what we need to work on. Retreat is not just what you do in the meditation hall; retreat is the whole way that we’re staying together and working with our minds.

Statue of White Tara.

White Tara (Photo by Mary Harrsch)

One thing that you’ll see, that I’ve mentioned before, is how the environment stays pretty much the same day to day but our mind will vacillate wildly. We will see what goes on inside of us. Our experience is dependent to some extent on the external world but not as much as we think it is. The external environment can stay the same and the mind can be happy one day and miserable the next, up one minute and then five minutes later down again. It’s really like a yo-yo.

Supporting one another

During the retreat, because we are so used to always looking outward at other things as the cause of our unhappiness or our happiness, sometimes the mind gets into things like, “I just cannot stand anymore how that person walks.” Because we won’t have all the gross things happening the mind makes the small things very big. This person just sniffles and completely destroys my samadhi because they sniffle. Or the way somebody else does the dishes, “Didn’t their mother or father ever teach them how to do dishes correctly?” When you see your mind start going on and on about somebody, recognize, “This has nothing to do with the other person. This is just my mental habit of commenting on other people, evaluating, judging, projecting, in general making myself and others unhappy. It’s not going to change by making the other person stand on their head. It’s going to change by me changing my mind.”

We can see there are many days in which that person does not sniffle, and we are still unhappy; and many days in which they don’t walk “that way” and we’re still unhappy. We can see that’s not the issue. The issue is working with this monkey mind of ours that is totally out of control. It’s very important: this has nothing to do with blame. We’re not blaming ourselves for things. Very important: we are not blaming ourselves; and we’re also not blaming the other person. We’re just understanding how our mind works and recognizing that the Dharma path is about changing our own mind. It’s not about changing the external environment, in terms of our own happiness.

In terms of your bodhicitta practice if you want to benefit others, of course you have to change certain things in the environment; you have to comment on other people’s behavior and so on and so forth. But the first thing we have to do is really look at ourselves and what’s going on. In the process of doing so, realize that everybody else is in the same boat. It’s not that everybody else is in deep samadhi, and we’re the only one with a monkey on our meditation cushion. Everybody’s struggling with the same things. It’s not the case that we’re the only one with a mind that fabricates stories; everybody’s mind is fabricating stories. We’re not the only one with a body whose back hurts, and knees hurt, and head hurts, and everything else. Everybody else has a body that’s giving them trouble in one way or another. Seeing things in this way, we really see that we’re all in this together. 
Rather than separate ourselves out with, “Well, I have special problems that nobody else has so I should receive special dispensation or special perks,” say, “You know, we’re all struggling with the same things in one way or another, to a greater or lesser degree. And we’re all going in the same direction.” Other people are not my enemies, and they’re not somebody to compete with. They’re not somebody to be jealous of because they can sit longer without moving, or whatever it is. We don’t need to compare ourselves to them. That’s not what it’s about. These people are my friends who are my support group, who are going in the same direction as me. I want to see them succeed. We’re not in a contest about who becomes Buddha first. They want to see me succeed also. We’re helping each other in this way. It’s very important to have that perspective.

Similarly, remember that White Tara is your friend. You don’t have to battle with White Tara. It isn’t that you sit down and think, “Tara, where in the world are you? I’m sitting here visualizing you. Where are you?” Just relax in your meditation. Remember that relax does not mean go to sleep. It means to relax your body, to relax your mind, and let White Tara appear to you. Don’t worry so much about, “Okay, let’s see. That pink scarf wraps twice around her left arm. That blue scarf wraps once around her right arm.” Don’t worry about that. Just get the feeling of being in the presence of a Buddha; that there’s a Buddha who’s looking at you with total acceptance, total compassion; that what you are, what we are, is good enough. Feel what that feels like—for somebody to look at you that way. See if you can look at yourself that way—with that kind of acceptance and compassion. See then if you can look at all your other team members in the retreat with that same kind of view.

Balance and mental perspective

It’s important—and I’ll talk about this again and again during retreat because we always forget—but, it’s important to be balanced. Make being balanced an important part of your retreat. If you can keep yourself balanced, in the long run, you will learn and benefit more than if you push yourself with some kind of idealistic view of next Tuesday, or by the Tuesday after that at the latest, I’m going to be Buddha.

Just try and be a balanced human being. Many of us have no idea what being a balanced human being feels like. It’s completely new territory—just like accepting ourselves. What in the world does that feel like? I only know how to criticize myself.

A lot of these things are very new for us. It’s helpful I think, in that way, to use White Tara to help us get a sense of it. White Tara accepts me; what does it feel like to sit in front of somebody who accepts me? What would it be like to accept myself? White Tara is balanced. What would it feel like to be White Tara and to be balanced?

Small things will set you off ranting and raving—at least inside your mind. But try and think, “What does it feel like to be balanced?” And, “How am I unbalanced? Am I getting too little sleep or am I getting too much sleep? Am I pushing myself too much or am I being too lax? Do I have all sorts of unrealistic expectations? Or am I just completely happy-go-lucky?” Somehow try to get yourself in the middle, knowing that whatever is the middle changes. There isn’t some fixed middle that you can anchor yourself to because the conditions around you are changing. Of course what you need to do or be in any situation is going to need to be readjusted. But just think, “How can I just be balanced?” Watch the typical habit patterns, emotional habit patterns you get into, especially on your day to cook. That can be real interesting. What is your habit pattern? Is it anxiety because it’s not going to be done in time? Is it anxiety because they won’t like it? Is it anxiety because it won’t look beautiful? And they all come down to, “Am I going to be rejected because they don’t like the lettuce!”

Our mind gets into all sorts of trips about actually quite simple things. Instead, really change your mind and just think, “I am preparing a feast for Tara. It’s fun and it’s good. However it comes out, it’ll be just fine.” Then do it in a relaxed way without thinking, “Oh, my god, its 10 o’clock and I haven’t chopped the carrots yet.” Just do it in a nice, relaxed way. Give yourself the time.

Same thing with the chores: do your chores in a nice, relaxed way. Vacuum up all those afflictions, and clean all those afflictions from the bathroom mirror. Really apply the thought training practices when you do that. Give yourself a chance to enjoy doing your chores, instead of seeing the chores as something you’ve got to do so you can do something else. Just really try and in some way bring the Dharma to everything that you’re doing in your life.

The world “out there”

At some points in the retreat, you may want to do more study. At some points you may see that, “No, study is not what I need. I need to take more long walks and look in the distance.” Or, “I need to just sit on the sofa and think about things during the break time.” The break time is part of your retreat, and what you do in the break time is going to influence what you do and what happens in your sessions too. That’s why we don’t send social emails or make social phone calls.

I know some of the Abbey members will have to check email for this or that, occasionally, depending on the particular job somebody has. But that’s going to be occasional and it’s only going to be work-related. We don’t want any social kind of things. All the correspondence with different supporters, and the people who send us stuff, and those who send us friendly emails, Zopa will very kindly take care of all of that. So we don’t need to worry about it and think, “Oh, we got an email from so and so. Oh, I’ve been thinking about them so long in my meditation, I’ve got to write them right now.” No, we give ourselves a break from all of that.

If you want to write some letters if family is going to worry, what I did is I always wrote letters in advance, left it with the office, and had them send it out. That’s one way to deal with it so you don’t have to call your family in the middle of the retreat. Or, if you feel you really have to write the letter, go ahead. All your letters basically sound the same, “It’s raining… No, it’s snowing. We’re having a great time in retreat. We got a new kitty that’s so cute.” All the letters sound the same. The relatives just want to know we’re alive. That’s all they care about. At least, that’s all mine cared about. Don’t worry about them knowing everything that’s happening with you and this, that, and the other thing.

Daily sessions

Come to all of the sessions unless you’re sick. Everybody’s going to have a different version of what sick means. For some people it means, “Well, I feel a little tired so I’m sick.” For other people it’s, “I’m throwing up so I better stay out of the hall because I don’t want to make a mess.” People will have different definitions. Don’t just stay out of the hall the moment your body feels a little uncomfortable, because when is your body ever going to feel comfortable? When has your body ever felt comfortable? Don’t push yourself to be in there although all hell and high water is breaking out and you feel like you’re going to faint. That’s too much. But don’t, just because you’re a little tired or a little something, say, “I’ve got to skip this session.” That interrupts the flow of your meditation and it affects other people in the retreat as well.

My own experience is that often, especially if I’m tired or in a bad mood, if I go to a group puja or meditation or something, I feel better afterwards. There’s something quite remarkable about that. I think it’s called taking your mind off yourself. That nearly always seems to work.

Being on time is important because people start the sessions on time. Make sure you give yourself enough time to get there. If you want to stay after a session and continue meditating, that’s fine as well. But then when you take a break, don’t say, “Oh it’s the next session starting so I’m going to skip the next session.” That doesn’t work so make sure you take a break somewhere in there if you need one.

What else do you have questions about? Do any of you have comments about the general flavor of retreat?

Getting help with retreat

Audience: There’s your wisdom that says if something comes up during retreat that’s really difficult, give yourself 24 hours to sit with it before you write an SOS to Venerable Chodron. If it’s really something disturbing, causing some fear or anxiety, just give yourself 24 hours. Just sit with this, think about it, do some whatever to ease your mind. If it’s still there and is really causing a disturbance then…

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, please come see me. You may with each other… you’ll see if somebody’s going through something difficult. So reach out and give them a hug or whatever. Support each other nonverbally. If you can see that somebody else in the group is really in trouble, but they’re really persisting on, tell me. We had one retreat where there was somebody who was crying almost every session, and it took quite a while before anybody told me. Don’t let that happen. Its better I know sooner rather than later.

Any other things?

The sadhana

I think most of you are doing the self-generation.1 So, I think, just go ahead and lead the self-generation. If you aren’t sure, I don’t know what to tell you; whether to do it or not do it. Lead the self-generation and refer a lot to the Tara book and also to the Chenrezig book because the Tara is a kriya tantra just like Chenrezig is. Just like when you do Chenrezig, you do the self-generation in terms of the six deities; you can also do that for the Tara if you want to.

In the present sadhana, it just has a very simple self-generation. So on the days when you want to spend more time, let’s say on the mantra and visualization, do that simple self-generation. On days when you want to spend more time on meditating on emptiness and doing the self-generation slowly, then you do it following the six deities, except instead of the seed-syllable being HRI, it’s going to be TAM. Instead of om mani padme hum, its om tare tuttare ture soha. But, those basic steps are the same. Many of you have done that before and that’s a very beautiful meditation for self-generation.

Audience: When you are visualizing yourself as White Tara in this six-deity practice and you put the Tara at your heart, is it the same form?

VTC: What you can do is, just at that point, you don’t have to put another Tara at your heart. You can then go back to the regular visualization of the wheel and everything. So as soon as you arise in the full form of Tara, then you go back to the description that’s in the Tara sadhana.

Don’t place too much emphasis on your meditation at your heart center, especially early on in the retreat; it’s not good. Even though there’s quite a detailed visualization occurring at your heart, I recommend at the beginning maybe just the TAM and the mantra, and the lotus, the wheel and just leave it with that. If you put a lot of attention at your heart in your meditation, you’re going to get lung. You have to be very careful with that, and just do that in a very gentle, peaceful way.

It’s the same with even the outer visualization of you as Tara. Don’t get so hung-up on every single detail. Because it’s that kind of, [sigh] “Okay, got to get the TAM, the letters. Not exactly. How does that TAM look? This way? That way?” And you’re doing all this at your heart. Of course you’ll drive yourself bonkers!

It’s the same way for the self-generation. “Okay, Tara’s like this. How far are her fingers sticking up? Are they like that? Like this? Where are those silks going? Is she leaning to this side? How does she sit like that? Oh, there’s that third eye. How do I get that third eye? And then there are eyes in the bottom of her feet, too. What does it look like from the bottom of your feet looking up?”

I say this because people can get really into this kind of detailed stuff. Don’t do that. Just, “I’m the deity. I’m not old, contaminated, poor quality me, with all my hang-ups, all my neuroses, all my complaints, all my limitations. That’s all been dissolved into emptiness and I’m Tara, and that’s good enough.” So then, you just be Tara. Don’t worry, “Oh, I’ve never been that thin like Tara. She must be anorexic; that waist is so small!” Don’t worry about it.

The most important thing in the self-generation is the meditation on emptiness. Let go of that concept of, “Here I am with all my limitations, all my things that I don’t do right, all my constantly recurring emotional patterns. Again and again, here they are. This is me. You know, some stuff is just so ingrained. Well, what the heck, I’m going to be this way my whole life.”

That all dissolves into emptiness, and then you arise as a Buddha. As a Buddha, you can be all the things that you aren’t now—like happy! Try letting yourself be happy sometimes. You can look at sentient beings with compassion. You can be tolerant of others and compassionate with them. You can make decisions and whatever your thing is, and then you just be that. Give yourself a chance to imagine being the kind of person you would like to be. I’m assuming you would all like to be a Buddha. Think of the qualities of a Buddha and think of what would that would feel like to be a Buddha.

So, we can go through the sadhana a little bit—maybe not today, but as we start.

Having physical problems

Audience: Venerable, just regarding discomfort when I’m doing the meditation. It’s not so much knees or back, but I feel nauseated and sick to my stomach. That’s been happening for the past week or so.

VTC: And you’ve been doing Tara, or what have you been doing?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: I don’t know what to tell you, except that Tara doesn’t have an upset stomach. What you could do if something like that happens, you can also do the mindfulness of feelings meditation. Watch the feeling, and see what causes it, what results from it. See if that helps for sometimes examining the sensation can help; and sometimes bringing your mind back to something else is the best thing to do.

Making the sadhana practice of White Tara our own

Some other things about the sadhana are you don’t have to do it the same way every session. You can do it really fast some sessions, so that you have more time to do lamrim. Other sessions you may do some sections fast and the others slow. So vary how you do it. It’s not a standard recipe for oatmeal cookies. You can invent and stretch something out; not invent things that aren’t there, but you can play with it. One part may really hit you—maybe you want to meditate on the four immeasurables for fifteen minutes. Go for it! That’s fine, then just do the other parts very quickly.

If you want to include in your retreat one or two sessions on the mindfulness [e.g., the Mahayana presentation on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness which we have been studying for some months now and are on the Web], what we’ve done so far, then do that. That’s also good. Or perhaps you’re studying a particular topic, and so when you’re doing your lamrim, you will meditate primarily on the topic that you are studying. When you study, make a little outline of points you want to contemplate—or something like that.

Make the sadhana your own. Don’t feel like you have to squeeze yourself into some rigid form. This suggestion might help, so really have an attitude of playing with it. Remember this is fun and so play.

General advice on retreat and retreat sessions

Audience: Do we do all this during the sadhana? When we have the visualization do we maybe then switch to trying to practice mindfulness of feelings, that type of thing, or a lamrim topic?

VTC: No. I would say if you’re saying the mantra and you’re having problems staying focused, sometimes bringing in some lamrim while you’re saying the mantra is good. But otherwise you would conclude your mantra and then do the lamrim.

If you’re going to do a four mindfulness session, then I would say right from the get-go, take refuge, do the four immeasurables, set your motivation, and then maybe do the seven-limb prayer, and then go right into the mindfulness.

So don’t mix too many things up; don’t mix your “four mindfulness” type meditation up with your White Tara in one session, unless something’s coming up in your meditation where using one part of the mindfulness meditation would be a good antidote to what’s coming up. That’s why I was suggesting that before—because things come up in your meditation, either distraction, or memories, or you get angry, or whatever so you have to apply lamrim antidotes. You may have to apply other meditations to help you solve whatever is the problem that is coming up in your mind.

If you try and stay on the visualization and the mantra: if doing both the visualization and the mantra at one time is too complicated, then just do the visualization. Then stop and just do the mantra. You can do more or less of one or of the other.

If something’s coming up, you’re remembering something and you’re getting really angry in your meditation, there are different things you can use with Tara to help you solve your anger. Or, you could just stop your mantra recitation and do one of the meditations on fortitude, from Working with Anger. Get that solved and then come back to your Tara practice. Or like I said, sometimes you use the Tara practice to help you work out whatever that situation is.

In the hall, please do not bring in a book to read. It’s very disturbing for the others if you’re reading, especially flipping pages. Things like that. Just know there will be somebody who clicks their mala very loud; and puts their mala down—CRASH! They tiptoe into the hall very mindfully, but they put their mala down like this. You can live. It won’t destroy you. You can wear earplugs if you want to. But you know, it’s not so much the sound as it is what our mind does with the sound that makes the difficulty.

During the break time, get exercise. I think exercise is very important during retreat. Take walks, look out into space, look at the trees, look long distance. Even on cloudy days, see the beauty in the cloudy days. Get outdoors. Do some yoga, do some tai chi, take care of your body in this process as well.

Eat normally. This is not the time to go on a diet and starve yourself. It’s not the time to overeat either. So just eat what your body needs.

  1. The sadhana used in this retreat is a kriya tantra practice. To do the self-generation, you must have received the jenang of this deity. (A jenang is often called initiation. It is a short ceremony conferred by a tantric lama). You must also have received a wong (This is a two-day empowerment, initiation into either a highest yoga tantra practice or the 1000-Armed Chenrezig practice). Otherwise, please do the front generation sadhana.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.