Retreat is a crucial part of yogic life. Seekers striving to free their minds recognize the importance of taking time away from worldly life, temporarily or permanently, in order to concentrate more fully on meditative practices. With the numerous responsibilities of life, especially in a fast-paced digital era, there is still no better way for devoted practitioners to encourage spiritual unfolding than to relinquish busy schedules and practical concerns by going on retreat.
Whether we go for four days or three months, these periods of uninterrupted practice and quiet reflection allow us to melt away the distraction of compulsive busyness. On retreat, we give ourselves, and everyone else, the gift of removing the mind’s obsessions and revealing what sages call our undistracted and compassionate true nature—our essence.
A gifted few, with an abundance of spiritual karma from past lives, realize enlightenment with a minimum of practice and exposure to the teachings. Most masters recommend and advise seekers to repeatedly go on retreat to strengthen their understanding and to rest in the spaciousness of uninterrupted practice. Milarepa’s wordless message is: You have to practice.
When we go on retreats and face ourselves in silence, it allows us to see our fears and attachments more clearly, to embrace them with compassion, and to grow in intuition and trust in our true nature.
Going on retreats gives us the opportunity to pay attention to three essential aspects of spiritual practice:
- We learn to revisit the tools of awareness taught within a particular tradition. These are the specifics of asana, pranayama, and meditation appropriate for our level of understanding and application. On retreat, we also have the opportunity to hear the philosophical teachings that underlie these practices. In a traditional two-hour class or workshop, there is not the time to delve into these areas in depth.
- Retreats give us an opportunity to reflect on these ideas and practices. This contemplation often sparks an uncompromising and unsentimental, yet more truly compassionate, view of ourselves and of our lives. This view is often a necessary precursor to change.
- Retreats strengthen and deepen our practice. In the absence of the tasks and distractions of our everyday lives, retreats encourage us not only to practice more, accelerating our understanding and unfolding, but also to sustain the lens of mindfulness throughout each day.
Once we have spent time on retreat, living with awareness day after day, we are more likely to catch ourselves and interrupt the habits of distraction when we return home. Instead of feeling irritated and restless when we get stuck waiting in a long line, for example, we may find it easier to turn inward with meditative awareness, appreciating the unhurried moments. By going on retreat, we have an opportunity to practice living in a way that engenders clarity and compassion— the inner abodes of the awakened.
Retreats offer a theatre in which our lives become the backdrop and our misidentification with the ego-self takes center stage. Sages have long spoken about the unchanging internal substratum of being—the true Self that is naturally full of bliss and love. They remind us that freedom is an inner alignment that neither comes into being nor dies, but is simply evoked by our quiet, undistracted, sustained surrender to its inner stream.
From childhood on, we have learned to identify with something on the external, to find our sense of worthiness through our actions and the praise or blame heaped upon us by parents, teachers, friends, and mates. We have been trained to acquire knowledge about things but not about our innermost nature.
How do we allow our inner wisdom to become unveiled? When we commit to an awareness-discipline that places strong emphasis on watching the mind, like at Amrita Yoga and the Integrated Amrita Meditation technique, we take a first step. We go to teachers and learn new tools for working with our body, breath, heart, and mind. As time goes by, we practice and continue to receive teachings yet eventually we may feel a calling to go deeper, to put aside our practical and personal affairs for a time, to really dive in and see who we are apart from what we do – not just what we do for a living but what we do for a life.
Retreats allow us to see how illusory and impermanent our identities are, how we make and remake ourselves in every moment. Seeing this lack of solidity can be very unsettling at first, but it also provides a life-changing liberation.
As our minds loosen their obsessions with our practical affairs and everyday identities, we can open to glimpses of the inner peace that underlies our restlessness and discontent. And when the retreat is led well, we are guided further into this inner quietude. A real master gives us pointers about the roadblocks that inevitably surface and about how to navigate them. When the ramblings of the mind rest in abeyance, we are allowed to peer into our unconditioned, true nature. However imperfect the glimpses may be, we will never again be the same. We now know that, although it is often shrouded, within us lies a reservoir of ease and joy, a source of well-being and inner wisdom. We realize that we simply need to learn to return to this wellspring within. We see that retreats offer a safe vehicle that protects us from distraction on this inner journey.
Retreats remain an essential part of spiritual unfolding. A participant once shared her experience after the 4-Day Beginners Foundation Amrita Yoga Sadhana Retreat at Amritapuri. It is in her own words: “During the Yoga Sadhana Retreat, I suddenly felt a strong wave of emotion. I had the blessing to practice Amrita Yoga Sadhana Retreat in the presence of a Living Master, Amma. I approached Amma during my darshan to ask my burning question. I asked Amma if Amma had the feeling that she was missing someone. Her reply went straight to the heart of my longing.”
“Have you ever noticed that in their presence you also sometimes feel this yearning?” she asked. When I nodded, she continued, “In reality, it is not a particular person you are missing so much. You are missing you! You are missing being at home inside yourself, and you are displacing the feeling, blaming it on the absence of your family.”
When I heard this from her, it touched deeper layers in me. This disconnected feeling remains with us, whomever we are with and wherever we go, until we are finally willing to stop chasing temporary circumstantial happiness. Once you touch your own inner reservoir of joy and contentment and learn to rest there, it won’t matter so much where we go or whom we are with. When the voices of discontent resurface, we won’t emotionally identify with them and they will vanish as easily as they came. Only then will we experience true happiness. Of course, we will still have people we are naturally closer to, but the attachment to their presence will subside. We will carry them in our heart with us everywhere, in the place where our own inner radiance always shines.
Retreats are a beautiful blessing as they help us to find glimpses of an incredible resource, our true Self. Through the hours of practice in pure vibrations, we can come to witness our internal warring voices from a place of impartial interest, eventually realizing that no one can dispel the discontented false self except us. Instead of identifying ourselves as bad or wrong, we learn to dis-identify from the charade of the ego-self. We begin the slow, gradual process of compassionately metabolizing these patterns into our larger nature, our authentic Self.
We need compassionate masters like Amma, yet they cannot do the work for us. Only the dedicated use of tools of practice, again and again, gradually transforms us.
The scriptures talk about three important aspects in our lives – Darshan (meeting), Sparshan (touch) and Sambashan (conversation). The scriptures also point out the three unique blessings in order to attain Kaivalya (liberation) – to be born as a human being, to yearn for moksha (infinite permanent peace) and to come in contact with a living master. We are born human beings, we have the yearning to seek and become better and we have the presence of a Living Master, Amma, to guide and uplift us to see our innate potential. Let us make this rare blessing into a true blessing in this lifetime.
Author: Brahmacharini Shobhana