On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 2) – Not a Spa

For those that missed the introductory post, this is the 2nd installment in a six part series about what it means to go on an intensive meditation retreat, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This and the next three posts will outline what a retreat is not about, and the final post will attempt to put out what it is about.

First off, going on retreat is not going to a spa.  If I wanted a spa, I’d go to canyon ranch.  There are no massages, facials, pools or gyms, and I don’t go on retreat to relax, though it’s a welcome byproduct that occasionally presents itself. In general actually, retreats can involve a high level of rigor, hence the “intensive” bit in “intensive meditation retreat”. Pretty much the entire day is spent in formal meditation outside of meals, and even during meals and other non-formal practice periods one is aiming to maintain continuity in the meditative practice. That’s anywhere from 15-20 hours a day spent in meditation, and trust me, these hours are just as often painful, exhilarating, disconcerting or a million other mind states both pleasant and unpleasant as they are relaxing.

In terms of external forms of relaxation, the facilities and level of comfort they come with can depend on where you go on retreat. I’ve sat retreats in Asia (Burma, Thailand and India, specifically), as well as in the States, mostly in New England.  While there are certainly differences between those in the East and those in the West, there are some general things that characterize retreat centers that make them quite different from spas.

Lodging is usually sparse, with single though occasionally double occupancy simple, small rooms, and in Asia it’s common to be in a single room hut.  Food in the West is usually vegetarian and at the places I’ve been to quite good though nothing gourmet, and in Asia will be fare of whatever country you find yourself in, which can sometimes be a delight (as it was in Thailand) and sometimes not (I’m looking at you, Burma). Meals are usually twice a day, breakfast and lunch, and in the West I’ve usually been at places that have a very light tea, crackers, peanut butter, fruit and the like, in the late afternoon.  When I was sitting in Thailand there was actually only one meal a day, a huge breakfast at about 8 am that was chocked full of the sort of things you might have for dinner (curries, meats, rice, with plenty of delicious fresh fruit). I’ve almost always enjoyed the food on retreats, but in-house five star restaurants this is not.

Centers are often located in rural areas (the place I just came from is called the Forest Refuge) as it’s helpful to have a good bit of quiet, though I’ve also been to centers in Asia that have been in the middle of cities and are quite loud.  Shared bathrooms and showers are the norm (no hot tubs!), and in long term retreats there will usually be a washing machine in Western centers, and handwash in Asia. Sorry, no dry cleaning available.

Overall, these places are comfortable enough for a person to not get distracted by not having basic needs of food, shelter and clothing met but not get obsessed with these things to the point that a retreatant (or yogi, as they’re called) is luxuriating instead of meditating. This, of course, exists on a spectrum depending on where you are, but, as I said – not a spa.

Stay tuned for part 3 tomorrow, Not An Escape.

Photo Credit to the Forest Refuge

Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.



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