At some point in your journey, you will discover the benefits of meditating with others. This is called group meditation, and engaging in this aspect of practice is very rewarding. Meditating with others of like mind enormously enhances your practice in ways that do not normally occur when sitting alone. The mere presence of others sitting in silence with you lends a communal strength of spiritual support that actually heightens your own personal experience. Many minds joined together in one similar effort charges the surrounding environment and strengthens mindfulness for the whole group. This is an experience not to be missed.
Group meditation can take place in a number of ways. You can find a small group and sit in the privacy of someone’s home, alternating homes according to a predetermined schedule. You can join a meditation class with a formal teacher and attend weekly sessions. You can also seek out meditation retreats, which can extend from a weekend session to as long as several weeks or more at a time.
Of all these possibilities, the long, extended retreats are the most profound. A long retreat is almost always lead by a teacher, and is normally conducted under a rule of silence for the entire length of the retreat. This is where you can really deepen your practice experience. From the time you arise in the early morning hours to your time of retirement from the day’s activities in the evening, you are practicing meditation.
Usually, the retreat is structured so that sitting meditation and walking meditation are alternated from hour to hour, with break times for meals, chores, and any other important daily events. As an example, take a look at a Daily Retreat Schedule, and a sample Retreat Rules and Procedures. As you can see, long retreats are intensive, and are designed to give the practitioner every opportunity to deepen meditation practice.
A retreat is a safe haven, where all participants practice the same moral code. The worldly cares and worries of work, family, personal safety, and other stressing matters are eliminated for this temporary time so that it becomes easier to focus on introspection throughout the day. The common chores of daily living–cooking, cleaning, etc., are assigned/chosen on a voluntary basis at the very beginning of the retreat, and each attendee is trusted to carry out his or her assignment without the need for supervision or policing.
Daily Dharma talks are also a part of traditional Insight Meditation retreats. Dharma talks are given by the teacher that guides the meditation retreat, and they usually take place in the meditation hall, with the students seated in the sitting meditation posture. The subject of these talks are varied, and may include topics from the Buddha’s teachings, life experiences of the teacher regarding meditation practice, or even problems of the students with their own practices. Talking is allowed during the session to allow students to respond, ask questions, or share problems regarding practice. A written example of a Dharma talk is provided for your examination.
Private teacher-student interviews are yet another aspect of the Vipassana retreat. These are designed to give each student a chance for a short, personal period of time to sit one on one with the meditation teacher to discuss individual problems or concerns. This interaction not only helps the student to learn how to better guide meditation practice, but also helps the student and teacher to form a bond of trust and faith between them, further enhancing the learning experience.
The rewards for making the effort to attend long retreats are immeasurable. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced practitioner, there will always be a notable progression of insight imparted to you at the end of the retreat. To give you a sense of what can occur, take the time to read this written submission by a beginning student’s first attendance at a long retreat.
With regard to long retreats, the pattern of meditative development is progressive. During the first three days of a long retreat, a practitioner spends most of the sessions ‘cleaning up the rubbish’–allowing the body and mind to shift gears downwards to a more quiet, calm, relaxed state. The cares and concerns of the world are put aside so that practice may deepen. Within the first full week, the student will regain the level of experience attained from any previous long retreats attended. Once the student has regained this ground, the current long retreat sessions begin to build with considerable momentum, and the potential for the student to catapult up to the next level of insight knowledge is greatly increased. This is why the longer a student can stay in retreat, the better. A minimum of ten days is highly recommended to help the student gain some new experience. A long retreat is similar to the process of boiling water. If heat is applied long enough without interruption, the water will boil.