The IMS Forest Refuge is a haven for experienced meditators seeking sustained personal retreat in a secluded and supportive environment. Under the guidance of experienced insight meditation teachers, a self-retreat at the Forest Refuge will strengthen practice, faith, confidence, and spiritual independence. This April, the Forest Refuge welcomes IMS teacher Oren Jay Sofer as visiting faculty, co-teaching with Caroline Jones. Here, in his own words, Oren encourages you to consider the Forest Refuge for your next retreat, and invites you to join him at this extraordinary retreat destination.
Oren, what is your personal relationship with the Forest Refuge at IMS?
I grew up on the East Coast so my body feels deeply at home in the forests of the Northeast. And IMS is my spiritual home, so I love being on retreat at the Forest Refuge. I have also served at the Forest Refuge supporting my monastic teacher, Ajahn Succitto. There is so much care and thoughtfulness that went into the construction of the Forest Refuge: the layout, the architecture, the seclusion, the spaciousness. The Forest Refuge offers a special balance between the simplicity of renunciation and sufficient comfort. I also love the size, always limited to 30 people. You feel you are part of a practicing community but also have the space to be alone.
Is it important for meditators to occasionally step away from group retreat experiences and move toward solo practice at some point in their learning?
My teacher Anagarika Munindra said “We come into this world alone and we leave this world alone. No one can walk the path for you.” So, one aspect of the trajectory of this practice is learning to become one’s own teacher. The function of the teacher is to point the way. But it’s up to each of us to follow through on the instructions. As the practice matures, one learns to become one’s own guide, to trust the practice and to trust the unfolding of the path itself. The Forest Refuge offers a unique opportunity to do this.
How would a meditator know if they are ready for a solo retreat at the Forest Refuge?
To determine if you are ready to experiment with solo retreats, it is wise to look for certain signs within yourself.
First, is there a quality of interest and curiosity in your practice? Do you have a genuine sense of yearning to understand your own heart and mind and to go deeper? Having a clear sense of aspiration is key to maintain the kind of commitment and diligence needed for a solo retreat.
Next, is there a sense of confidence? Not necessarily an unwavering, unfailing confidence, but some understanding that you can handle most of what your mind throws up at you. You have been through enough of the roller-coaster on retreat and know you can get through it.
Ask yourself, “Do I have faith in my capacity?” After two or three group retreats, most people would have enough experience to do two weeks at the Forest Refuge. At the Forest Refuge, there are talks, there are interviews, there is guidance. But there is also more space to deepen the sense of self-reliance. So, the question becomes, do you have confidence and trust? These are important qualities to look for.
Finally, look at the conditions of your life and determine if you have the flexibility and ability to explore a solo retreat now. We never know when the conditions in life will change. If the internal factors and external factors all line up, I would encourage you to act.
What if I am still unsure? Are there other ways to tell if I am ready?
Experiment. Take a day – or even half a day – at home and do a self-retreat. Set up a schedule and just sit and walk. Turn off the cell phone, seclude yourself, and see what it is like without the teacher and the community and the bells. That’s a great way to experiment. This will also translate directly to your time at the Forest Refuge where following your own schedule is encouraged.
Another way to investigate readiness is to take periods of self-practice during a regular group retreat. After you settle in for a couple of days, don’t sit with the group outside of the instructional sits and the dharma talks. Go sit in your room and experiment with following your own rhythm. Or if you are the type that needs a schedule, follow the group schedule for a day or two apart from the others. In that way, you have the container but you are also doing a self-retreat. There is something very beautiful about the quality of solitude, simplicity, and spaciousness of a more independent kind of practice.
What can practitioners expect from you as a teacher if they join you at the Forest Refuge in April?
I know what it’s like to struggle, to feel bored, to doubt yourself, so I think I have a lot of compassion for the challenges that can come up on retreat and in life. I’ve also had to work at the practice, to be really creative in my own journey, and I have been fortunate to work with teachers who are open-minded. So, I have a sense of flexibility and spaciousness in how I support people. I like to meet people where they are and work together to find what is needed. I also have a strong passion for clarity in the instructions. When we know – and understand – what we are doing in the practice, some of the churn in the mind can settle and our practice can lead to a sense of peace and surrender.
Another thing I bring to students is a passion for aspects of the path and practices that often are not emphasized as much in our tradition. For example, I have a strong appreciation for the power of ritual and devotion, and ways of teaching this that I think are very accessible. This can be a tremendous support in an environment like the Forest Refuge.
I think many people also know about my work with Next Step Dharma, an online program that supports people coming out of retreat and bridging the transition into daily life. Another somewhat unique facet about what I am offering in April is that afterwards, I can really be available to help people continue and integrate their experience.