A Conversation with IMS’s Retreat Support Fellows
Life on a silent meditation retreat can present challenges. While on retreat, a wide range of questions and needs arise, from the practical to the emotional, to those related to the practice. This can be true for people new to retreat as well as for yogis who have meditated for years. To support our yogis on their path to liberation, there is a network of people at IMS’s Retreat Center and Forest Refuge available to help. This includes the teachers and teaching teams, retreat managers, facilities, housekeeping, cooks, front office staff, and our retreat support fellows—Monica Williams, MAC, and Joe Fortenbaugh, PhD.
Retreat support fellows provide a broad range of assistance to our yogis to make life on retreat an easeful and profound experience. Working in cooperation with the support teams at IMS, the retreat support fellows help to create the conditions for yogis to experience retreat in a way that is beneficial to them.
At the start of every retreat at the Retreat Center, Monica and Joe are introduced to yogis during the opening talk and meet yogis one-on-one during check-in at the Forest Refuge. While on retreat, yogis can contact retreat support through the red phones at both centers. In this interview, our retreat support fellows talk with IMS Staff Writer, Raquel Baetz, about their role, the kinds of assistance they provide, and how they came to perform this essential work.
How do yogis on residential retreats interact with retreat support fellows?
Monica: Joe and I are on call 24/7 through the red phone at the Retreat Center and the Forest Refuge. Both centers have office hours, but if it’s before 8 am or after 5 pm, we are the first point of contact for yogis. For our role, we go back and forth being either “first responder” or “second responder.” The first responder is the person in charge of the phone that day, so they answer the calls and handle anything that comes up. The second responder provides backup if there is some extra need or emergency when the first responder is busy. It’s not necessary all the time, but it’s there when needed.
What kinds of support do retreat support fellows provide?
Joe: Often, our work involves small jobs for the yogis such as running to the pharmacy, taking someone to a doctor’s appointment, and check-ins at the Forest Refuge. The remainder is responding to more significant needs such as mental distress and being available to yogis going through that. We coordinate with the teaching team if needed and work with them to resolve any issues. Monica and I work together with the teachers to evaluate the situation and provide support in the best way possible. We hold space, listen, give some feedback, and provide options for how to move forward in consultation with the teachers.
Monica: We deal with all kinds of needs from simple things like someone not being able to find extra blankets at night to mental health needs to challenges with meditation practice. There might be an emergency where a family member is trying to get in touch with a yogi after office hours so one of us will find the yogi, let them know, and help them call home.
When people come to IMS, they’ve been busy and now they’re sitting retreat and things come up and can be magnified. Someone might be feeling overwhelmed or experience some other mental health issue and maybe they need someone to talk to. Or they might be having difficulties with their meditation, and we can offer some help or get the teaching team involved.
Describe a day in the life of a retreat support fellow.
Monica: That’s tough because it changes so much. One of us always goes to the teacher meeting which happens every morning before they do their first instruction. Retreat support is there to make sure the teachers have whatever they need for that day. If we can, we might join the morning sit when one of the teachers gives practice instruction. In the evening, we might join the dharma talk. We want the yogis to know that we’re around, and it’s also good for us when we’re in the hall—hearing what the teachers are saying. Then we know what the retreat is about and what the teachers are focusing on, which is good for us. It also helps us relate to the yogis when they do have an issue. So, it’s helpful on many levels to be part of the sangha.
Then we could get a phone call because a yogi doesn’t feel well or needs to talk. Or maybe we get no calls that day. Or maybe the fire alarm goes off!
Then we have emails, meetings, and scheduling with teachers and each other. We meet regularly with the resident teachers at the Retreat Center and the Forest Refuge, who provide support and guidance to us. And we meet with the center managers for feedback and supervision too.
What’s important to you about this role?
Joe: We are striving to offer the best quality support that we can in any given situation. We’re here to support all beings—to be of service and to offer what we can. And everyone takes that incredibly seriously. The teaching teams, center managers, and front office teams are super supportive of us. There’s always someone on call for us to communicate with if we need more assistance. And everyone here is so compassionate. We are here to support the yogis and the whole community, and that’s what feels good and meaningful and beneficial for everyone.
Monica: I really value the communication, teamwork, and support we all provide each other throughout the whole center. We do an awesome thing that is very necessary, and I feel proud to do it. And I feel supported in the work, so it’s not scary or overwhelming. I feel like I could reach out to anybody in any department for support. We’re all creating these conditions for the yogis when they need it the most. Many times, what we are doing is holding space for someone, listening to them, and allowing them to have the response they’re having. Being able to support the yogis on their path like this is so satisfying and gratifying to me.
How did you come to the role of retreat support fellow?
Joe: I started meditating at the beginning of grad school at Penn State with a local sangha in the Soto Zen tradition because I was looking for something more meaningful and purposeful. Later, I found the 10% Happier app and started doing meditations through that. Joseph Goldstein is the first teacher on the app, and I really connected with the style and teachings of IMS. I signed up for Joseph’s retreat in 2020 which was a lottery, and I got in! Two weeks later, I signed up for another retreat. My intention had been to get more involved with IMS, but then the center shut down because of Covid. So, I continued doing my science thing—I have a PhD in chemistry. It was interesting, but I felt much more called to the Dharma. So, IMS was always on my radar. I was at the end of this program fellowship in Tennessee and started exploring different opportunities and saw the retreat support position. I thought it sounded like an amazing opportunity to work with teachers, live at the retreat center, and build a community.
Monica: I have a Master’s in counseling, so I was a counselor by trade before this, specializing in mostly addiction and substance abuse, but other areas too. I left the field a while back because I wanted to practice more alternative healing modalities, helping people through spirituality or meditation. I came to my first retreat at IMS in 2012 and immediately knew it was my path. I saw the retreat support position was open last March. Ever since I left the clinical field, I had been searching for my thing. I’ve always been very spiritual and trying to find a way where it meets the practical part of life. That’s one of the reasons why the position appealed to me. It had been a dream of mine to work at IMS and live in a cottage and now I do!