June 29, 2023

A Unique Offering with a Long Tradition: Joseph Goldstein Reflects on IMS’s Three-Month Retreat

The Three-Month Retreat has been an anchor in our retreat schedule since the beginning of IMS. In fact, this retreat pre-dates the birth of IMS. In 1975, one year before co-founders Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield opened IMS in Barre, Mass., they held a three-month retreat in a rented location in Bucksport, Maine. Ever since, this offering has become IMS’s trademark retreat with an international reputation.

Running 12 weeks from September through early December, with an option to sit one of two six-week portions, the Three-Month Retreat is a unique offering in the insight meditation community, started by a team of teachers whose personal experience with long-term retreats in Asia inspired them to offer something similar to the growing community of insight meditation practitioners in the West.

Here, IMS co-founder Joseph Goldstein discusses the history of the Three-Month Retreat, what it’s like to teach it, and what makes it unique.

Registration for our 2024 Three-Month Retreat (Sept. 10 – Dec. 3) is open, and spots are still available for the full three months, as well both Part I (Sept. 10 – Oct. 22) and Part 2 (Oct. 22 – Dec. 3). For more information and to register, click here

What was the inspiration for the Three-Month Retreat?

Those of us who started teaching the Three-Month had all done long periods of intensive practice in the East, so we felt it would be the natural step in helping people to deepen their practice here.

What was it like to teach the Three-Month Retreat at the beginning?

It was very inspired and energizing because, again, all the teachers had recently returned from our own long-term intensive practice in the East. Based on our own recent experience, we were imbued with enthusiasm for it all and wanted to share it. I taught the whole Three-Month Retreat and then right after did a new year’s course. Somehow, back then I had the energy to do all of this, and I loved it.

But after many years, as the teaching teams got older, we divided the Three-Month Retreat into two six-week back-to-back sessions, with two different teaching teams, one for each of the six-week parts.

Of course, we also made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. It took us a while to really be sensitive to people’s needs during a long-term retreat with all the ups and downs that can occur. The Three-Month Retreat now has an effective support system available for the yogis. But in the beginning, we were young and naive thinking, “Let’s just jump in.” We learned a lot in the doing and teaching of it.

What are the benefits of doing a Three-Month Retreat?

One benefit—and it leads into the others—is the chance for people to deepen their powers of concentration. There are a few people who have natural samadhi or concentration, but for most meditators, it takes time to develop it. It can be developed somewhat in a shorter retreat. But with the Three-Month Retreat, people very often experience quite a dramatic deepening of concentration.

There are different models for how practice unfolds in the different traditions. The Thai Forest tradition is one model, the Burmese Mahasi method is another. We were teaching a lot from the Burmese Mahasi method and part of the unfolding of the Path is something called the Progress of Insight. It outlines in a very systematic way the various stages of insight along the path. As one’s practice deepens, each of the stages has quite distinct characteristics that people experience. The strengthening of concentration makes entering into that progress of insight possible. It’s really inspiring to see some number of people enter into that depth of practice.

The Three-Month Retreat continues to serve the whole range of people, from those who are just beginning to enter into long-term practice as well as those who have been practicing for a long time and find the structure supportive.

People from all over the world attend the Three-Month Retreat at IMS because it is one of a few places where someone can sit a retreat of this length with this format. Would you comment on the enduring value of this program in IMS’s retreat roster?

For some reason of scheduling, one year we could only do a two-month retreat, and all the teachers noticed the difference. Somehow, in the third month, a noticeable and significant deepening happens. That experience reinforced our commitment to doing the Three-Month Retreat because of the noticeable value and benefit of that extra month.

At this point, I think it’s just in the bones of IMS. We have a strong commitment to the depth and length of this retreat, and we’ve managed to keep that going, even as societal pressures have changed. Of course, it’s a big commitment for people to sit for three months and it’s one of the reasons that on the shorter retreats we offer different options—from two weeks to nine days to week-long retreats to weekends. I think this reflects the various needs of people interested in developing their meditation practice.

But at IMS, the three-month course has been such a core program from the very beginning, and the response has been really encouraging.

Some of the core group of senior teachers said their last goodbyes to the Three-Month Retreat in 2022, including Carol Wilson and Guy and Sally Armstrong. What are your thoughts on the transition from these veteran teachers to some of the newer teachers?

It’s a natural process as folks get older. But IMS is in a fortunate place with this recent cohort of graduates from our Teacher Training Program and some from earlier programs as well. There are a number of newer teachers who have also done long-term practice, and they bring the experience and the real depth of understanding. It is very satisfying that there is a group of people who we feel confident can carry on this yearly tradition. The Three-Month Retreat remains in good hands!

Some of the retreatants from our Teen Retreat sat the Three-Month Retreat last year. Any thoughts?

It’s fantastic. It’s great to see the young people here at IMS. It has been interesting over all these years to see the waves of demographic change. When we first started, we had a lot of young people—like ourselves—really enthusiastic about this path of practice from the East. And then for a long time, it was basically that same cohort and age group who kept coming back. But of course, they kept aging, so for quite a while there were a lot of middle-aged people.

And it was very white. It took a long time to change things. As an organization, we started to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion work in the 2000s. We began having BIPOC retreats, and then seeing more people of color attending all retreats. That was another demographic shift. And we still have a lot of work to do in that area. More recently, we are seeing another whole wave of young people. So, from my perspective, looking back over 45 years, it’s interesting and inspiring to see these demographic waves of ever-growing inclusivity.

It’s very encouraging to see the continuing interest in young people coming for intensive meditation practice. And it continues to grow, even at a time when secular mindfulness has become so widespread. It’s really become part of the mainstream. It has been so helpful in introducing people to mindfulness practice. It provides people with a methodology for greater well-being. But mindfulness can also be much more, namely a path to awakening, enlightenment, and liberation.

For those who are interested, the aspiration and motivating energy of this retreat is the possibility of liberation, the highest freedom. Although in the larger discourse of mindfulness, people are not usually talking about liberation or enlightenment, IMS, particularly during the Three-Month Retreat, is holding this possibility alive and meaningful for people who come to practice.