Oren Jay Sofer is a nationally recognized teacher of meditation, mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication. Oren began his study of Theravada Buddhism in 1997 in Bodh Gaya, India, and lived as a renunciate for two and a half years in the Ajahn Chah Thai Forest Lineage. He holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is the author of “Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication,” and is the founder of Next Step Dharma, an innovative online program that helps meditators integrate their retreat experiences into daily life. Oren will be teaching at IMS in February and May, 2020, and will be teaching at the Forest Refuge for the month of April with Teacher-in-Residence Caroline Jones. We recently sat down with Oren to examine the value of retreats and how they offer the potential to better our lives and the lives of those around us.
Oren, what are the origins of Buddhist retreat culture?
If we look at spiritual development and religion throughout history, it is a common phenomenon for human beings to temporarily remove themselves from society or from the regular rhythms and responsibilities of life in order to gain a different perspective. Stepping out of the ordinary, shifting consciousness, and then returning to life in order to allow a new perspective to inform our way of being in the world is probably as old as human beings on the planet. We certainly have records of the Buddha and his monastic followers going on self-retreats and community retreats. For example, it was standard for monks and nuns to remain in one location on retreat for several months each year during monsoon season.
In modern times, the particular model of the silent intensive retreat came about in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. In his book, The Birth of Insight, Eric Braun recounts how Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw helped lead a renaissance of Buddhism in Burma. Ledi Sayadaw wanted to make the practices more accessible to everyone during a time of British colonialism. This helped reassert a unique national identity as a Buddhist country and holding retreats was an important part of that. In a very important sense then, the contemporary model of lay practitioners going on intensive retreats is a new phenomenon.
The roots of retreat culture appear to have settled in the West in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the practice is becoming ever more popular today. Why do you think the act of going on retreat remains so essential for meditators in the contemporary age?
Meditation retreats provide a protected space where we can set aside most of the distractions and stimulation of daily life. Within that secluded space it becomes a lot easier to develop sufficient stability (concentration), continuity of mindfulness, and clarity of the mind.
The truth of being alive is that we are vulnerable. The world is unreliable. But we live as if the opposite were true. We then struggle and suffer because we don’t fully understand and accept these realities of life. We often end up using a large of amount of our mental, emotional, and physical energy to protect ourselves from these realities. We may avoid unpleasant experiences and chase after or hold onto pleasant ones. We may attempt to control the world around us, to control other people, to control our own mind, and to insulate our hearts from the vulnerability, the uncertainty, the rawness, and pain in life. But this is not the most effective way to use a human life.
Retreat practice teaches us the ultimate futility of those strategies. Deeper levels of practice learned on retreat offer a new kind of security and protection. Retreats support a deepening of our natural awareness, a maturing of understanding, and a development of the beautiful qualities of the heart like generosity, integrity, kindness, and compassion.
How would you describe the primary benefits of a silent meditation retreat?
While on retreat, we strengthen particular qualities of heart-mind in service of seeing clearly and freeing the heart. This is one of the things I find so elegant and amazing about the formal practice; progress isn’t based on the content of your experience. It’s not about seeing light and feeling bliss. It’s about how you are relating to whatever is happening. The most mundane, boring story that is running through your mind can be the condition or cause for the arising of great compassion or patience or generosity or insight. Through the practice of moment to moment awareness we are strengthening a wide range of wholesome qualities and coming to understand the role that they play in our life.
Next, we develop wisdom. One aspect of wisdom is understanding the difference between what is helpful or skillful, and what is not helpful or unskillful – both the roots of these forces in our minds, and their manifestation through speech and action. On retreat, we have the space to move beyond an intellectual idea about this to an embodied, felt understanding of the difference between a healthy impulse or mind state, and an unhealthy, unskillful one. The wisdom factor is learning to differentiate.
Understanding our own mind, the natural laws of life, the dynamics of human relationship; all of this arises on retreat. And all of the wholesome qualities and wholesome motivations we discover are like the healthy soil for the seeds of insight to sprout. The growth of wisdom matures into an understanding about the causes of stress or suffering, and its ending.
How are IMS retreats different from other immersive experiences in meditation and mindfulness?
With the popularity of secular mindfulness, we have seen a proliferation of other retreat formats that are less intensive than IMS retreats. Some of these feel more like a workshop; many are not silent, and at some you can get a massage or drink alcohol. They might seem like a vacation with a little meditation thrown in. The retreats we do at IMS and at other insight meditation centers are intended to be intensive trainings; the whole structure of the retreat is designed to support the deepening and the strengthening of healthy mental qualities and insight.
IMS retreats promote a more complete and raw encounter with one’s own mind and the experience of being alive and being human. These outcomes are most reliably possible when you take away the distractions and stimulation that we use to insulate or buffer ourselves from the mysteriousness and unfamiliarity of our own mind.
The container at IMS – having a schedule, no distractions, a community that is practicing together, the guidance and encouragement of teachers – all of that tends to make it easier to develop the qualities of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
IMS serves many long-term practitioners as well as an increasing number of people who are new to the practices. What advice would you offer a novice who may be considering an IMS retreat for the first time?
It really depends on the person. Some people find it helpful to ease into attending a silent retreat. Before coming to IMS, they might start with a one day intensive, then go to a weekend or non-residential program, and finally attend a three- or five-day retreat. If you are newer to practice, there can be a lot of benefit in working up to a silent retreat, so that you have a feeling for what it’s like to meditate, sitting and walking, for half a day, a day, two days. Gradually increasing the duration of one’s practice period is a healthy, reliable approach to developing more confidence and internal strength.
On the other hand, some people find great value in just diving in. I sat my first 10-day silent retreat at age 20 after about three months of daily practice and one silent weekend. It was a tremendous learning opportunity. And it’s very safe; people have been retreating into solitude to study their minds for millennia. What’s more, if you go to a meditation retreat at IMS (or at any other established Insight Meditation center or with a teacher who teaches at those centers) you are in good hands. You’re not going off into the wilderness with no guide. You can have confidence in the teachers and staff, who are there to support you through the experience. Last, you are not doing it alone; you are doing it with a community of other retreatants.
For experienced practitioners, what are the benefits of returning to retreat on an ongoing basis?
Wisdom grows when we practice and it wanes when we don’t practice. The habit of mind is to want what we want as quickly, effortlessly, and immediately as possible, with the most pleasure, and in the longest lasting way. That’s the default conditioning. This programming gets applied to spiritual practice; we might want to be able to check a retreat off the list. We may think, “Yes, I did my 10-day vipassana retreat and now I’m done. I’m good for this lifetime.” It doesn’t work like that. It’s not like getting a tattoo or hanging a degree on the wall where you get it once and you’re done. This is a life-long process. In a way, it’s more like learning to play an instrument. You can get to a certain point of proficiency but if you stop practicing long enough, you get rusty. You need to keep engaging those muscles and that perspective in order for it to be alive and available in your daily life.
So, sitting retreats regularly is a way to refresh the heart-mind in the wisdom perspectives of the dharma, and to get a stronger, periodic dose of practice. If one’s motivation has waned, one can consider the benefits you have already received through your practice in life. It is easy to forget how far we have come or become complacent and coast, particularly for people who have been practicing for a long time. Often, a lot of the more disturbing and egregious kinds of suffering wear away early and then we are working on more subtle layers of conditioning, delusion, and self-centeredness. Returning to retreat can help us stay engaged in the practice and support the continued unfolding of the awakening process.
Can exploring the dharma on a silent meditation retreat help us better serve our communities?
Absolutely. The more clear and free our own mind, the more we have to give. Service, generosity, and compassion are both supports for and natural outcomes of the path.
I think that anyone who practices sincerely will discover their own deeper suffering, and through that experience, will also discover their connection to other people’s suffering. This whole practice is about ending suffering. So, the conversation today sits within an understanding of the way the institutions and dynamics of our society create and perpetuate oppression and suffering. The very life of the dharma becomes one of ending suffering for all beings through social transformation.
I think that we as a community are actively exploring the question, “What does it mean to have a social analysis from a dharma perspective?” It is difficult for many of us to tolerate the tremendous grief and pain we feel in relation to the harm that is being caused by systems and institutions, as well as to grapple with the immense amount of resources they have at their disposal. We need something of a different order to stand up to those forces.
I believe that the dharma offers an important piece of the puzzle for many. The dharma alone can’t solve our ecological crisis, racism, income inequality, and the like, but it offers us a powerful and universal method for healing, practices to transform the roots of suffering, and principles to guide our actions. The dharma also provides a training ground to develop the kinds of qualities that allow us to work for social change without burning out.
In the end, some people can be very motivated by the promise of freedom for one’s own heart and ending their suffering individually. For others, the potential for compassionate service and the enhancement of our capacity to make a difference for other people is more inspiring and motivating. It is important as we go along this path to continue to investigate what our motivation is and to hone it so it feels alive and clear.