LIAM CHAI

Two Month Solitary Retreat Preparations

Dear friends,

For some time now I have held an aspiration to go on long-term retreat. That aspiration still holds, and this post is about my upcoming two month solitary retreat. This will be an experiment to learn whether solitary retreats are conducive for furthering my spiritual practice (and discovering shamatha).

I will be on retreat from 28th July 2017 until 30th September 2017. The first 10 days will be spent on a silent group retreat at Amaravati. Then I go straight to an apartment in Hertfordshire that my friend, Jay, has gifted me to use until 30th September.

This will be the longest retreat I’ll have ever done. Two weeks is the most I have done before for a solitary retreat and the longest group retreat was five weeks (although only three weeks was in silence).

I unpack why I am doing this more in the discovering shamatha post series. The basic gist is that these two months will be an experiment to see if solitary retreat conditions are conducive for my practice and to move closer to discovering shamatha and beyond. Shamatha is like technology for the contemplative path. It needs to be honed and refined to higher and higher degrees in order to discover deeper and deeper truths about reality. If these two months go well, I hope to have the opportunity to go back into retreat for as long as it takes to at least discover shamatha. This could be six months, a year, or even longer.

In this post however I’ll go into more detail about my daily schedule for this retreat, the practices I’ll do and the creative constraints I’ll take on.

The Daily Schedule


6:30am – Wake up

7:00am – Morning Puja

7:45am – Walking with Litter Picking Practice

8:45am – Adhitthana Sitting

10:00am – Meditation Practices

1:00pm – Dharma Reading

1:30pm – First Meal

2:00pm – Adhitthana Sitting

3:15pm – Meditation Practices

6:00pm – Light Exercise

6:30pm – Second Meal

7:30pm – Short Walk

7:45pm – Meditation Practices

10:00pm – Evening Puja

10:30pm – Lights Out

“Continuity of practice is the secret to success.” – S. N. Goenka

Creative Constraints


Morning/Evening Puja

Puja is a sanskrit word which translates as ‘reverence’ or ‘worship’. For me each morning I want to begin the day with reflections on the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma. I also want to begin the day by connecting with my highest motivation for practice, namely bodhichitta, the wish towards full awakening for the sake of all beings. I’ll also do some mantra and visualisation practices here that can rouse energy and wake me up fully in the morning. In the evenings I will do largely the same but include a dedication ritual.

Litter Picking Practice

If I’m not able to connect fully with the motivation of bodhichitta, being on solitary retreat could perhaps lead to feeling insular. To counter this I felt a practice of picking litter up during my morning walks would give me a sense of interconnectedness with my environment. It would expand my sense of ‘home’ and keep me grounded in doing small acts of kindness. So on my walks I’ll bring a bag with me that I can use to collect litter whenever I see any.

Adhitthana Sitting

Adhitthana is a sanskrit word that translates roughly to ‘strong-determination’. Adhitthana sitting is the practice of sitting for the entire meditation period without making any movements (i.e. scratching an itch, changing postures, etc). During these sits I will mainly be practicing shamatha. I will observe and acknowledge all mental thoughts, bodily sensations, urges and emotions that arise and pass during a sit. Here the practice is to watch each one of them arise and pass away without reaction. Reactions are often unconscious, and so by maintaing a constraint of ‘no body movements at all’ it allows greater awareness to permeate into these depths of reactivity.

Shinzen Young talks about three accelerators for meditation practice. One of them is duration training, which is adhitthana sitting but gradually increasing the duration of each sit with more practice. I will start off with one hour adhitthana sits which I have practiced on Goenka’s Vipassana retreats. Every few days (or as I see fit) I will extend the length of sitting by a few minutes.

This practice is about bringing deliberate practice into my retreat. That is to practice in a way that challenges me so that my sessions move me closer to mastery. I could easily waste this opportunity by feeding my many habit patterns. I could end up sleeping a lot, overeating or spending all my time reading. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but I’ve not come on retreat to over eat or indulge in sleeping.

Meditation Practices

This will comprise mainly of shamatha practices, namely mindfulness of breathing as per Asanga’s instructions. However as I continue to practice I may shift my shamatha practice to a more subtle object like settling the mind or awareness of awareness practice.

In this period I will also make time for the four immeasurable practices and some vipashyana inquiries. However my main focus for this retreat is on shamatha. These practices won’t be adhitthana sittings. I will generally sit shorter sessions during these periods. I will also be happy using the supine (lying down) posture.

On the Creative Constraints

These are kept to protect me from wasting my time on retreat. They also allow me to foster the most ideal conditions while I am on retreat. Not eating too much allows my mind to stay sharper for longer periods and makes me less prone to drowsiness. Noble silence means I don’t create more causes for mind chatter and with prolonged periods of this the mind will naturally begin to settle.

Celibacy means no sexual activity at all. This allows the sexual energy to gradually build and gives me the opportunity to use it towards shamatha rather than have it disperse. I might end up having nocturnal emissions but that would be okay for this retreat. The adhitthana sittings I have already mentioned above, and waking up every morning at the same time is a bid to prevent myself from oversleeping. Lastly staying offline means my attention isn’t scattered to a plethora of information or distractions and I can channel it towards shamatha instead.

Journalling

Throughout the two months I’ll keep a light journal to log the number, length and quality of each meditation session (especially the adhitthana ones). This will act like a mirror, so I can see (somewhat quantitatively) how I am doing, especially as I get to the middle of the retreat. I won’t write essays of thoughts however, as this could end up stirring the mind much more.

Last Thoughts

I suspect I’ll make some changes to the schedule after the first week on retreat. If not I’ll keep to the schedule for the whole retreat. Although near the end I might begin to let go of the structure and see how I take to more openness and less imposed discipline.

There is a very clear goal for me in this retreat – to move towards discovering shamatha. But the path towards that is one of greater and greater effortlessness. Less striving, being goal-less in some sense. This seems a little paradoxical, but I believe holding both views simultaneously will be of benefit. Alan Wallace has also mentioned that it would be good to hold the goal very clearly in-between sessions but to drop it as soon as you begin a meditation practice.

I feel very excited and grateful to have an opportunity to go away for an extended period and practice in this way. There have been many conditions that seem to be aligning magically for this to happen. If the retreat goes well and I feel the conditions are conducive for deepening my practice, my feeling is I will do longer retreats in the future until I discover shamatha.

Other Posts in the Series:



2 responses to “Two Month Solitary Retreat Preparations”

  1. Zilong Wang says:

    What a gift – to all! Deep bows,and Thank you for the clarity! And sending all blessings, brother Liam! May you discover shamatha in due time for the benefit of many!

  2. Thank you Liam,

    Your writing is eloquent and simple. Effortless to read and this makes understanding flow readily.

    You are a constant source of inspiration, ideas as hope.

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