There are many different kinds of retreat—solitary or group, religious or secular, highly structured or self-directed—but any retreat essentially involves getting away from your usual distractions to focus on your contemplative practice.
This is what separates a retreat from other forms of rest or vacation: your intention. When you go on a retreat, you make a commitment to engage in and deepen your contemplative practice. Since retreats are often lead by a teacher, they can also be valuable opportunities for you to ask questions and receive guidance on more personal spiritual matters.
The typical retreat experience involves staying away from your home, at a retreat center or spiritual community of some kind, such as a monastery or meditation center. But for many of us it can be difficult to get away from everyday life for an extended period. Fortunately, if you have good self-discipline and a little creativity, you can create a rejuvenating retreat for yourself at home by setting aside time to be used exclusively for your spiritual well-being.
The primary problem you face during an at-home retreat is that you are surrounded by your usual distractions. For the period you are designating as your retreat time, unplug the TV, shut off the phone, activate your internet-blocking apps, and (this is the very hard part!) remind your family and friends to leave you alone as much as possible. If you want to read, write, make art or listen to music while on retreat, gather your supplies before your retreat period begins. You may wish to keep a journal of your thoughts and experiences. Or, you could try removing yourself from all distraction--no reading, no listening to music, no writing--and experiment with just being alone for a time. Learn to trust your instincts to spend your time the way you find most appropriate.
Residential retreat settings vary, and can include monasteries, campgrounds, spiritual or religious centers, or any rented space such as hotels and conference centers. The duration may vary, from less than one day to several months (or even years, in some traditions), but three-day, five-day, and ten-day retreats are common.
Although attending a retreat does require you to have free time and money for things such as transportation, food, and registration fees, retreats do not have to be very expensive. While some serve gourmet meals and house guests in lavish rooms, many others are more simple, providing dormitory accommodations or housing with local residents, or ask participants to arrange for their own accommodations and food. Additionally, many retreats offer scholarships, work exchanges, or "suggested donations" instead of fixed prices.
Disclaimer: These links are listed for your convenience. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society is not endorsing the teachers, teachings, policies, politics, or activities of the organizations included on these web sites.
Current & Past Staff and Board Members' Personal Recommendations
Carrie Bergman, Associate Director: I find it really helpful to be able to ask questions or get some guidance about my practice when I'm feeling stuck, so I recommend finding a retreat taught by a trusted clergy member, teacher or mentor. I also enjoy going on day trips, to take in the sights, draw, paint, or take photographs; just getting away from my usual routine is rewarding. Spending time in nature and being creative help loosen me up and get back in touch with what's important to me. My personal retreats include time in solitude at Woolman Hill Quaker Center, group retreats with the Drikung Dzogchen Community of Vermont and music retreats and workshops with Mbira. I always look forward to working at Contemplative Mind's retreats held at the Garrison Institute.
John Berry, former Website Coordinator: When looking for a place to retreat I always end up trying to combine almost impossible opposites. Such difficult balances include political awareness and a traditional liturgy, action with asceticism, and an archetypal mission with a creative vision. My life has been changed twice over by finding monasteries that walk that delicate line, and I can’t recommend either of them enough. These communities are the Spiritual Life Institute in Colorado and the New Skete Monastery in New York. These two communities of monks and nuns, one Roman Catholic and the other Orthodox, were for me the apex of the Christian monastic life. Many people think of such a life as a life less human. In this case, the assumption cannot be farther from the truth. Their joy is rooted in both doctrine and personal experience, and it’s a compelling example of the radically transformative Christian life.
Mirabai Bush, former Executive Director: I recommend meditation retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA; Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY; Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY; The Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY; Karme Choling in Woodstock, VT; Green Gulch Farm Zen Center and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in CA. I also recommend retreats taught by Lama Surya Das, Jon Kabat Zinn, Norman Fischer, or Gehlek Rinpoche; yoga retreats at Kripalu in Lenox, MA; and any retreats in Hawaii, Thailand, or Burma sponsored by the Hawaii Insight Meditation Center.
Doug Chermak, former Law Program Director: I would highly recommend the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. I have done three personal retreats there and organized two. It is the perfect place to drop into quiet and stillness and practice mindfulness. There is an incredible energy at Spirit Rock from all the deep practice that takes place there. Everything about it is awesome. Nestled in the hills of Marin County, the residential retreat section is secluded enough from the outside world such that you feel really isolated. The facility is superb--there is a gorgeous, spacious meditation hall, very nice rooms and bathrooms, unbelievable food, numerous hiking trails to explore, stunning wooden buildings, and sweeping views of sky and hills. There is always a friendly managerial and kitchen staff. And the teachers! The best teachers around, and always a multitude of varied-length residential retreats. Plus, there is a scholarship program for those who have trouble affording retreats. Easily accessible from the Oakland and San Francisco airports. They don't call this place the Ritz of Sits for nothing!
Also, though I've not had a chance to retreat there, I've also heard amazing reports from close friends about Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Retreat Center in the Catskills.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Spiritual Director of the Everyday Zen Foundation: The retreats I lead at Mar de Jade, Chacala, Mexico are very good for beginners and also good for finding a little relaxation in midst of intensive retreat. We are on the beach there, and the tropical climate makes the annual early-December retreat very nice. I also recommend retreats taught by Ajhan Amaro and Ajhan Sumedho.
Rose Sackey-Milligan, Former Social Justice Program Director: I personally recommend doing retreats at home or combining 1/2 day of meditation, writing and other creative activities at home with 1/2 day out in nature. I sometimes combine a visit to a botanical garden with journal writing and mantra repetition. At other times, I have spent the entire day working on a creative arts project. An even other times, I've spent the entire day in silence at home. It varies, but most have been personal and included practices that I enjoy. Seasonal rituals are also quite powerful.
Skylight Paths Publishing has a series of books exploring retreats in various spiritual traditions.