Rocks into Rubies by Andrew Holecek

Images and metaphors on the value of three-year retreat.

It lies nestled on the rugged north Atlantic coast, sheltered from the pounding surf and raging winter winds. A virtual wildlife sanctuary with whales, dolphins, and seals gracing icy waters, and eagles, moose, and the occasional bobcat circumambulating its boundaries. This is Söpa Chöling, “dharma place of patience,” and it is a sanctuary for the practice of sanity. For it is here, in a uniquely Western approach to an ancient tradition of applied wisdom, that meditation is practiced under the most luxurious, and intense, of conditions. Söpa Chöling is a sane asylum, and it lies near the heart of the Shambhala Buddhist practice mandala.

The three-year retreat at Söpa Chöling is a living experiment, resonant with the fearless spirit of Trungpa Rinpoche, who conceived it. “One should live one’s life as a grand experiment,” he proclaimed, and Söpa Chöling echoes that fearless proclamation. It is a groundbreaking retreat in a number of ways.

First of all, it is not a “real three-year retreat,” as many contend. It is a five-year retreat. Alternating nearly one year in with one year out, over a period of five years, participants have the opportunity to work with the most challenging aspect of meditation: stability. Mixing meditation and post-meditation. From the time we first leave the cushion and venture into “walking meditation,” practitioners struggle with sustaining the insights of contained practice.

Having one year out, which is a form of extended walking meditation, allows retreatants to integrate the insights of the phase just completed, and to prepare for the upcoming phase. A number of traditional three-year retreatants, who have completed two “straight through” retreats, report that a central reason for doing the second retreat is that after the first one they now understand what they’re doing. Having one year to digest and metabolize the previous course in the feast of Söpa Chöling practices, and to prepare for the next course, provides a similar opportunity.

Complacency is one of the biggest problems of extended retreat. It’s hard to “practice as if your hair is on fire,” the way the tradition exhorts, when you have countless days of practice ahead of you. Ego steps into retreat to quickly subvert its rigors, and the flames of exertion begin to smolder. Coming in and out of retreat refreshes the discipline and keeps the practice crisp. It also allows you to practice a form of death and rebirth, for everything must be released before each phase is entered, and then reconstituted upon return. The opportunity to work with the tug of habitual patterns and the seduction of security, and to consciously choose how you reassemble your post-retreat world, are highlights of this phased approach.

Söpa Chöling is also the first three-year retreat to be done in English. Trungpa Rinpoche was determined that the practices be translated into our native tongue, a further demonstration of his vision to thoroughly transplant the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism into this culture. The Nalanda Translation Committee, working closely with the Vidyadhara, accepted and completed the enormous challenge of bringing the sacred word of liturgical practice into the Western medium. This is a legacy that will benefit practitioners for hundreds of years.

Dharma Resort

After working through its growing pains, Söpa Chöling has become a potent container for serious practice. Every aspect of distracting daily life has been skillfully tended to or removed, and the result is a dharmic resort community where retreatants soak in the practice and study of dharma at a level unapproachable elsewhere. This resort may not have lawn chairs and barbecue grills to pamper you, but it has meditation boxes (ego’s coffin) and a fire puja house to tenderize and cook you. Dedicated support staff manage the demands of normal life, lamas provide detailed training, Rinpoches and Acharayas offer teachings, and druppons (retreat masters) give meditation instruction.

Every aspect of distracting daily life has been skillfully tended to or removed, and the result is a dharmic resort community where retreatants soak in the practice and study of dharma at a level unapproachable elsewhere. 

The result is a mandala so cared for, so supportive and so complete, that nothing dilutes the focused exploration of mind and heart. In the midst of this precious container arise insights so copious and concentrated that the rest of one’s life can be devoted to the process of unpacking and understanding. Retreat is like making frozen dharmic concentrate, and post-retreat is adding the water of life experience, mixing the condensed insights of meditation into post-meditation.

From the moment we first sit in meditation and are given instruction in the power of proper posture, all the way to the teachings on proper atmosphere in the creation of enlightened society, the role of environment is stressed in Shambhala Buddhism. As the Vidyadhara said: “If you take the proper posture in meditation, sooner or later you may find yourself meditating.” Söpa Chöling provides the proper posture.

Amplification Chamber

One of the most revealing insights of retreat is the power of distraction — and the humbling lust for it. It is also one of the intimidating aspects of long retreat. With every form of daily distraction removed or curtailed by the protective container, mind is forced to relate to itself. There is no television to dilute the contents of mind, no radio or magazine to water-down experience, no email, movies, phone calls or newspapers. Loved ones are left at home, friends are left behind. Like the process of dying, where the senses progressively dissolve (no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body) until mind is forced to relate to itself without distraction, retreat compels a similar concentrated relationship to mind. As Sogyal Rinpoche put it: “To end distraction is to end samsara.”

Meditation is about establishing a proper relationship to mind, and retreat emphatically initiates that relationship. Like an arranged marriage, you have no choice but to become familiar with (the very definition of meditation, “gom,” in Tibetan), and eventually befriend, this intimate lifelong partner. Over time, every corner of mind is exposed and every annoying habit is revealed. And every kindness, every generous and loving recess is also brought forth. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s all brought up, related to, and liberated in the space of equanimity. Like learning to live with a spouse, you learn how to live with every facet of your mind.

With no diversion, mind becomes reality. I would often enter my meditation room and feel I was stepping into an amplification chamber. Everything gets blown up in retreat, both neurosis and wisdom. If you play out the exaggerated neurosis, your fellow retreatants will act as a hall of mirrors and reflect your projections back to you for your painful study and eventual release. If you express your heightened wisdom, that kindness will also be reflected for your study and eventual cultivation. The teachings on what to accept and what to reject are vividly displayed.

Amplified neurosis is the dread of entering retreat, but it is easily offset by the rewards of amplified wisdom. When the two are no longer separate, then retreat is no longer needed. To discover and amplify basic goodness, to intensify kindness, to exaggerate love — to become familiar with and nurture our inherent wisdom — these are the reasons we go into retreat. These exaggerated states, sustained over many months, give the retreatant a real taste of the way of the enlightened ones, and what truly lies within.

The Power of the Group

Some of the practices of three-year retreat are available to non-retreatants, and there is obvious benefit in engaging any practice in the context of solitary retreat. What may not be so obvious is the tremendous power of group practice, which is how three-year retreat is traditionally done. Drupchen, or extended group practice, is a formidable and enriching aspect of the Söpa Chöling experience. Elaborate mandalas are created, vast offerings are prepared, and extensive feasts are performed. Without group efforts, the rewards of drupchen are unavailable. It is said that in group practice the power of one’s practice is amplified by the number of people involved, and this premise is harnessed to its fullest.

The group consciously and unconsciously supports each other. A wondrous form of peer pressure manifests in retreat. When you just don’t feel like practicing any more, or you just don’t want to wake up (at the relative or ultimate level), the sounds of your fellow retreatants hard at work in the rooms around you pulls you back into the fold. Taking refuge in the sangha takes on new meaning. I look at “Joe” and think, “If he can do it, so can I.” And Joe is looking at me thinking, “If he can do it, so can I.” In this unspoken way we lift each other up. Without saying a word the entire group picks itself up by its own bootstraps and walks to the finish line.

Group support is particularly powerful in the vigorous practice of the crown jewels of the Kagyü: the majestic Six Yogas of Naropa that are the climax of retreat. The yogic exercises are done as a group, the technical “anatomy and physiology” is frequently discussed, and the many subtleties of these profound yogas are explored in group settings. By sharing what works and doesn’t work with each other, we undoubtedly spark our progress along this elegant but complex path.

Group practice is the Mahayana component of retreat. While the bulk of practice is in our private rooms, we must relate to each other between sessions, during feasts, and in drupchen. This “forced” relationship constitutes one of the most valuable aspects of retreat, and clearly delivers the adage “you can’t get enlightened without others.” It is the most immediate opportunity for mixing retreat with life.

Söpa Chöling is a laboratory in the study of human relations.

Söpa Chöling is a laboratory in the study of human relations. It is a potent microcosm of life itself, which is exactly why so many metaphors and analogies can be used to describe retreat. It’s just life in a very concentrated form. Human interaction is magnified and observed in exquisite and excruciating detail. Fear and loneliness are magnified and dissected. Bliss and joy are intensified and analyzed. Anger, envy, pride, passion and every conceivable emotion is eventually provoked and explored. The result is a depth of familiarity, and eventual friendship, with every energy in the spectrum of human emotion.

By becoming so familiar with these energies in the daily comedy and drama of retreat, empathy and compassion is born for others as you recognize these energies at work in the world of retreat, and a playful and inquisitive attitude towards yourself is nourished as you recognize these energies at work in yourself. “Grant your blessings so that confusion may dawn as wisdom” is finally understood to be “grant your blessings so that (confused) emotion may be recognized as (wisdom) energy.” The alchemy of tantric transmutation, transforming emotional lead into energetic gold, is fully practiced in the crucible of extended retreat.

In the physical and emotional confines of Söpa Chöling, retreatants are constantly rubbing against each other. We bump into each other in narrow hallways and tiny rooms, and jostle each other in the constricted emotional space. This friction is by design, an inevitable aspect of retreat, and it is profoundly transformative. Rough interpersonal edges are exposed and slowly chipped away by constant human contact. The result of such pumicing is an emotional maturity based on tolerance, kindness, and understanding. It’s like jagged rocks in a riverbed, transformed over time into smooth stones by the force of friction.

The same thing, of course, happens in daily life. The only difference is in degree and intensity. Retreat simply accelerates the process, and therefore the evolution. Because the container is so concentrated, the result is much more rapid. Lessons that would take years when diluted with daily distraction, occur in weeks or months.

Retreat drops you into a karmic accelerator. Karma that might take decades to process and “burn off” in daily life is brought up rapidly in retreat and incinerated. Seeds of good karma are fertilized into swift ripening, and the insights and realizations that could take lifetimes to activate are nourished into full bloom.

Detox Center

This evolutionary acceleration comes at a price, as does every experience of growth. The trepidation about three-year retreat and its rigors is nothing less than the anxiety of detoxification. With all the substances of normal life taken away, addiction to samsara is painfully exposed. You realize how attached you are to the daily paper, to phone calls and emails, to television and radio, to friends and even foes. The addiction to entertainment and distraction is revealed, and its fury is unleashed. The raging force of wanting to escape, to move, to do something else — the force of desire itself that propels samsaric existence — is exhumed.

According to Buddhist cosmology we live in the realm of desire. Desire is what moves us. This movement manifests across the spectrum of human existence. At the near end of the spectrum desire gives birth to the movement of thought itself, at the far end desire generates the actions that comprise life, and that are merely expressions of the movement of thought.

From the retreat boundary walls, to the confines of the meditation box, to meditations that curtail thought itself, retreat reduces all forms of movement. With the substance of samsara (movement) curtailed, addiction to that substance is painfully revealed. You realize just how much you want to move. You want to get out of yourself, out of the coffin, out of the boundary walls.

This happens at any level of meditation. But unlike any level of meditation, the “lockdown” of three-year retreat forces an inescapable exploration, and eventual relationship, to the movements of passion, gradually transforming it into the movement of compassion. The generator that drives the realm of desire is entered and transformed.

Söpa Chöling is a detox center from the addiction to movement. By physically withdrawing from samsara you are able to begin the process of spiritual withdrawal. And by understanding the necessity of detoxification, you are able to endure the fires of purification and to greet the hardships of retreat as genuine blessing. The pain of retreat is that of withdrawal. You get the shit blessed out of you.

By going into retreat you are withdrawing from the narcotic of distraction, of movement, and are forced to relate to reality without samsaric buffer. Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye said: “The entryway into the initial mind practice is surely renunciation, without which there is no way. If authentic renunciation arises, compulsive activities will be few; if activities are few, the significance of non-action will be near. When non-action is realized, it is the true nature. There is no other buddha outside of that.”

Not for Everyone

Three-year retreat is not the only way. If it is entered with that attitude then the blessings of the lineage will clot. If you’re looking for credentials or for stature in your sangha, look for another form of practice. If you think three-year retreat will fix your life and get it all together, you are headed for a rude awakening, for things will surely fall apart. As its been said: “Meditation is not a sedative; it is a laxative.”

If you think three-year retreat will fix your life and get it all together, you are headed for a rude awakening, for things will surely fall apart.

It is healthier to reduce three-year retreat into remedial practice than it is to elevate it into advanced practice, for with the latter you only advance your ego. If you think three-year retreat heralds the end of your practice career, it will surely announce its mere beginning. Thrangu Rinpoche told a group of three-year graduates: “Now you know how to practice.” The Dalai Lama said on a similar occasion: “This is just the beginning.” Extended retreat spanks your ego and its infinite forms of self-deception.

Balanced expectations, or none at all, are the keys to successful retreat. Whatever you think three-year retreat is, it probably isn’t. Three-year retreat is just one piece in a practitioner’s life, one step along the path. To recall that many masters have done the equivalent of eight or more three-year retreats helps put this drop of practice in proper perspective. To paraphrase Trungpa Rinpoche: “The more you give up hope for fruition, the closer it will be.” These are the ironies that dictate retreat.

There are many forms of practice; three-year retreat is just one of them. There are many for whom three-year retreat would be a waste of time, like spinning wheels on ice, or even getting stuck in reverse. It can take more courage, and be more fruitful, to stay out of three-year retreat than to brazenly enter with improper motivation. The practice of raising a family with kindness, contributing to your community with compassion, or even entering the political arena with wisdom can be just as formidable and fruitful, if not more so, than any number of three-year retreats.

Life-time Retreat

But for the person who holds the proper motivation, preparation, and expectation, three-year retreat can be a major step towards awakening. And towards re-entering the world. In the middle of my retreat, I toyed with the idea of entering life-time retreat. I envisioned going to Asia, finding a nice cave, and practicing until I died. At the end of the last phase of retreat, I looked back upon my years of practice and suddenly discovered an entirely new approach to life-time retreat. I realized that with each new practice I had been slowly stockpiling provisions to enter life-time retreat. Not in a cave, but in this everyday world.

I wasn’t stockpiling food, water, and clothing for a cave, but I was storing the provisions of wisdom, compassion, and kindness for this world. I didn’t need to go to a cave and practice until I died. I could enter the world with my new warehouse of enlightened supplies and continue my retreat in the context of daily life. I have been given the provisions, especially with the Six Yogas, that allow me to transform every single moment of my life into meditation. I’m unable to sustain meditation in action, but I have the goods to practice while I eat and drink, even while I sleep, dream, and die. I have entered life-time retreat, and you can find me in meditation at the local café.

I used to think that meditation was it, and on one level it still is. It’s just not the meditation I once thought. Meditation is simply the final stage of embodiment. Through the three prajnas of hearing, contemplating, and meditating, we ingest, digest, and metabolize the dharma. We embody it. And now that we have a nourished body, we use it.

Enlightened activism is the final stage; the incorporation and expression of dharma in daily life. Compassion is the warm breath of wisdom. Meditation in action. We retreat from this insane world so we can re-enter it with sanity. As Suzuki Roshi said: “Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened beings. There is only enlightened activity.” You (ego) will never attain enlightenment, for at awakening there is no you. You can’t attend your own funeral. But you can attend to the world. Emptiness — egolessness — does express itself as enlightened action, and walks upon this sacred earth in the boundless service of others. This is the point of retreat.

It’s Easy

People often ask me, “How hard is retreat? Isn’t it hard to meditate so long?” It’s only as hard as you are. For a buddha, retreat is soft and easy because a buddha is soft and easy. Meditation is only difficult because of resistance to it. As you soften through practice, practice starts to soften. It becomes easier as you become easier. A three-hour sitting seems initially daunting, but with time becomes easy. A three-year sitting, with the pliability of a buddha’s mind, is potentially just as easy.

A powerful way to overcome resistance to retreat, and to make it easier, is to realize that on a deep level you really can’t do the retreat. You have to let the retreat do you. You have to surrender to the wisdom of the tradition that gave birth to the miracle of three-year retreat, and allow yourself to be processed by its methods. You simply have to give up and trust the lineage and its time-tested skillfull means. Then it becomes easy.

Andrew Holecek is a three-year retreat graduate Group D 1998-2003