I just finished the weeklong “virtual” Shinzen Young home retreat. It was the first time that I had done an extended structured group home retreat like that.
Going into it, I was concerned about the power that it might lack relative to a cloistered residential retreat. I ended up though being pleasantly surprised at the benefit that this retreat had – especially in the group sittings, and also in the online dharma talks, guided sessions, Q&As, and interviews.
In particular, going in, I was concerned about the relative temptations and access to opportunities for mischief available at home, and, relatedly, the absence of the structure and accountability that a live retreat provides. And while on this retreat I did at times watch part of a movie, read about the history of the Suez Canal, send and receive texts and emails, and do a big cooking project – none of which of course I would do at a live retreat if I had turned in my computer and phone. I also played my guitar for a while as I listened to one of the dharma talks, and I was amused as I realized that I had probably never had done something like that before on any other retreat that I had been on.
I think I still came out ahead in the end, though. I feel there was value in being able to watch the desires to do “distraction” things like that and to track the impact when I did. And while I did some of them, I repeatedly said “no” to impulses towards wandering internet/computer activities that I might have done if not inside of the retreat container.
Also, meditating that much at home seems to have altered my relationship with this place. I am now feeling more spaciousness and clarity, and more of a feeling that intensive structured dedicated practice is more easily doable here. This apartment, full of memories, habits, and mental hooks for me, is feeling a little closer to a purified Buddhafield.
The first couple days of the retreat, I was reminded of something I wrote and posted to my blog a while back:
I spent five years in the nineties as part of research teams studying how to improve drug and alcohol treatment. My job was to manage and clean the data and to do statistical analysis.
At one point, I was part of a research team that examined the efficacy of two different types of six-month treatment programs. In both types of clinics, the clients did similar structured recovery activities during the day. Some of the programs, however, were inpatient/residential, and the others were day-treatment (people went home and slept in their own beds). We were trying to see if expensive in-patient treatment programs could reduce the high costs of overnight stays.
What we found was that, by the end of the six-month program, people in the day-treatment programs had lower rates of sobriety and had had more relapses. We discovered that this was because, every night as they had gone home after treatment activities, they had been exposed to temptation. It had been relatively easy for some of them to get sucked back in as they walked past liquor stores, bumped into their dealers and using buddies, stressed out about rent money, or had agitating fights with their partners, roommates, or parents.
The inpatient treatment folks, in contrast, spent six months in wholly cocooned environments that had supported their sobriety and recovery around the clock, free from temptations. And just about all of them who were able to stay in the program until the end were, as one would expect, still sober then.
What we found, however, is that people who had been through both types of programs had about the same rate of sobriety a year and a half after their clinic visit had ended. This was in part because the residential programs people had a massive drop off of sobriety rates right after the program ended, as they suddenly experienced the temptation of the outside world all at once. In contrast, most of the day-treatment folks who were able to stay sober until they graduated also had a good chance of being sober eighteen months later.
In light of this, when your meditation practice is mature and robust enough for it, I recommend something that my principal meditation teacher Shinzen Young calls “trigger practice”. This involves maintaining a centered and spacious meditative awareness while intentionally putting in front of ourselves something that typically draws a strong and destructive compulsive reaction out of us – a bottle of booze, a pack of cigarettes, a letter from an ex we are trying to get over, a website showing porn, a gambling interface, or upsetting political content, or something like that. The point of this exercise is to slowly but intentionally work to get over the compulsive unconscious pull that this temptation has on us, so that it doesn’t hit us all at once when we are least ready for it.