One Buddhist retreat that I've been thinking about going on is the Vipassana (or insight) meditation retreat, as taught by S. N. Goenke (http://www.dhamma.org/) and I’ve been doing some reading on the web to explore the ideas behind this further. If you are curious and are thinking of going on this retreat, an interesting discussion can be found here along with a link to a pdf critique of the discipline. A more recent article can be found in the Guardian which also looks at this from a practical point of view, the amount of sitting for such long periods can cause huge discomfort!
The insight meditation technique is but one shard of Buddhist thinking, and it's pretty gruelling, with up to 11 hours per day spent in meditation. Amongst other issues, the critique I linked to above, looks at ways this technique might even perhaps cause ‘disassociative disorder’ (in which people can feel entirely removed from themselves, as though they’re watching themselves without any emotional attachment). People with known mental issues are discouraged from going on this type of retreat.
Dukkha and hacking the operating system
I think we all have our own internal directives, and we each have our unique spiritual journey. What troubles me about something like this is that it appears to perhaps strip away the uniqueness of the individual, and strips man down to machine. We ‘hack the operating system’ as someone said in an article relating to Steve Jobs and his commitment to Zen Buddhism (article in Shambala Sun) and that’s fine as far as it goes. But man is not machine. Being aware of ourselves on a greater level is of course a good thing. Buddhism seems to want to stress that life is suffering or ‘dukkha’ (which is apparently more like an analogy of a wobbly wheel on a car than the ‘life is suffering’ analogy we are more used to hearing. Bringing awareness into our everyday lives on a greater level means we are more free in how we respond to events, and bring a greater sense of personal responsibility into our lives. And that is a wonderful tool in a world where chaos and anger seem to spill out all over the place. Being able to step back and choose your reaction is an excellent tool that more people should have.
Introduction to Buddhism
I read a small introduction to Buddhism by Steven Hagen in which the author focused on the central tenet of Buddhism, that of ‘awareness’, of ‘being awake’. But it didn’t talk about compassion, about loving kindness, which both play a huge part, too. Sometimes I feel that the overarching object of Buddhism can be quite selfish, as it is the pursuit of one’s own enlightenment. (Not so with Mahāyana Buddhism, in which I believe the emphasis is on the delaying of nirvana until all sentient beings become enlightened.) But where for instance there is great emphasis on obtaining good merit so you can have a good rebirth, surely we should be encouraged to focus on service to others as its own reward? Surely motive plays an important part in our karma?
A toolbox for the mind
Buddhism is often likened to a toolbox for the mind, it’s a psychological religion, and excellent for self-analysis. In the book I link to above, Steven Hagen effectively argues that the central tenet and the most important, is simply, awareness. Flooding our lives with awareness we can see how we have been sleepwalking through much of our lives up until this point; we have self-awareness when we better understand our own true motives, and awareness ultimately enables us to live more skillfully. However, you don't need to be a Buddhist at all to go on a Vipassana retreat, they are designed for everyone no matter what faith (although you are actively discouraged to mix any religious practices whilst on retreat to ensure you get the best benefit from it).
I have been thinking about whether or not to do this retreat now for a year or so, and as I was reading other experiences and thoughts at www.metta.org.uk I was reminded that we often have to just take the plunge and go for things! Otherwise we will never fully know if it will work for us. This type of retreat sounds like it can be both an incredibly uncomfortable experience, but also quite beautiful. But the point of it is that we face both the uncomfortable and the beautiful aspects with the same level of equanimity. We are not looking to hold out for the joyous experience that might arise nor rush through the unpleasant side of it, but the goal is to be able to face both experiences in the same way.
The retreat then, will be hard work -- you may have feelings that make you go 'wow' but you might not. You will probably feel uncomfortable, and may find it tricky going at times, emotionally or mentally. It is likely though that you will come away feeling calmer, and more able to deal with whatever life throws at you. If you are lucky enough to having any beautiful experiences during this retreat, that's a bonus, but shh, don't make too much of it, because that's not the point! :)
You don’t have to be a Buddhist, but Buddhist words and scripture will, I believe, be referred to at times. Nor is this a way to lure people to follow Buddhism. Some people believe this type of retreat to be a bit cultish, but it’s simply one technique to flood you mind and body with the white, crystalline light of awareness. You don't take anything on 'blind faith'. The 'noble silence' is something that also sounds appealing to me, I find I often take refuge in silence and I enjoy it. I'm not afraid of a silent world for a couple of weeks; to me, it enhances the idea of the retreat being a sacred time to myself. I do have some level of trepidation about the level of physical discomfort however! Still, I hope to be able to do this, perhaps later in the year.
I’d say if you want to try this meditation then go for it, but be prepared for the level of work and concentration involved. Perhaps try a silent weekend retreat first as a taster. The Vipassana method does seem to work very well for many people, and give a greater sense of clarity and focus (this guy is very pro).
Do be aware that you need to be mentally 'fit' to undertake this course. If you suffer from an existing psychological condition, it is not advised that you undertake this type of retreat. Equally, if you know of any traumas long-buried, it is probably a good idea to be aware that difficult feelings could well arise during this course.
An alternative retreat could be a Satipanya Buddhist retreat: retreats devoted to contemplative living and insight meditation in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. This centre, above, is based in Wales, and is informally affiliated with a group of meditation centres in Sri Lanka. They also have links to Gaia House, in Devon.
Centres in the UK
I've listed a few centres below:
Dipa Dhamma in Hereford (you can read an article in the Independent written by a participant: The Power of Solitude ) Vipassana courses as taught by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin
Gaia House in Devon
International Meditation Centre UK -- in Wiltshire (based on Vipassana teachings taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin)
Satipanya in Wales (based on the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition from the teachings of Bhanti Bohdidamma)