The stay-at-home order here in Hawaiʻi reminds me of solitary retreat…or can be, anyway.
Many other states were ordered to stay at home before Hawaiʻi but I started last week for the most part – only venturing out to shop for food and – OK! – gardening supplies. I decided then to take this as an opportunity to make this time a solitary retreat as much as I can.
In the Buddhist world of meditation, a solitary retreat is a highly prized opportunity to fully be with just yourself and your mind. A yearly 12+ day solitary retreat is required at the more advanced levels of meditation training. At Karmê Chöling, where I lived for five years, there are seven solitary retreat cabins dotted across our 770 acres so that each cabin is completely remote.
The cabins are 325 sq. ft. boxes that have no electricity, no running water, and no amenities. The outhouse is 20+ feet away from the cabin door and there is a cooler in a lock box on the cabin porch to protect provisions (and you) from bears and other critters.
Inside each cabin, there is a twin box bed; a kitchen area with a propane hot plate; pots, pans, plates, bowls, and utensils; a meditation area; propane lanterns; and a wood stove for heat.
Cut wood is provided for heat and stacked outside the cabin. Water is provided in 10-15 gallon jugs. One stores their food in the locked cooler on the porch until more is needed. The Karmê Chöling retreats staff will continue to supply more wood, kindling, water, and food you’ve purchased and stored in their refrigerators in the main house as needed. To communicate you need more of something, you write a note with your request, walk to the head of the trail to your cabin a quarter mile away, and pin it to a wood sign that says “Solitary Cabin – Do Not Enter.” In a day or two, supplies appear on your porch.
It’s good to plan ahead.
In addition to food and toiletries, retreatants may bring to solitary retreat: clothes, meditation practice materials, and two books (or more depending on total time in retreat) – one as study and one on the life of a meditation master (as entertainment). It is recommended not to write (like in a diary or a novel) and not to bring non-dharma books as these things are considered distractions from your purpose being in solitary retreat to observe your habitual thoughts.
So that’s the scene. But what does one do with their time?
My first solitary retreat was for 12 days in the dead of Vermont Winter in the Nagarjuna cabin pictured above and throughout this post. It’s deep in the back of the upper meadow at Karmê Chöling with a large private meadow of its own.
My meditation instructor – a friend who I trust and admire greatly – knowing that I’m an extroverted introvert, advised me to design a soft daily schedule that I could stick to or not depending on where my mind was on any given day. The schedule I came up with had no times associated with it as time is unimportant (and actually becomes unreal) in solitary retreat:
- Wake up
- Make tea
- Make breakfast
- Clean up
- Go for a walk
- Make lunch
- Clean up
- Sweep the cabin inside and out
- Go for a walk
- Make tea
- Make dinner
- Clean up
Everything becomes a meditation during solitary retreat. That wasn’t just my way of getting out of formal sitting and walking meditation – the opportunity in solitary retreat is to slow down (because…there isn’t anything else TO do) and be mindful of my every move, my every thought, my every frustration (oh, the wood stove…), my every edge of boredom that was going to seemingly drive me crazy…
These were priceless opportunities to learn about myself: who I am, how I act, what I feel, and determine whether these habituated ways of being were serving me – or others, for that matter.
In this space of mind as the days progressed, I found myself getting less triggered by boredom and more into being mindful of my every movement and thought. When I went for walks or hikes, I allowed myself to FEEL nature – so healing and expansive. My time reading became purposeful and I absorbed more. Insights abounded. I felt an intimate connection with myself, the cabin, my life in the cabin, and nature.
Retreatants are expected to clean the cabin before leaving. It takes about a day to get the cabin back to its original sparkling condition. One can wait for the retreat staff on the last day to get a ride in the vehicle or one can walk down the hill (about 30 minutes) back to the main house. I always chose the latter – which is so beautiful in Winter – remembering to wear my cleats for the icy trail down.
The experience being back with other people after solitary retreat is a TRIP: everyone seems to be on speed. Even though it’s a meditation retreat center and most people have already slowed down from their normal pace, the scene is so speedy. Watching it all take place felt like being on an acid trip (from what I’ve been told, that is).
I did a 12-day solitary retreat once a year for three consecutive years and now, even in my little retreat-cabin-like apartment, I miss the complete solitude of those temporary experiences. Now, with this stay at home order, I’m making the most of my time as if I’m on solitary retreat with intermittent check-ins with friends and family.
It can be an opportunity like no other. If you wish to learn to meditate, consider joining us online for free during these home quarantine days. Details here: https://hoikaha.org/meditate-with-us-live-online-for-free/
Be safe and well.