We have long known that ashrams and monasteries have been the key pillars of teaching spiritual science since ancient days. Practices such as meditation, silence and service were the key activities all students and residents of these ‘residential schools’ performed every day. The goal was to ensure the key skills of concentration, discipline and endurance were not only learnt but practiced diligently by the would-be yogis and monks. Turning inward and understanding who you are requires long hours of enthusiastic and committed practice.
Today, these practices like meditation, mindfulness and gratitude have become mainstream, with everyone managing to learn from the comfort of their homes and communities. These are no longer confined to the secluded environments of the ashrams or monasteries. Information about various tools and techniques has become widely accessible. While this is definitely helpful to those who have already established a daily practice, experience and science have shown that, to gain true mastery over mind, one needs to undergo long hours of practice. Such long hours of practice is difficult to sustain amidst the din and bustle of everyday family life and career pressures.
This is where the construct of ‘retreats’ comes in handy. Spiritual retreats are exactly that – a withdrawal from the din and noise of a busy life into a secluded, silent place, with the sole intention of going inward and rediscovering your spiritual Self. Retreats offer an environment filled with nature and soothed in silence. They come with the convenience of having all essential things taken care of. In a retreat you get the comfort of being in a group, while proper guidance from teachers or coaches is readily available at any time. Such a constructive environment allows you to immerse completely in yourself, go inward, de-program your mind, reconnect with your soul and rejuvenate your Self.
Recent scientific studies have shown that meditators who spend long hours in meditation on retreats are able to sustain psychological and physiological changes for much longer, compared to meditators who meditate for a few hours every day, but in a home setting. In their wonderful book Altered Traits, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson show how meditators who have spent many hours on retreats have their brain structure and function changed for the better, resulting in long-term positive behaviour.
Excerpt from the book Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson:
“The data suggests that meditating for one session daily is very different from a multiday or longer retreat. Take a finding that emerged unexpectedly in the study of seasoned meditators (9,000 hours average) and their reactivity to stress. The stronger the connectivity between the meditators’ prefrontal area and amygdala (parts of brain), the less reactive they were. The surprise: the greatest increase in prefrontal-amygdala connection correlated with the number of hours a meditator had spent in retreat but not with home hours.
Along these lines another surprising finding was from the study of breath rate. A meditator’s hours of retreat practice most strongly correlated with slower breathing, much more than daily practice. One important difference about meditation on retreat is that there are teachers available who can provide guidance—like a coach. And then there is the sheer intensity of the retreat practice, where meditators typically spend up to eight hours (and sometimes much more) a day in formal practice, often for many days in a row. And many or most retreats are at least partially in silence, which may well contribute to building intensity. All of that adds up to a unique opportunity to amp up the learning curve.
Another difference between amateurs and experts has to do with how they practice. Amateurs learn the basic moves of the skill—whether golf, chess, or, presumably, mindfulness and the like—and very often level off after about fifty hours of improving through practice. For the rest of the time their skill level stays about the same—further practice does not lead to great improvements.
Experts, on the other hand, practice differently. They do intensive sessions under the watchful eye of a coach, who suggests to them what to work on next to get even better. This leads to a continuous learning curve with steady improvements. These findings point to the need for a teacher, someone more advanced than you are, who can give you coaching on how to improve. “