When San Francisco ad executive John Porter started planning his annual vacation in 2005, he knew he wanted something different. A seasoned traveler, Porter had already stayed in swanky resorts and explored exotic destinations around the globe—all of which he’d loved. But this time, he felt, he wanted to make a deeper sort of journey, one that would leave him with something more than just pretty photographs and fond memories.
The desire for what he called "a more meaningful travel experience" is what eventually led Porter to book a spot on a weeklong meditation retreat, at Holy Isle off Scotland’s western coast. The benefits he reaped from the trip, he said, were profound—including a sense of calm that he still taps into with regular meditative practice three years later.
While very few of us would deny the restorative effects of a holiday in the sun (or, for that matter, the rain), Porter's wish for more lasting travel gains may resonate for many of us. After all, hiking in the mountains or luxuriating at a spa may be good for the soul—but only until we’re plunged back into the grind of our workaday lives. How wonderful would it be to bring the same peacefulness we find on vacation back home with us?
According to Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist meditation teacher who leads retreats around the country (most often at the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Mass.), cultivating this sort of ability is exactly what the retreat experience is about.
"Meditation retreats are like full-immersion courses," Salzberg says, "where we can develop—or deepen—our capacity to find stillness of mind and greater awareness. These are skills that, if we keep practicing them, can affect every aspect of our lives."
The concept of physically removing oneself from ordinary distractions has been a staple in meditative practices for centuries.
"There’s a reason why Buddhist monasteries have traditionally been built on high mountaintops or deep in the forest," says Melvin McLeod, editor-in-chief of the Buddhist publication Shambhala Sun. "Getting into nature and breaking from the usual storylines of our lives helps us to tap into our own deeper consciousness."
But though retreats have long been practiced by what McLeod calls "hardcore spiritual seekers," he also acknowledges that there’s a newfound interest in meditation getaways among the general population—especially baby boomers, who grew up in the '60s and already have a certain familiarity with the precepts of Eastern spiritualism.
The coming of age of this population—and, some might argue, the ever-increasing anxieties of life in the modern Western world—may explain the plethora of meditation retreats available around the globe today. Some of these are plush oases like India’s Ananda, where guests are pampered with Ayurvedic massage and sumptuous organic cuisine in between private guided meditation sessions. Others are minimalist—like Green Gulch Farm's serene zendo outside San Francisco.
Though these retreats may promote different styles of meditation (and different degrees of creature comfort), all aim to send their participants home with roughly the same thing: a foundation of spiritual practice that they can maintain long after they've returned to the hubbub of the outside world.
"The real goal," says Melvin McLeod, "is to get to the point where actual physical escape is secondary—where the meditation itself is the retreat."
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