Nine Great Meditation Retreats to Find Your Inner Zen
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."
Ananda in the Himalayas, Uttaranchal, India
The location: This 100-acre estate in the foothills of the Himalayas, formerly home to the Maharajah of Tehri-Garhwal, is set at 3,000 feet and has sweeping views over the Ganges River and the nearby temple villages of Rishikesh and Haridwar. The facilities include a 24,000-square-foot spa, several meditation and yoga pavilions set among gardens, and the former maharajah's palace—which now houses an elegant tea lounge and an antique billiards room.
The practice: One-on-one guided meditation sessions tailored to each guests's individual needs. Sessions can incorporate Buddhist teachings or yogic breathing techniques, can be conducted indoors or out, and can last from an hour to an entire morning or afternoon at a stretch.
The accommodations: 78 posh rooms, suites, and villas with huge windows for taking in the mountain views (and, unusually for retreat destinations, minibars and televisions).
Be mindful: A not-especially-spiritual crowd frequents Ananda. Although serious peace-seekers will find what they want here, they'll also be rubbing shoulders with jet-setting comfort hounds.
More information: Ananda in the Himalayas
Shambhala Mountain Center, Red Feather Lakes, Colorado
The location: The 600 pristine acres of Shambhala spread across a Rocky Mountain valley in the northern part of Colorado. The property includes extensive botanical gardens, a bird sanctuary, several spacious meditation halls, and, most dramatically, the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, a traditional spired Buddhist shrine.
The practice: Buddhist meditation in a variety of forms. The program offerings at Shambhala range from weekend-long "Learn to Meditiate" retreats to multi-week intensive study for advanced practitioners; there are also specialized workshops for children, painters, and writers, and those who prefer to combine meditation with activities like canoeing and hiking.
The accommodations: 65 elegant, clean-lined single and double rooms, some of which have shared bathrooms. Single-sex dormitory-style rooms, and in the summer, platform tents with shared bathhouses, are also available.
Be mindful: Shambhala has centers around the world, including retreats in Kalapa Valley, Vermont, France, and Mexico.
More information: Shambhala Mountain Center
Muktawan 7 Day Meditation Retreat, Phuket, Thailand
The location: On the tranquil island of Koh Yao Noi is the superb Paradise Retreat: perhaps one of the best places on the Andaman Coast for inner exploration. You will find a near-forest environment, a sanctuary for meditators, surrounded by rolling hills and bays scenery. The retreat center offers simple, clean and comfortable accommodation, enabling you to live in close contact with nature.
The practice: Dhammakaya meditation, a form of practice that focuses on the center of the body as both an energy center and a gateway to higher consciousness. Throughout the course you will be guided by the buddhist monks.
The accommodations: A cluster of spartan but immaculate one-person wooden cottages, with toilets and shower facilities nearby. Fraternizing between sexes is discouraged, so men's and women's bungalows are in different areas.
Be mindful: Guests are expected to refrain from all destructive behavior while on the retreat, including telling lies and killing any living creature (including mosquitoes). Pack loose-fitting, light-colored or white clothes with sleeves.
More information: Middle Way Meditation Retreat
Osho Meditation Resort, Pune, India
The location: A slick, modern 40-acre "campus" just outside Mumbai that includes extensive, manicured Zen gardens, a soaring meditation auditorium, seminar spaces set inside a complex of black space-age pyramids, and a few other very unorthodox amenities: tennis courts, a nightclub, and a mini-mall.
The practice: "Active meditations" are the signatures at Osho. Although traditional silent, seated sessions are practiced here, they're interspersed with meditative dancing, whirling, vocalizing, and power-breathing.
The accommodations: The Osho Guesthouse's 60 minimalist-chic double rooms could easily be mistaken for W Hotel accommodations—that is, without the TVs.
Be mindful: All guests at Osho must wear dark red robes during meditation sessions and maroon sports or swimwear. This has to do with the belief of the resort's founder (also named Osho) that "the color maroon, when worn by many people meditating together, adds to the collective meditative energy." Evening meditations demand white robes.
More information: Osho Meditation Resort
Holy Isle, Isle of Arran, Scotland
The location: A private, two-mile-long island just off the Isle of Arran, on Scotland's west coast. Meditation retreats take place at the north end of the island (at a modest enclave rather grandly called the Centre for World Peace and Health); walking paths lead along much of the rugged coastline and through the island's hilly, grassy interior.
The practice: Kagyu meditation is practiced here both by serious students of Tibetan Buddhism (the southern end of the island houses a dozen long-term residents, who live in isolated silence) and those who want to learn or deepen the practice. One of the most popular seminars on Holy Isle is "The ABC of Meditation," a beginning retreat led by visiting BBC actor-cum-Buddhist Alistair Appleton.
The accommodations: 60 beds are available at Holy Isle—some in basic single and double private rooms (with private washbasins but shared baths), some in dorm-style rooms. All are monastically furnished with plain bedsteads, dressers, and not much else.
Be mindful: Because of the island's delicate ecosystem (which includes centuries-old species such as Eriskay ponies, Saanen goats, and many indigenous plants), some areas shouldn't be explored on foot.
More information: Holy Isle
Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Muir Beach, California
The location: An aromatic eucalyptus-wooded valley north of San Francisco that opens up onto Muir Beach and the Pacific Ocean. The 115-acre property includes several meditation and seminar spaces (one of them a spacious yurt), and a working organic farm and garden, where guests can attend workshops in organic cultivation, beekeeping, and edible plants.
The practice: Japanese Zen Buddhist meditation, of the traditional seated, silent variety, known as zazen. Those seeking intensive practice stay and work in the community for months at a time; others can choose shorter-term stays, where they participate in daily meditation sessions, seminars, and tea ceremonies.
The accommodations: 17 basic, streamlined single rooms with shared baths are available, most of them in the Japanese-style Lindisfarne Guest House with its skylit central atrium. There's also a single private cabin, Hope Cottage, set on a beautiful hillside a 25-minute uphill walk from the rest of the property, and the new private guest room at Still Water Hall.
Be mindful: Since Green Gulch is primarily a residential facility for serious zazen students, there isn't a lot of instruction at Green Gulch. Guests who already have a fairly developed meditation practice will feel most comfortable here.
More information: Green Gulch Farm Zen Center
Simple Peace, Assisi, Italy
The location: The ancient Umbrian city of Assisi—the birthplace of Saint Francis—which blankets Mount Subasio and overlooks acres of olive groves. Many meditation sessions are held in the Assisi East-West Center, a serene vaulted space near the Cathedral of San Ruffino (a former 12th-century courthouse that Simple Peace founders Ruth and Bruce Davis renovated in 2000). Other meditation sessions take place in nearby monasteries, and outdoors in the surrounding countryside.
The practice: The Davises (who are husband and wife) bring together precepts of Western and Eastern spirituality in their retreats. Bruce, a scholar in the teachings of St. Francis, leads weeklong, largely silent meditation retreats both in Assisi and in the Rieti Valley (two hours south), where the saint first discovered his calling. Ruth, a longtime student in Eastern meditation-in-motion practices, enriches the silent sessions with guided Tai Chi and "sacred movement" rituals.
The accommodations: Four modest bedrooms in a renovated historic Assisi monastery are available for retreat participants. Each room has a private bathroom, and all share a verdant garden, living room with a fireplace, and a terrace with a view over the valley below. Winding stone pathways lead from the front gate through the backstreets of Assisi.
Be mindful: Participants of all religious faiths are welcomed at these retreats; Jews, Hindus, and Sufis (among others) have long been a part of Simple Peace's interfaith "contemplative community."
More information: Simple Peace
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts
The location: The IMS's 200-acre property—some of it rural, most of it wooded—surrounds a grand old mansion in central Massachusetts. The main "campus" includes dining and lodging facilities; there's also a separate Forest Refuge, set a few miles deeper into the countryside, for long-term retreats.
The practice: The Indian Buddhist traditions of vipassana (insight) and metta (loving kindness) form the backbone of daily life at IMS retreats; in practice, this involves a combination of seated and walking meditation—all of it in silence.
The accommodations: At the main retreat center, 79 sparely furnished single and small double rooms are available to guests. Rooms all have twin beds, chairs, pillows and blankets (lodgers bring their own sheets and towels), and thermostats for temperature control. Shared dorm-style bathrooms are on each floor; men and women do not share rooms and are usually assigned to separate floors.
Be mindful of: Since silent meditation can lead to heightened sensory awareness, the use of perfume, incense, scented products (and, of course, tobacco) is strongly discouraged.
More information: Insight Meditation Society
Rolling Meadows Meditation Retreats, Tulum, Mexico
The location: While its home base occupies a rural spread on the coast of central Maine, Rolling Meadows runs meditation retreats several times a year in Tulum, a stunning spot on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula where ancient Mayan ruins overlook the Caribbean Sea. The retreats take place at Casa Om, a chic beachside camp with a palapa-roofed meditation center, a koi pond, and the nearby Puerto Morelos beach.
The practice: Participants in the weeklong retreats follow a daily schedule that incorporates both yoga (a synthesis of hatha, Iyengar, and Desikachar viniyoga practices) and guided vipassana meditation.
The accommodations: As many as 16 yogis can bed down at Casa Om, a space furnished with traditional and tropical accents like onyx Puebla lights, travertine floors, carved Balinese head boards and organic bamboo sheets. Overhead fans are a much-appreciated nicety.
Be mindful: This year only, the yoga and meditation retreat will take place in Costa Rica at the Blue Osa Retreat Center on the country's Pacific Coast.
More information: Rolling Meadows Meditation Retreats