The traditional way to learn Theravada-style meditation is a ten-day silent meditation retreat. If you go to one of these you will experience both shamatha and vipassana. The first three days are devoted to shamatha, focusing on the breath. Depending on the teacher's tradition, this focus may be very narrow; for example, just on the tip of your nose, or the focus may be broader on any aspect of the breathing process.
The instructions are clear and rather straightforward: Whenever you find your attention moving away from the sensations of your breathing, bring your attention back. This is what you should expect whenever you meditate. You will place your focus on your breathing, and within a few moments your focus will be somewhere else — into the future or past or engaged in a commentary about the present. Your mind will be engaged with talking thoughts, lost in images, or awash in emotions, or sights, sounds, or other bodily sensations may distract you. This is quite normal.
It can be a source of frustration if you think your mind should be perfectly behaved and never wander. The method is to keep repeating this process; noticing attention has moved away from the breath and bringing it back (and not adding any criticism of your mental focusing powers).
Breathing in the Retreat
In the retreat environment, this exclusive focus on breathing would be maintained for three days. You would arise early in the morning and engage in multiple meditation periods throughout the day. Depending on the tradition and the instructor, walking meditation may be interspersed with sitting meditation. Breaks are taken for meals, and these meals are a continuation of practice, the practice of mindful eating.
You may also have the opportunity to do work practice where you do a yogi job, such as sweeping floors or washing dishes, and the invitation is to be mindful as you do these activities. A typical retreat day may involve over ten hours of formal meditation practice with the remainder of the day engaged with informal practice.
In the Burmese tradition as taught by S. N. Goenka, only sitting meditation is practiced.
On breaks, you can walk, but this is not slow walking meditation practice. Goenka asks participants to give up all other practices for the ten days of the retreat so that you can intensify your experience of mindfulness. He will encourage you to, “Work diligently, ardently, patiently and persistently, and you will be bound to be successful.”
After establishing a firm foundation of concentration (shamatha) through three days of breathing practice, the remainder of the retreat will be devoted to vipassana, exploring sensations arising in the body (Burmese tradition) or any arising of phenomena, especially bodily sensations (Thai tradition).
The Challenge of the Retreat
The ten-day retreat is an arduous undertaking. It might be one of the most difficult experiences of your life and also the most valuable. It's hard to sit for all those hours without physical discomfort and even pain. However, the retreat becomes a crucible for self-knowledge. Each time you practice mindfulness meditation you cultivate an intimacy with your own experience, and doing so intensively on retreat will give a very rare opportunity to get to know yourself. This is difficult to achieve in everyday life with all of its distractions. For this reason, the retreat environment employs what is called “Noble Silence.” This means no talking (other than if you have to talk with a staff member, or some retreats have question and answer periods and interviews with teachers), so perhaps better stated as no unnecessary talking.
The goal is to disengage from typical discourse, and this includes eye contact and other non-verbal interactions with others. The retreat environment is an opportunity to, as the Buddha said, “become an island unto yourself.” Also suspended for the duration of the retreat are writing, reading, and of course there are no televisions or telephones. In today's environment, there are no laptops, cell phones, iPods, or iPads. Imagine that — no texting, social media, emails — none of the usual distractions that you encumber your life with! The wisdom of Noble Silence is that it closes all of the escape routes and keeps your focus squarely on practice. After a while, even imagination gives up and you will find yourself dwelling in the present moment and experiencing the world in, perhaps, a way that you never have before. On retreat you can have a taste of monastic life without having to make those commitments.
Types of Retreats
Retreats come in many lengths and can be residential or non-residential. For example, at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, retreats are non-residential and may be one or two days on a nine to five schedule. Other retreats can be three months, and in one tradition there is a three year, three month, and three days-long retreat! As mentioned earlier, a very common retreat length is ten days.
So again, concentration provides the foundation for insight. And morality provides the foundation for everything. In addition to becoming intimate with your experience, meditation also provides the means to change your internal landscape from one characterized by dukkha to one characterized by freedom. Mindfulness is an integral component to every Buddhist tradition and is, in fact, the method Siddhartha Gautama used to become the Buddha.