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Has the Retreat Industry Contributed to Human Regression?

Martin LeFevre:  A veritable retreat and spiritual guidance industry has sprung up in the last few decades in the West and spread around the world. Apart from the ethical questions of turning spirituality into business (a practice as old as both), there is the question: To what degree are all these retreats and religious teachers actually helping people and transforming society?

Out of curiosity, as well as an urge to find like-minded people to question and awaken insight together, I’ve gone to a variety of day or weekend-long retreats over the last ten years. The only things I’ve come away with are: 1. There is a lot of spiritual hunger out there; and 2. There are a lot of people willing to exploit it. (Not all people of course, but where there’s a ‘market,’ there are manipulators.)

A possible exception that proves the rule is the Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery, located a few hours north of where I live, near the majestic volcanic peak of Mt. Shasta. Though I haven’t visited the Abbey, I did attend a special daylong retreat held in town with the abbot and a number of the monks.

They brought a trace of the abbey with them. With their simple brown robes and austere manner, and no doubt because of the innumerable hours spent in “Serene Reflection Meditation” (Soto Zen), the monks’ presence alone created an atmosphere of respect and quiet. (That raises another interesting question: What is the relationship between a monastery and the world?)

We sat for about 45 minutes at a time, took shorter ‘walking meditations,’ and had two dialogues, which were really question and answer sessions with the abbot. Naively perhaps, I asked: “How did nature evolve a mind that is so at odds with what you call our ‘Buddha nature?”

 Though I’ve gone into the question deeply for many years and gained insight into it, my intent was to spark mutual inquiry. To my surprise, the abbot replied, “If you have insight into that question, you should be on this podium.”

It would be great if no one needed to be, I thought. Spiritual authority is a subtly destructive thing, and sophisticated spiritual teachers often go to great lengths to disavow it. The essential thing is not to rely on anyone inwardly. Of course, if one discovers something, one naturally wants to share the insight. But water flows wherever it goes.

I heard about a retreat center called Springwater in the Finger Lakes region of New York where people paid a lot of money to come for a week of silent sitting, talks by the teacher, and meditative dialogues. A terrific storm had blown through the week before, knocking down many trees. To clear away the debris, chainsaws were employed incessantly in the vicinity, much to the chagrin of the retreatants.

Upholding the principle of passivity to the point of absurdity, the staff did nothing, and the teacher found the situation funny, which it was if you weren’t there. Finally a few of the guests insisted that the staff make the chain saw crews cease and desist for at least a few hours during the day, thereby temporarily restoring the treasured tranquility they had paid for.

The story illustrates a major flaw in the spiritual movement—that of removing oneself from the world, taking the attitude that nothing matters but one’s personal ‘here and now.’

Believing that only our individual reactions matter is the great peril of contemplative life. One often hears from purported meditators some variation of the mantra: ‘I cannot do anything about the world’s woes; all I can do is watch my own reactions.’

That renders ecological collapse, and the economic and political injustices of the world, little more than intrusions upon the placid settings of one’s personal and permanent retreat from the world.



Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.