When I was dropped off this past June at the Forest Refuge, I was feeling a little nervous. I wasn’t sure I could take eighteen days on retreat without a firm schedule prompted by the regular and reassuring ringing of bells. I had signed up for this personal retreat out of curiosity, just as I had for my first-ever meditation retreat at IMS a dozen years earlier. How would I fill my days? Would I be hopelessly bored? Wasn’t eighteen days without any structure going to be a long stretch of purgatory?
My worries turned out to be unfounded. Within twenty-four hours I felt completely at home and at ease in this new environment. Never has eighteen days seemed to pass so quickly. There is a peace and calm about the Forest Refuge that is difficult to describe. It is remarkably quiet. The layout of the campus moves logically from the outside world, with administrative offices in the front, to the spiritual and inner world, with the meditation hall in the rear. It is surrounded by wildflower meadows and multihued deep woods.
After two or three days of experiment, I outlined a schedule for myself: walking meditation, sitting meditation, a work period, walking the local backroads, reading and so on. This was simply a general guide. If I wanted to sit for an hour and a half, or for only twenty minutes, I could. If I wanted to sit in my room, I could. If I wanted to sit in the inexpressibly spiritual aura of the meditation hall, I could. If I wanted to walk for ten minutes or sixty, I could. It was a delight to be free to follow a pattern that responded to the flow of my practice.
But, unlike a self-retreat at home, which I have never felt confident enough to undertake, I did not have to prepare my own meals (a daunting task for me). And twice a week I had interviews with a teacher, which not only helped me over rough patches in the meditation but also provided guidance and a safety net.
Because I approached the Forest Refuge with apprehension, I brought two Buddhist books with me. Books are my security blanket, and I am somewhat of a read-a-holic. I had never taken a book on retreat before, remembering well an admonition years ago from Joseph Goldstein that Buddhist philosophy is to inform the practice, not to replace it. However this time I did read, restricting myself without any trouble to one hour each day. It’s actually not necessary to take books to the center; there is a small library of excellent dharma books already there. One of the joys I discovered in my last days at the Forest Refuge was to read sutras—a marvelous pleasure when on retreat.
My Forest Refuge experience was an important step forward on the path, and it firmly reinforced my practice. I will go back as soon as I can and this time without any trepidation.