Escaping the world on solo retreats
For a different kind of vacation, meditation and retreat centers let people get away from everything.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
On a fall morning, Mark Trippetti, an advertising consultant from Brooklyn, surrendered his laptop and iPhone to storage at a remote mountainside center in southern Colorado and prepared to drop out of human contact for a month.
The previous week he had begun the withdrawal process, leaving word with clients, cutting back his use of technology and giving up caffeine. Before checking out completely, he made one final call to his girlfriend, Jee Chang.
By careful design, Trippetti would not see or communicate with anyone for a month. At his Spartan cabin he would rise each day at 3 a.m., sip from a thermos of tea that he had made the night before and move straight from his mattress to a cushion for 3 ½ hours of meditation and mantra recitation.
His days would be built around that, plus chores, repeated reading of some 200 pages of sadhana text and his own thoughts. Worldly necessities like food would be dropped periodically by the retreat center's staff at the end of a path, 75 yards away, to avoid his glimpsing another human being. Bedtime was 10 p.m.
The silent, solo retreat, known as a lerung, is part of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, a path that Trippetti, 54, a former advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam, has been following for six years. He says that the effect on him has been profound.
"Going into a retreat is really about breaking down the constructs of 'you,"' he said. "The whole idea is for you to take a very close look at the you, you have become in your mind. The you, you are in your real mind isn't necessarily the real you."
The idea of going for more than an hour or two without checking some sort of device for a text or email, never mind face-to-face interaction, is unfathomable to many people in the professional world Trippetti inhabits. But there are overworked, overcommitted professionals in big cities like New York who periodically do just that.
Meditation and retreat centers on the country offer isolated cabins for solitary retreats, often for $25 to $35 a night. At the Karme Choling Shambhala Meditation Center in Barnet, Vt., "we have lots of people from New York, busy professionals," said Dorothy Shostak, the retreat master, as well as people from many other walks of life.
Tai Pimputkar, 33, with a BlackBerry (for work), an iPhone, a consuming job at an investment bank in Stamford, Conn., and work in her off-hours as a psychologist at a community counseling center, went on an eight-day solo retreat at Karme Choling last June. Her 65-hour work weeks gave way to "spacious" days of meditating, walking and cooking, she said. She found it so worthwhile that she is going back for another eight days starting Dec. 30.
"You learn what's healthy for you and what you want to accept into your life and learn what you want to leave behind," she said. "I very strongly identified who I wanted in my life and who I didn't want. I came back and took some action."
Extreme retreats, in which participants must cut themselves off from their entire professional and personal worlds for weeks or months (or longer), can cause some friction in marriages and other relationships. One may become a calmer, more sensitive person, but what about the spouse left behind with bickering children and domestic to-do lists?
And there are financial considerations. You either have to be well-off enough to be able to bow out of work for an extended period or be willing to devote vacation time to the pursuit.
But those who have gone on solitary retreats say they feel a draw similar to that felt by a marathoner who has to run, or a writer who has to write: they have to return.
"They have to go back when that time of year comes," said Thupten Phuntsok, an ordained Buddhist monk from Staten Island. "I call it the calling back."
Still, earthly obligations do intrude. Michael Gordon, the former owner of the Bumble and bumble hair salons, says it was his dream to go on a long retreat, ideally a year, but he has never been able to manage more than a week at a time. "I have family and life obligations," he said.
Some retreats are even more extreme. In the mountains of Arizona, 39 people are in the early stages of a three-year silent retreat at a center called Diamond Mountain. Participants (who, for obvious reasons, cannot be interviewed) include a college professor from New York and a former American Airlines pilot.
This was Trippetti's third monthlong retreat (it ended in late November), and he said he planned to do seven overall, in accordance with a plan drawn up for him by his Buddhist teacher. The first, in February 2010, was life changing, he said.
"It was so powerful that I came out of that retreat knowing it was time to shut down the brick-and-mortar aspect of my business," he said. He was referring to Turf, the advertising agency he founded in 2000. Emerging from the retreat, he closed it and started a less-intensive "virtual" company, MT Inc., working from home or visiting clients on-site. He also moved out of Manhattan to Williamsburg, and started teaching yoga and meditation.
The solitary retreat was a rigorous, disciplined endeavor. The day revolved around four separate sessions of meditation, during which Trippetti chanted over and over a sentence of 24 words that had been assigned to him. (By the end of the month he had said it the required 110,000 times; he counted them using beads.)
Some people cannot take it.
"I've known people who start and leave after a day," Gordon said. "They just flip."
Trippetti explained that strange things can happen to the mind when you are stuck with yourself. "You can begin to get very flighty and forgetful, a little shaky," he said.
"You can get very giddy," he continued, "where you're laughing to yourself." No matter how focused you are, "crazy thoughts" about life back home can intrude. In his latest retreat, Trippetti found himself worrying that his dog had died.
During his first retreat, Trippetti said, he battled insomnia and at one point started having difficulty breathing.
"I realized what was happening," he said, and began to follow instructions relayed to him by his teachers before he began. "I exercised, went for a walk, started eating grilled cheese sandwiches." (Fat- and protein-heavy "grounding" foods are important, he said.)
Susie Almgren, 55, an actress, and her husband, Francois-Guy Dore, 58, a doctor, did a weeklong solo retreat at Karme Choling in separate cabins. The couple, who live outside Montreal, spotted each other once, accidentally, while taking midday walks.
"I smiled at him and gave him a wide berth," Almgren said, so intent was she on not breaking the feeling, or the rules. When they first encountered each other again after it was over, she said, "we just looked at each other for a long time."
"We smiled at each other and nodded," she continued. "I think I shed a few tears. Then he said,'It's really something, huh?' I think he said that three times and I finally answered,'Yup.' I just didn't want to start chatting about it."
Trippetti is back in New York now, having emerged from his 29 days in solitude. He said that, in a way, this retreat was the most profound of them all.
"Each retreat, I go deeper," he said. "The first one made clear to me that I needed to make gross shifts in my life. These last two have become more and more subtle in terms of seeing the issues that I face, as do all beings, in order to separate the true nature of reality from the habituations of my mind."
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