Introducing this Guide
One of the most common questions I get revolves around meditation retreats. My short answer is that I think they’re extremely powerful, and I highly recommend them!
This guide will offer practical advice on meditation retreats, as well as where to actually go.
As I’m based out of Portland, Oregon in the USA, there will be a section for local meditators of retreats from all Buddhist lineages. However, for the rest of the United States, Europe, Asia, and beyond, I will explicitly stick to my tradition: Theravada Buddhism / Vipassana / Insight Meditation.
Why Go on a Meditation Retreat?
I had practiced meditation & yoga on and off for several years before my first retreat. It always helped me to feel a little more relaxed, and on some deeper level, I also “knew it was good for me.” However, I was most half-hearted in how much I brought it into my real life.
And then came my first meditation retreat.
It was a 10-day Vipassana retreat, held in silence with around 10 hours a day of formal meditation, and no reading, writing, or screens.
It was such a profound dive inwards, and I learned things about my patterns of thinking, emoting and identification that I had never before seen. It was like an archeological dig into layer after layer of who I was & what was possible for a human mind. Even though I’ve never been much of a crier, I was so broken open that on the final day, tears of joy streamed down my face for hours.
It didn’t stop there.
When I returned back home, I noticed that in my daily interactions, I was noticeably less reactive and more capable of actually living my deeper truths. This happened in my core relationships, but also in interactions as simple as being more patient with tech support people, more present with cashiers, and more understanding of other drivers on the road.
Even though I had already been meditating for a few years, it didn’t feel like my meditation practice truly began until that first retreat.
Likewise, I’ve talked with hundreds of other long-time meditators who have expressed something very similar — the container and intensity of a retreat just lets us go so much deeper than we ever could in daily life.
Bringing all this together, if you’re serious about learning what meditation or Buddhism has to offer, going on a retreat and deepening your meditation practice is easily one of the most powerful things you can do.
Six Things To Consider when Deciding on a Meditation Retreat
1) Cost. Some retreats are very expensive, like $1,500 for a week, while others are low-cost or completely donation based.
Unlike many things in life, the cost isn’t really any indicator of the quality of retreat you’ll experience. It is probably correlated with more comfortable conditions or having more well-known teachers, but neither of those are necessarily an advantage.
In other words, don’t read too much into the cost, or worry about being able to afford or find the right spot. If you can make the time to drop inwards for a number of days (or weeks), with even the most baseline level of comfort and guidance, you will surely have a fruitful experience.
2) Location. Are you willing to fly around the world? Or how about just across the country? For some people, it’s totally worth it to find the right fit. For others, it’s mostly just the opportunity to dive inwards. Both are equally valid. Chances are there’s some center near you that won’t require a plane ride. If it’s not on the list below, google your location and “insight meditation” together, and see where the rabbit hole leads you.
3) Duration. I generally advise spending at least 6 nights on a retreat. The first 2 or 3 days are often just getting acclimated, and it’s nice to have a few days dropped-in, where you’re past that stage. If you’ve been on a few 6-14 night retreats, it can be very powerful to jump to a 1-3 month retreat.
Of course, you’ll still benefit even if you can only do a weekend, but the more time you have, the deeper you can go. The longer your retreat, the more it makes sense to go to Asia (because of the cost and how most of the centers there are set up for longer-term practice).
4) Silence. Is the retreat held in “noble silence” or is it more of a social thing? Both have their benefits, but if you’re interested in diving deeper and finding inner freedom, you’ll find silence to be an enormous benefit.
5) Teachers. The more intense the retreat, the more important it is to have a good teacher. I generally look for someone who is connected with a tradition, and isn’t a self-appointed guru with no teacher or lineage to cross-reference. Also, while it’s not always possible, it’s great if they’re local or if there’s some way you can stay in contact with them once the retreat is over.
On the retreat itself, it’s nice when you can actually get individual attention from the teacher, even if that’s just a group interview every couple of days. Until you have a really established practice, I’d stay away from retreats where there’s no actual contact with the teacher—like ones with “famous” teachers that fit 500 people into a big room.
Also, before going on retreat, it can really help to familiarize yourself with that teacher’s approach. Perhaps read one of their books (if they have one). See if you can find a talk by them or some articles online. Find out if their message speaks to you. This is generally less important if they are strongly connected to a particular tradition, and more important if they are independent.
6) Teachings. There are numerous different meditative traditions that offer retreats. Early on, I explored retreats in Yoga, Zen, and Vipassana. It can be an essential part of the journey to try different things out, but eventually, it’s really helpful to find one and go deeper into that. Similar to what I said in “teachers,” just look for something about a certain tradition that resonates with you and follow your intuition!
Retreats in the United States
Here I will only be talking about the Vipassana / Theravada / Insight Meditation tradition. As a historical backdrop, this tradition is widespread in Southeast Asia, and began entering the United States in the 1970s. It’s tough to divide it up precisely, but there are basically four major streams that have brought this tradition to the United States.
In 1975, the Insight Meditation Society was formed in Barre, Massachusetts. It has since opened up a sister branch called Spirit Rock near San Francisco, California. These two centers were founded by people who logged many years of intensive practice at monasteries in Asia.
These two retreat centers run retreats throughout the year, offer an annual long retreat (1-3 months), and in general, have some of the highest quality instruction available.
Also in this stream, are the following excellent retreat centers, organized by region:
Western United States
Eastern United States
- The Forest Refuge in Massachusets. Located on the same property as the Insight Meditation Society, this center offers excellent conditions & instruction for lightly-guided, longer-term meditation practice, like one month or more. I’m told they are generous about scholarships.
- Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusets. Also located on the same property as the Insight Meditation society, they have a full retreat schedule. Compared to IMS, it has a little more Buddhist and/or theme-oriented retreats, as opposed to IMS, which is more explicitly meditative.
- Dhamma Sukkha Meditation Center in Missouri. Offers donation-based, small-group meditation retreats with excellent teachers. The primary practice for all their retreats is Mettā Meditation (to develop the jhanas) and Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation (to attain awakening). All based on the suttas. They also lead regular online retreats.
- Southern Dharma Retreat Center in North Carolina.
- Orlando Insight Meditation Group. Hosts retreats infrequently, but worth knowing about for Florida residents.
Central United States
The Theravada Buddhist tradition is kept alive most strongly in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand (also in Laos and Cambodia). All of the following monasteries are from lineages based in those countries, and have a full collection of fully ordained monks. Generally, you’re not so much going on a curated retreat, but instead get to participate in the daily rhythm of the monastery, which is usually filled with spaciousness and plenty of time for meditation.
- Metta Forest Monastery – San Diego, run by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, one of the foremost scholar-practitioner monks around today. Thai Forest Tradition.
- Abhayagiri Forest Monastery – Northern California, an Ajahn Chah lineage monastery. Thai Forest tradition.
- Temple Forest Monastery – New Hampshire, an Ajahn Chah lineage monastery. Thai Forest tradition.
- Forest Dhamma Monastery – Virginia, a Maha Boowa lineage monastery. Thai Forest tradition.
- Bhavana Society – Virginia, run by Bhante Gunaratana, the author of Mindfulness in Plain English. They do offer many curated retreats across the year. Sri Lankan tradition.
- Tathagata Meditation Center in San Jose, California. This is a Burmese, Mahasi-style Monastery. This means you are always in retreat mode, practicing a very intense style of meditation from 5am to 10pm.
- Chanmyay Satipatthana Vihara in Illinois. Another Burmese, Mahasi-style Monastery with an intense schedule.
S.N. Goenka was a wealthy Burmese man who devoted his life to teaching Vipassana meditation far and wide. He is likely the single individual most responsible for the spread of Vipassana / Mindfulness across the globe. The retreats are the same every time, everywhere. All the talks and instructions are given via recording from Mr. Goenka.
On these retreats, you will know exactly what to do. The container is powerful and set up for an authentic meditation experience. In that sense, they are well-suited for beginners. On the other hand, you generally won’t get much help from the “assistant teachers” (the “teacher” is S.N. Goenka who is only on recording), and the approach is somewhat rigid and dogmatic. All in all, it’s not perfect, but it’s a powerful experience. I’ve done many of these, and certainly recommend them.
There are currently 199 Goenka retreat centers across the globe, including 12 in the United States: four in California, as well as one in Washington, Illinois, Wisconsin, Idaho, Texas, Georgia, Delaware, and Massachusetts.
There are a number of teachers who don’t neatly fit into any of the above boxes. Most often, they’ve done extensive practice in Asia, or have latched onto specific teachers not strongly connected to the above streams. They may even have come through the Insight Meditation stream, but just sort of do their own thing now.
- Shinzen Young offers excellent retreats in Arizona, California and Ontario – great for those intellectually/analytically inclined who want a deep meditation experience.
- Beth Upton (across USA and Europe), Shaila Catherine (MI, GA, and CA), Leigh Brasington (all over world), Delson Armstrong (MO, CA, Europe, etc.), and others.
Retreats in Southeast Asia
Note: Asia in general and Myanmar specifically is not for the faint of heart—it’s noisy, the food isn’t so great, the weather is intense, mosquitos can be quite a bother and it’s far away.
That being said, if you can brave it, you will be rewarded with high-quality instruction at a very low cost (all these centers are donation-based). There’s also something really special about being not just in a retreat center, but in a country that is highly supportive of meditation. I usually recommend initially going for two weeks to three months.
As in the previous section, these are only Theravada / Vipassana / Insight Meditation Centers
Note: as of February 2023, Myanmar continues to be unavailable to foreigners, due to the ongoing civil unrest and war-time conditions.
1) Shwe Oo Min Meditation Center. This is where I’ve done the core of my training—I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Though, make sure to go when Sayadaw U Tejaniya is there (usually Dec – Feb, and July – Oct), and do yourself a favor by reading at least one of his books beforehand. If you stay longer than three months, you can stay at some of his affiliated centers for more solitary practice, like Dhamma Vibhajja down the block, or Shwe Oo Min Kalaw.
2) The Pa Auk Monastery in Pyin Oo Lwin. This is likely the best place in Myanmar for foreigners to engage in samatha / jhana practice. It’s a rigorous approach to jhana that not everyone can access, but if you’re going to try it in Myanmar, this is the spot. Note: I am NOT recommending the main Pa Auk Monastery in Mawlamyine – my experience there was that it was a big social fest, and not an environment conducive to the kind of sincere practice and tranquility needed for samatha.
3) Mahasi Method in Myanmar. I’d personally recommend just going to the Panditarama in Lumbini, Nepal, but if you really insist you could check out the Panditarama Hse Mine Gon Forest Center, or the Chanmyay Yeiktha in Hmawbi. Note: I’d recommend against going to the actual Mahasi Yeiktha. It may have been great when he was alive, but the quality of instruction is pretty low, and as a foreigner, you are very much an afterthought.
4) Places for independent practice in Myanmar. If you’re anything like me, in Myanmar you basically just want to practice with U Tejaniya or no one. So what to do when he’s out of town?
The Mahasi center in Kalaw will give you a nice Kuti, the weather is pretty nice, and since no one speaks very good English, they will let you do whatever you want—you won’t be able to contact them ahead of time, so just show up. I think you’d be okay here with a tourist visa, but to be sure, I’d apply to the Yangon Mahasi Center for your sponsorship letter…
Otherwise, you could take a bus to Sagaing, and find your way to Parakamma East, where the abbot speaks very broken English and will likely let you stay in their cave, or their accommodations!
The first two options have actual group meditation retreats, where a specific method is offered, and are excellent for people without an established practice (and also those who do!).
1) Wat Suan Mokkh. On the 1st of each month, they lead a 10-day meditation retreat. You are welcome to stay the rest of the month and do self-practice. This center was founded in 1989 by Ajahn Buddhadasa, one of the foremost teachers of the 20th Century (who is now deceased). I haven’t actually been here, so not personally sure of the quality of teachings, or how it is nowadays, but its reputation is pristine. I don’t hesitate to give it a high recommendation.
2) Khao Tham. This center offers donation-based English Language 10-day retreats every month. I don’t personally know too much about this center, but a dear dharma friend gave their former abbot a high recommendation, and everything I read on the website suggests to me it’s for real. I don’t hesitate to give it my thumbs up.
If you do have an established practice and are looking for a top-notch monastic environment (which generally means little-to-no personal instruction), here are three excellent choices:
3) Wat Tam Doi Tohn. As of 2013, they offered monthly 5-day meditation retreats and also allowed meditators to stay on for independent practice (not sure what the situation is nowadays). I found the teacher very inspiring and radiant, though he doesn’t speak English. During a retreat, there is a translator and you will receive group interviews, but if you’re there at other times, you’re likely on your own. The conditions are more than sufficient, and there are a couple sweet caves to meditate in.
4) Wat Boonyawad. This is the home of Ajahn Dtun, who is one of the most respected meditation masters alive. I’ve read several of his books, have seen him live in California, and highly recommend his teachings (assuming you can stomach very traditional buddhism). I’ve never actually been to this center, but from what I understand the conditions are well set up for serious meditation. There is a limit on how long you can stay—not sure if nowadays it’s 15 or 30 days.
5) Wat Pah Nanachat. This is probably the most famous & well-respected Thai Monastery that is readily accessible to Westerners. It was originally started by Ajahn Chah, one of the pre-eminent meditation masters of the past 100 years, and was created specifically for Westerners. There will be plenty of English spoken, and many other Western monastics and laypeople will be present. I’ve never been here, though from what I understand, it’s a little on the social side, but also is rooted in very deep practice, and gives a good taste of Thai monastic life. You really can’t go wrong with a visit here.
6) Finally, for some additional centers that do multi-day courses, try the Doi Suthep Insight Meditation Center or Wat Ram Poeng. I believe both of those have pretty intense “beginner’s” courses that are 21 & 26 days long. There are of course other options, and you can always do a 10 day Goenka course, but the above options should be plenty.
1) Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary. All of the teachers who lead formal retreats here are of the highest quality — Ayasma Kumara, Patrick Kearney, Ajahn Sucitto, and Ayasma Aggacitta are all very deeply practiced and well-seasoned teachers.
Also, this is a really great place for self-practice. The conditions are quite good, and not too many people come. You’ll have lots of quiet. There is the option to do a “guided retreat,” where the resident teacher will give you regular group interviews; however, an experienced dharma friend said these weren’t always the most helpful, and that the self-practice was preferable.
For men, there is an option to stay with the monks. Regardless of gender, you are also able to schedule an interview with one of the senior monks (you have to ask, but it’s very helpful!).
1) Lumbini Panditarama. This is one of the best Mahasi-style meditation centers on the globe for longer practice. There are two teachers; both speak perfect English and go much deeper than rote instructions (which is far too common at Mahasi centers in Asia). You will have your own private hut with a bathroom, and the food is pretty solid. You’ll get private interviews at least every other day, if not every day. There’s a lot of talking around Asian meditation centers, but this one is refreshingly held in noble silence.
1) Nissarana Vanaya. I haven’t been here but have received high recommendations. Serious practice environment. The teacher, food, solitude, and general conditions all seem high. They offer both meditation retreats and self-directed practice with daily teacher interviews. You can stay up to three months. The style of practice is traditional Mahasi method.
2) Na Uyana Aranya. I also haven’t been here, but it’s supposed to be a very good jhana/samadhi focused center. There’s lots of quiet and solitude, good food, and quality instruction. A proper forest monastery. You can stay as long as you like.
3) A incredibly thorough 40-page document prepared in 2018 by a Buddhist monk. It lists dozens of monasteries in Sri Lanka, with lots of great info for foreigners on visiting Sri Lankan monasteries.
Retreats in Europe
Personally, I’ve never been on a retreat in Europe, so I can’t speak too much about the particular centers. However, the general style of practice & options is going to be very similar to what I described in the United States section. All of the following are pretty solid choices:
- Gaia House, Devon, UK
- Vipassanagruppen, Stockholm, Sweden
- Northern Light Vipassana Society, Sweden
- Skogskloster Buddhistsamfunn, Norway
- Vimalakirti Center, Geneva, Switzerland
- Meditation Center Beatenberg, Switzerland
- Nirodha: Insight Meditation Retreat Center, Finland
- Pauenhof Center, Germany
- Goenka retreats Europe, 19 Retreat Centers all across Europe. See the description on Goenka retreats in the USA section.
- There are eight different Ajahn Chah branch monasteries across the UK, Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland.
Retreats in Canada, Mexico, and Beyond
- Dhamma Vihara in Vera Cruz. This is a monastery that holds retreats and also allows you to stay and plug into the normal, daily rhythm.
- A Goenka Retreat Center about two hours from Mexico City. See the comment I made at the beginning about Goenka retreats.
Retreats near Portland, Oregon
In another article, I’ve listed every Buddhist meditation group in the Portland area. All the locations on this list are also discussed in that link.
1. Retreat Centers that lead 10+ retreats per year within 90 miles of Portland
- Cloud Mountain – easily my top recommendation in the area. They offer Vipassana retreats from 2 – 30 days with some of the most senior Vipassana teachers in the country. The retreats cost a little $$, but they offer many scholarships, and in my opinion, also have the highest quality instruction in the area.
- Northwest Vipassana Center – offers donation-based 10 day Vipassana retreats in the style of S.N. Goenka. The style is a little rigid, though you get an authentic meditation experience that’s affordable to all. These retreats are a great option.
- The Great Vow Zen Monastery – offers monthly Zen retreats, plus opportunities for long-term residential practice. If you’re into Zen, this is easily my top recommendation in the area.
2. Communities that lead 1 to 9 retreats per year within 90 miles of Portland
Feel free to leave any questions in the comments, or if you have some centers to add, I invite you to list them as well!