Do I need to know how to meditate before joining the retreat?
Certainly not. VSI has a Facilitator program and First Timer sessions that accommodate both the most experienced meditation practitioners as well as those who have had little to no experience with meditation. In fact, if you are a beginner you will have a First-Timers group session with Shinzen the very day you arrive to walk you through some basic techniques.
Will my religious beliefs conflict with the retreat?
No. While much meditation in the Eastern world is highly religious, Shinzen’s form of Vipassana is designed to be secular and accessible by everyone. Lectures will focus on the practical, cultural, social, and neurological impacts of meditation rather than the spiritual. It’s a non-sectarian, non-denominational practice that develops concentration, insight and compassion. Mindfulness meditation (Vipassana) increases one's moment-by-moment awareness of the ordinary mind-body process. As this awareness is cultivated, blockages and limiting forces become conscious, are observed with detachment and are released. Everyone can develop skill in these simple techniques, and it is a practice that can create profound changes in how we live.
Many of our long-time members are religious, and their meditation practice in no way jeopardizes their personal religious beliefs. In fact, Shinzen’s evening Dharma Talks often makes reference to meditative practice that is historically present in Judaism, Catholicism, Islam and a multitude of other world religions.
How intense is the retreat?
VSI allows you the freedom to control how intense you would like your experience to be. All sits are recommended but optional, and nobody is going to tally how many sits you attend. You are free to exercise, meditate solitarily -indoors or in your room, or even refrain from meditation (as long as you preserve Noble Silence and other retreat standards).
The relaxed nature of VSI has its pros as well as its cons. Stricter retreats consider a rigorous and disciplined schedule to be more effective, particularly for beginners. However, if a beginning student at VSI makes adequate effort to attend as many sits as possible, it is guaranteed they will come into close contact with the intensity of the retreat and their meditative practice will thank them for it.
What is Noble Silence?
Retreats are held in complete silence, i.e., no conversation, other than in the morning teaching meetings with Shinzen (called “group process”), the online sessions with Shinzen, and in selected meetings held privately out of earshot. This helps conserve energy for the work of meditation – energy which is ordinarily dissipated through talking. There is an intimate link between the forces that drive conversation (“external dialogue”) and the forces that agitate the mind (“internal dialogue”). Maintaining silence at retreats aids in clarifying and working through these forces, thus helping to develop an abiding state of inner calm. Please observe noble silence meticulously and if approached by a retreatant about this, accept their reminder with loving-kindness. If you need to remind another retreatant about noble silence, please do so with loving-kindness.
Some people interpret noble silence to include avoiding eye contact. If you find this too impersonal, certainly feel free to make eye contact which radiates loving-kindness. Please be aware however, that if some retreatants avert their gaze, they are not being unfriendly!
As part of the noble silence, retreatants may choose to refrain from writing and reading except for materials directly related to the practice of meditation, such as the handouts from the literature table.
I am experienced with meditation, but not with Vipassana. Will this retreat still serve my meditative needs?
Absolutely. While Shinzen’s Mindfulness system (which is based on traditional Vipassana) will be taught in the Group Process and Dharma Talk lectures, one is free to meditate using whatever method he or she wishes to use (as long as said method is non-disruptive to other retreatants). Many of our volunteer Facilitators have had much experience with other forms of meditation (such as Zen) and would be happy to help you with whatever form of meditation you choose to practice (as far as their expertise allows). Shinzen stresses often that one method of meditation is in no way superior to another, and the path to classical enlightenment has many routes.
However, retreatants are encouraged to at least try Shinzen’s method for themselves. His method is a modern reworking of Vipassana that is highly accessible and incorporates elements from almost every meditative tradition from both the East and the West.
Will VSI accommodate my dietary habits?
VSI does its best to meet the needs of everybody’s dietary habits. Gluten free and lactose free alternatives are provided at every meal to those who have requested them in the registration under "Dietary Needs" on the registration form. If there are further dietary restrictions you would like us to be aware of, feel free to e-mail us before the retreat. We are limited in the dietary restrictions we can accommodate, but you are always free to bring and store your own food.
Will VSI accommodate my sleeping habits?
Roommates are assigned based on a short questionnaire in the retreat registration that helps to determine the sleeping habits of retreatants. Single rooms are also readily available for those who wish to pay an additional fee.
What should I bring?
Please refer to the What to Bring page.
I’m overwhelmingly excited for the retreat, and I want to do extra preparation beforehand. How can I get myself acquainted with Shinzen’s meditation techniques?
If you’ve signed up for the retreat, it is recommended that you try to read or become familiar with the guides and documents under the reading material section.
I am having trouble finding a way to afford this retreat. Are there any programs that can help?
VSI sets aside some funds for each retreat specifically for subsidizing the meditative practice of retreatants — even first time retreatants. If you in any way feel that you could benefit from financial aid, please don’t hesitate to e-mail us or indicate when registering. We can be very accommodating.
What is the best way to get to the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center?
Can I leave any time I wish?
You are free to leave at any time, for any reason. However, if you encounter unpleasant emotional or physical sensations in your meditation, you are encouraged to stay and discuss these sensations with Shinzen in one of the retreat’s Online Support sessions (private lessons). Unpleasant emotional or physical sensations are almost always a sign of deep meditative growth, and can be an indicator that your practice is reaching new heights.
It is also recommended that retreatants, particularly first timers, don’t leave the retreat early for another reason: on the last day of the retreat Shinzen gives a small talk on how one should re-adjust to regular life beyond the retreat.
What do I do if I feel uncomfortable or have a safety issue?
VSI expects that teachers, facilitators, students, bodyworkers and retreat staff will follow the Buddhist precepts while on retreat. Should any retreatant feel unsafe or uncomfortable in any situation, please see the retreat manager to discuss issues or concerns.