What is a Householders Retreat?

By Robert Brumet

This article was written for the spring 2015 Mid-America Dharma Newsletter.

In the early stages of Buddhist history the practice of meditation was confined largely to those who were monastics. Most lay persons in the surrounding farms and communities where preoccupied with making a subsistence living and were not able to spend much time in formal meditation. In the Pali suttas these persons are typically referred to as householders. Their practice of the dharma consisted mostly of contributing food and other items to monks and nuns who depended upon them for their livelihood.

Today in the West most of us who attend Buddhist meditation retreats are laypersons rather than monastics. In that sense almost every Insight Meditation retreat could be called a “householder’s retreat;” however, we tend to use that term to designate a retreat that focuses on helping the participants practice the dharma in their everyday life.

For this reason a Householder’s Retreat is usually scheduled for relatively short segments of time spread over a period of one or two weeks. The formal retreat periods tend to focus on how one can engage the practice in his or her everyday life experience at home or at work. Participants are often given assignments in the form of specific practices or reflections to apply throughout the day. The retreat also includes a review of how one has (or has not) been able to maintain a daily practice in the time between formal sessions.

The true value of the dharma lies in our ability to apply it in our everyday life. If we limit our practice to the formal retreats or only to periods of sitting meditation then the benefits of our practice will be limited. Every experience of our day is “grist for the mill.” Nothing is outside of our practice.

I have heard many yogis (including myself) lament that during a retreat their practice was “as sharp as a razor,” but a short time after retreat it became “duller than a table knife.” We usually need support for integrating the dharma practice into our everyday life. A Householder’s Retreat is designed to help us keep our practice razor sharp throughout each moment of the day.