Photo by Angie Smith; design by Emily Blevins
Design by Emily Blevins
You don’t need to go halfway around the world to escape from the stress of daily life.
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Sometimes, a week on the beach is not enough of an escape from the whirlwind of daily responsibilities and social media notifications. Increasingly, stressed-out travelers are finding respite in meditation retreats—daylong or multiday workshops during which participants engage in meditation and other mindfulness practices.
But you needn’t journey to a mountaintop monastery in Thailand or an ashram in India to deep-breathe your way to tranquility. There are numerous meditation and Zen centers across the United States. Some focus on traditional schools of Buddhist teachings, such as Zen (which originated in China and is influenced by Taoist teachings) and Theravadan (which is the oldest school of Buddhism and practiced widely in Southeast Asia); some are hybrids and incorporate additional religious meditation practices (from Hinduism and Taoism, for example) and other mindfulness practices, including yoga or forest bathing. Many offer silent retreats.
The options can be a little daunting, and many of the long-established retreat centers are clustered on the coasts. But RetreatBase, a new website launched in May 2019, allows users to search by location and filter by type to find their perfect match. Here, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite retreat centers across the country, so you can soul-seek without using all your miles.
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean on California’s rocky central coast, Esalen is part retreat center, part educational institute for philosophical theory and research. It’s just three hours from San Francisco and five hours from Los Angeles, and a number of Esalen’s retreats do focus specifically on Buddhist, tantric, and other types of meditation. However, the center also offers up to 600 integrative weekend and weeklong workshops a year covering a wide range of topics—including dance, yoga, leadership, permaculture, and scientific inquiry. Guests can opt for a premium room with en suite bathrooms and ocean views, book a bunk bed in a dormitory, or reserve space to roll out a sleeping bag in a common area. The 27-acre campus includes a farm and gardens, an art studio, and a clothing-optional cliffside bathhouse and natural hot springs. Since its founding in 1962, Esalen has attracted famous visitors and residents such as Henry Miller, Joan Baez, Richard Feynman, and Hunter S. Thompson, and today, it hosts around 20,000 visitors each year.
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The Shambhala Mountain Center, two hours outside of Denver, is high in the Rocky Mountains and surrounded by pine and aspen forests. It was established in 1971 by Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoch, who also founded the namesake secular meditation practice, which welcomes people from all faiths and backgrounds to seek an enlightened community based on basic goodness. The Shambhala Mountain Center holds more than 100 two-day to weeklong programs per year, including introductions to meditation, deep dives into different practices, and multidisciplinary offerings that incorporate indigenous wisdom traditions, body awareness practices, contemplative arts, and more. Accommodation varies, too, from well-appointed lodge rooms, to shared dormitories, to tents. The site is also home to the 108-foot-tall Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, one of the largest stupa (Buddhist shrine), in North America; it was built to honor Trungpa Rinpoch when he died.
Set on 250 acres in the Catskills two and a half hours outside of New York City, the Zen Mountain Monastery teaches Western Zen Buddhism. The modern and distinctly American practice draws on the traditions of Zen Buddhism as they evolved in ancient China and Japan. Curious newbies can join regular meditators in the monastery’s weekly Sunday Morning Program or participate in an Intro to Zen weekend retreat. The center also offers longer programs, from one week to one month to one year, during which residents have the opportunity to learn more about integrating their practice into everyday life. Visitors stay in dorms (for short courses) or private rooms (longer retreats), and the main building, which was built as a Benedictine monastery, is a national and state historic landmark. The Zen Mountain Monastery also has a location in New York City.
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Intimate Rolling Meadows only accommodates 11 guests at a time to a handful of silent meditation and yoga retreats each year at its restored 1840s New England farmhouse. It’s two hours from Portland, Maine, and just seven hours from New York City (and more than worth the travel time). The interdisciplinary approach here combines yoga poses, meditation, breathwork (which has its roots in yoga, tai chi, and Buddhism) to encourage participants through personal transformation to a higher level of awareness. Unstructured time is also a cornerstone of these meditation retreats and sets them apart from others. Guests are encouraged to stroll the walking paths and through the flower and organic vegetable gardens of the 100-acre property, relax in the sunroom or library, or unwind in the wood-fired sauna as a valuable part of the experience. Meals are vegetarian and feature produce from those same on-site gardens.
Less than an hour outside of San Francisco, Spirit Rock nonetheless feels worlds away from any metropolitan hustle and bustle on its 411 acres of quiet, hilly countryside in West Marin. The primary meditative practice here is a mindful Vipassana, or insight meditation, which is rooted in the Theravada tradition. The teachings at Spirit Rock also draw on other practices, including mindfulness through breathing and loving-kindness meditation, which focuses on compassion. There’s something for everyone here, whether you’re looking to dip your toe into a two-hour class, interested in getting involved at a daylong event, or ready to commit to a longer (three days to two months) silent retreat.
Set in the peaceful central Massachusetts countryside about 90 minutes from Boston, the Insight Meditation Society teaches awareness and compassion through Vipassana and loving-kindness meditations. The wooded campus consists of two facilities—the Retreat Center, which offers more than 30 courses that are generally around seven to nine days long, and the Forest Refuge, which welcomes experienced meditators on longer retreats. Guests spend their days on these silent courses alternating sitting and walking meditations, enjoying vegetarian meals, and sleeping in simple single rooms.
The 380-acre Art of Living Retreat Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina is based on the ideals of the eponymous movement started by the humanitarian and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in 1981. About three hours from Raleigh and two from Asheville, its multidisciplinary offerings include happiness, silent, yoga, and meditation retreats that can accommodate 15 to 200 people and include a free class at the center’s pottery studio. But the center prides itself on its Ayurvedic spa. Ayurveda, a sister science of yoga, approaches wellness based a person’s constitution. There are three different constitutions, and at the Art of Living Retreat Center, guests can learn about how improve their diets and lifestyle based on these constitutions. All programs can be paired with Ayurvedic treatments, so you can pair bodily heath with mental well-being. Guests can choose between boutique hotel rooms and simpler retreat rooms.
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