Virtual Meditation Retreats: Maintaining Mindfulness in Daily Life

Virtual Meditation Retreats: Maintaining Mindfulness in Daily Life

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been.... But there is no one but us. There never has been. - Annie Dillard*

This quote was shared by Brian Lesage at a virtual Zoom meditation retreat, co-taught with Diana Clark. I found this quote powerful in articulating my drive towards the spiritual path. And one component of the spiritual path as a Buddhist is deepening my meditation practice. Hence, I have often asked Buddhist teachers the same question—how does one balance life, work, and being mindfully present? It seemed to me that unless one is a Buddhist teacher or retired, it's hard to maintain mindfulness when we are assaulted with constant life and work challenges.

The usual advice is to "work our way up to it"—i.e. continuously increase the duration of practice elements into our lives, similar to gym workouts. And multi-day silent meditation retreats are like Buddhist bootcamps, designed to allow a pure and intentional focus on understanding our minds without distractions.

Attending My First Virtual Meditation Retreat

With the pandemic, retreat centers have started to offer virtual alternatives to in-person meditation retreats. A few weeks ago, I attended my first virtual multi-day meditation retreat through Zoom. (I had attended several day-long silent retreats throughout the years, but never a multi-day.)

How does that work, one might ask? I had the same questions in mind, and chose to “audit” instead of being a full attendee because of my work and Write of Passage obligations. Although it was an odd hybrid situation, I found it immensely helpful for configuring one’s daily life routines to better align with the Buddhist spiritual path. It felt similar to figuring out how to set up a "home gym," so that I have no excuse about not working out.

Meditation Retreat Guidelines Comparison

To paint a clearer picture, here's a comparison between the various retreat modalities. Please note that these are specific to Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, and retreat guidelines differ greatly between organizations! The ones listed below are a partial list for brevity, and overall the idea is to adhere to the 5 precepts.

Meditation Retreat Guidelines (Partial)

NamePeople InteractionsElectronicsEntertainmentRetreat ScheduleTeacher InteractionsMeals
In-Person Retreat
Noble silence unless speaking with teachers for practice discussions
Strictly no phones allowed
No access
Full day of alternating between sitting and walking meditation (~45 min each) with dhamma talks and chanting.
Private practice discussions with teachers
Vegetarian meals provided on-site
Virtual Retreat
Some noble silence, inform people living with you that you will be in a retreat. OK to conduct basic life chores and attend to family needs, but avoid unnecessary speaking
Ideally no phones, but ok to keep on for family needs
All reading and music discouraged
Same as in-person, but by Zoom
Private and group practice discussion with teachers by Zoom
Advised to mealprep/order delivery of vegetarian food
Virtual Retreat Auditing
Same as virtual, with allowance to skip sitting/meditation sessions as needed
Same as virtual
Same as virtual with allowance for work-necessary reading
Attend sessions as one's schedule allows
Group practice discussion with teachers by Zoom
Advised to mealprep/order delivery of vegetarian food
What I Actually Did
I had the apartment to myself this week, so it was easy to be quiet at home. I tried to not initiate conversations with people online but still ended up chatting with a few friends 😅
Muted all social media, deleted some apps altogether (LinkedIn, Twitter.)
Deleted YouTube, music, podcasting, book apps
1-2 sitting sessions for 4 days, a few dhamma talks and chanting sessions
Attended 1 group practice discussion and asked a question or two
Got delicious Indian vegetarian food delivered 🍛

Here’s What I’d Learned During the Retreat:

  • It was immediately clear which forms of distractions I gravitate towards the most. And those who know me can spot this from a million miles away as well. It was YouTube! I had gotten in the habit of watching YouTube especially while I’m eating. And eating by myself, in silence, was the most telling--I always thought of myself as a huge foodie, but if that were true, why would I not want to eat mindfully? The first few bites of food were enjoyable, but I sensed discomfort from feeling full a lot earlier than I normally would. The diminishing return is so stark that I found myself not wanting to be “there” for it.

  • I’m able to settle into a much deeper state of stillness if I allow myself the full 45 minutes to sit, AND be generally undistracted throughout the day. The disconnection of devices allow establishment of a higher "base" level of mindfulness, which is supportive towards sitting meditation. It's kind of like stopping a car that is moving too fast--if there isn't momentum from daily life distractions, then it's also much easier to slow down in sittings and get into stillness.

  • Oddly enough, even if I wasn’t in the Zoom meditation hall, I found myself behaving differently knowing that I was “on retreat.” At first I thought that it might be an unpleasant experience, perhaps a feeling of “being watched.” Instead I found myself less anxious and less likely to procrastinate as a result. It was like having a reminder of how I was prioritizing spiritual growth, so even making a powerpoint presentation felt right. I had a preconceived notion that mindfulness "looks like" sitting quietly in a room, but practicing in this immersive way has opened up new interpretations of what mindfulness can be like in daily life. It was as though my constant conflict between what I “should” be doing and what I was actually doing, assuaged just a tiny bit.

The Unexpected Aftermath

This virtual meditation retreat was quite pivotal in my practice, because:

  • The experience removed the psychological divide I had between “things I do for spiritual practice” and “all the other stuff I’ve got to do to live.” They seem more integrated and aligned.

  • There is a new "mental reference point" of seeing the trade off between daily life disturbances and mindfulness, and witnessing that a continuity of mindfulness is supportive towards deeper sitting meditation.

  • Although I have not kept up with all the retreat guidelines afterwards, there were some habits changes retained that are conducive to mindfulness. For example, I have reinstalled the apps, but disabled as many notifications as possible. (Sorry everyone on Instagram, you’re still on mute!) I’ve also watched a lot less YouTube!

Overall, I found the virtual retreat to be immensely supportive in changing my view of how I can lead my day. As the teachers of the retreat shared, virtual Zoom retreats can nudge us towards innovating how we incorporate buddhist practice in our daily life.


Let me know your thoughts--have you been/are you interested in attending a virtual/IRL meditation retreat? Reach me at @christintweets!

*One fun note--despite the deep religiosity of this quote, her CV says “religion: none”!


Kind supporters and reviewers

  • Christine Carillo
  • Chris Wong
  • Ashni Patel
  • Laila Faisal
  • Allie Crawford
  • Krishna Dusad
  • Dani Trusca
  • Charlene Wang
  • Fei-Ling Tseng
  • Jessi Mendoza
  • Gad Allon
  • Lyssa Menard

Revision Log

  • Future revisions:
    • Fix language with ProWritingAid
    • Add links
    • Add drawings
  • Draft 2:
    • Overall, reviewers were a bit confused by the introduction which was quite broad, and didn’t match up to the content’s explanation of a virtual retreat. So I modified the introduction to be more retreat/daily mindfulness practice-specific. I also made a table that distinguished IRL retreats, virtual retreat guidelines, and what I actually did as someone auditing the retreat and customizing it to my needs. I also rephrased sentences to be more specific to buddhist practice and building up mindfulness to support a meditative practice, rather than a vague spiritual practice.

Questions from Draft 1:

  1. Which section seemed the most interesting? I feel this piece could go in several directions (e.g. Do readers want to know my thoughts on how they can do a virtual retreat, etc.? More learnings? More “what really happened after the retreat realistically?”)
  2. Ideas on better ways to structure this essay?