What to Expect at an Insight Dialogue Retreat

Photo credit: Amy Darling

Insight Dialogue is an interpersonal meditation practice that brings together meditative awareness (e.g., mindfulness, concentration), the wisdom teachings of the Buddha and the power of relationship to support insight. It may be helpful to keep in mind that Insight Dialogue is not a form of psychotherapy nor is it technique intended to improve communication or relationship skills; these benefits arise naturally on the path towards human maturity and awakening. Fundamentally, Insight Dialogue is a meditation practice aimed at freeing the heart-mind. Although Insight Dialogue retreats draw on the Buddha’s teachings, people of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome.

Insight Dialogue retreats—which are generally offered on a dana, or generosity basis—involve a combination of dialogue practice (i.e., speaking and listening), silent sitting meditation, talks on Buddhist teachings, and walking meditation or other mindful movement. The largest amount of time is spent in dialogue practice. On some retreats, individual meetings with the teacher(s) for practice guidance are offered. Typically there is a period of silent sitting meditation before breakfast. The morning, afternoon and evening practice periods often also begin with a period of sitting meditation.

To allow practice to deepen, silence is observed during Insight Dialogue retreats except when participants are meditating in dialogue together or during periods designated for questions and reflections. Retreatants are also asked to refrain from using mobile phones, computers, tablets and other communication devices. Retreatants can communicate with the teacher(s) and retreat manager (e.g., by posting notes on a bulletin board) as necessary. In general, retreat participants are expected to arrive at the start of the retreat, stay for the entire retreat and come to practice sessions on time; if alternative arrangements are needed (e.g., due to illness or a need for self-care), retreatants are asked to communicate with the teacher(s) about this. Basic ethical guidelines regarding intoxicants, sexuality, and non-harming are observed.

Like many silent meditation practices, Insight Dialogue has a set of instructions or guidelines to support the cultivation of insight. The six Insight Dialogue guidelines—Pause, Relax, Open, Trust Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth—are generally taught in sequence. The guidelines help establish the meditative qualities of the mind and to sustain these qualities while participants engage in contemplations that encourage a direct and intimate inquiry into the nature, causes, and release of human suffering. Contemplation topics range from direct noting of sensory experience (e.g., pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body) to more content-rich teachings. The richer teachings—such as the three characteristics (suffering, impermanence and not self), the “divine messengers” of ageing, illness, and death, and virtues such as lovingkindness, compassion and generosity—are not discussed in the abstract, but rather explored in present moment experience. In this way, relational contact and meditative qualities of the mind help bring root wisdom teachings into lived experience, here and now.


At the start of an Insight Dialogue practice session, the teacher will invite retreatants to find a meditation partner. Insight Dialogue is most frequently practiced in dyads, although practice in larger groupings will likely be invited as the retreat progresses. During dialogue practice, meditators sit facing each other on a chair or cushion in close enough proximity that they can hear each other in a room where others are speaking. When speaking and listening in dialogue, meditators are encouraged to keep their eyes open, although there is no expectation for continuous eye contact. Retreatants are asked to keep what their meditation partners share with them in confidence. Periodically, the teacher may ring a bell to return the co-meditators to silence. This supports a deepening of mindfulness, tranquility, and concentration. During these interludes, the contemplation topics may be further developed or refreshed, helping meditators to focus and drop more deeply into the lived experience of the teaching that is being explored.

Insight Dialogue retreats typically end with a closing circle and lovingkindness practice after which silence is broken and participants gather for lunch before leaving the retreat.

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