The Privilege of Spiritual Retreats: An Ego Trip?

Are meditation or spiritual development “retreats” creating a privileged class of “spiritual” people, those with the means to afford such “luxuries”?

I just received an email for a retreat with Eckhart Tolle and Kim Eng in April 2020. It sounds lovely, helping people wake up to the realization that we are “the light of the world,” going “beyond the limitations of egoic thought.”

But I do wonder about privilege, and the formation of a kind of spiritual “elite” class. It costs $1,197 “tuition” for the 4-day retreat, but that does not cover lodging or food. It is taking place at a very nice place, the Arizona Biltmore Resort, as it is described:

Arizona Biltmore Resort

Since 1929, the Arizona Biltmore has been a stand-out destination, creating unforgettable memories. Over the years, the 39 acres of gardens, swimming pools, and iconic architecture have provided a safe haven for celebrities, diplomats, and presidents, and a luxurious resort for guests from all walks of life. The resort has been an Arizona landmark since its opening and is one of the only existing luxury hotels in the world with a Frank Lloyd Wright influence.

The cost is an additional $359/night for single occupancy, or $419/night for double occupancy (including a daily lunch). Then you must pay for breakfast and dinner on top of that, at one of the on-site “restaurants or cafes.” So between “tuition,” lodging, and food, you would be out well over $2,000 for such a retreat, not to mention your flights to get there.

There is no sliding pay scale, there is no “pay what you can,” no gift economy, there are no lower-cost lodging options. It seems that those who will be attending are those who have significant income or savings, and who can take off half a week from their vocation to fly to Arizona (no apparent carbon offset), to spend the weekend in luxurious accommodations, with gardens, swimming pools, etc.

Eckhart Tolle

It’s ironic, because Tolle’s email also says, as if in the voice of Tolle himself,

There is never a wrong moment to seek Presence. However, in this historical instant, awakening is no longer a luxury.

If it is no longer a luxury, then why are such retreats about awakening taking place in such luxurious conditions, which are noted several times for their “luxury”? I can’t imagine Jesus organizing a prayer retreat at a beach-side luxury resort on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that would only be accessible to the middle to upper-class Jews because of the costs involved.

I think Tolle is a very spiritually wise person, one of the greatest spiritual sages of our time, and I’ve quoted his teachings several times before in my writings. But things like this make me wonder if such spiritual teachers as Tolle are being used by the “spiritual” system? Is he blind to his own activities? Or perhaps he does know he is reaching only the “elite” in such retreats so as to help them surrender their enlarged egos, to help them realize they can no longer afford such luxuries if they are to awaken? Is it surreptitiously intentional? Maybe he knows exactly what he is doing, not talking to those who are well, but to those who are sick (Mark 2:17)?

Sometimes we need to look in the mirror. I’ve been on such retreats. One was at Jack Kornfield’s Spirit Rock and cost about $1,000 “tuition,” and I also had to fly to California. But there was a sliding pay scale, and food and lodging were included (hermits were also allowed to apply for a complimentary stay). And the teachers were not paid from the “tuition” (which helped cover only room and board and administration), but from charitable “dana” given afterwards. Yet it’s still a privilege to go to such a retreat. I recognize that. I live in relative privilege to many others. Those who are less well off cannot afford to go to such retreats.

Looking back, I prefer the other retreat I went on which cost nothing to attend, not a penny up front, including food and lodging, and is run on a system of voluntary donations or “dana” that is only given after the retreat is over. They claim it is “pay it forward” to provide for the retreat of the next cohort, helping give to them what you have received yourself during the retreat. Granted, the retreat was much more austere than the first one I went to at Spirit Rock, but that seems like a better system to me. This second retreat was with S. N. Goenka’s Vipassana organization. I still flew to this retreat, even though it was only 300 miles away… Privilege.

Or maybe I’m just jealous that I have neither the time or the money to go on such a retreat again with one of the spiritual giants of today. So perhaps it is my own inflated ego that is the issue. Yes, that’s probably it. I’m perhaps privileged by the ability to even entertain the thought that I could possibly attend such a retreat, and then write about how I will not be attending, including criticizing those who do. Yes, my ego trip.

I will retreat at home.

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16 thoughts on “The Privilege of Spiritual Retreats: An Ego Trip?

  1. I looked up “religious retreats near me” on Google and (so far) found 50 in the Los Angeles area which were rated 5 star. They ranged from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and non-sectarian. Most were funded by donations. A retreat is a treat when it doesn’t cost you $2000 or more.

      1. Yes, there are many retreats. It almost seems like they are marketed at times like vacations, which in a sense they are, a vacation from the monkey mind world, but that can also make them enticing to the ego, and the most rigorous of meditation retreats are not easy on the ego.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, Bryce. Unfortunately we are living in a time when spiritual teaching is often considered a lucrative business opportunity (there is one teacher I know of who charges $750 per hour for online consultation). I kind of feel like Eckhart Tolle initiated the whole industry himself on heels of his discovery by Oprah. I don’t mean to knock him, I’ve found a lot of value in his teachings, but I got it from a $20 book and some YouTube clips. I’ve gone on a few retreats (not with any of these types of teachers) and they all cost something, but that price for that short a time is way too steep for me. It does seem like a luxury for the financially well-off.

    1. Walt, yes, particularly with the rise of mindfulness apps, and meditation courses, etc., there is a lot of venture capital that is flowing into these things, which I’m concerned will corrupt them. The ego has a way of taking that which is good and true, and making a mess of it. But perhaps there is good that is coming of it too, as I noted, helping those who have such luxuries to surrender their egos and realize that many people do not have the luxuries they have. Perhaps this could help them develop compassion for the less well-off.

      1. I feel the corruption has already happened, with mindfulness becoming little more than a stress-management tool, for example, or a way to get more productivity out of one’s day. In some ways it’s become akin to the old advertising slogan, “Mindfulness – An important part of a nutritious breakfast!”
        That said, as far as corruption goes, that’s pretty mild. But maybe you fear a deeper corruption than that? If so, what does that look like?

        1. I fear a corruption of mindfulness as a tool to aggrandize the ego, to create popular “meditators,” I’ve even seen the term “spiritual influencers” pop up, a variant of the popular Instagram “influencers.” Much of this just seems to be ways for the ego to aggrandize itself, and not seeking real awakening or liberation. Meditation and spiritual programs are perhaps being used as a tool for the ego, to display “holiness,” and self-righteousness, piousness, rather than a way of transforming the mind and transcending ego.

          1. Yes, that’s very true. But then again, that’s what happens as something like this gains a hold in a culture. No religion (not that we’re talking about a ‘religion’ here, but you know what I mean) is immune to that, I think. Christianity being the most obvious example.

  3. Spirituality is also used to make money these days.
    I prefer spiritual pilgrame to retreats, whether it’s a mountain or a sacred place or monastery.
    And to be honest, real mystics dont make money out of their teaching. If they really followed what they teach, money would be irellevant.

    1. Yes, a lot of it does seem geared to “make money.” How do you think real mystics make ends meet, or survive in life, if they don’t make money?

      1. There seems to be something very subtle about what Jesus says “Look for the kingdom of Heaven first, and everything will be provided for you”. What this means is, if you go on the path of evolution, somehow mystically opportunities to eat, drink, cloth etc will manifest anytime you need them. People always look for wise people to seek their guidance and offer soemthing in return.

  4. This is such a tricky area in that you don’t want to get caught up in judging the intentions of another, and yet I sensed from the beginning of my discovery of mysticism an unease about amounts of money exchanged for wisdom and experience. I’ve decided to use my heart as a barometer of judging FOR ME whether something is worthy of my time, attention, and money. My heart is very enamored with the gift economy because I believe true seekers are willing to bless, support, gift to others what has truly and authentically nourished and helped them. There is a desire to give back to someone who has guided them to greater understanding, experience, wholeness. And I truly believe that those who are humbled by their own gift of grace will be cared for their needs and even wants as they seek ways to share with others their wisdom. I believe doors always open. I know for myself there is something beautiful about giving of my own free will and desire rather than being required to give, especially exorbitant amounts, in order to receive. I believe even the requirement to tithe in order to be in good standing within an institution falls under compulsion and unrighteous dominion.

    1. Beautifully said, Amy! Thank you. It seems there was a good reason for Jesus sending the disciples “without purse or scrip.” The purse was a money bag, and the scrip a travel bag. They weren’t to pay for supplies in the traditional way along their way, or take money for their teachings in an exchange format. They were to live by the generosity and hospitality of those they met, giving freely to one another, being at-one with them, living through their mutual love, and thus demonstrating their teaching by example, their own lives and relationship with the people. As Jesus says just a few verses later, “Stay in one place, eating and drinking what they give. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who labor [teach] are worthy of reward… When you enter a town and they receive you [your gifts], eat [and live] by what is given to you” (Luke 10:7-8). They were not to refuse the Gift. Accepting the gift made them One with the people. Andrew Harvey talks about this in terms of “commensality.” That practice of eating together with the people makes them One. When you eat the same food together, you become what you’re eating, you become One, or your oneness is revealed. This perhaps brings new meaning to the Last Supper.

      I wish there were more opportunities for people to “eat” together today, or otherwise share their “possessions.” It seems that it only happens when you live in close quarters with others, such as in intentional communities.

  5. Absolutely, he writes off these very expensive accommodations, flights, meals, etc as business expenses and travels the world. It is exactly what Adam Sandler does when he creates a movie…Hawaii anyone? Arizona 5* resort or the Days Inn…which would you choose knowing it is a tax write off and essentially free? He offers much information online for those who cannot afford his pricey retreats (myself included). It is similar to how Tony Robbins runs his ‘transformation’ business. So I guess you cannot blame Tolle for doing what he does considering his net worth is 85 million + he is definitely being coached wisely. Also, I do not think I would want to be amongst the elite in learning to go deeper…I just do not want to sit around listening to Fortune 500 CEOs discuss their suffering. I choose local free meetups instead where I can relate and make life-long friends.

  6. That’s some enlightening news man. No teaching is worth that kind of money and no luxury setting will bring you closer to who you already are.
    Being loving, true to oneself and humble is one of the best ways you can be. Let’s stay that way without waisting our money.

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