Ask a random gathering of people how many of them have heard about meditation and you’ll probably see most of them raise their hands.
Ask them what they think happens on meditation retreats, and you’re bound to hear some wacky things.
- Everyone sits in full lotus and chants for hours on end.
- Someone hits you with a stick if you start to fall asleep.
- You must be able to completely clear your mind in order for it to “work”.
- You have to be vegan, and will eat very little.
- There will be a Guru and you have to become a disciple.
The list goes on, and might even get more bizarre. But the bottom line? Meditation retreats can be a lot of things (and some retreat centers do serve solely vegan food!), but they’re far more welcoming than many believe. Whether you’re just curious or considering attending a meditation retreat, here’s everything you need to know.
What is a meditation retreat?
While there are many varieties of meditation retreats and a wide array of formats, one thing that should be made abundantly clear:
These retreats are typically for meditation newbies and experienced folks alike. And if the retreat isn’t suitable for new meditators, it will likely be made clear in the description.
Retreats are designed to support the meditators to learn, then deepen and absorb a meditation practice. That could be a silent meditation retreat like Vipassana, meditation practice in a particular spiritual lineage like Buddhism, modern forms like Transcendental Meditation, or more interdisciplinary formats that include walking meditation, Loving Kindness meditation, or self-compassion practices. Because meditation has been used as a tool in some form across so many different wisdom traditions the variations can seem endless. But they all have one thing in common:
To provide a protected space for retreat participants to allow the busy monkey mind to settle and through that settling, natural inherent clarity arises. We connect to a feeling of being awake, pure and simple. Often this clarity comes in small glimpses, but however small, those glimpses can be enough to sustain you off the mediation cushion.
Whether for a weekend retreat or a month immersion, you’ll be given the tools and practices to move into deep reflection.
How do I prepare for a meditation retreat?
For most of us as westerners, the typical day has us bouncing from one thing to the next. We’re managing emails while eating breakfast, checking in with our friends while we commute, and very rarely do we get a quiet, still moment to ourselves.
To support yourself in preparation for a meditation retreat, it’s good to create even a bit of time for reflection. One of the most important reflections is your aspiration. What do you wish to accomplish or realize? If you could waive a magic wand for this retreat, what would you wish for? Aspiration is an important first step in any spiritual practice. It is like setting the north star. Once you have an aspiration, no matter how large or small, keep it with you. Having a clear aspiration, especially in challenging times, is like having a lot of gas in the tank.
Next is working with habitual patterns. There are a few ways to approach this: first and foremost, begin to slowly shift the habit of constant doing in order to get to know the space of quiet. Allow your mind and nervous system to begin the sometimes-difficult process of slowing down. Carve out space to sit without music, without your screens, without even a book to read, just to see how it feels.
There’s a good chance it might seem a bit noisy in your mind. An even better chance it might feel uncomfortable at first. And this is exactly why we meditate: to find greater ease in just being.
We may begin to notice that we are afraid of space. What happens when we come home from work? Do we do the same things: eat, scroll, tv, sleep? What happens when we are alone for a moment in a restaurant, do we reach for our phone? When there is an awkward moment of silence in a conversation, do we find ourselves saying something just to fill it? It is great to start tuning into your habitual patterns, your ways of being on autopilot. These patterns come up on retreat so the idea is to be able to begin to see them for what they are.
Prepare your body. Whatever type of meditation retreat you’re embarking upon, it will no doubt ask your body to do things and be in ways that are different from your usual daily life. Whether you’re sitting long hours in Vipassana, or spending time walking a labyrinth, drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, and take time to walk in nature in the weeks leading up to your retreat. This will support your physical body to better contain the exploration and practice of meditation. Even yogis and regular meditators may find their bodies have a hard time adjusting to so much meditation, so take extra care of yourself.
And remember, when you are on the cushion meditating, it isn't a statue contest, if you have to move a bit, that is ok. Take care of your self.
Your retreat meditation teacher may have additional suggestions for how to prepare yourself, too -- and if you’re newly beginning your relationship with meditation, it is highly recommended to follow their advice. After all, they probably have quite a bit of experience and the wisdom that follows…
What do you do at a meditation retreat?
The short answer? Not much. And also a lot.
Most meditation retreats include a combination of teaching or dharma talk from the retreat leader, multiple meditation sessions throughout the day, and of course, meals – often vegan or vegetarian. There may be multiple styles of meditation offered, or maybe just one depending on the retreat you attend. For meditation practices that require a bit more instruction, the first day or few days may include more talks and guidance while the latter portion of the retreat is more focused on practice.
Whatever the specifics may be, you’ll spend a lot of time with yourself in the company of other people. Most meditation retreats suggest or even require that meals are spent in silence and that time outside of the structured sessions is “in isolation”–- meaning even though you’ll encounter other people, you keep your attention, including eye contact, to yourself. This is especially true of silent retreats. Some retreats will offer structured time for discussion or include additional wisdom modalities or healing experiences, while in other retreats the only person you will speak with is the teacher or support staff.
What will you do at the retreat? You’ll get to know the workings of your mind intimately. And if you’ve never spent a significant amount of time watching your mind go on its daily adventures, you are in for an interesting ride.
This is the crux of meditation, truly, and why spending focused time at a retreat can be so valuable. The hubbub of our daily lives masks the incessant and seemingly-random and slightly crazed chatter that’s running in the background of our minds. We have jobs, families, friends, commutes, music, and podcasts, all of which pull our attention elsewhere and let the chatter go on unchecked.
So what you’ll probably do is watch with awe, wonder, confusion, disgust, and surprise at all the things that are happening in your mind. Then, you’ll begin to use the tools of meditation to begin the slow and challenging work of shifting your relationship to it all.
How is a meditation retreat laid out?
Because there are so many types of meditation retreats, it’s impossible to describe a blanket roadmap. But you can probably expect that the days will begin fairly early, be broken out into multiple “sessions” of meditation, and may include complimentary practices like walking meditation, yoga, dharma talks, or other opportunities to move and stretch your body. Any way you slice it, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the meditation hall and engaged in mindfulness practice – how many hours you’ll be planted on your meditation cushion depends on the style of retreat you take.
What type of meditation retreat is best?
As with many aspects of spiritual practice, the answer is it depends. It depends on you as the meditator and what you’re seeking. Where do you feel challenged? What type of spiritual practice resonates? How long do you want to retreat for? To help you decide, here are a few questions to consider:
Are you seeking a spiritual practice or lineage?
Zen Buddhist or Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreats draw quite a few people from around the world because of how deeply the lineages are rooted in meditation and contemplation. You can expect to learn Buddhist practices of contemplation, spend a fair amount of time in silent meditation, and receive dharma talks about the teachings of the Buddha. There are also yoga retreats that offer a focus on meditation from the yogic lineage, and some meditation retreats are even rooted in the Christian faith.
Do you want to experience complimentary practices?
Yoga, walking meditation, time spent in nature, art, dance – there are a wide array of activities that can be extremely complementary to your meditation practice, especially if this is your first time. If you feel overwhelmed by spending the majority of your time seated in the meditation hall, look for a retreat format that allows you to move and explore mindfulness practices beyond the cushion. A multidisciplinary yoga retreat, a visit to an Insight Meditation retreat like Spirit Rock, or a retreat that blends in Ayurveda or Tantra teachings could be just the right fit to introduce you to meditation.
Have you meditated before?
If this retreat is your very first exposure to meditation, you might consider what exactly you’re seeking. Are you looking for stress reduction? You could consider a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) retreat. If you’re looking for a lineage that will give you a mantra or practice to incorporate into your everyday life, Insight Meditation or Transcendental Meditation both offer specific guidelines for building a home meditation practice. For your first time, consider choosing a retreat and lineage that offers you more guidance on how to create a strong foundation. If you’re an experienced meditator, look for a retreat center that supports you in deepening your practice, or teaches you a new skill.
What happens at a Vipassana or silent retreat?
Vipassana retreats have become well-known as the go-to silent retreat. Celebrities are raving about the life-changing experiences they’ve had, and since the Goenka Vipassana tradition has established meditation centers all over the world, the retreats are quite accessible. But what should you expect?
Vipassana retreats are rigorous endeavors, spent in a residential setting usually for ten days. The first sit begins early in the morning and you’ll finish late in the evening, with a break mid-afternoon to spend time outside or rest. With so much seated meditation, these retreats can be quite physically demanding and, as a result, mentally challenging. Meditators are typically given opportunity to speak briefly to the meditation teacher as needed, but the focus is on the inner work. Meals are kept light and simple so as not to become distracting, and meditators are to stay focused on themselves at all times and adhere to the code of conduct to avoid disturbing others.
All in all? Vipassana retreats are a strong practice in self-discipline and an opportunity to really dive into the self. You typically won’t find opportunities for day retreat at a Vipassana retreat center, but some centers offer introductory 3-day sessions to learn a little more about what it means to immerse in the Noble Silence – a term used by the Buddha to describe a silence both outside and within.
How much does a meditation retreat cost?
Anywhere from zero dollars to a few thousand. Vipassana meditation retreats are famously offered for free all across the globe, dependent on the volunteer support of past retreat participants and donations from committed meditators. Retreats at mid-range retreat centers can range from $200 up for a weekend, while high-end facilities with spa-like offerings can range from $1500 to $3000 for a week with lodging. Many programs offer opportunities for scholarships or financial assistance. Some retreat centers have established residential work-study programs that enable participants to stay on-site for an extended period of time in exchange for working in the kitchen, gardens, or other position of support.
Travel is another consideration if you’re looking at taking your retreat abroad. A flight to a retreat center in Thailand is typically more expensive than travel to New York, for example, and will require research into the necessary vaccines, visas, local travel, and other international logistics. But sometimes taking yourself way outside of your everyday life routines, to a place where your cell phone doesn’t even work, can be the perfect way to bring you right into the present moment.
And that’s what retreats are all about.
Finding a meditation retreat that’s right for you
Hopefully now you’ve got a sense of what a meditation retreat really is and how it can benefit you. And if you find yourself with questions, don’t be afraid to reach out to the center. They’ll love to hear from you! If you’d like recommendations for specific centers, we’re only an email away.
Blessings on your search and may all beings benefit from your practice. May you realize the nature of your mind and then be a torch for others on the path to awakeanment. And don't forget to have fun!
Photo by Match Sùmàyà on Unsplash