WHAT TO EXPECT ON A MEDITATION RETREAT
By Shell Fischer
Making the decision to enter an extended period of silence with others doing the same—whether it’s for one day, three, or longer—is a powerful commitment to yourself, your practice, and your life. In order to make the most of this precious time, it can be useful (especially if it’s your first time) to know what you might find once you’re there, and what to bring along with you—including attitudes and expectations.
That being said, the first rule of thumb when attending any meditation retreat is to enter it with absolutely no expectations at all, and to greet whatever might present itself with as much kindness as you can muster—whether it’s an experience that might arise within you, an interaction with another, or circumstances you might find yourself in.
With this in mind, below you’ll find some suggestions that might serve as guides as you navigate your way through a silent retreat, with the idea that it’s useful when embarking on a journey to possess a clear map, and some good tools!
A few things to know before you arrive:
First and foremost: You’re not only completely free but encouraged to use your own wise discernment: No one is asking you to believe anything, and it’s not necessary for you to “buy into” anything you hear that doesn’t seem to fit. This doesn’t mean that you go ahead and do things that might disturb others; it just means that you feel liberated to make your own judgment about what you take in. It’s like that old saying about being a sponge: really allow yourself to soak it all in, then feel free to squeeze out what you don’t need.
Please also be assured that during a retreat, individual experiences can and will vary widely—and that you won’t be alone. Most retreats are inclusive to all levels of experience. So, as you look around the meditation hall, know that you’re likely looking at a real mix: veteran meditators, those very new to the practice, and others who are somewhere in between.
It might also be helpful to recognize that, while on the outside everyone might appear calm and serene, many may be deeply lost in thought, or encountering challenging emotions. And, no matter what you’re experiencing, or how long you’ve practiced, know that you’ll be among generally warm and kind people, each of whom has a private reason for their presence, just as you do, and that each is searching for more happiness, peace, and freedom in their lives. Becoming aware that you’ve all chosen to do this together can often help you to feel more connected, and less alone in the silence.
Speaking of Noble Silence:
This, in essence, is what you are on retreat to encounter: a rare period of quiet, giving your senses a rest so that you can spend precious time in communication with your own mind. When you agree to honor the practice of Noble Silence, you’re not only doing this for yourself, but for all the others who have signed up for the same.
In actual practice, Noble Silence is multi-faceted, and not simply about being quiet. Among other things, it involves bringing an intention of silence to all your experiences, and consciously eliminating distractions so that you can better focus on the present moment and attend to whatever is arising.
The following are some ways in which you can honor this intention while on retreat:
1. Refrain from eye contact with others. Many find this suggestion difficult, especially since it seems to contradict normal polite behavior! It might be helpful to know that it isn’t meant as a hard and fast “rule” (smiles happen, it’s really okay!) but as more of an offering to help both you and others enter more deeply into practice together. This is a rare time for you to allow yourself to remove the social mask, which takes so much energy to maintain. We also do this because eye contact is a way of communication, and often what’s being expressed can cause small or even great distraction from your own inner practice – and sometimes even hurt. (And, if you look closer, you may even discover that what you’re looking for when you’re attempting to communicate with the eyes is an affirmation from others that “all is well.”)
If you’re having trouble with this, it’s skillful to look at people’s feet, especially if you, yourself, don’t feel like communicating. And, if you find yourself feeling pressure from those who seem to want to make eye contact, remember that not engaging with them is a gift. We’re all doing this for one another, honoring our own individual process, and these will be varied—sometimes you might be feeling blissful while others are in pain, and vise versa. Often, you can feel the whole range of emotions in one day!
2. Maintain verbal silence. As best as you can, even if the urge is strong, make a mindful effort to hold the silence by not whispering to another yogi, commenting, asking a question, or writing them a note—especially if you’re rooming with them, when the temptation to communicate is strong. If the need feels urgent, you might practice asking yourself: Is what I want to ask truly necessary? Would it be okay if I didn’t ask or say what I want? What is my reason for asking or saying this? During most retreats, the teachers will gently guide yogis in ways to begin talking with one another during the last hour or so of the retreat.
3. Maintain physical silence. This means not communicating through your expressions, or body language (silent miming is still communicating!). It also means refraining from physically touching or comforting someone if they seem upset. All yogis (including you) can ask for the support of the teachers and managers through written notes, so, it might be a relief to know that there’s really no need for yogis to communicate, or take care of one another.
4. Refrain from reading, writing, or internet use. Since our goal is to get in touch with our own bodies, emotions, and thoughts, listening to and/or reading the words of others or even your own—especially via email, phone communication, or journaling—is a serious distraction that will take you away from your direct experience. It’s super easy to dismiss this suggestion, especially in the privacy of your room, and it might be helpful to know from those who have tried it that you’ll be cheating yourself big time if you ignore this one. Here is another good explanation from a long-time practitioner: “The problem with writing in a journal during a deep retreat is that it pulls your mind out of the non-discursive, non-conceptual state you’ve cultivated by meditating all day and keeping complete silence. One of the goals of retreat is to quiet the chattiness of your mind and become more open to non-conceptual understanding. Writing down your experiences in a journal works against this, and draws you back into a discursive and conceptual way of thinking.”
5. Be mindful of the “sound” of your clothing. Interestingly, communication also involves our clothing. In this case, the best “look” while on retreat involves wearing loose, soundless, non-revealing, neutral-colored attire. Forgo those comfortable ski pants that “swish-swish” when you walk, or that neon pink t-shirt that shouts the name of your yoga studio. It’s unfair to draw others’ attention away from themselves and onto you. It can also be a good practice to notice your thoughts around what you’re wearing: Do I look attractive in this? What image or identity am I trying to convey? What do I want people to think about me? Can I let go of this?
6. Be mindful of your movements. Practicing Noble Silence as you move your body can be a wonderful mindfulness practice in and of itself, as well as a true contribution to others. You might notice, for instance: Did I close that door too hard? Can I softly place my used utensils in the soap bucket without tossing them there? Am I walking too quickly? Am I practicing my super-cool headstand where people can see me? In all of these inquires, please take care to notice if judgment or tightness is arising; this is not another opportunity to beat yourself up for “not doing it right.” It’s just another skillful way of noticing and becoming more aware.
Why We Practice Noble Silence:
First, what we’re not doing:
We’re not practicing silence in an attempt to reach some advanced or ideal “state,” or to become the perfect meditator. These types of intentions can not only mask what’s actually present, but cause an inordinate amount of stress and frustration. Sometimes, it can be helpful to apply a bit of humor to your sit whenever you find yourself creating a kind of pumped-up identity that says things like, “Look at me! I’m a meditator! I’m so spiritual!” Or, conversely, when you’re believing you’re a “rotten meditator” because you can’t seem to reach a state of blissful enlightenment after only a day or two in silence.
We’re also not trying to clear our minds of all thought, or to solve some big issue that we’ve been struggling with either presently or in the past. Some of these issues will likely arise as you sit, but, if you can arrive and practice without expectation—with an open, curious mind—you’ll actually receive the best results.
What we are doing:
Meditating in silence for an extended period is often referred to as practicing “the art of no escape,” meaning that, during a retreat, you aren’t allowed to fall back on your habitual ways of turning away from troubling thoughts and emotions. Whenever you encounter something unpleasant, you can’t automatically pick up a magazine, call a friend, dump it in your journal, or indulge in chocolate.
As you may have guessed, then, what we end up experiencing while on retreat isn’t necessarily a state of calm, peaceful bliss (although this can happen, too) but a whole range of sensations, thoughts, and emotions, some of which may have not been previously in consciousness. While there are numerous ways to work with this which are too lengthy to go into here (ahem, the whole practice), knowing this beforehand can help “normalize” the experience when and if it happens.
It’s also important to remember that, no matter what happens, no matter what experience you have or what emotions arise, it’s paramount to hold all of it with as much kindness and compassion as you can. (This may actually be the most important instruction to hold onto, and repeat.)
Expect possible bodily discomfort:
Especially during the first few days, while the body and mind are adjusting to the new routine, schedule, and long periods of sitting, it’s normal for the body to react with a variety of discomforts and bouts of sleepiness. The idea is not to resist or struggle against these things, or berate yourself for having them, but to allow them to be there as much as is feasible, and to become curious about them: “Oh, this is what pain in my low back feels like … stinging, stabbing, moments of heat …” or, “I notice the sleepiness tends to come and go in waves of heaviness like a fog …” At the same time, feel free to take care of yourself by adjusting your posture or seating, or even taking a nap if you need!
Getting the Most out of Walking Meditation:
While walking meditation is an extremely important part of any retreat, it’s often one of the first thing new yogis tend to skip, and it’s a real mistake. Instead of it being a “break” from the formal meditation practice, walking meditation is an active aspect of it, and helps us to keep our mindfulness continuous throughout the retreat. It’s not that you can’t occasionally take a break from the more formal walking meditation to go mindfully pour yourself a cup of tea, or to lie down for a while. But, if you begin to become aware that you’re doing this more often than the formal practice, you might gently encourage yourself to stop distracting yourself with these things. You might notice, as well, if you’re finding yourself reading posters or written signs too often … which is another way of distracting the mind. (*You can learn more about walking meditation here.)
As with walking meditation, periods of silent eating are also not considered “breaks,” in the sense that we’re continuing to slow down and practice mindfulness in all our movements and activities. We do this by eating our food in an unhurried way (for instance, chewing slowly, placing our fork down between bites) and noticing everything about it: smell, taste, color, texture.
We can also nurture gratitude during meals by mindfully acknowledging where the food came from: the earth, sun, wind, and air that nurtured it; the people who planted, harvested, and packaged it; the people who transported it, bought it, and prepared it for us.
We can also ask ourselves things like: Can I stand in line and quietly watch my breath or my hunger without ruminating? Can I give others space as they’re filling their plates? Can I be with others without judging them? Can I notice my reactions to what food is being offered, or about my relationship to food in general?
What Does It Mean To Give Dana?
At the end of a retreat, it is traditional to offer dana – a small favor, a kind action or thought, a meal, or funds – to help sustain a meditation teacher as a sincere form of spiritual practice. The amount of dana – whether a little, a lot, or none at all – is completely up to the giver.
Here in the midst of contemporary Western culture, most Buddhist teachers rely on the generosity of course participants for a sustainable income, as they receive only a minimal amount for their teachings when leading a retreat.
Dana is a Pali word that means ‘generosity’ or ‘giving freely,’ and has played a central role throughout Buddhism’s history. Generosity is the first of the ten parami, or qualities of character, that the Buddha taught his students to cultivate. The practice of generosity develops loving-kindness and compassion, deepens awareness of our interconnectedness, and encourages non-attachment.
Giving is said to benefit both the giver and the receiver – the giver practices sharing and letting go, and the recipient practices acceptance of what is presented.
There is usually an opportunity to offer contributions to the teachers at the end of your retreat, as well as anytime throughout the year. Your donations help many teachers to lead a life devoted to teaching. Your gifts also allow teachers to take time for their own practice, ensuring that their teachings are continuously enriched. Whenever you are inspired to offer a donation to your teachers, know that you are joining a community directly engaged in alleviating suffering and bringing greater wisdom and compassion to the world.
What to Expect After The Retreat:
As the retreat is winding down, you might notice that your mind has shifted from thoughts about “How will I ever get through seven hours (or days) of this!” to something along the lines of “Why do I need to leave and go back into the real world!”
This is common, and the teachers will give you suggestions about how to ease back into this “real” world. Perhaps the most important of these instructions is to be extremely tender with yourself, since most of us tend to be generally unaware of how emotionally raw we are, or how slowed down—even after a daylong retreat. Just getting into our cars and driving can often seem overwhelming, especially if this involves heavy traffic, music, or conversation. See if you can allow the inside of your car to be silent, drive slowly, and let the conversation (especially in your own head) become more calm. You might even permit yourself to pull over to the side of the road until you feel more alert.
It’s also common for us to not realize how sensitive we may be to others and to interactions in general, sometimes even a week or so after retreat. Knowing this, if you find yourself over-reacting or over-emotional, try to bring as much kindness to yourself as possible. You might even want to plan ahead and take at least a day off before returning to work, diving into your email inbox, or looking at all the things you’ve missed on your online social networks. Also, try to arrange some extra quiet time into your after-retreat schedule—away from videos, television, parties, or social obligations.
And, despite any enthusiasm you may be experiencing, you’ll want to be discerning about sharing with others any of the “amazing” insights you may have had during retreat (most people honestly just want to know that it was beneficial for you.)
As encouragement, it might be helpful for you to know that, in a study published in the February 2017 issue of the online journal, Mindfulness, researchers found that 195 participants in a one-week vipassana retreat showed marked improvements in mindfulness, anxiety, depression and dysfunctional attitudes, such as brooding. AND, that these gains were maintained after a one-month follow-up period. The researchers also reported an association between the number of meditation retreats participants completed in the previous year and greater mindfulness overall and lower levels of dysfunctional attitudes.
Finally, as in the beginning of the retreat, as you’re leaving, let yourself release your expectations as much as possible, and simply allow the process to unfold naturally, holding all that arises with an abundance of kindness.
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