Going on retreat is a mindfulness practice that helps us deepen concentration and cultivate insight through longer periods of silence and contemplation. Most dedicated mindfulness practitioners who are able to, include annual or bi-annual retreats as part of their continuing training. You might think of it like the yearly training camps athletes attend to finely tune their skills. Though it can be incredibly powerful, it shouldn’t be jumped into impulsively. Athletes are usually in pretty decent shape even before they attend camp. Someone who was completely inexperienced could risk being injured. In light of this, I’d like to offer you my list of tips and strategies for preparing to make retreat practice a beneficial part of your mindfulness routine.
I meditate an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. Once a year I go away for a long retreat. And overall, I just feel more comfortable in my own skin and less anxious, less sad, less fearful. – Rivers Cuomo
Carve Out Time to be Away
While retreats can certainly be created at home if needed, leaving our familiar environment takes us away from the distractions and attachments of daily life so we can focus more exclusively on practice and reflection. Retreats are designed to allow participants to exist simply and let go of the business of the conventional world. It’s hard to get this kind of solitude and freedom from distraction in the midst of our social and work obligations. Retreats can last from half a day, to a week, a month, several months or even years. You will need to determine whether you can postpone or delegate work and domestic duties for the duration of your retreat. While retreat centers or hosts will often provide a number where you can be reached in a true emergency, you will be asked not to be disturbed at all by contact from the outside world.
In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion. – Albert Camus
Plan Your Budget
Retreats don’t have to be expensive depending upon where you go. Religious retreats are often offered “at cost” or sometimes even for free, because the teachers and staff who provide the services are volunteering their time. Keep in mind though that a donation (sometimes called dana or a love offering) for the teachers and staff will be requested after these volunteer-based retreats which can bring the price up to match non-donation based retreats. When you consider the cost of venue upkeep, your room and board, and the number of hours of teaching and the behind the scenes services you are receiving during a retreat, you will find that most are extraordinarily reasonable. You can save on the price of airfare and ground transportation by choosing a local retreat and taking advantage of carpooling.
Prepare Your People
You will need to talk to friends, family, clients and coworkers about your plans to go on retreat well in advance. This will help them mentally prepare and practically plan for your absence. It will also help them be supportive and respectful of your need for solitude during, and as you transition back from, your retreat. The support of others in your life is a great gift that can help make a dedicated mindfulness practice possible.
Ready Your Body & Mind
Mindfulness retreats tend to involve complete silence and repeated extended periods of stillness and movement practice. These periods of practice will be punctuated by meals eaten mindfully in silence and teachings provided the hosting teacher. Group and individual interviews with the teacher are also often part of the experience. For this reason, it’s wise to prepare yourself in advance for the experience. Some ways to do so include:
- gradually extending your home practice periods, including sitting meditation and mindful walking, to up to an hour or including several practice times per day
- taking occasional breaks from technology such as watching television, browsing social media and texting
- spending chunks of time going about your day in complete silence, with no music in the background and no conversation
- starting with shorter retreats and gradually extending them
If you have a medical or mental health condition that might impact your experience, talk to your doctor or therapist about your plans first. Ask them whether a retreat might pose any risks to your health. It’s also important to let your retreat host know about your condition(s) and any accommodations you might need before you arrive.
Create A Retreat Kit
Depending upon the austerity and simplicity of the retreat venue you will be attending, there are a number of items that can be useful to bring with you and some things you should leave behind.
What to bring:
- a refillable beverage container for hot and cold liquids
- flip flops for the shower and for easy on/off when entering and exiting the practice space
- comfortable shoes for mindful walking
- clothing you can comfortably sit and move in, including layers and a raincoat or umbrella to accommodate outdoor walking
- insect repellant if the venue is in an area with mosquitos or ticks
- socks and a meditation blanket or shawl to keep warm during meditation periods
- your favorite meditation cushion or bench and yoga mat – the center may have some to loan but they may be well worn or not yet broken in
- a flashlight if you have to travel in the dark from the sleeping quarters to the practice room
- personal hygiene items
- some retreat centers require you to bring your own bedding
- prescription medications – if they need to be refrigerated ask if this can be accommodated
- special food items if you have a true food allergy or intolerance that can’t be accommodated by the retreat center. Many centers are vegan or vegetarian and most can accommodate the more common food allergies and sensitivities
- an open mind and accepting attitude – part of the practice is letting go of control and opening to experience without undue interference. Living communally in close quarters with others and under the direction of a teacher requires patience and compromise
What not to bring:
- colognes, perfumes and heavily scented cosmetics or personal care products – some people have sensory sensitivities
- a computer or other electronic devices – they may distract you from your inner focus
- recreational substances or intoxicants – there is no smoking at most retreat centers
- books, journals – reading and writing are usually discouraged
- unnecessary valuables – some places do not have locks on the doors
- alarm clock – you will be alerted by the meditation bells or hosts about times to awaken, start and end practices, and take meals
- strong preferences, pre-judgment, or pickiness – part of the retreat practice is finding contentment with what is, even when its not what you might prefer
There will be many factors involved in choosing your retreat, including who the teacher is, the location and cost, the services provided, and whether the amenities fit your needs. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to contact the retreat host. They can be very helpful in preparing you for what to expect from their particular retreat.
I hope you will consider including this important aspect of practice into your mindfulness routine. With the proper planning and preparation, you may find that it deepens your practice in ways that would be difficult to experience otherwise. The Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness (MAM) offers a number of half day retreat and one longer retreat each year. MAM retreats are not donation based – the teacher’s fees are included in the price of the retreat.
We are looking for happiness and running after it in such a way that creates anger, fear and discrimination. So when you attend a retreat, you have a chance to look at the deep roots of this pollution of the collective energy that is unwholesome. – Thich Nhat Hanh