For the first three days of my first 10-day meditation retreat, I locked myself in a room and screamed obscenities. In my mind, of course. It was a silent meditation retreat, after all.
The retreat was arduous, and unlike anything I’d experienced before. I was waking up too early, sitting too long, and couldn’t even speak, read, or write. I was tired, angry, and regretted being there. I finished the retreat ambivalent, not sure if I wanted to do it again.
But since then, I’ve completed two more 10-day meditation retreats and a shorter two-day retreat. I would gladly do more. A lot has changed to turn my retreat experience from a torturous one to a slightly less torturous one. One is that I now know what to expect and I’m prepared for it.
If you’re considering your first 10-day silent meditation retreat, here are ideas that can help you prepare for one.
Cultivate a Regular Practice
A 10-day meditation retreat is like a marathon. The retreats I’ve attended started at 4:30 AM and ended at 9 PM. Most of that time you’re either sitting or walking in meditation. Some retreats have even longer daily schedules.
You can drop into a 42-kilometer marathon without training for it, but it’ll be arduous. Better if you prepare for a retreat by cultivating a regular meditation practice. 10 to 20 minutes of daily meditation is a good start.
Be Exceptionally Kind to Yourself
A 10-day meditation retreat is difficult. But it’s worse if you add harshness to it. I’ve found that being kind to oneself results in more rewarding retreats.
The first few days of a retreat is always a jolt. You’re in a new place with strangers on an unfamiliar routine and it’s impractical to assume that you can adjust immediately. If you let your critical voice run rampant you’ll have a harder time acclimatizing.
So I give myself a couple of days or so to settle in. During that time I don’t reach as hard. For example, I might break an hour-long session into two or three 20 minutes of meditation with short breaks in-between. And I don’t give myself a hard time if my practice doesn’t go as well.
Prepare to Live Simply
A meditation center is usually a place for simple living. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy mosquitoes in the forests, sleeping in the cold, or using dingy toilets. But I’ve survived.
If you’re prepared for it, this back to basics living is helpful for practice. Without much to have, there’s less chance for greed to pop in.
A Good Guide Makes a Difference
A silent retreat usually has interview sessions where you can break the silence and ask questions. If you have doubts or problems this is an excellent chance to discuss them.
A good teacher and a conducive center can make all the difference for a long meditation retreat. It’s easier these days to do your research online for reliable teachers and established centers.
Prepare the World for Your Disappearance
You usually have to forgo contact with the outside world for a 10-day silent retreat. This helps you to drop distractions and tune into your inner reality.
But it’s difficult. In every retreat, my mind inadvertently imagines disasters back home that happened because nobody could reach me. I’ve found that two simple steps ease these fears.
The first is to prepare the world for my disappearance. I stress to co-workers, friends, and family that I will be offline during those 10 days. Anything important should either be settled beforehand or handed off to somebody else.
The second is to give the meditation center’s number to my immediate family. This gives them a way to reach me should an emergency arise.
Expect Nothing to Happen
I signed up for my first retreat expecting spiritual fireworks, but nothing happened. I didn’t gain enlightenment after my next retreats either.
Expecting something to happen actually works against anything happening. You might have heard of that old Buddhist chestnut where you have to drop desire without desiring to do so.
An easier way to explain this is that an epiphany is sudden insight. You can’t plan for a revelation to happen, if you could, it wouldn’t be one. All you can do is lay the groundwork for one to someday occur.
Why Do a Meditation Retreat?
Why join a meditation retreat if it’s such a struggle, occupies so much time, and can’t even guarantee an insight or two?
People join meditation retreats for different reasons. Some people have already meditated for a while and want to deepen their practice.
Others might be curious. Perhaps they’ve tried meditation and want to learn more. If you’re in this camp, you can consider a shorter retreat first before committing to a longer one.
A meditation retreat gives you an opportunity to practice that you can’t find in everyday life. You’re freed from your usual distractions, have a schedule to discipline you, and the help of a supportive community. If your practice goes well, you can calm and clarify your mind to an uncommon extent.
It’s why I continue to do them. And I wish you a fruitful experience if you choose to do one too.