Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Retreat Guide: Preparing for a solo retreat

A meditation retreat is an opportunity to immerse yourself in practice. A daily meditation practice is very powerful and can bring a lot of benefit, but doing occasional immersions can transform and deepen your practice in ways that a daily practice often doesn't accomplish. Many people that I know and have went on retreat with have shared a similar experience- it takes about two or three days to really settle into a retreat. If you cannot devote an extended weekend or a week to retreat, it can also be very powerful to do one day a week or one weekend a month. These shorter immersions can allow for greater depth and over time we are able to enter into the retreat with much more familiarity.

You don't need to go anywhere to do retreat. You can do it at home if your housing companions are supportive. You can also rent out a cabin or go to an actual meditation retreat center. I have done retreats in my bedroom, at cabins, and at retreat centers. They all work just fine. The best environment is one that supports your practice- ideally it would be quiet and peaceful, with all the resources necessary for your daily activities.

There are several key aspects to having a successful retreat experience. What does a successful retreat looks like? It is one in which we actually do the practice. We actually sit and meditate. We encounter all the resistance of not wanting to meditate. We struggle, let go, battle, and relax. A lot of stuff can come up during retreat, being prepared and having everything in order can improve the whole experience.

Preparation is one of the major keys to a successful retreat experience. Plan your schedule, your food, your activities. Have all your retreat materials squared away. Resolve all of your everyday tasks. If you have to send someone an email, do it before retreat. You don't want to scheme and plan while on retreat. Do your scheming and your planning beforehand.

Traditionally, meditation retreats follow a four-session schedule. You may adapt or adjust the times, and may change the focus for each session, but in general a four-session schedule keeps you focused on practice and not being idle or caught up in distraction. Here is a typical retreat schedule:

6-8am Morning Session 
8-9am Breakfast
9-12pm Mid-morning Session (15 minute tea break at midpoint)
12pm-2pm Lunch and Break
2-5pm Afternoon Session (15 minute tea break at midpoint)
5-6pm Break
6-8pm Evening Session and Dedication
9pm-5am Sleep

Keep it simple. Plan your meals ahead. You don't want to plan and think about what you are going to eat or try to find a recipe while on retreat. Stick with nutritious and easy to digest foods. Drink lots of water and tea. Coffee is totally fine. For breakfast, I like to do oatmeal with some fruit- quick, easy and satisfying. For lunch and dinner, think about making a big pot of soup before the retreat and live off of that for a few days. You may even consider only eating breakfast and lunch, which is one of the pratimoksha vows a monk would uphold. If you are going to cook on retreat, integrate it with your practice. Be mindful, relaxed, present. Don't rush, simply cook.

Sleep is important while on retreat. Go to be early and rise early. I usually try to go to bed by 10 pm and get up around 5am. Take a nap in the afternoon! Keep it short, but a 30 minute nap after lunch is refreshing and allows your mind and body to rest. You may find as you sustain your awareness into sleep that you will have more vivid dreams and sleep lighter. Retreat is a good time to practice Dream Yoga and to rest in the clear light nature of mind.

Retreat isn't a time for many activities, your time should be devoted to your practice. Turn off your cell phone and internet. Don't check email or your social networks. During the break between sessions, you may want to write, reflect, read, or simply be present and attentive to your surroundings. Sit outside. Today is a day for not doing.

Movement and exercise are both important during retreat. Most of us are not used to sitting in meditation for extended periods during the day. You will likely find that your knees, hips and back can feel pretty tight. When our body is tired, our meditation becomes like a thick fog and we end up constantly fighting our bodies. Spend some time during breaks walking outdoors. Do yoga, qi qong or tai chi. Stretch, do some muscle stimulating movements. Do prostrations. Spending twenty minutes twice a day on exercise and movement will dramatically improve your overall experience. If you already have a strong practice routine like yoga, you could do an hour out of the mid-morning and afternoon sessions and devote it to that practice.

A major component of retreat is slowing down and being more present and attentive. Taking a vow of silence or having silence play a part in your retreat can be very powerful. If you are doing a retreat by yourself, silence may seem easy, but we still may find that we are singing, talking to ourselves, listening to music or just making noise. Try to cultivate silence for at least a portion of the day, preferably the morning if nothing else. Pour your tea, stir your hot water into your oatmeal, and enjoy your breakfast in silence. Use your eyes, your ears, your nose, your taste buds, your touch, but not your words.

Your arrival to the retreat is a time of transition and change. Enter the retreat setting with mindfulness and presence. Unpack your stuff if you are traveling and setup your retreat space as planned. It is best to arrive the evening before your retreat officially starts, so you can take all the time you need to setup and get acquainted with the setting. It is also nice to do a brief session in the evening, making aspirational prayers and other offerings like Riwo Sang Chod to establish a positive connection and set the tone for the retreat.

Your retreat is finished and it is time to transition back to your normal routine. Dedicate your practice. Take some time to contemplate and write. Maintain your continuity of awareness and mindfulness as you return to your normal daily life. Retreat never really ends, it is we who eventually turn off and tune out. What does it look like to carry open presence, availability and responsiveness into your daily life? It looks a lot like compassion, generosity and kindness. Everything becomes practice, your life becomes the path.

A meditation retreat is often a very powerful and transformative experience. You don't need to live the way everyone else does. You can embody the teachings, even in our busy and distracted culture. If you have a teacher, consult them before the retreat for advice and some practice instructions. If you don't have a teacher, feel free to reach out to me or someone that you trust and feel comfortable discussing your practice with.

We all benefit through your practice. Thank you for your dedication and commitment.

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