Wondering what it’s like to go on a meditation retreat, and if it’s worth it?
When I went on a meditation retreat in 2016, I had no idea what to expect.
The retreat I joined was a 10-day silent meditation retreat. It’s possible to do a shorter retreat of a single weekend, or even a day, and it’s possible to find meditation retreats that are not silent.
If you’re considering a meditation retreat, or think you may in the future, my hope is that my experience may help you.
Why I decided to go on a meditation retreat
It isn’t always easy to make time in life to turn your phone off for ten days and go into the woods to meditate with strangers.
But in 2015, I found myself between jobs, having just quit at one company and in the process of starting a business. I had a rare window of opportunity, and decided to take it.
An extended meditation retreat had been on my mind for some time. Ten days felt like a big commitment, but I wanted to ensure I gave it enough time to “work.” I’d been meditating at home prior to this for under a year, so I had a basic grasp of the concept of meditation, and had practice sitting for 15-30 minutes at a time. (The experience of sitting for long periods of time was more important than I knew, as I’ll go into later).
For me, a meditation retreat felt like a chance to reset between stretches of working, and to clear my mind and align my priorities going into the next chapter. I also hoped it’d help me understand meditation and establish a foundation for future practice.
How do I prepare for a meditation retreat?
There’s not much you need to do to prepare for the retreat itself.
If you want to make the transition to the retreat environment more seamless, you may want to start taking steps to reduce stimulation in your life, and meditate for short periods of time in the days leading up to the retreat.
It may be difficult to go from a chaotic environment to an utterly quiet retreat environment, so a transition is nice if possible. Slow down your commitments, and take more time to yourself.
The retreat I did was 100% vegetarian, and had tea – no coffee. And of course, there’s no alcohol. If your retreat is the same, you may want to start to nudge yourself towards a more vegetarian diet, and slow down on any alcohol, drugs or stimulants in the days leading up to the retreat.
Also, consider setting an intention. What are you hoping to get out of the retreat experience?
Finally: be open to the experience. What you hope will happen may not be what happens, but you’ll certainly take something away.
What happens at a meditation retreat?
I’ll speak to my own experience, which was with a Vipassana retreat.
These 10-day silent retreats are unique: there are hundreds of centers worldwide running the retreats at no cost (not even for food or lodging during the retreat). Although the origins of Vipassana are Buddhist, the organization that runs these retreats makes the environment strictly non-religious, and the discussions and instruction are about the exploration of your own mind.
The focus of the retreat, of course, is meditation. Meditation is a full-time job here.
Here is the schedule:
4:00 am Morning wake-up
4:30-6:30 am Meditate
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation
9:00-11:00 am Meditate
11:00-12:00 pm Lunch break
12pm-1:00 pm Rest
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation
9:00-9:30 pm Question time
9:30 pm Lights out
If you’re counting, that’s nearly a hundred hours of meditation over the course of the 10-day retreat.
In fact, strictly speaking, it could be over one hundred hours. But I remember napping a good amount during the 9-11am session and 3:30-5pm session, which often took place in our rooms. Or sometimes, I used that time to do walking meditations outside.
In addition to all those meditation sessions, there’s instructional time which takes place in the form of video recordings, and time for questions with the instructor. You’re not allowed to speak to other participants, as it’s a silent retreat, but you can speak with the instructor.
Is Vipassana the same as mindfulness?
Vipassana is a mindfulness meditation technique that is said to have originated in India 2500 years ago.
The concept of mindfulness encompasses more than this one technique. Vipassana is one of many traditions of mindfulness meditation.
What is it like to go on a silent retreat?
In a word: hard.
In three words: hard, but rewarding.
My initial impressions on arriving were along the lines of, “What have I gotten myself into?”
The culture shock
There are a number of oddities about the Vipassana retreats in particular that you’ll want to be aware of going in. First of all, while I was checking in I tried to shake hands with the guy who worked for the center.
Denied! “Sorry, we don’t shake hands here.”
Not exactly a warm welcome. They don’t allow physical contact at the center, including handshakes. Men and women are in different lodgings, which makes sense. But they are also segregated in different parts of the retreat center, which felt pretty old-school. (Although from a safety and peace-of-mind perspective, I can understand the benefits).
Finally, and most oddly, you’re instructed to avoid eye contact for the duration of the retreat. I knew I’d signed up for a silent retreat, but the no-eye-contact thing just felt in some way… inhuman.
For all of this—the no handshakes, the segregation of men and women and the no eye contact—there were rationales around ensuring a positive experience for everyone. In any case, it’s a definite culture shock situation.
Anyway, let’s move on from the quirks of getting oriented.
The retreat experience
Other elements of getting settled in include turning your phone off and locking it in your car, and then meeting your roommates. I was in a room with four others, and you can talk to them at the beginning before the “silent” part of the silent retreat kicks in.
Once it does, though, you’re stuck with your own thoughts. No phone to text on, no talking to roommates or anyone else. No journaling, even.
Here’s where, despite my reservations about the culture shock, I’m actually a fan of the overall experience. It’s like stepping into another world, where all you’re responsible for is the observation of your own mind.
No calls, nothing on your calendar, no social events, no cooking, no thinking about what to do each day, no need to make small talk. Even the odd rule about no eye contact further reduces your obligation: no need for the social niceties of looking people in the eye and smiling as you pass.
The meditation experience itself ranged from excruciating to boring to insightful to euphoric, depending on the session. I had some sessions where I felt like I couldn’t take another moment, and others where I was just getting into the groove, and wished it could go longer. Some sessions were good, and some entire days were good. Some sessions were bad, and some entire days were bad. One or two of the participants left early.
Meditating for so much time was often both physically and mentally painful, and it was here where the greatest insight of my own experience arrived.
It turns out sitting cross-legged for an hour or more at a time can make your legs hurt. Doing it multiple times a day, even more so. There were sessions where I felt an unwavering urge to stand up, or adjust my legs. The whole meditation session often turned into an effort to resist that urge.
But sometimes, the pain would go away.
Vipassana sessions tend to make heavy use of body scan meditation: starting with your attention at the top of your head, taking it slowly down to your toes, and feeling each sensation along the way. In the course of doing this, you notice areas of your body that itch, or that are in pain. But as you keep your attention fixed for long enough, the feeling transforms. It doesn’t always go away, but it usually changes. At the very least, the mental pain can be removed, leaving you with just the physical element of the pain. But sometimes, the entire sensation can go from painful to neutral, or even from painful to euphoric.
This was an insight I wasn’t looking for, and didn’t expect, but it was my biggest takeaway: the mind-body connection exists, and it is powerful.
How do you feel after a meditation retreat?
Incredible. And relieved.
I was so happy it was over. After getting up at four in the morning to sit for hours, for so many days in a row, it was enough. I’d been fantasizing about the retreat being over in some of my meditation sessions. I was ready.
After the retreat, the atmosphere was bubbly and chatty, like the last day of school before summer. Finally, all of the participants could talk to each other, and there were ten days’ worth of things to say. I found that I was desperate to share my experience with the other participants, and eager to hear theirs. Conversations were the very opposite of superficial: everyone wanted to get straight to talking about their struggles, triumphs and the complexities of their inner worlds.
Once I left, there were lingering effects. I left the retreat in a blissful and accomplished state of mind, and I was also experiencing a heightened state of compassion. Driving home, I specifically remember being greatly affected by a dead possum on the side of the road. It nearly brought me to tears.
In the hours and days after the retreat, integrating back into “regular life” was challenging. Going from quiet to loud environments, from simplicity to complexity, from a strict schedule to freedom: all of this took adaptation.
Will a meditation retreat change my life?
It’s different for each person.
I’m happy I did the meditation retreat, but I can’t point to a way that it’s changed my life. Immediately after the retreat, I attempted to keep my meditation practice going. But it faded out over the months that followed.
That said, I do think the experience planted a seed that’s stayed with me.
First, the mind-body connection that I felt when dealing with pain during the meditation sessions was powerful. After feeling it in my own body, it’s something I now know to be true from experience. I can’t say what benefit this understanding has brought me, but it’s stayed with me.
Second, the experience changed my identity in a subtle way. I went from someone who was “just experimenting” with meditation, to someone who had completed a 10-day silent retreat. It’s hard, it’s not for everyone, and I felt accomplishment for having done it.
In the years since the retreat, I’ve swung back and forth. Sometimes I have a regular meditation practice, and sometimes I don’t. But I still feel like this practice is an enduring part of my identity, and I think that makes it easier to start back up again.
Should I do a meditation retreat?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is, how much time do you have? How deep are you willing to go? How much do you want to challenge yourself?
Are you looking for a marathon, or more of a 5k experience?
If you’re not sure, start small and work your way up.
And remember: what you take away, may not be what you expect.
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Hi there—my name is Ryan. My mindfulness practice kicked off in 2016 after I joined a ten-day silent retreat. I started Mindfulness Box because thinking about what makes humans happy, calm, and peaceful is endlessly fascinating to me.