Are you about to embark on your first silent meditation retreat? Are you terrified at the thought of being alone with your thoughts? Does the idea of sitting for prolonged periods of time without talking make you feel uneasy? If you answered yes to any of these questions, know that you’re not alone and many meditators have walked this path before you.
Silent meditation retreats can be transformative, life-changing experiences, offering a chance to cultivate a deeper sense of connection to the self and improve overall well being. Yet, they can also be physically and mentally rigorous and challenge us in ways we can’t even imagine. So, how can you prepare for the silence when living in an overstressed, chaotic, and noisy world?
Preparations and technique
When choosing from silent meditation retreats, there is no shortage of options to select from. Courses range from single day immersions to 3 month long advanced retreats, and are offered in many different styles and traditions. The most common course consists of a 10-day Vipassana style retreat. Vipassana is an ancient technique from India that literally means to see things as they are, or to gain insight. Using the breath as a tool for awareness and concentration, longer meditation retreats such as Vipassana provide an opportunity to sharpen meditation skills. Through discipline and hard work, students of this technique can develop the practice of self-observation and self-purification, ultimately realizing the universal truths of suffering, impermanence, and egolessness. It is a practice that has universal application and is not bound by any religion or race.
Whether you’re brand new to sitting meditation or you have an established practice, with some preparation you can begin your journey to a silent retreat with a greater sense of ease and confidence.
1. Let go of expectations
One thing you need to get clear about: a silent retreat is not a vacation, an escape, or a solution to your life’s problems. If you show up with expectations and hopes for what you will get out of it, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Do your best to keep an open mind and have little to no expectations about what you will feel or what will happen. Relax into the thought that you can’t know and don’t need to know.
2. Pay attention to instructions before and during the retreat
At least 2 weeks before your retreat begins, learn as much as you can about the schedule and details of the center you will be meditating at. The organizers will probably send you instructions before the retreat begins to inform you of codes of discipline (rules), food, and clothing, and what to prepare. Read these carefully. The more you know about what you’re getting into, the greater sense of ease you will feel upon arriving and beginning your retreat.
3. Pack mindfully
Find out if there is a dress code. Make sure to bring comfortable clothes that you can sit in cross-legged for long periods of time. Comfort is key. If you have a favorite cushion you like to meditate on, bring that with you. Pack a small clock or analog watch for early morning bell calls.
4. Leave what you don’t need behind
Nearly all of your time will be spent meditating, sleeping, or eating. Many retreat centers do not allow any outside reading material, journals, or any technology. If it’s not clear from the instructions provided, ask the teachers or organizers what you are and are not allowed to bring. Leave your books, computer, and digital devices at home.
5. Take care of responsibilities
Since you’ll be away from home and life for more than a week, plan arrangements to ensure any major responsibilities are taken care of. Find a house sitter, a pet sitter, a babysitter, and whatever you need to do to leave home and its responsibilities behind for the duration of your retreat. It’s also a good idea to keep a light schedule to come back to so that you can ease back into the hectic pace of life after the retreat.
6. Be prepared for discomfort
Sitting cross legged for long periods of time might be harder than you think. It’s not only mentally challenging, you’re guaranteed to feel some degree of pain or discomfort in your physical body – your feet, legs, back, and behind are probably going to get stiff. Be prepared to experience discomfort and acknowledge that this is all part of the experience. Consider practicing sitting cross legged for longer periods of time at home to get used to the sensations.
7. Start small and build up your practice
If you’re new to meditation, sitting for more than 10 minutes might seem impossible. Try to challenge yourself by gradually increasing your meditation time each day. Having an established practice, whether it’s 3 minutes or an hour a day, is sure to help you through prolonged periods of meditation during the retreat.
8. Get comfortable with silence
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said:
Silence is a great source of strength.
While the idea of sitting doing nothing without talking may seem strange, for thousands of years this technique has been used as a way to purify the mind. Before you leave for the retreat, get acquainted with the feeling of being in silence. Go for a silent walk, or try making dinner without talking to your loved ones. Next time you’re in the car, resist the temptation to turn the radio or music on and let silence fill the space. Get to know the beauty of silence so that you will cultivate a sense of inner calm before you go.
9. Work hard
While at the retreat, remember that you were the one that made the decision to be there. No one else can do the work for you. So while you may be tempted to get lazy and complacent, work hard and focus. Be diligent in your efforts and you will get back what you put in. Don’t give up!
10. Be kind
Going on a silent meditation retreat takes a lot of courage and is certainly not an easy thing to do. Be kind to others, but most importantly, be kind to yourself. Remember, you are doing this because you care about your own wellbeing and happiness, so do it with love!
If you are embarking on your first 10 day silent retreat, you’re taking the first step towards sustaining a lifelong practice in meditation and opening the door to a deeper path of self-discovery. Be open to this incredible opportunity and allow yourself to explore a truer understanding of love.
Written by Claire Thompson. Claire Thompson is a Victoria based freelance writer, teacher, and lifelong student of yoga and meditation.