Today, Facebook informed me that four years ago I was just finishing up leading a small meditation retreat here in Montana. I had been teaching mindfulness with two groups in Helena and the retreat drew together a number of friends and students for a weekend at a lodge on Flathead Lake.
If you have been meditating for a while, you might have heard about retreats and considered going on one. They offer an opportunity to deepen the benefits of meditation by slowing down and practicing over a sustained period of time.
Why go on a Meditation Retreat?
If you’ve tried meditation and found it to be of benefit, a retreat is an obvious next step. A study published in the journal PloS One in 2021 showed that the benefits of a meditation retreat outlasted those of an ordinary vacation. These included a 10-week period in which people who went on the retreat reported maintaining greater mindfulness in their daily lives, lower levels of fatigue on average, and a greater overall sense of well-being.
Clearly, these are things most of us would like to have for the next two and a half months. Another study, conducted in 2016, found that after a retreat, people did better at tasks requiring focused attention and that people who did loving-kindness meditation retreats had lasting improvements in compassion and resilience.
It has been nearly 20 years since my first long retreat—a 10-day Vipassana, or Insight, meditation retreat at a secluded ranch in Montana—but I can still remember a feeling of joyful lightness and mental agility after the retreat. And I remember the feeling ever-so slowly decreasing day by day over the weeks following the retreat.
A Long Meditation
If you’re thinking about going on a retreat, there are a few things to keep in mind ahead of time. The first of these is that it can be a bit like doing an extra long meditation. How long do you meditate for now? Five minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty? As you will know from your practice, the longer we meditate, the deeper into the mind we go. And the more resistance we encounter.
On longer meditations, the urge to quit, fidget, or fantasize can become overwhelming. It takes practice and diligence to keep the mind on the breath or other object of meditation for long. Sometimes, pushing a little longer cultivates growth. Other times it overwhelms us and might even make us want to give up. So be prepared to be challenged on a retreat.
Choosing a Group for Retreat
As I have advised in the past, meditation is best done with others. At least once a week, it is very helpful to meet with fellow meditators to share experiences and learn and grow together. It also offers support for when meditation is going poorly or unforeseen obstacles arise.
Ideally, there will be an experienced leader of the retreat or a teacher. Different meditation traditions will attach different significance to becoming a teacher. In one Zen Buddhist tradition that I’ve practiced in, for instance, one will usually practice with a recognized teacher for at least a year or so. Then one formalizes their relationship as a student of that teacher. Over time, the student will have opportunities to assist the teacher and to give teachings. When the teacher feels it is appropriate, he or she can then “authorize” that student to teach.
Secular mindfulness training known as MBSR, or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teachers usually have 2-3 years of official training. Many are psychologists, long-time Buddhist practitioners, or otherwise have many years of experience working with the mind, but the formal training is broken into stages over this 2-3 year span of time.
When you decide to go on a retreat, your fellow meditators are the perfect people to talk with. Likely, several of them will have been on a retreat or two (or more) and can give you very personalized advice based on their relationship with you. The best-case scenario is if your teacher is leading a retreat and several of your fellow meditators are going to take part. This will ensure a level of comfort and familiarity that can make the retreat go much better.
General Tips and Preparatory Advice
Meditation retreats will all be different, but they should roughly resemble the type of meditation you already do on a regular basis. Read up on the leader or teacher of any retreat you are interested in and the style of meditation he or she teaches.
One well-known form of secularized Buddhist meditation teaching is that popularized by S.N. Goenka. “Goenka retreats” as they are sometimes known, are a common introduction for people new to long periods of meditation. However, they are also some of the most intense—generally requiring 40-minute periods of motionless meditation and days of near-total silence.
Zen retreats in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition are usually much more relaxed. There might be communal singing and (optional) “hugging meditation” periods along with the usual sitting and walking meditations. Knowing what you are getting into is essential for having a good retreat.
Prepare for a period of simplicity. Don’t bring your favorite novels or even meditation texts. Your job at the retreat will generally be to “just meditate.” You’ll be given instructions as you go. The better you can follow them, instead of doing your own thing, the better the retreat will go. Be ready for instructions ahead of the retreat and follow them closely. They’ll have advice on everything from clothing to fragrances (these are often prohibited for the benefit of others).
As you lead up to the retreat, ask the organizer and/or teacher questions about anything you are unsure about. It’s better to get these out of the way sooner rather than later.
Finally, when the retreat comes, go fully. Let people know where you’ll be but that you will be out of touch for the period of the retreat. If you can, set aside a half or full day after the retreat to reacclimate to life outside of the wonderful mindfulness bubble you will create on retreat.
And enjoy. The retreat is meant for you and your growth.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.