What to Expect at a Silent Meditation Retreat

IMG_0024After returning from my first silent mediation retreat, I wanted to share my top list of aha moments and realizations. It was the best four days of silence I have ever experienced!

IMG_0003 The schedule starts at 5 am! Retreatants are responsible for ringing the bells about seven minutes before every event on the schedule. By 5:30 am, chimes were coming down the hallway. I think you’ll find it’s much better than waking up to a pesky alarm clock.

You can wear the same outfit over and over if you like. Comfy clothes are encouraged as you are sitting for long periods of time. Pack clothes you can layer. Pajamas all day long and no one says anything about it!

Don’t overdo it at meal time. Since the other senses aren’t being fed stimuli (no TV, music, touch), your taste buds may kick into high gear when it comes time for lunch. Meals are served buffet style, so be careful how much you put on your plate. You can always go back for seconds. Use this time to practice mindful eating and savor the tastes.

Your yogi jobs are no joke! Many retreat centers operate with limited staff; therefore, the retreatants are expected to complete daily chores. At first, I was agitated when I received my cleaning assignments. There were two jobs: one for community cleanup time, and a second one as my yogi job. My community task was to wipe down and clean one of the women’s showers. Not as bad as my yogi job of trash/recycle/compost and spraying down the kitchen mats. Towards the end though, I grew to like my chores and looked forward to giving back to the center.

When they say recycle, they mean it! The retreat center I visited (Insight Retreat Center) provided compost/recycle bins throughout the facility. Retreatants are reminded to conserve and conduct themselves in moderation. For example, in the shower rooms there is a sign that tells retreatants to take brief showers and ways to limit water usage.

IMG_0022 You spend a lot of time soaking up nature. Walking meditations can be done in the hall or outside. Sometimes, I did my sitting meditation on one of the park benches. You truly get to enjoy and appreciate all the beauty that nature brings when your mind is at ease.

Thoughts of home and everyday life drift away and become less important than imagined. Before I knew it, I was consumed with thoughts about the center and my new life as a retreatant. It’s amazing what time away from your daily life can do to our mental activity.

If you enjoy daily exercise, then opt for a retreat with movement included in the schedule. Many retreats offer yoga or Qigong, so check the program description. Even though the retreat I attended delineated time for walking meditation, I missed being able to do yoga. I was welcome to trade a walking meditation for yoga, but it was hard to fit it in being mindful of meal times. Don’t cheat yourself from this luxury. You’re refraining from all other pleasures, and I’m a firm believer that movement is a form of meditation, and that yoga primes the body and mind for a sitting practice.

IMG_0009Don’t mistake a retreat for a resort. Meditation retreat centers provide simple meals and amenities. On my retreat, oatmeal was served for breakfast every morning. Even though there was a wide variety of toppings as well as yogurt and hard-boiled eggs, don’t expect gourmet dining.

You crave socialization. For me, I had difficulty understanding why we could not converse with one another. As my time at the center grew longer, I came to realize the importance of noble silence. Your time at the retreat is geared towards increasing your meditation skills, and it is easiest to practice mindfulness when you limit distractions.

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Some parts are awkward. You go through daily motions without greeting or talking with the other participants or volunteer workers. Eating together, going to/from meditation hall, cleaning together… all in noble silence.

Make sure you share dietary restrictions when registering. Keep in mind that most centers offer only vegetarian options. Insight Retreat Center (IRC) was great about accommodating basic dietary restrictions like gluten-free and vegan dishes.

If there are more specific food items you require, check with the retreat staff. At IRC, you can bring personal items and they had a shelf in the fridge and pantry to store your items. I drink hot water with lemon in the mornings, and they did not serve lemons. Next time, I’ll throw a couple of lemons in my suitcase.

You may experience soreness from sitting for long periods of time. Make sure to use the props that are provided by the center. A pillow and blankets are great for making adjustments to your sitting posture. You can also sit in chairs when you are ready to take a break from the floor.

IMG_0004Thoughts become light as a feather! After you settle into your new room and schedule, you may become more relaxed and calm. Being removed from everyday life and your devices, you begin to notice how quiet your mind has gotten. Throughout the retreat, you are taught mindfulness meditation techniques, and you begin to understand the power of being in the moment. Mindfulness keeps you in the present and brings curiosity to your experiences. Ultimately, you learn to be okay with your experience as it is, and this is such an incredible experience. Just remember it may take you a couple of days to acclimate before you feel the effects of your practice.

You will need a couple of days after the retreat to settle back into your normal routine. My teachers, Andrea Fella and Annie Nugent, recommended 10 minutes of communication on your devices (i.e., email, phone, tv) followed by a break. Be gentle with yourself during this transitional time.

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Andrea and me on the last day

Comments

  1. Patrice Laughlin says

    This is so interesting. I don’t think I knew that you had done this. I need to start reading and sharing your posts on a regular basis. I’m going to look into this, but four days without talking? I’m not sure. I totally get the absence of media, electronics, etc. I once did a five day river trip down the Rio Grande, no newspapers, radio, phones or any human contact except for the group of friends I was with. It was amazing. What I call re-entry into civilization, once I returned to Dallas, took about a month.

    • says

      Hi Patrice! To help ease my way to an overnight retreat, I did a couple of daylongs where you attend a day of silent meditation from 9am – 5pm. During the daylong, there is a lot of instruction on basic meditation skills. They have these at Spirit Rock, Insight Meditation Center, and I’m sure other meditation centers. After the daylong, I became very curious about how the experience would be after spending the night.

      They also have shorter retreats, 2 nights, that might be a great way to slowly ease into the experience.

      Now that I’ve done a couple, I’m waiting for my schedule to allow for a 2 week retreat. Just like on vacation, it takes a couple of days to quiet the mind and adjust to a slower paced routine. Then, the juicy mediation kicks in!

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