17 Steps to make Meditation Retreat Easier

Silent retreats come with a surprising set of challenges and revelations. Some of them you can prepare for. Try these steps to make your retreat easier and to get the most out of it.

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I attended three 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreats (as taught by S.N. Goenka). The first two, one in California and one in Thailand, were amazing, enlightening, and transformative, but also painful and unnecessarily hard.

“We are all just walking each other home.”

– Ram Dass

I was used to going to bed well after midnight, so the 4 am wake-up gong felt cruel and unusual. I was used to meditating a few times a week in 20-minute sessions so I found it excruciating to sit cross-legged for 10 hours a day with the stabbing pain between my shoulder blades, the screaming ankles, and knees, and the pain of my numb legs coming back to life after a meditation session.

My eating schedule was a complete flip of the 6 am breakfast, 11 am lunch, and no dinner that is typical for a meditation center. Determined to not let anything interfere with my impending enlightenment, I also thought it a good idea to quit coffee cold turkey a day before my first retreat, so I spent the first 5 days with a splitting headache.

With all these experiences under my belt, I decided to train for my third retreat like for a (meditation) marathon. It paid off. It was a breeze, at least physically. I’ll tell you what to do. May you learn from my mistakes.

Before the Retreat 

1. Go to bed early and pay off that sleep debt

Meditation retreat sleep(f you’re used to hitting the pillow at 2 am, you’ll find yourself staring at the ceiling for hours after the 10 pm bedtime of the meditation center, only to be woken by a gong a couple of hours later. You’ll be nodding off in the meditation hall and spacing out during the evening lectures. It’s much easier to go through the adjustment while still at home. If at all possible, go to sleep by 10 pm for at least a week before the course starts. Don’t worry about getting up early. On the contrary, get all the sleep you can. Once at the retreat, you’ll be surprised how much energy you’ll save by being silent and meditating – the 6 hours allotted for sleep will seem ample. 

2. Don’t quit coffee at the course

coffee at meditation courseMeditation teaches the mind to stay alert while the body relaxes. Coffee and tea may help you accomplish this feat and are a part of many contemplative cultures. Instant coffee and bagged tea were available at all the retreats I attended. If you, however, decide to start with a clean slate and a body unadulterated by stimulants, quit them at least a week before the course. Meditating is hard enough without a splitting headache.   

3. Sit on the ground 

sitting on the ground during meditationWatching TV, chatting to friends, surfing the internet, playing games, scrolling through Facebook feed and cat videos… it can all be done on the floor. Imagine you have 2 square feet of floor space which you need to fit on, legs and all. Any position will do, just no stretched legs, no back support. Get familiar with what hurts and how to fix it. Maybe you’re pulling the shoulders towards the ears. Perhaps you’re tensing your back muscles. Or your knees hurt because your tight hamstrings keep pulling on them. Get into a stable position, breathe and relax. The more you do this, the easier it will be for you to sit in the meditation hall for seemingly endless hours. You’ll be like a Buddha statue while others are squirming on their cushions.  

4. Stretch it

Meditation catFind an exercise that targets the body parts that hurt when you’re sitting on the floor. Hip openers. core strength routines and hamstring stretches always help. Strengthen your core. Learn what works for you and remember it, it might come in handy in the middle of the retreat. Usually, the only exercise recommended there is walking but you can stretch in your room. I also bring a tennis ball to roll out knots in my back.

5. Learn what foods you’re sensitive to

Meditation foodI found out that my knees hurt when I’m eating wheat and oranges give me restless legs at night. I avoided eating any of my usual suspects during the course. The delicious, vegetarian meals were served buffet-style so it was easy to pick and choose. There were plenty of gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free (pick your poison) options. You’ll have plenty of time to observe your body after each meal and will quickly learn how different foods affect you. It’s one of the gifts of a meditation retreat – you have the luxury of just sitting in silence and getting to know your mind and body. 

6. Know your Why

meditation whyYou can use the Why Why Why technique: -Why do I want to do this course? -Because I want to experience some peace. Why do I want to experience some peace?  – Because I’m always stressed. – Why am I always stressed? – Because… Do this until you feel like you have found a genuine answer. As an alternative, you can write down a list of your intentions for the course and questions you would like answers to. Take them with you, pull them out on the last day of the course, write down the answers and see if you met your own expectations. After 10 days of meditating off the grid, your mind will be clear and you will probably have a flood of insights. It would be a shame not to record them. 

On the Retreat

7. Use the rest periods for napping or walking 

meditation walkingDon’t use the rest periods for trying to make up for the meditations you spent daydreaming, thinking, dozing, or fidgeting. Give your body and mind a break. Go for a walk, have a nap, stretch, shower, or rest.

Walking outside, you’ll find yourself noticing every leaf, every little ant, and every footprint of your fellow meditators. Nature will start looking quite magical, and enjoying all the beauty around you is a part of the experience.        

8. Bring your favorite alarm clock

meditation clockI found the communal gong a bit quiet and the provided alarm clock too harsh. I brought one that plays a melody and set the harsher alarm for 10 minutes later just in case. Having control over when and to what sounds you wake up can influence your whole day. 

Keep in mind that your sleep requirement might change. Don’t stress if you wake up after 5 hours and can’t get back to sleep. It might be all you need that day. If not, you can always use the rest periods for napping. 

9. Follow the rules

meditation pathThe rules will help you get the most out of the course. Being silent, getting up at 4 am, or being off the grid for ten days might sound daunting but you’ll grow to enjoy it and might even miss it after it’s over. 

Besides, you’ll have to make a promise to follow the rules, and breaking them will make you feel sneaky and guilty and affect your meditation in more ways than you think. 

10. Forget about makeup, hairdryers, and bras

Meditation eyeNot only you’ll feel more comfortable but you’ll also get the chance to work on the ego attachments if you don’t look perfect all the time. I thought I couldn’t go without a hairdryer and hair wax but, if I may say so myself, as the days progressed, I and my hair got prettier and prettier without them. I have no idea why but this happened all 3 times. The same happens with your skin. I stopped wearing mascara and used no cosmetics whatsoever. I just washed my face with water (and the occasional tears, haha), and still (or maybe because of that), my skin got all clear and glowy. This is a known phenomenon and is jokingly known as the “Vipassana facelift”. The wholesome food, walks, meditation, and absence of stress helped too, I’m sure. 

red hair Your clothes should be comfortable, sweats and loose sweatshirts if it’s cold, t-shirts and loose, stretchy pants in summer. Clothing usually not permitted includes leggings, sleeveless shirts, shorts, or short skirts, nothing tight, low-cut, see-through, above the knee, or anything with writing or logos, as these items may be distracting to other meditators. Bring a pair of thick socks to the meditation hall, even if it’s warm outside, your feet might get chilly. I also always keep some cough drops and tissues under my meditation pillow. You might cry at some point – I do.

12. Don’t judge yourself, and don’t compare 

heartJudgment creates tension in the mind and body and that’s the opposite of where you want to be headed. Relax, and be kind to yourself. On the very last day of the retreat, when you’re able to speak to your fellow meditators, you’ll learn that everyone was hurting, everyone was daydreaming and dozing off, and nobody was getting it quite right no matter how Buddha-like their posture appeared to be. 

13. Ask the teacher

ask for helpYou’ll have an opportunity every day to talk to the teacher. Take advantage of it. Don’t be embarrassed, the teachers have heard it all and might have helpful answers.

14. Learn the lingo

dictionaryEven though all the terms are pretty well explained, it helps to be familiar with them ahead of time.
Anicca = constant change.
Sweep en masse = mentally scan your whole body in big sweeps.
Equanimity = equilibrium, tranquility, not judging anything as being good or bad, accepting what is.
For more terms (more than you ever need to know) see this list here.

After the Retreat 

15. Write down your insights

pen and paperIf you wrote down a list of questions and intentions mentioned in point 6, pull it out on the last day of the course, Write down the answers, and see if you met your own expectations. After 10 days of meditating off the grid, your mind will be clear and you will probably have some insights. I know you think you won’t forget them, but you will. Resist the temptation to write during the course, it will fill your head with thoughts and make it harder to meditate. It is usually against the rules as well. 

16. Keep at it and keep in touch

loveThe course will give you very practical tools to use at home. You’ll learn how to meditate, how to deal with life situations, and how to stay cool. You’ll meet a lot of kindred spirits. Even though you can only speak to them on the last day, you’ll feel like you’ve been through a boot camp together. Use the tools you find helpful and keep in touch with one or two people you found a connection with. 

17. Integrate

integrateConnect with a therapist, meditation group, or just write down how you plan to use your insights and revelations in daily life.

So there you have it. Prepare beforehand and be kind to yourself. Silent meditation retreats are a rare opportunity to get to know your mind and body, take a break, and quiet down while being safe and taken care of.

If you want to read more about meditation retreats that I attended, have a look here: Silent Meditation Retreat: What it is, How much it costs and Why to do it.

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