by Jack Walker
In nearly every tradition of meditation, periods of retreat are a key component of training. Retreat lets you invest the bandwidth of your attention into meditation practice, free from the distractions of daily life.
Residential retreats (i.e. at a retreat facility) can be expensive and logistically challenging. Other complicating factors include how to choose a retreat you can trust, and navigating the social minefield that is the discussion group.
Thankfully, it is now completely possible to learn meditation under the guidance of a senior practitioner, from just about anywhere in the world, without ever entering into an institution, let alone a monastery or ashram on the other side of the world. Both of my main teachers had to travel to Japan and India respectively in order to receive their training. The relative ease of residential retreats was especially helpful for me when I first began meditating, as depression made getting out of bed a fight, let alone getting to a retreat center far away.
Home retreat is a fantastic option for modern practitioners. With a little bit of planning, a home retreat can be a cheap and effective way to deepen your practice. Home retreats also provide a practical way to maintain momentum in your practice between longer retreats, if you are able to include those as well.
In a talk about organizing one’s practice, Shinzen Young described the mathematical notion of the ‘trivial case’; the simplest case of something, which still possesses the defining characteristics of that thing. So what is the simplest, cheapest, most convenient thing that we can reasonably call a retreat? For Shinzen, the trivial case is a four hour micro-retreat, offered remotely via his Home Practice Program. This is an excellent option, especially if you’re new to retreats and would like to do one from home, under the guidance of a competent guide. For me, I’ve found the minimum effective dose of retreat is a little longer: a single day. Irrespective of what is or is not retreat, I have found both daylong and weekend retreats very valuable in my practice.
The key point here is to pick a block of time to devote yourself completely to your meditation. If four hours is your limit, then that’s infinitely better than zero hours. If you can manage a whole weekend, that’s excellent. To put this into perspective, it would take you over 63 hours of continuous screen time to catch up with Game of Thrones. A worthy endeavor, but perhaps not as good an investment as two days—equaling something like 16 hours—of meditation.
How you divide up your time, is your choice. If you normally sit for a maximum of ten minutes, don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll be able to sit continuously for two hours. In general you want to try to meditate as continuously as you can, so that you can maximize your mini-retreat.
Schedule in time for bathroom and meal times. The bulk of the rest of your time would be well spent alternating practice in stillness, and practice in motion. A typical schedule for a daylong home retreat might look something like this:
5:00 – wake up, wash
6:00 – meditation
7:00 – walking meditation
7:30 – meditation
8:30 – yoga/stretching
9:00 – breakfast
9:30 – walking meditation
10:00 – meditation (2 sessions with mini-break between)
12:00 – walking meditation
12:30 – lunch
1:00 – meditation (2 sessions with mini-break between)
3:00 – walking meditation
3:30 – meditation (2 sessions with mini-break between)
5:30 – walking meditation
6:00 – dinner
7:00 – walking meditation
7:30 – meditation
9:00 – bedtime
This is, of course, just a template, that you can change to suit your wants and needs. The mini-break is time to use the restroom, and briefly stretch. Probably around 10 minutes max.
Intention and Boundaries
Creating a retreat space for yourself requires a minimum of care. The shorter your retreat, the more important it becomes to set up boundaries and to have some sense of intention. The boundaries of the retreat —which involve crucial support your practice—could be simple physical rules such as; no talking, no electronic devices, no going to the pub during the walking meditation. For intention, the trick is to have a proverbial North Star by which you can orient your attitude and attention. It can be something simple and/or vague, like the intention to stick to the schedule, or to really make the most of your time away from the madness of daily life. Or it could be something more specific, like the desire to focus on sensory clarity more intensely, or to build up your powers of acceptance.
A general idea of your motivation can also have a protective function; when you face difficulties in your practice, it is much easier to keep going if you have a sense of resolve, instead of running away at the first sign of discomfort. A big aid to
motivation is to pre-select a meditation talk, and to schedule it in. This may be something to remind you of the key points of a technique you are practicing, a teacher who inspires you, or something that reminds you of the longer-term goals of mindfulness training. For my most recent mini-retreat, I made use of a recording of a mini-retreat led by Shinzen Young at CML, and a recording of a guided meditation by Lama Shenpen Hookham. If you can, I’d suggest you pre-download your chosen media so you aren’t tempted to check on MMA news or Trump’s twitter feed during your retreat.
So you’ve put your ducks in a row and you have a chunk of time to devote completely to meditation with no interruptions. Now what do you actually do with all that time? Again, the key point is to use the time for unbroken practice to the degree that is possible for you.
In a short retreat—especially if you are new to meditation—it really helps to have a very clear idea of what technique you’re going to do, so that you don’t get lost thinking about the practice instead of actually doing it.
If you’re at all unsure, pick one technique you will practice in stillness (sitting, lying down, or standing), one technique you will practice in motion (walking and/or exercise), and one strategy for the transition periods, such as bathroom and meal breaks. A competent guide can help you with this, and will give you meditation advice specific to you and your practice.
A short story on the purpose of technique, courtesy of Ikkyū Sōjun—Zen Master and saké aficionado—who, when asked for the ‘highest wisdom’ by a student, wrote down one word: ‘Attention.’ When asked for a little more, Ikkyū wrote: ‘Attention! Attention!’ The student got pissed off at this point, and told Ikkyū there wasn’t any depth to his teaching. Ikkyū wrote: ‘Attention! Attention! Attention!’ Now, realizing he may be missing something, the student asked Ikkyū what the word ‘attention’ meant. To which Ikkyū gently replied, “Attention means attention.”
I strongly recommend that you seek out some guidance from a qualified teacher or a mentor you respect, to help you with retreat. The teacher should be able to help you with everything discussed thus far, especially with regards to technique.
If you want advice from a teacher/coach about your schedule, I suggest you think about it before hand so that you can go to them with a proposed outline. Don’t expect a coach to organize your retreat, but you could ask them for some general advice and whether your plan looks reasonable to them.
A general note on guidance and advice networks. Find at least one person who you can really trust. I have two main teachers from rather different traditions, and overtime I have slowly connected with a handful of ‘co-adventurers’ from various traditions who I really respect, and can chat with in a more relaxed manner. As an autistic person, making friends doesn’t necessarily come easily to me, but I have learned the importance of building up advice networks through martial arts training, where good training partners are just as valuable as the actual teachers. Good meditation teachers saved my life—I strongly recommend you find one who you trust and respect.
One of the costs of home retreat is the burden of responsibility. You can’t just turn up somewhere and pay someone else to cook all your meals, tell you what to do, when, how, why, and so on. Here, a little organization goes a long way.
Venue: Pick somewhere safe and relatively quiet, if possible. The most obvious venue for your retreat is your home. If you live with others, you want to be very clear that you are not to be interrupted under any conditions. If that isn’t an option you could entertain the possibility of renting somewhere out or camping. No matter what you settle on, please take the usual safety precautions.
Food: For a short retreat it is a good idea to prepare your meals ahead of time, or have things readily available so that you don’t have to think about what to eat. Different traditions have very different things to say on food and drugs—yes, your caffeine is a drug—so I refuse to appeal to authority here. Eat what you like, when you like. I know a meditator who ate lentil curry every day for a year during a solo retreat, by contrast I also know an old man who drinks wine and eats steak nearly every day of a retreat. Different strokes for different folks.
Clothing and gear: Wear clean, comfortable clothing that won’t cut off blood flow. I once overheard a chap in skinny-jeans complaining that his legs went numb during meditation. Don’t wear those. Be sensible. As for meditation gear, get yourself a cushion, bench, or chair that you find comfortable. Take care of your body. If you’re not sure, I recommend you read Stephanie Nash’s excellent guide to posture, freely available here: http://www.mindfulnessarts.org/POSTURE_PEDIA.pdf
Sleep and sleepiness: Some people sleep better than ever when on retreat, some people find the opposite. Sleep is obviously less important on a short retreat, but still worth noting. Personally, I think sleep and naps, are great. Some retreats really restrict sleep, I’m not sure what the history of this is as I’ve heard different explanations.
If you’re very sleepy whilst meditating, you have several good options: raise your energy with a walk or a cold shower, practice with the sleepiness, or go to sleep. As this is a short retreat, it may be best to try one of the first two options, unless you’re one of those practitioners who can meditate in their sleep. Don’t beat yourself up, though. Treat it as an opportunity to learn.
After retreat: Retreats can have a range of effects, for different people at different times. As a general rule of thumb, you can have afterglow, aftershock, a combination of these, or neither of these.
Afterglow is as lovely as it sounds, don’t get too wrapped up in it, just enjoy it as long as it might last.
Aftershock is when we come out of retreat and we may feel oversensitive, overstimulated, perhaps shaky. A good teacher will quickly normalize this awkward intermediate experience. As a teacher said to me when I experienced a lot of fear after a good retreat, “don’t worry, you’re not doing anything wrong, this is completely normal, just keep going as best you can.” Again, my advice here is to have a competent guide who you can contact. Sometimes you just need someone to remind you of what you already know.
Take the momentum built up over your retreat—even if it’s only a day or half a day—and carry it into your daily-life. If you usually meditate ten minutes a day, try to use the momentum to meditate half an hour twice a day, for example. If you felt like the retreat was easier than you expected, perhaps you can try a longer retreat next time. If you found yourself able to deal with sensory challenges better than you previously knew possible, use that next time your body erupts with pain or you find yourself lost in rumination.
I hope the information here is sufficiently comprehensive so that it is of practical use. This is the sort of introduction that I would have liked to read when I attempted my first mini-retreat.
In a world where it is increasingly possible to train as a meditator without any specific institution—a more networked version of meditative training—it is increasingly probable that practitioners will at some point undergo retreat at home, largely under their own direction. Please remember to take responsibility for your own safety.
Whether you’re brand new to the practice, a few years in, or have been at it for decades, mini-retreats offer a range of benefits, not least as a bridge to and between, longer retreats.
If you’re brand new, a mini-retreat from home is a cheap way to test it out for yourself. If you’re a seasoned meditator, a home retreat might reinforce to you just how much you’re capable of on your own, without the support of an external schedule.
Last, but by no means least, enjoy! A retreat, no matter how short, is a wonderful thing to be able to do.
photo by Peter McEwen