By Jenn Sturiale
Meditation is not a team sport. There are no teammates to help us sit on our cushions, and there are definitely no finish lines or cheering fans. Most often an intensely solitary pursuit, meditation takes us on a personal, inward journey. So then, what's the deal with meditation retreats?
"In modern life, with all its disparity and emphasis on intellectual education, talking and materialism, it's rare to pause long enough to allow another focus to deepen and come into view," says Valeta Bruce, a certified community Dharma leader through Spirit Rock Meditation Center. This is exactly where retreats come in.
For meditation newbies, retreats are a great way to learn a new technique, while seasoned practitioners can go deeper and strengthen their practices. Retreats also bring participants closer to their sangha, their community, giving a group feel to an otherwise solitary activity. Having direct access to teachers also allows participants to finally address their burning meditation issues, including: "My right leg keeps falling asleep!" and "I am absolutely sure I'm doing this wrong."
While I was on a yoga retreat in Mexico, my teacher shared her experiences with Vipassana meditation, which is taught free-of-charge on residential 10-day silent retreats around the world. Her words resonated with me and I wanted to understand more, so when I returned home, I enrolled for an upcoming retreat. Finding time for that course was easy, as I was between jobs -- but subsequent retreats annihilated my two-week annual vacations. It was worth it for me, though: The teachings and techniques were so helpful in my everyday life that I gladly traded my vacation time for cushion time. (Full disclosure: I readily admit that I would have also liked to be able to swing in a hammock on a warm, sunny beach, too.)
After weeks, months or years of practicing meditation solo, we may find that going on retreats can make our aloneness feel not quite so lonely. We're invited to dedicate ourselves to our practice with nothing to distract us -- or as Bruce puts it, "Wherever you are, there is no escape, and that is not a problem." In the end, we often return home feeling changed in a way that is intangible but somehow more concrete.
It's helpful to get space and time away from life's everyday distractions. While we're usually fitting meditation in along with all of the other things we do on a daily basis, when we're on a retreat, all we're doing is meditating. We can give it our full attention without worrying about making dinner, sending emails or walking the dog. "While at home," says longtime meditator Scott Tillett, "daily life tends to get in the way and often keeps me from sitting. The motivation is stronger in sangha, when you're amongst others doing the same thing and that's all you're there to do."
Ranging in length from one day to 45 days -- or even more -- meditation retreats vary as much as the folks who sign up for them. Some are silent and others are not; some include complementary pursuits such as yoga and nature walks, and some provide nothing at all that will distract you from the task at hand. Meals are often simple and delicious vegetarian fare, but there's a chance you may score haute California cuisine; accordingly, prices range from free to shockingly expensive.
Good: The At-Home Retreat
Plan a day-long meditation retreat yourself, either solo or with a small group of friends. Prepare simple food and tea in advance, minimize distractions (all mobile devices off for the day; observe silence) and spend the day in a comfortable place, focusing on your practice. Audio and video teachings and books can be useful tools to support you on your retreat.
Better: The Single-Day Retreat Away From Home
Attend a day-long retreat close to home, either with a teacher you admire or one who's new to you. Single-day retreats are both a great way to get acquainted with a new technique and a method for diving deeper into the practices you're committed to. To locate a retreat, browse the flyers at a yoga studio, library or natural-foods store in your area, or Google the retreat listings for meditation schools nearby.
Best: The Longer Retreat
Finding time for a long retreat may be challenging, but the rewards can be great. Bump meditation up on your priority list and commit to a weekend retreat, a one- or two-week retreat or even one that's longer. (If you're new to longer retreats, start with a weekend, weeklong or 10-day.) It takes time for our spinning minds to slow down, and longer retreats can help us go deeper into our practices than we're able to do in our daily meditation sessions.