By John Lee Pendall
Retreats have been a part of Buddhism since the beginning.
Monks didn’t spend a lot of time in seated meditation. They would wander alone from place to place doing walking meditation, eating meditation, talking, listening, sewing and sleeping meditation. But, for a few months each year, they had to hunker down somewhere to wait out the monsoon season. So, they would all meet up with the Buddha, do seated meditation together and listen to him give Dharma talks.
This is a great metaphor for our lives, too.
We’re super busy most of the time. We’re always coming or going, never sitting still for long—and that’s alright. Like we’ve just seen, the monks were the same way. Nothing is ever still; that’s one of the things we notice when we’re sitting still.
The retreat tradition continues to this day. It’s pretty much a part of all Buddhist schools, and it’s even made its way into the mindfulness movement. But a lot of people’s wallets aren’t fat enough to painlessly drop $500 on week’s worth of doing nothing—and 500 is low-balling it.
Even if the retreat is free, like it is at some Theravada monasteries, time is money—time is family.
Single-person, at-home retreats aren’t as unorthodox as we might think. The Buddha frequently asked monks to go meditate alone in the wilderness, and thousands of well-known Zen and Vajrayana teachers have gone on solo retreats over the centuries. Sheng Yen, a more modern teacher, went on a solo retreat in the mountains for six years.
What’s great about at-home retreats is that you can make your own schedule, save money, and not be distracted by what the person sitting next to you is doing. I’d like to see solo retreats become a norm in the West, they suit our culture well.
Here are some tips if you’re interested in doing an at-home retreat, whether you’re Buddhist or not:
If you’ve never done this before, start by doing a few half-day retreats, then a full day, and then maybe a weekend. You’re not gonna get some kind of karmic brownie points by diving in headfirst; test the waters first, and then go from there.
Plan a routine, and stick with it.
It’s a good idea to leave nothing to chance during retreats, because unplanned time is an opportunity for our old habits to kick back in. This is especially tempting when we’re at home and Facebook and Netflix are only a few clicks away. Before I go on a retreat, I always throw together some kind of schedule, and then I set alarms to go off at those times. Here’s an example of a retreat schedule:
4:30 Sitting Meditation
5:00 Walking Meditation
10:00 Working Meditation (Housework, etc.)
Noon Lunch/Break (Or the end if it’s a half-day retreat
9:00 Sleep (Or End of the retreat)
This is just a template—do whatever works for you. During free-time, you can do keep meditating, do some exercise, read, anything, as long as you can remain silent, and it doesn’t involve media.
In my experience, it’s not enough to just say, “I’m not gonna use social media for the day.” Just it being readily available adds tension to the mind. I uninstall Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and turn off my email notifications when I’m on retreat. There’s also an add-on for your browser that replaces your newsfeed with custom quotes, so if you give in and hop on the computer, you’ll see, “No Social Media Today,” instead of your Facebook page. That link is for Chrome, but it’s available for Firefox, too.
Replace your ringtone and alarms with simple, boring tones.
Instead of a song or catchy sound effect, I use a bell sound for a ringtone. It isn’t practical (or safe) to totally switch off your phone since shit happens and someone you know might need your help. Unfortunately, this leaves us open to BS spam calls, too. The bell helps make those less disruptive. I’d recommend not using the same bell sound for your alarms and ringtone—that’d be confusing. If you get a call or text and have to check your phone, try to do it mindfully.
This can be tough because it involves saying, “No,” to people. If you’re easy-going—like I am—no isn’t a savory word. Let everyone that needs to know, know that you’re going to be unavailable. If they live with you, let them know that you’re going to be meditating for most of the day, and when you’re not sitting, you’re still going to be silent and not making any eye contact—even if you’re having dinner together.
Basically, you can say, “Pretend that I’m not here.” I went on a retreat at a friend’s house once, and his wife wasn’t participating. She was still at home, and she made some noise now and then, but I just made all of it part of my practice. She said that she was glad someone finally got her husband to shut up.
It’s also nice to clean the house before starting the retreat. Dirty dishes and clutter can be distracting, and they tend to agitate or depress us. An even better option is to make cleaning part of your retreat. I usually do the dishes. It’s helpful to have your wardrobe picked out the night before as well. Loose fitting clothes, like size-too-big t-shirts, bathrobes, and pajama pants are great. If you wanna get that retreat feeling a little more, you can buy Buddhist robes online.
Limit food and caffeine. If you’re a smoker, put on the patch. Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
This is all about getting to know the way the mind works—that’s impossible if we’re using things to alter it in extreme ways, especially if we’re still new to meditation. But, it’s usually a bad idea for seasoned meditators to get hammered while they’re on retreat too.
That said, a retreat isn’t a detox program. If you’re addicted to caffeine or nicotine, quitting cold turkey will just distract you from your method. A little pop, coffee, or tea in the morning isn’t bad, but it’s wise to limit ourselves. Drink just enough to take the edge off the drowsiness or craving, not enough to turn you into Speedy Gonzalez.
You don’t have to prepare your meals ahead of time, but you should already know what you’re going to eat, and when. Meals are an important part of retreats. In fact, cooking was often the responsibility of the most senior students. Cooks have a high place in the Zen hierarchy. Maybe that’s because preparing food is a great meditation, or maybe it’s because Zennies really like to eat; I’m not sure.
One meal a day before noon with a snack and some tea in the early evening is the monastery standard. Traditionally, monks just ate whatever was offered to them, but most of us have to buy our own food, so you can choose what you’re gonna eat. I usually keep it simple: something light, but satisfying, with plenty of nutrients. And I usually have some black tea and a salad in the evening.
If you eat too much, then meditation is gonna suck; not enough, and hunger is gonna be an annoyance.
Cue up some videos, books, or podcasts for study time.
Since there’s no teacher present, I usually just read a book or watch some lessons on YouTube instead. Pick a theme beforehand: “What teaching do I want to focus on during this retreat?” Then dig up some teachings on that. When you’re reading or watching a Dharma talk, this is meditation too. We can approach it using the same methods and mindset that we’re approaching everything else with.
And, the most important part: don’t hurt yourself.
Buddha didn’t practice asceticism after he had his Awakening. He vouched for balanced views and methods. Be mindful of when too much is too much. If you’re in a lot of pain, don’t sit through it, change your posture or alter your routine a bit to include some more walking meditation time.
If you’re experiencing too much anxiety or depression, end the retreat immediately. If you have a diagnosed mental illness, it’s wise to be wary of retreats; they can exacerbate the symptoms. If you have a psychotic disorder of some kind, it’s best to not even practice Buddhism at all—it can seriously mess you up if you’re prone to delusions and hallucinations.
In general, it’s good to check with your doctor before making meditation a big part of your life. That might sound strange, but the mind and body can do some funny things when you meditate a lot. Meditation not only affects the brain, it can also influence physiological processes like blood pressure, sleep patterns and digestion. Don’t fuck around with this stuff without doing some research first.
Your goal might just be, “I want to relax a little, and ditch some of the stress in my life,” and that’s great, but meditation wasn’t designed for that. I mean, you could just be sitting there chilling out, and all of sudden, you lose your body for a few seconds, or you trip out and see yourself swimming through luminescent water in an underground cave (that happened to me once). Retreats aren’t something we should take lightly—this is serious business, and people have pulled muscles or had psychotic breaks.
Whether at home, or at a center, retreats do offer noteworthy experience, and they’re a great way to invigorate our practice. But please be gentle with yourself.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".
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