Preparing for a Retreat by Gil Fronsdal
Being well-prepared for a meditation retreat supports a good beginning to your retreat. It facilitates an easeful settling into the practice and a more immediate immersion into the focused mindfulness of your direct experience. With adequate preparation you can begin the retreat with fewer and less compelling preoccupations, which might otherwise take an extended time to quiet down.Before discussing some ways to prepare for a retreat, I want to mention that being unprepared doesn’t have to be a problem. The experience of being unprepared offers its own benefits for mindfulness practice. We can learn how to be present and equanimous with the challenges of whatever arises. Being unprepared might provide an occasion to better understand important issues in our lives that can rise up at other times we haven’t fully prepared. What is going on in our lives if we arrive exhausted? Are the personal issues that may appear at the beginning of the retreat important to address? Might we have been too casual or complacent in coming to the retreat? Were we unclear about our intentions in participating? From one perspective, being prepared or unprepared are simply two valid ways of starting a retreat. They each offer opportunities for practice.Still, being prepared is generally more satisfying and can lead to settling in to the retreat more quickly. Preparation can be external, such as arranging the circumstances of our lives to be in enough order that they don’t intrude during the retreat. And it can be internal, leading to our physical, emotional, and mental lives being ready to begin the retreat practice.
An unhurried life supports mindfulness practice. Your practice will be supported when you prepare for retreat far enough in advance that you aren’t rushed or liable to forget something important in last-minute packing. Packing early for the retreat, you’ll have the chance to confirm that you have everything you need. If retreat center websites or registration confirmations provide a list of things to bring, it’s useful to check the list. Particularly important is bringing adequate medication(s) if needed, as it can be disruptive to have to fill a prescription while at the retreat. It is also helpful to leave things that you won’t need at home. In particular, it’s good to leave reading material behind so you’re not tempted to read what you brought along.
An unhurried life is also supported by taking care of family, home, or work responsibilities well before you leave on retreat. This can include having backup plans in place for any people you may have recruited to take on important responsibilities, such as the care of family members and pets, or covering important tasks and decisions at work. With a good backup plan in place you can avoid being contacted during the retreat.
Most insight retreats are designed as full-immersion periods of practice with no phone, text, email, web, or mail contact with the outside world. Such outside contact can stir us up with things to think about and emotions to process, hampering or disrupting the deepening of concentration. Therefore, part of preparing for a retreat is letting family, friends, and co-workers know that you will be unavailable. To some people you might explain the nature of a meditation retreat and why you will be unavailable, but to others you might simply say you’re taking a vacation in a place where you will be offline and unplugged.
Another part of retreat preparation is giving some consideration to what you will do in the day or two after the retreat is over. It can be helpful to plan ahead so that you have a gradual return to your usual life.
If you are going to a retreat center for the first time, study the center’s website to see if it provides any additional information that might be important to know. The website may have a FAQ section or may post the typical retreat schedule.
One of the most useful preparations for retreats is getting adequate sleep beforehand. One reason to pack and otherwise get your affairs in order well before the retreat is so you don’t have to stay up late doing these things the night before.
You can also prepare your body. Engaging in physical stretching, such as yoga, during the week or two before a retreat can make it easier to settle into the many hours of meditation. A posture that works well for one meditation session a day at home may need extra support for managing the frequent sitting periods at a retreat.
Some people find it useful to begin meditating more often in the week or two before the retreat. This can help you ease into the many hours of meditation that you will be engaged in. If you don’t have a daily meditation practice already in place, beginning one a week or two before the retreat is useful.
It’s also helpful to spend time before a retreat considering your motivations for going. What purpose do you anticipate or hope the retreat will have for you? How motivated are you? How well do you understand the basic instructions in mindfulness meditation? If not very well, you might listen to audio recordings of retreat instructions (available at Audiodharma.org and Dharmaseed.org). Are you planning on following the instructions given at the retreat or do you have other plans for your practice? If the latter, let the teacher know at the start of the retreat.
While motivation and purpose are valuable, they can also lead to expectations, and expectations can lead to frustration. People often come to retreat with ideas or agendas for what should happen. They may have expectations about any number of things—the meditation experience they’ll have, retreat life in general, fellow retreatants, or about which personal issues they will address during the retreat. While imagining what might happen on a retreat is normal, expectations about what should happen easily lead to disappointment and can distract us from noticing what is actually happening in our direct experience. So in preparing for a retreat it is highly recommended that you consider carefully what expectations you have. You might also consider transforming these expectations into simple aspirations or possibilities you’re open to, without insisting on them or waiting for them to occur.
Prior to the retreat, consider if you have any significant unresolved issues that might need to be addressed during the retreat. If there are any, it can be beneficial to spend some time contemplating them. This can include thinking of appropriate ways of putting them aside until the end of the retreat when you might have a much better perspective on them. It might also be useful to let the retreat teacher know about these issues.
In important ways, a retreat begins when you first think about going. Filling out the application, being accepted, making plans to go, and travelling to the retreat are all part of the retreat itself. Your thoughts, aspirations, and preparations for the retreat are tilling the soil for something to sprout in the field of your retreat. If you prepare for a retreat with care and love for your Dharma practice, you will undoubtedly prepare a good field where much good will grow.