(this was originally posted Nov. 26, 2014 on the Forest of Healing website.)
In October 2014 I attended a weeklong silent meditation retreat. I got A LOT of questions before I went and after I returned, so I decided to create an Frequently Asked Questions post. If you have any questions that I didn’t address here, please don’t hesitate to hop over to my Contact page and give me a shout. I’d love to hear from you!
What kind of retreat did you attend?
My retreat was conducted in partnership with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC. Author/teacher Tara Brach and her husband Jonathan Foust, along with several other meditation teachers led the retreat. The retreat was conducted using Vipassana meditation practices. Vipassana is a Theraveda** Buddhist tradition that uses focus on mindfulness to gain insight into the true nature of reality. In layman’s terms, this kind of practice is about observing your breath and your inner world (thoughts, emotions, etc.) and truly experiencing what you find in the present moment. (**Theraveda refers to a specific lineage of Buddhism. It’s fairly conservative and is considered one of the oldest surviving forms of Buddhist practice.)
Seven days?! 168 hours?! You were quiet for THAT LONG?!
Well, yes and no. Many silent retreats do include some brief exchanges with the teachers. My retreat featured two small group sessions where we could share about our experience with a few others as well as a short 1:1 meeting with one of the retreat teachers. So, over 7 days, I did speak a few times. Although it probably didn’t amount to more than 15 minutes.
What if you needed something or had a question?
The retreat organizers were very thorough so there was virtually nothing that a participant would need to ask for. Often our need to talk to others is really about the desire to talk to others. Of course, if there was an emergency, talking would have been allowed. But under the controlled and well-prepared circumstances of the retreat setting interpersonal communication is pretty easy to temporarily suspend. If you really think about it, talking to other people isn’t all that important when you’re focusing on quieting your mind.
What is the purpose of a silent meditation retreat?
There are many different types of retreats and probably just as many different purposes and goals. But generally the intent it to get away from everyday distractions and focus on something very specific. My meditation retreat was about self-intimacy. Meditation retreats, in general, are typically about getting more in touch with your inner world. Retreats spent in silence provide an even deeper level of focus and exploration since there are fewer distractions.
Why did you decide to attend a silent meditation retreat?
The decision to attend a retreat is a highly personal and individual experience for every participant. And it’s definitely not for everyone. The reason I signed up was to deepen my meditation practice. I’ve been at it for a long time and I felt ready to take another step. I’ve also been on a pretty intense journey of emotional and self-development over the past few years. I felt like I needed to take a breather and slow down so I could get some perspective without any distractions.
Do you have to be a Buddhist to attend a meditation retreat?
Nope! While many meditation groups are connected in some way with Western Buddhist philosophy and practice, all faiths are welcomed and encouraged at retreats. Meditation fits into the practices of all the world’s major faiths. At my retreat, there were definitely devout Christians, at a least a few Wiccan/goddess-focused practitioners and one Orthodox Jewish woman. I would like to mention that, although Buddhism is defined as a religion (and is practiced as such in many Asian countries), it can be more accurately be defined as a philosophy. Most Western practitioners view it this way and often integrate it with Christian or Judaic observances.
Do you really just sit there all day long for 7 days?
No. Even people who have extensive meditation experience get fidgety after a while. Sitting sessions are alternated with walking meditation and other meditative practices. At my retreat we engaged in meditative eating, yoga, QiGong, and nature walks. These are great ways of practicing “off the cushion.” We also attended teachings and lectures by the retreat teachers throughout the week.
Do I need to be an experienced meditator to attend a retreat?
I’m always a fan of activities that can include beginners. This is one exception. While there are usually no prerequisites and you definitely don’t need decades of practice, I feel that you do need to have some formal meditation experience before diving into a lengthy retreat. If nothing else, you will just be better prepared for what your restless brain is going to throw at you. If you’re a newbie at meditating give it a little time. Join a group that meets regularly or sign up for a one-day or weekend program. These are great ways to get some practice and also experience what it might be like without committing to an entire week.
Can’t you just take a vacation or a long weekend and get the same results as going to a retreat?
Yes and no. Certainly you can create a DIY retreat on your own and get lots of benefit from that. But a formal retreat provides a structure that is really tough to replicate by yourself or in a vacation setting. There is also the element of community – even though no one is talking – being under the same semi-challenging conditions are a bunch of other people provides an environment that you can’t get anywhere else.
How much does a retreat cost?
All retreats are different but in the Vipassana tradition, the meditation teachings are given freely. The costs associated with attending the retreat paid for the room and board at the retreat facility. Any money received by the teachers is given as dana (which means “gift” in Sanskrit… or maybe it’s Pali?) If you are attending a retreat, it may be helpful to you to explore what the costs go towards so you know what you are paying for. There is nothing wrong with attending a for-profit retreat – lots of talented entrepreneurs and artists hold those kinds of retreats and provide excellent value for their attendees. Money is a tough subject for a lot of people and it’s just something that’s good to look at if your finances are tight.
Would you do it again? Would you recommend it to other people?
Absolutely! I’m totally hooked and looking forward to registering for another retreat next year. It was a challenging experience (being forced to confront your thoughts and emotions isn’t always a picnic!) but it was a REALLY rewarding experience. As for recommending it to others, I do have to be honest that it’s not for everyone. But if you have some meditation practice under your belt and have found it to be beneficial to you, a retreat may be your next step.