After logging countless hours on a meditation mat (or app), you may feel ready to take your practice to the next level. Perhaps you see a meditation retreat as the next logical step in your spiritual evolution. But what will happen when you get there?
It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or an advanced meditator – these retreats are no picnic! Regardless of what tradition you’re following, here’s what you can expect to encounter at a meditation retreat.
Check Your Ego
Different temples have different protocols, but most retreats have strict rules against reading, communicating, using electronics of any kind, and being late. Some sites even frown upon making eye-contact! Since these retreats reserve the right to eject anyone who is not conforming to the rules, it’s best to take on this challenge with a subservient demeanor.
Not only will you have to part with your cell phone – alongside any other distracting belongings – when you enter the temple, you’ll also have to stick to their rigorous itinerary. Retreats schedule up to ten hours of meditation each day, as well as “mindful service”, which means quietly helping to maintain the grounds of the property 1.
Sitting, Sitting, Sitting
Movies and television make meditation look easy. In reality, it’s an act of perseverance – not only mentally, but physically. Most practitioners have to adjust themselves a few times before they settle on a comfortable position – and that’s during an hour-long sit. By the second or third day of your retreat, comfort will be a cherished memory!
Sitting still, with no justifiable grounds to excuse yourself, can be agony. What happens when your foot goes numb, or your perfect posture begins to sag? Most retreats offer chairs and additional cushions, but it’s wise to prepare for some aches 2. Try to remember: the experience of navigating this pain will end up benefiting your practice.
You’ll Question Your Sanity
The act of meditating may look pretty zen on the outside, but it’s a very different scene behind your eyelids. Your brain – which is accustomed to zigzagging between social, professional, and recreational concerns – doesn’t stop just because your busy life is on pause.
In the absence of external stimuli, your brain turns inward. This can quickly turn nightmarish, as you obsess over memories, judgements, and past mistakes 3. Worse yet, you can’t talk to anyone or distract yourself with a quick social media scroll. You might suspect you’re going crazy, and this can last for a few days.
It’s Gonna Get Awkward
If you’re an introvert, you might think you’ve found paradise after reviewing the rules forbidding any form of communication. However, small talk won’t even register on the awkward scale after you’ve eaten a full meal next to fellow meditators in total silence. Well, total silence minus the slurps, chews, and lip-smacking.
Unless you find a retreat that offers solo accommodations, there’s a good chance you’ll also be bunking up with a stranger of similar gender in a dormitory-style room. Be sure to keep that in mind if you’re planning a lengthy stay, as retreats can last anywhere from one to 45 days 4.
Your Brain Might Change
Everyone attends a retreat hoping for some kind of transformation, whether it’s generated by faith or discipline. And science largely supports the claim that meditation can transform your mind. A consistent practice reduces stress and anxiety, improves sleep, decreases blood pressure, and lengthens your attention span 5.
Extensive research continues to explore the way meditation rewires neural pathways in the brain. Some brain scan studies have determined that long-term meditators have “altered function” in the thalamus – a central part of the brain that controls our sense of clarity 6. So, it’s encouraging to remember that any challenges at the retreat can help you progress in your emotional or spiritual journey.
While it’s tempting to view a meditation retreat as an escape from the modern world, it shouldn’t be confused with a walk in the park. Carefully research the various types of meditation to ensure you’ve found a path that compliments your outlook, and read all of the temple’s rules.
Many meditators who’ve graduated from several retreats also recommend not having expectations. It’s best to seek out this experience for the experience alone, and not bank on achieving some kind of breakthrough.
Finally, be frank with yourself about your threshold for discomfort – because if you aren’t honest now, you won’t have a choice once you’re inside!