If the words "meditation retreat" kind of scare you, you’re not alone. I was intimidated, to say the least, at the thought of sitting in silence for days on end, unplugged from the outside world, confronting myself head on. To make things possibly even more intimidating, I had barely ever meditated before, that is if we're not counting the moments of intentional breathing we practice during yoga classes.
Why would I submit myself to something as intense as a seven-day silent meditation retreat, you might ask? There were countless reasons I was curious about establishing a practice for myself, from the increased focus it gives to the promise of managing anxiety much better. And since I'm very much the type of person to approach things with an all-or-nothing attitude, I knew that an intensive retreat would help me kick-start my practice. I should probably note that I went on this retreat halfway through a two-month-long backpacking trip in Southeast Asia, so I was already on somewhat of a personal "journey" and wanted the meditation retreat to make the whole experience 100% unforgettable.
I stayed at the Doisuthep temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I practiced Vipassanā-style meditation. Vipassanā means "see clearly," and the practice centers around the idea that inside ourselves and in the world around us, things are uncertain, unsatisfying, and uncontrollable. Since the goal of Vipassanā is to align the body and mind through meditation, you focus on certain parts of your body while meditating, instead of repeating a mantra in your head or listening to a guided meditation like you would in other forms of meditation.
What to expect at a meditation retreat:
Upon check-in, they handed me a list of strict guidelines with rules like no talking with other meditators, no eating solid food after 12 p.m. and no reading, writing, listening to music, or using the internet (though phones were allowed on airplane mode to use as meditation timers).
My daily schedule went something like this: 5 a.m. wake-up call followed by a 30-minute dhamma talk given by our Buddhist monk instructor, a break for breakfast, morning meditations, lunch, afternoon meditations, one-on-one check-ins with the monk, another afternoon meditation, evening group chanting, one last meditation in the evening, and in bed by 9 p.m. Each meditation session consisted of one walking meditation followed by one sitting meditation. When I arrived, each of my walking and sitting portions lasted 15 minutes, and by the time I left, I was completing them at 25-minute intervals (nearly an hour of straight meditation!).
After a week of this, I walked away from the retreat center with valuable insight and renewed clarity of mind, but not without my fair share of challenges. Keep reading to find out the surprising things I learned from my seven-day silent meditation retreat along with the inevitable ups and downs.
You're going to feel silly at first
The one uncomfortable thing that I hadn't planned for? Feeling a bit awkward at first. I had prepared for all these big mental hurdles from the actual meditation, but when it came to settling into the retreat center, I'll admit that I felt a bit insecure. The silence, while comforting most of the time, was a bit awkward at meal times when I was unsure if asking someone to pass the salt was appropriate. And then I felt silly when we had to follow the Buddhist tradition of bowing in front of the monk and any image or statue of Buddha.
While the retreat itself was secular, we abided by these traditions out of respect because the retreat center was part of a larger Buddhist temple. Still, bowing and especially chanting in a foreign language felt anything but natural at first.
You might want to leave earlier than planned. Fight that feeling
After every morning Dharma talk and before breakfast, I would walk up the main temple area to watch the sunrise over the city of Chiang Mai. Mornings like this made everything worth it.
I won't lie, I had endless complaints in the beginning. The 5 a.m. wakeup call was admittedly brutal. My back hurt, my legs fell asleep during every seated meditation, and I was so frustrated during the first few days that I almost hit a breaking point on day three. The keyword here is almost. I certainly never entertained the thought of leaving the retreat before my seven days were up, which was motivation enough for me to keep going.
You'll learn what your limits are
I pushed past the challenge of day four and once my sleeping and eating schedules aligned with the retreat's, I relished in the relief of how great days five and six were. So great, in fact, that I almost stayed for 10 days. What held me back? Unfortunately, the food! I regret to say it because my stay was completely free, as the retreat center was donation-based, so I have little grounds to complain. But nonetheless, it taught me what my physical limits were. I could handle the early mornings despite the lack of caffeine, the freezing-cold showers, and even finding the occasional frightening but harmless bug in my room.
But this girl needs more than white rice and overcooked vegetables to stay inspired.
You already have everything within you to succeed
The main pagoda at the temple lit up at night.
So clearly the retreat challenged me in ways I didn't expect it would. But the number one thing I learned from the experience was that I actually already had all the tools I needed to succeed at meditating, and all it took was the structure of a retreat to push me. In this program, we taught ourselves how to meditate. We weren’t given detailed instructions at all.
I compared the meditation itself to how I feel about running. At first, it’s so difficult and frustrating so you don’t even try after a while, but then when you force yourself to do it for an extended period, you push past a certain breaking point and finally hit a stride. Part of the instruction we were given was to notice where your mind goes when it starts to drift during a meditation session. What kind of thoughts arise? What's keeping you from staying focused? And instead of judging these thoughts, simply take note of them.
Yes, it's about being gentle with your thoughts, but more importantly still, it taught me to understand better how my own mind works (something it takes most people years to figure out).
And finally, by the end of my seven days at Doisuthep, I genuinely felt so connected to my own mental processes that the strangest thing happened. During one of my last few meditations on day six, I felt this outpouring of love toward my friends and family almost out of nowhere. Instead of releasing the thought and focusing back on my meditation like I was supposed to, I pictured myself giving each of them a big hug before continuing with my practice. When I turned my phone on after the retreat, my inbox was flooded with messages from the people I was thinking of.
They all said that they felt this intense connection and missed me even more than usual (I had been traveling abroad for over a month by that point) during the past few days. All I'm saying is, I'm taking it as no coincidence.
If you had ever considered going on a meditation retreat, I hope to have inspired you to go for it. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me and the benefits totally outweighed the challenges in the end. But even if a retreat is too much for you right now, you can still read up on how to meditate if you have no idea where to begin.