Silent meditation retreats can be incredibly transformative.
They offer you a safe place to step back from the demands of everyday living so you can further explore the healing and stress reducing benefits of meditative practice.
Not only can the retreat itself be challenging at times, but many people find it stressful preparing for this kind of an event because there is so little valuable information on the topic.
To help reduce your anxiety about the retreat and offer you a little wisdom from some seasoned meditators, yogis, and mindful practitioners, we’ve put together a simple 13-item checklist to help you navigate the preparations leading up to your retreat.
Replace any stress you’re feeling for the preparation part of your retreat with excitement and openness while you cultivate calmness with these easy steps.
What is a silent meditation retreat?
Silent meditation retreats are experiences unlike any other.
For 10 days, you will not speak. You will not engage with technology. You won’t even make eye contact with another person.
How does that sound?
This form of meditation known as Vipassana is an ancient Indian tradition that dates back to early Buddhism. The word Vipassana means: “to see things as they are”. Many people turn to these retreats as a way to re-centre and disconnect with technology and the stresses of their daily life.
Yet beyond giving up your phone, social media, junk food, and excess sleep, there is much to gain. In silent meditation retreats you will learn how to channel your energy inwards for self-exploration. You will be guided through exercises that help you release buried emotions. You’ll likely also be tested harder than you ever have.
What are the benefits of silent meditation retreats?
The focus of the practice is to help you become more mindful through guided self-reflection. Through this rigorous practice, you’ll become more aware of your experiences moment to moment. Even taking a bite of bread or a single breath becomes an experience worth exploring.
Cultivating mindfulness in this kind of setting can help you be more present in all aspects in your life. It helps you develop a sense of gratitude, appreciation, and awareness for everything you might have taken for granted before. Additionally, many people find that it’s rewarding to completely unplug from technology, social media, popular culture, and other distractions.
Other people who struggle with their diet experience great benefits from having developed a new relationship with their food throughout the duration of the retreat. Not only will you learn to eat less, but you will also learn how to enjoy food more. In the process, you’ll develop a whole new understanding about how you nurture your body.
Why silent meditation retreats aren’t for everyone
Silent meditation retreats aren’t intended to be a relaxing, feel good, spa-like experience.
They’re structured in such a way that you’re encouraged to dig deep within yourself. There is a lot of time set aside for reflection and self-observation.
From breathing, to eating, to taking a sip of water, your attention will be drawn back to the present moment. A moment that could be blissful, enlightening, or quite simply, very uncomfortable.
Part of the practice requires a very early wake-up somewhere between 3:30 to 4:00 AM. You’ll spend your day meditating, listening to lectures, and sometimes practicing mindful walking.
Because much of the day is spent sitting, you might experience great discomfort in your back and knees. Working through the pain and discomfort is also part of the practice.
How to prepare for silent meditation retreats:
1. Let go of your expectations
Commit yourself to joining the silent retreat with an open mind and open heart.
Try to limit your expectations, of the course, accommodations, food, teachers, fellow students, and most importantly – yourself.
Avoid trying to envision how you think things might go or overthink the whole process. Don’t bother reading reviews of other retreats as you might form preconceived ideas about how things should go.
Allow yourself to surrender instead to what is and to go with the flow. Trust that you’ll receive guidance for navigating the challenges that arise throughout this journey.
2. Get used to sitting
Although most of us sit for extended periods of time, whether at our desk or in our homes, we often have the ability to get up and walk around if our legs get tired or body feels sore.
In silent meditation retreats, sitting for extended periods of time is part of daily practice and can be very uncomfortable if you aren’t used to it.
Several weeks before your retreat, get in the habit of sitting cross legged, either directly on the floor or with the help of a meditation seat.
This practice will help you prepare yourself for meditation and also try out various benches, cushions, zafus and zabutons, mats, and accessories. These meditation tools will help you make the process much more comfortable and ergonomic.
3. Bring your own meditation gear
While most meditation centers provide cushions and mats, there is no guarantee that they will have your favorite meditation seats.
If you’ve been training on a particular bench or cushion and are comfortable sitting, bring it with you.
Reducing the number of physical distractions you face throughout this journey will make it easier to focus on your practice.
Each body reacts differently to hours spent sitting, so find a position and the accessories you need to make it comfortable for you.
4. Pack comfortable clothing
Meditation retreats aren’t fashion shows.
Get yourself some modest, comfortable, and practical clothing. Be prepared to sit for long periods of time, and even go outside for walking meditation.
Checking in with your teachers in advance will help to minimize confusion and help you pack more efficiently.
Avoid tight, revealing, or constrictive clothing that can restrict your movement or cut off circulation. Pack enough clothes so that you won’t need to do laundry at the facility but not too many that you will need to lug around several suitcases.
The best clothes to wear are those which can easily be layered as the temperature changes, as well as appropriate footwear and outdoor clothing to brave the elements if your retreat will be taking you outside.
5. Discuss dietary restrictions in advance
As most meditation centers prepare vegetarian meals in-house, it is a good idea to discuss any dietary concerns with the organizers in advance.
Additionally, if you are gluten intolerant or vegan, it would be beneficial for the kitchen staff to know this prior to your arrival.
If you’re a big meat eater, you might want to consider cutting down on flesh protein and consuming more beans, legumes, and alternative protein sources leading up to your retreat.
6. Adjust your sleep schedule
Each meditation center will have its own routine and class schedule.
Get informed about the wake up and lights out hours and begin to follow this routine in advance of joining the retreat.
It’s common for many meditation practices to begin promptly after a 4 AM wake-up and long before breakfast. If you’re someone who’s used to waking up leisurely and only facing the world after a large cup of coffee, you might want to think about getting on schedule early on to save yourself the frustration, sleep deprivation, and caffeine withdrawal.
Also, if you’re a night owl, it might be a good time to start going to bed earlier for several weeks before your silent retreat. You want to get into a habit where you can get sufficient rest even with an early rise in the morning.
7. Start your digital detox early on
It’s usually common practice for retreats to ban cell phones and other electronic devices.
To cut yourself off from your phone and other gadgets cold turkey might result in some anxiety and stress. To avoid this, give yourself several weeks to prepare.
Get used to not checking messages, emails, and social media threads. Stop checking the news, surfing the web, and mindlessly browsing.
Begin to start going out without your phone and leaving it in another room.
Cutting out smartphones is a lot harder than you think. Give yourself at least one month of detoxing prior to going on your meditation retreat.
8. Befriend silence
As the old saying goes “silence is golden”.
But without sufficient practice, being in silence can also feel isolating, lonely, and stressful.
Before you surround yourself with silence for an extended period of time, gently ease into it.
Spend time in advance of your retreat exploring silence at home. If your house is generally quite loud, try some noise cancelling headphones and really give yourself an opportunity to invite quiet into your life.
(Be sure to also turn off all electronic devices. Putting them on silent doesn’t count!)
9. Practice journaling
Some retreats will allow you to bring a journal.
Journaling is a great way to express your thoughts, emotions, and creativity. It’s also beneficial in the sense that it allows you to document the streams of thoughts that enter your mind and see how they vary throughout the duration of your stay.
Use your journal practice to become aware of how different triggers affect your mood. Take time to explore how you feel at different parts of the day (especially after a 4 AM wake-up).
10. Embrace solitude
Although most retreats are done in group settings, the focus of your practice will be on yourself.
And yes, this inward journey of self-exploration can at times be a very lonely experience.
If you’re used to always having people around and ample distraction, begin to search out quiet solitary activities in advance of the meditation retreat.
Taking walks by yourself and sitting silently on a park bench just watching the world can be a beneficial exercise. It forces you to stay quiet and simply become aware of your surroundings without getting attached to anything.
11. Learn some yoga
Most retreats will involve long hours of sitting meditation.
For many, this can actually be very uncomfortable and cause soreness throughout the back, hips, knees, etc.
A good way to offset the strain of sitting for extended periods of time is yoga.
Take a few basic yoga classes in advance of your retreat to familiarize yourself with simple postures that will help stretch out these muscle groups.
Take care to learn proper technique and alignment so that you will be able to repeat the sequencing on your own.
12. Leave your valuables somewhere safe
Although many retreat facilities offer lockers, it’s best if you leave your valuables somewhere safe and bring only the essentials for your stay.
You’ll worry less if you know that your expensive items are stowed safely at your home or with a loved one.
Free your mind from the stress that worrying about your stuff can bring.
13. Get your home in order
Do yourself a favor and get your home organized before you head out to your silent retreat.
Clean up and create a mindful living space.
Make your place feel fresh and inviting for your return. Retreats can be exhausting, both mentally and physically and you will be grateful returning to an orderly home.
During your absence, you might also want to arrange for a friend or neighbor to check in on your home. Knowing that someone is caring for your plants and keeping an eye on your residence can reduce worry and help you stay better focused on your practice.
Silent meditation retreats are highly rewarding experiences.
However, they’re neither glamorous nor without their challenges. But for the millions of people who swear by this practice, the 10 days of Vipassana are greatly worth the effort and sacrifice.
In conclusion, with a little preparation, you can improve your comfort, enjoyment, and maximize the benefits of this mindful journey.