I recently finished my first residential retreat (a weekend) at the Christine Center, led by Steven Armstrong and Kamala Masters. I had anticipated the mental dullness and torpor and–for someone who likes to talk–the stress of being silent. Got that. I had heard about the good food. Got that. I had anticipated good teachers. Got that.
There were a few things I didn’t expect. For those who might be considering their first residential retreat, here are a few tips from my experience. (Anyone else who has been on retreat, please jump in on the comment line.)
- Eat lest oatmeal: First day I had a great early sit at 6 a.m. Breakfast was a simple but tasty bowl of oatmeal with raisins. I figured I deserved a hearty bowl. Next sit I WAS SO TIRED. It went by quickly because I was only awake for a few minutes. My head was bobbing. Then I lurched and nearly did a face plant. That woke me up enough to spend the next five minutes worrying if I had been snoring or if I would actually topple the next time I dozed off. In a dream-like daze, the following video ran in my head: I am sitting , very tired. I pitch forward and smack my head on the wood floor. A loud noise echoes through the hall. No one looks. They don’t need to. They know. A silent chuckle ripples through the room. That images fades … and I snooze some more. (During a Q&A, Steve suggests people eat less for breakfast. It helps.)
- Wear long-brimmed hats: I knew it was a silent retreat, but I had not anticipated the no-eye-contact part. That’s tough. Like other things on retreat, that habit came into sharper focus in its absence. It was a challenge not to reflexively scan the room to see who was there. I had a lot of attachment to connecting. I found that during walking mediation and going to-and-fro, pulling my hat down over my eyes was a helpful reminder to focus.
- If it first you don’t succeed … try tricking your mind: I was having trouble paying attention to my breath. It was a blustery weekend, so I decided to try focusing on the whoosh and rustling of the leaves. I had never tried using something like the wind to anchor my attention. What did I notice? Abdomen, abdomen, abdomen. The more I tried to pay attention to the wind, the more I kept coming back to my breath.
- Better the ache you know than the ones you don’t: I’m a desk jockey. I thought I was pretty good at sitting. I was quite surprised after the first eight hours of alternating walking and sitting meditation that my ankles, knees and neck hurt. Worse yet, I found that trying to make those minor, imperceptible adjustments to solve one sore leg muscle only triggered a cascading of new aches. After a while, I stopped fidgeting so much.
- Remember the good sits (but no clinging): What I remembered from the shorter retreats I had done was the frustrating parts. My thought progression would go: “I’m bored … I think the bell ringer fell asleep … WON’T THIS SIT EVER END?” One of Kamala’s early instructions was to remember when sits go well, too. My first early morning sit, I was clear, alert and comfortable. That carried me through the weekend, remembering that I would eventually cycle back to feeling clear.
OK, that’s my list. Anyone else?