What It's Like to Go on a Meditation Retreat
I Didn't Know What to Expect on My First Retreat
I have practiced meditation for over a decade, but I decided that a retreat could help increase my skill and practice. I'll admit, however, that I had no idea what I was getting into . . . I had never been to a meditation retreat.
At first, I was quite ambivalent about signing up for something about which I knew nothing. I was vaguely aware that there are different types of meditation, but I didn't know what type I would be doing at the retreat. I didn't know the teacher, the setting, or any of the other people who would attend. I didn't know what would be expected of me, or what would happen if I had a run-in with my emotions (as can sometimes happen during intense meditation). Talk about "out of my comfort zone." All things aside, the experience I had was nothing short of incredible.
Preparation for the Retreat
The retreat I signed up for was about an hour away from where I live at the Southern Dharma Retreat Center. I looked for one that would fit with my schedule, and was about 4-5 days long. I only knew the title of the retreat: "Improving Your Meditation Practice."
I had an option of staying in the lodge, paying extra for a one-room cottage, or camping on a platform. Being the introvert that I am, I elected to tent camp because the thought of staying in the lodge with a complete stranger was unappealing: their tastes and preferences might have been completely different than my own. A cottage sounded nice, but my thinking was that if I could get by with a proverbial economy class ticket and not pay for the first class upgrade, then I would gladly make do.
I signed up a couple months in advance and promptly forgot out it and went on with my life. As the date of the retreat approached, I started to get emails about what to bring, what not to bring, something called "dana" (basically a donation to the retreat center) and more about what to expect.
My ambivalence only increased: meeting so many strangers, vegan-only food (at the time I was a semi-vegetarian, eating only white meat on occasion), and no technology was allowed. I have to admit that I had a cell phone for work and a personal cell phone and was "on call" a lot. The thought of being out of range and out of touch was something I had to reckon with.
Still, there were other questions:
- What if I'd signed up to a cult? I did sign up through a web form, after all.
- What if I hated it?
- What if I loved it?
- What if I was completely out of my league?
- Would there be seasoned meditators there? I had been meditating a long time, but I consider myself to be self-taught.
- How would I measure up to someone who was professionally trained? (Well, if there were professionally trained meditators attending. I had no idea.)
- Could I handle hours and hours of meditation? The longest I'd ever "sat" was 45 minutes.
- Would I be allowed to talk? I'd heard that meditation retreats are often silent.
It turns out, all my questions were answered, all my misgivings were unfounded, and I had one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
Southern Dharma Retreat Center
The location of the retreat center where I participated in my retreat.
Arriving at the Retreat Center
On the day the retreat started, I had until 6 pm to arrive and get my tent set up. Because of my ambivalence, I waited until early afternoon to leave home and travel to the retreat center. It was a journey over mountains and along back roads to a secluded place in the forest. I pulled into the parking area and a guide showed me to my tent platform. I'm an experienced camper (also a meditative activity) and quickly set up my tent, sleeping pad and a tarp in case of rain.
At 6 pm, we all gathered in the lodge—all 28 of us. I learned that we would be practicing "noble silence," an activity where we would cease speaking aloud to each other for the next four days. If we needed to talk, it was only for emergencies and we were asked to keep it to a whisper.
Our guides and teacher explained the different types of meditation we'd do: silent meditation, active (walking) meditation, service meditation (in which we'd sign up to do a job), reading meditation, and eating meditation (in which we'd be mindful of the food we were eating, how we chewed, what the food tasted like, how we were breathing, and more).
Practicing Noble Silence
That first night, we all commenced eating dinner in absolute silence. The only sounds were of silverware clanging against plates, and people shuffling to take their dishes to the wash station.
After that, we all headed to the meditation building to begin our first meditation. At this first session, I found out that the type of retreat we'd be participating in was Buddhist-based and led by a monk. Her name was Pannavati. She was from the US, but her name changed after she became a monk. Since there were 28 of us, she was interested to see how many people had practiced meditation. Not many had. In fact, most of the people there had been curious about it but didn't have a serious practice.
I instantly became more comfortable because I realized that my many years of practice meant that I'd probably have no problem adapting to hours and hours of mediation since there were so many beginners.
Before we began to meditate, Pannavati would do "Dharma Talks," which are lessons about meditation and insights into Buddha's teachings. That first night, the talk lasted about 30 minutes before we did about 45 minutes of meditation.
I was not accustomed to all the silence, but after that first meditation session, I began to appreciate it. There was no "small talk" to worry about, and I slowly began to become aware of all the other sounds all around me: the wind, crickets, people's footsteps, and the silent sound of my own thoughts. When I opened the zipper to my tent that evening, I was actually shocked at how loud it seemed.
People From All Walks of Life Attend These Retreats
I learned that people from all walks of life were present at this retreat: Christians, Buddhists, members of the Jewish faith, Christian Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, and those who did "a little bit of this and a little bit of that."
In practicing noble silence, you really start to notice other things about people and stories form in your head about who they might be, what they might do for a living, and gain insights to what their personality might be like. When I engaged in walking meditation, I was focused on my breathing, but I let myself smile as I also thought about the other people present with me.
I figured out that one older couple was, in fact, a couple and that they had to have been married a long time. (I later found out that they were: 48 years!). There was a young couple that often walked hand-in-hand down the paths on the retreat grounds. There was an older woman who looked like maybe she had something she was trying to figure out.
There were two younger men who both loved to eat all their meals outside. There was a woman from France (I learned this at the beginning of the retreat before we went into silence) who was very sensitive and passionate about making the world a better place.
Everyone signed up for a "service meditation" in which the idea was to tidy up the retreat center. There was the group of us who preferred working in the garden to working in the kitchen, others who preferred to sweep and help tidy everything in different buildings, and others who didn't mind cleaning bathrooms.
I really got the sense that the whole group of us was there for many different reasons. We all had different preferences, opinions and experiences. I also knew that everyone present was good-hearted. I saw how seriously everyone was upholding their end of the bargain to meditate, maintain silence, and really put forth the effort to get as much as they could out of this retreat.
I knew they were all interested in going deeper with meditation, just as I was, to make sense of a world that is sometimes so stressful and hard to understand.
The Practice of Meditation and Our Schedule
The first morning after I arrived, there was a wake-up bell—a gentle low-toned sound—at 6:30 am. By 7, we were in the meditation hall for 30 minutes of silent meditation.
Having only recently done about 45 minutes the night before, my body felt resistant to immediately settling into meditation pose: my legs were crossed in such a way as to not fall asleep with my hands resting on my lap, one over the other with my palms up. To my surprise, I quickly felt myself focusing on my breathing and settling into my meditation.
All around me was silence. Outside of the meditation house was forest and I could hear the sounds of birds singing outside. I thought it would be really uncomfortable to meditate in a room with so many other people, but remarkably, it didn't feel strange at all. I suppose it was because we were all there for the same reason and once you close your eyes and focus on your breathing, everything else becomes secondary.
Wake up bell
7:00 - 7:30am
Silent morning meditation
7:30 - 8:30am
8:30 - 9:30am
I worked in the garden pulling weeds
9:30am - 12:00pm
Dharma Talk followed by Meditation Session I in meditation hall
This first talk introduced us to meditation techniques
12pm - 2pm
Lunch and rest
We could walk, read, sleep and more, but had to maintain silence
2 - 2:45pm
Silent meditation in meditation hall
3pm - 5pm
Dharma Talk followed by Meditation Session II
5pm - 6pm
Free or Rest Time
We could walk, read, take care of personal needs, etc.
6pm - 8pm
Dinner followed by scheduled walking meditation
8pm - 9:30pm
Dharma Talk followed by Meditation Session III
The Lessons and Teachings
At the beginning of the retreat, the Dharma Talks were longer with less meditation time built-in. However, by the end of the retreat, the talks were short and more time was spent in meditation. By the fourth day, we were meditating for about six hours.
The Dharma Talks were quite interesting. Pannavati tied in her life stories to the teachings of Buddha. Her stories were compelling and well-told.
I learned some crucial things from her about meditation that helped my practice:
- practicing in a group somehow "amplifies" your own practice and your progress rapidly
- wearing earplugs means that you won't get distracted by outside sounds
- covering your eyes with an eye mask of some sort ensures that if you envision anything during meditation, you know that it is from your own mind and not from an external light source such as a candle or a bright light
How My Meditation Practice Grew
When you meditate in a concentrated way like I did for hours and hours, the world takes on a different slant.
I'm not exactly sure what it was—the mind is an incredibly powerful instrument—but only after 4 days I experienced the following:
- a greater capacity for compassion
- more willingness to be a good listener
- a greater acceptance of the unknown
- incredible insights that came through
- visions in my mind
- a sense of euphoria
- a sense of self-acceptance that wasn't there before the retreat
- better observational skills
- a greater capacity to love
- group meditation can help you develop your meditation skills much more quickly
- a good teacher, like I had, can inspire, guide, and expertly answer questions
I learned that all the warm and fuzzy feelings you get can be a side-effect of a lot of meditation.
The Most Profound Experience I Had While Meditating at the Retreat
On the third night of the retreat, I felt like I was getting into a groove. I felt like I was getting deeper and more clear with my practice. I'm not sure if it was the darkness of the evening in Session III, or my comfort levels being higher, or a culmination of a lot of meditation time, but I had no idea what I would experience in this particular meditation session.
It started out like any other, but then I felt myself descending deeply into my mind . . . a place that was extraordinarily still, quiet and peaceful. Before long, I began to see a light. I knew it was in my mind because not only was it dark outside, but I was wearing an eye mask.
This light was blue, and it looked like it was the size of a pin. I moved toward it and felt like I was going down a tunnel.
The light turned into a pattern of bricks that made up the round walls of the tunnel. Each brick was dark but outlined in the blue light, like neon. Then the light turned into bubbles outlined by the neon-blue light.
Shortly after, the light (which was the surrounding walls) turned solid again, into a neon-pink color. Then the light turned back into bricks, but with neon pink instead of blue, and then back into bubbles.
I kept traversing through this tunnel until I emerged into a space that was entirely white light. Everything around me was white. I felt a sense of overwhelming peace.
After that, the sound of the meditation bell rang out and my meditation ended, but I walked away with a profound sense of euphoria.
At the end of the retreat, I was able to speak quietly with my meditation teacher who said that these types of things were "gifts" as a reward for a consistent meditation practice. She explained that they were little bits of motivation to keep a person going, but that these types of visions should never be the goal: they should only be something you appreciate along the way to help keep you going with your meditation practice.
During the retreat, I remember getting other "gifts" as well. I was sitting on a rock outcropping (you can see it in the second photo) and got a message of insight that seemed to burn itself into my mind. The message was to "stop worrying about everything so much. It will all work out in the end." While that's not a groundbreaking insight, it was almost like an otherworldly voice came to tell me this.
Still, at the end of the retreat, our group had a chance to share something that we'd learned, and I ended up learning so many things from the others in my meditation class. I picked up tips, realizations and a lot of inspiration to keep going with my practice.
After the Retreat
After leaving the retreat center, I remember having a feeling that everything was "golden." I drove home through the mountains and looked at the landscape. It seemed to have a glow that I'd never noticed before.
I felt a sense of love for everyone and everything in a way that I had never experienced before. This feeling wore off after a few days. However, I remember thinking about how I was a bit sad to return to the "real world" and to the busy-ness that is everyday modern life.
To slow down like that and to experience such profound insights has me yearning to go on more retreats in the future.
© 2017 Cynthia Calhoun