preparing for retreat

June 5th, 2017

How do you know if you are prepared to handle the silence, the stillness, the discipline, and the single-minded focus of a meditation retreat?

Relax. You can’t know. You don’t need to know. There is no way to prepare. The very notion of preparation traps us in false expectation and self-evaluation. It shows us how often we are paralyzed by the feeling of inadequacy in our lives. We are never inadequate but we are immobilized just the same.

A Zen retreat, which is the only kind of retreat I’ve experienced, is designed to cure you of that paralysis. It is intended to rid you of hobbling second thoughts and hesitation. I like to tell people to leave preparation aside and just bring readiness to a retreat. Readiness is no small thing. It can be quite compelling and even desperate, but it does not require preparation.

So here are a few tips on getting ready for a retreat:

1. The organizers will tell you when to come and what to bring. Follow those instructions to the letter. It is good practice for a retreat, which consists entirely of following instructions.

2. Find a pet sitter, a house sitter, a babysitter, and every other kind of sitter you think you need in order to leave home and its responsibilities completely. You are creating a trusted community to support you in your ongoing practice. Reliable surrogates may not relieve you of anxiety, but they rob you of excuses.

3. You may be inclined to read about retreats before you attempt one. This is natural, but it’s not such a good idea. You are bound to form erroneous preconceptions about what you haven’t yet experienced. I read Robert Aitken Roshi’s Taking the Path of Zen before my first retreat, and of all the books I read it helped me to prepare the least.

4. Leave all books at home. Books aren’t the subject of retreats, so you’ll only be discussing it with yourself, probably on the cushion. Not helpful.

5. Leave your laptop, your tablet, your every little ringing thing behind, or just turned off. (Except bring an alarm clock!) You are without a doubt central to the universe, you just aren’t all that important. Your retreat will be richly enhanced if your keypad is out of reach, so you’re not tempted to live tweet your retreat or Instagram your sudden enlightenment. In this way you can see how the dharma works by itself when we truly commit ourselves to doing nothing, not even Facebook.

6. What’s holding you back? Pack your fear in your suitcase and bring it along. You won’t need it, and next time you’ll be unafraid to pack lighter.

In practice centers everywhere, summer is retreat season. What’s still on your mind? Leave it out of the suitcase.

Cincinnati – June 29-July 2
One Mind: A Weekend Zen Retreat in Ohio
Jesuit Spiritual Center
Milford, OH
Registration closes June 9

Washington DC – Oct. 5-Oct. 8
Autumn Moon Zen Retreat
Washington Retreat House
Registration open

4 Comments »

  1. As usual, great writing, great pace to it, energizing at it is

    Comment by Bill — June 5, 2017 @ 11:46 am

  2. We have to ask permission for ourselves to let go. Thank you for leading the way.

    Comment by Nathan Hayes — June 5, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

  3. My first retreat had:
    No talking
    No reading
    No music
    No alcohol
    No meat
    No TV
    No emails
    No text messages
    No family

    I was warned to be ready to meet yourself – again and again and again…

    It was a great experience.

    Comment by Paul Brennan — June 6, 2017 @ 5:54 am

  4. Happily enjoying the answers to questions I never even knew I wanted to ask. Sat quietly this morning and now off to do the work. Thank you.

    Comment by Bonnie Nygren — June 6, 2017 @ 5:58 am

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