Karen Maezen Miller on preparing for a meditation retreat

How do you know if you are prepared to handle the silence, the physical rigors, the discipline, and the mental intensity of a prolonged 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 phone, your every little ringing thing behind. (Except bring an alarm clock!) You are without a doubt central to the universe, you just aren’t all that important. You can always be reached, but your retreat will be richly enhanced if your keypad is out of reach. In this way you can see how the dharma works by itself when we truly commit ourselves to doing nothing.

6. What’s holding you back? Pack that in your suitcase and bring it along. You’ll be bringing far more than you need, and next time you’ll be unafraid to pack lighter.

Comments

  1. says

    I am leaving my family, my work, my stress and my frustration, my need to be productive, my need to prove my worth all at home in Canada. It will take me two planes and a car ride to leave all of that behind so that I can come, rest, receive and just be. I will come with a dear friend I have not seen in 4 years so that we may nurture ourselves together. It will take two mothers from two different countries to encourage one another to truly take a day off. The question hovers though…it is easy to leave the home, the kids, the dishes behind, but the other stuff…worth, stress, anxiety..if wherever I go, there I am, then how do I leave that part of me behind that comes with me everywhere I go?

  2. Karen Maezen Miller says

    Exhale it away, and you'll see that it comes only with your invitation. That is exactly why we practice. And then when you come home to the kids and dishes and the crumbs on the sofa (sorry, that's MY house), you are empty-handed for the first time in a long time, and you'll give yourself permission to go on retreat again.

  3. says

    practical stuff – Don't forget any medications you take. Some find a small bottle of asprin or other over the counter pain reliever a good thing to have in your retreat kit. If you have a favorite meditation cushion, or a favorite sleeping pillow. Shoes (sandals) that are easy to slip into and out of. Clothes for work around the meditation center, if that practice opportunity arises.

  4. Mike says

    Its funny – because I do get anxious prior – as I also am preparing for a short weekend retreat (my second). I am leaving my wife and daughter, but feel like I am abandoning them – even though its not that. I don't know if that is my "maleness" as the Dad/Husband – or just a normal feeling of leaving two very important people for a few days to focus on "me". I know I am not heading to a spa or something frivoulous – just have those feelings pop up. All in all – I know the teachings/meditation will serve me well long term as a person, husband, and father. Still I get those pesky "feelings"!!

    • Karen Maezen Miller says

      We can see how clever ego is: all the reasons not to go are so, well, reasonable! When we commit to practice the reasons to opt out no longer seem reasonable enough. And then, you can truly take good care of your family. When I go to sit I can be certain there is one less monster in the house. Congratulations and farewell!

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