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.