Mindfulness Retreat: How To

Tired? Stressed? Too damn distracted for mindfulness meditation (or much else?) You, my dear, need a retreat. The idea of taking a retreat, (whether that’s a mindfulness meditation retreat, silent meditation retreat, yoga retreat, or something else) can be a daunting one. For many of us taking time away is hard enough, but many mindfulness retreats, especially those in monastery settings, have a steep learning curve.

The good news is that a self guided mindfulness retreat can give you most of the benefits of a traditional monastery led retreat, with a much easier on ramp.

Why a Retreat?

I have written before about mindfulness practices (and a host of mindfulness meditation activities) and how helpful they can be in the midst of our everyday lives. All that is still true. Mindfulness, silent meditation, and other spiritual practices have huge stress reduction benefits. They can improve sleep, increase our ability to focus, and make us more comfortable in our own head. Mindfulness is a spiritual practice that can be integrated into everything we do, but that does not mean we never need or want to take time away for a retreat.

Human beings need rest, but studies show that we rarely get all the rest we need. (Most Americans are sleep deprived and report stress at record breaking levels.) When we talk about rest we’re don’t just mean Netflix and chill for an hour in the evening. Rest isn’t a couple days off with the kids at a theme park. Real rest, the sort that recharges us body, mind, and spirit and contributes to holistic health takes time. It takes most people (on vacation or retreat) two full days just to fully arrive. It takes that long for your body to catch up on sleep, and for your mind and endocrine system to let go of stress.

And that is why retreats matter. Because you need time and space and patience.

What Is A Retreat

I’ll start with my opinion: most of what gets called a retreat is actually a conference. If the majority of your time is scheduled with speakers and activities: that’s not a retreat, it’s a conference. There is nothing wrong with conferences! Learning, community building, and growth are all great goals. But here is what they are not: rest.

Most of us have gone off on a “retreat” like this, and while we might come back super excited and with our mind blown we often also come home exhausted.

So let’s start with this simple rule: your retreat should not exhaust you. 

Retreats can vary in length, from a day retreat to a whole month (or more) spent in prayer and meditation. There isn’t a wrong length for a retreat and anything is better than nothing. However, in general longer is better.

Why Self Guided?

Why not pay for a retreat experience someone else has planned? I’m certainly not against those sorts of retreats, they can be a gift! But they are usually expensive, often take place in exotic or hard to reach locations, and the retreat center’s schedule and yours may be different. If you can afford it, have the ability to travel, and the time required: go for it!

But a self guided retreat has its own benefits. You get to chose the location, the duration, and you set the pace and the agenda. I get far more rest and renewal from a self-guided retreat than I ever have from one planned by others. And that makes sense, you know what you need better than anyone else, so don’t be afraid to plan your own retreat, it isn’t hard.

How to plan a mindfulness retreat

I have already talked about how to plan a retreat for yourself. And a lot of the advice I give there is pertinent, so I won’t repeat myself. Hop over to that article for the basics. This article will focus on the ins and outs of a retreat specifically focused on mindfulness.

A mindfulness retreat is going to need all the same basic components of any other retreat: somewhere to be (it’s best to leave home if you can), a way to feed yourself, and enough time.  Especially for a mindfulness retreat please give yourself enough time. A week is ideal. But if you cannot manage a week I would recommend at least four days. Four days gives you enough time to let go of your stress and regular routine and settle into a new rhythm. To get the most out of your mindfulness retreat set yourself up for success with a schedule, and some ground rules.

Ground rules for a mindfulness retreat

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment. So things that we use the numb, or distract ourselves will not help on your retreat. Here you will find my list of personal “rules” for my mindfulness retreats. Feel free to modify these as needed, you are the best judge of what will be helpful for you. But think carefully about the structure you will set for yourself on retreat.

Eliminate the distractionnet

I know that’s not a word, but the internet is probably the single biggest distraction in our lives. It is both a constant interruption (through alerts), and a numbing strategy. And if your mindfulness retreat is going to bare fruit it needs to go. There are a number of ways to do this. I find the simplest (at the retreat house I rent) is to unplug the wireless router. I just pull the power and the internet is gone.

If you are in a hotel, or group retreat house that may not work. So consider either not bringing your internet devices, or, lock them away in your suitcase or a closet where they aren’t readily available. Turn on “airplane” mode on your devices as well can prevent interruptions through alerts and alleviate the temptation to “just check twitter.” If you are like me you’ll find your phone in your hand and Facebook refreshed without any memory of how you got there. So save yourself the frustration and make the internet as inaccessible as possible.

(Clearly there are exceptions to this rule. If you plan to use guided meditation videos, or podcasts, or meditation apps you may need internet access at various points. But try to download what you need beforehand to reduce the temptation to use other internet sites.)

Plan and shop for meals

I rent a retreat house (a little cabin really) every year. Part of my preparation for that retreat is to plan out my meals for the whole retreat. (I give myself one night unplanned to drive down to a funky little beach restaurant.) I make those plans as simple as possible, things I can prepare easily in an unfamiliar kitchen. Don’t forget to bring things like cooking oil, coffee filters, and dressing for your salad, all the things that you don’t think about on a daily basis (pantry staples).

Knowing that your food is planned, and on hand will eliminate yet one more distraction. If you are retreating somewhere you will not be able to cook for yourself don’t worry. Simply ensure you know when meals will be available, and that the menu meets your needs. (This is an important part of planning your retreat and choosing a location. I prefer to be able to cook for myself, but if you hate to cook a center with a restaurant, cafeteria, or communal meals may be a better choice. (In that case: pack snacks. It is always good to know you have food to fall back on.)

Pack comfortable clothes

Yes, clothes matter. If you are freezing during your meditation sessions you will have a hard time meditating. Or if you plan to practice a lot of walking meditation a sturdy pair of comfortable shoes will be important. Fashion doesn’t matter on retreat. Let go of any need to look a certain way. Instead, pack clothes that won’t get in the way of what you are there to accomplish. I prefer fuzzy slippers, “sweats,” and big warm sweaters (my retreats are almost always in winter).

If you are going to a retreat center check on any dress codes they may have, or suggestions based on their weather, location, and other local factors. (If you will be using a shared bathroom down the hall you may want to bring a bathrobe and shower shoes.)

Create a schedule for your retreat

One of the advantages of a preplanned retreat led by someone else is a set schedule that can keep you on task. One of the disadvantages of those same retreats is a set schedule that can be inflexible and restrictive. Your self guided retreat can be the best of both worlds. I have given two suggested schedules below, feel free to modify these or create your own schedule from scratch.

The point of a schedule is to give you direction and keep you on track, to be sure that the precious time you have set aside for your retreat is used in the best way possible. A schedule helps ensure you balance spiritual practice with care for your body, and time for your mind to relax. These things are all important for a successful retreat. A retreat is a way to practice loving kindness for yourself. It is not a time to punish yourself, “catch up” on something you’ve neglected, or change your life overnight. A retreat is a gift, and a schedule can help avoid knee jerk reactions or guilt about taking time for certain things.

For a mindfulness retreat in particular my schedules look a little different than a more general retreat. And that’s because mindfulness will suffuse the whole of my retreat. On a normal retreat I might have time for prayer, cooking, art, or taking a hike. On a mindfulness retreat my schedule will be designed to give me different ways of practicing mindfulness throughout the day.

Your schedule should reflect your current practice. If you are new to mindfulness switch things up often to avoid fatigue and frustration and to discover the practices that work best for you. If you are an old pro your schedule might include longer sessions on the mindfulness practices you most find helpful.

Example Retreat Schedule: Everyday Mindfulness

The majority of my retreats follow the pattern below. This is a flexible, accessible way to taking a retreat that lets you choose activities that work for you and experiment throughout your time away. If you find traditional “sitting meditation” difficult this retreat schedule might be for you.

  • 7:30am – Wake & morning ablutions
  • 8:00am – 10 minutes of mindful yoga (a short yoga session of sun salutations concentrating on the breath and the feel of my body)
    • Make breakfast and coffee, paying attention to these tasks. When mind wanders, return to cooking and eating.
  • 9:00am – 11:00am – Mindfulness activities (Favorites below.)
    • Take a photo walk staying mindful of looking for the beauty in the world around you.
    • Color, paint, or draw. Count breathes and return mind to the creative activity when other thoughts intrude.
    • Read. This is a fallback for me when I cannot quiet my mind as it gives me something to concentrate on (rather than emptying).
    • Meditation (sitting, walking, centering prayer, praying with icons, the possibilities are endless.)
  • 11:00am – Break.
  • 11:30am – Cook and eat lunch
  • 12:30pm – Mindfulness activities
  • 2:30pm – Break
  • 3:00pm – Mindful movement (I tend to choose meditation, prayer, or other sedentary practices, so now is the time to get my body moving.) Stay present while you take a hike, swim, or hit the gym. Try it without music or other distractions and be with your body.
  • 4:00pm – Sitting meditation. Slow down, rest.
  • 4:30pm – A good relaxing book, something fun and not at all retreat related.
  • 6:00pm – Cook and eat dinner. (Can you do this mindfully? Can you enjoy the process, stay present, not worry about other stuff?)
  • Until bed: reading, painting, and other quiet activities. (I generally go to bed very early on retreat and sleep hard.)

Example Retreat Schedule: The Mindfulness Master

This retreat schedule matches the sort of meditation retreats you pay for more closely. It assumes you are already doing some sitting meditation. Clearly you can be flexible with this schedule as well, after all you are in charge!

  • 7:30am – Wake & morning ablutions
  • 8:00am – Sitting meditation
  • 9:00am – Make and eat breakfast
  • 9:30am – Mindfulness meditation (sitting meditation)
  • 11:00am – Break.
  • 11:30am – Cook and eat lunch
  • 12:30pm – Mindfulness activities (Favorites below.)
    • Take a photo walk staying mindful of looking for the beauty in the world around you.
    • Color, paint, or draw. Count breathes and return mind to the creative activity when other thoughts intrude.
    • Read. This is a fallback for me when I cannot quiet my mind as it gives me something to concentrate on (rather than emptying).
    • Meditation (sitting, walking, centering prayer, praying with icons, the possibilities are endless.)
  • 2:30pm – Break
  • 3:00pm – Mindful movement! Stay present while you take a hike, swim, or hit the gym. Try it without music or other distractions and be with your body.
  • 4:00pm – Mindfulness meditation (final for the day)
  • 4:30pm – A good relaxing book, something fun and not at all retreat related.
  • 6:00pm – Cook and eat dinner. (Can you do this mindfully? Can you enjoy the process, stay present, not worry about other stuff?)
  • Until bed: reading, painting, and other quiet activities. (I generally go to bed very early on retreat and sleep hard.)

Mindfulness retreats are for everyone

If you’ve gotten this far you are really considering this mindfulness retreat idea. But most people will only ever do that, think about it. Don’t think: do.

If you’ve never taken a retreat before and are intimidated by cost, planning, and time then do yourself a favor and do a day retreat at home. This is easier if you don’t have kids, a spouse, or other distractions at home but don’t let those things stop you. Mindfulness meditation is for everyone. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Nones, Pagans, everyone can take part in this meditation practice. Its sole goal is to help you be more present in the midst of our life.

Mindfulness meditation will make your prayer better, your conversations better, your everything better. Because it teaches human beings how to stop dreaming about a future “when” or rehashing the past and instead live right now. That’s something your kids need, your spouse needs, and you need. And your kids, spouse, friends, and everyone you interact with will benefit when you practice being present.

Start small

So start with that one day retreat at home. Choose a modified schedule above, maybe the walking meditation takes place while you walk the dog. Maybe you and your kids can practice being mindful while you wash the dinner dishes and clean up the kitchen. An at home retreat will look different than one taken “away,” but that doesn’t mean it won’t have benefits.

We tend to feel like we have to “go big or go home.” That is all in, 14 day week at a monastery or what’s the point? But even the smallest baby steps can lead to personal transformation. In fact, habits, those little things we do every single day do more to contribute to who we are than any huge mountain top experience. So start with your habits, they will change your life.

Grab a mindfulness partner

One way to make a retreat much more likely to be successful to is to go in with a partner. This might mean going on retreat with someone (it can split the cost and make that more accessible as well). But it also might mean just having someone you can touch base with at the end of each day, or the beginning of the day.

Knowing that you’ll need to recount how your day went, and how you spent your time can go a long way to helping keep you on track. I suggest choosing someone you trust, who will not shame you, but will hold you accountable. For me it must be someone with a sense of humor, and a good understanding of the struggles and difficulties of going on retreat.

But be sure to choose someone who will encourage you, and with whom you are compatible. If you are an introvert who really wants to spend long periods of time in silent meditation, prayer, and reading don’t go on retreat with your extroverted friend who never stops talking or you might not be friends by the end of the week.

Debrief & return

When you finish your retreat, and before too much time has past, sit down and debrief. What went well? What wasn’t so successful? Take notes on what you loved, what you want to work on more, and what you would change in the future. I believe that retreats should be a regular practice, a time we can count on to go deeper than we normally get the chance to do.

I take a yearly retreat, but I know that when it comes time to plan my December retreat I won’t remember all the things that bugged me, or I loved the previous year. This is why I try to take notes shortly after I come home. I write down everything from what recipes I loved cooking, to hiking trails that were duds (too crowded!), to books I want to dig into when I have lots of uninterrupted time.

When it comes time to plan the next year I have all those notes ready to go.

Just do it: mindfully

So get out there and retreat. Experience an extended sabbath, rest, recharge, go deep into your spiritual work. Take one step, right now, to get that retreat on your calendar and into your life. You won’t regret it.

Step by Step Mindfulness Retreat

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