When you want to take meditation practice to the next level, meditation retreats are an experience like no other. Be warned; intensity brings challenge! Use this 7-point check list to see if a particular retreat is good fit for you.
In my book Mind Your Life, I talk about meditation retreats not as a withdrawal from life, but as learning to engage with life more fully. Retreats are periods of intensive practice. You unplug from your devices and distractions in order to experience yourself, others and your circumstances just as they are.
Mindfulness is known for its many well-researched physical and psychological benefits; enhanced attention, calm, empathy and resilience and reduced anxiety and stress. [clickToTweet tweet=”Risks or challenging meditation experiences are not well researched or even openly acknowledged.” quote=”What is not well researched or sometimes openly acknowledged are the possible risks and challenging meditation experiences that you can experience on retreat.”]
With Intensity Comes Risk
Retreats are supposed to shake you up; in some cases to challenge your foundational ego structure or narrative sense of self. You are re-wiring your brain and body. Of course they may squawk back for a bit!
In her recent research Willoughby Britton at Brown University outlines challenging experiences that can occur across multiple domains e.g. hypersensitivity to light or sound, insomnia, involuntary body movements, intensified emotions or loss of emotion. (I personally spent several years with involuntary body twitches—weird but not painful.)
These challenges need not be an issue if you know that they are common, that you are not somehow ‘failing’ at meditation and if you can access appropriate supports. But there have been tragic outcomes, such as the recent case where a 25-year old woman committed suicide after an intensive 10-day retreat.
Transformation = Challenge x Support
If you’re going to expose yourself to high challenge, then you also need strong support. Would you go mountain climbing without a map, provisions, guide or prior training, dressed in shorts and flip flops? Of course not. If you’re a novice, would you take the expert slope? I hope not. You would check things out and prepare.
Take the same kind of due diligence when you check out whether a meditation retreat is a good fit for you. There is no one perfect format, as each teacher has their own style. But there is a fit that works for you, at this point in your life.
7 points to check out a meditation retreat
Check out these 7 factors before you sign up for a meditation retreat.
- The Teacher: Who is the senior teacher? Are they onsite? Where and with whom did they take their training? What other professional or life qualifications do they bring? How many previous retreats have they led? Is there a cultural gap between the teacher and retreat participants that could affect communications or mutual understanding?
- You: What is your depth of experience in practicing meditation? If this is a longer retreat, have you done shorter ones already? If you have special needs or medication, will this be respected? Are you experiencing any current physical or mental health challenges? Are you feeling emotionally vulnerable or have a history of trauma? This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t go. But it does mean that you should inquire about supports in case of difficult experiences.
- The Practice: How intense is the practice? Practice schedules can range from several 30-60 minute sessions to 12+ hours daily. Must you adhere to the schedule or do you have choices? Are practice instructions offered? Are wisdom/ dharma talks or group conversations offered? Is meditation practice interspersed with other activities such as yoga, exercise, art or music? Is silence practiced and if so for how long?
- Communications & Relationships: Are you permitted communications with people outside the retreat? What about emergencies? Can you use your phone or devices? Are there periods of structured conversation or strict silence? Does the teacher offer personal interviews; if so how frequently and for how long? Will you know anyone else there?
- Physical Context: Check out what degree of comfort or challenge you can expect from the setting itself. Venues can range from urban funky to beautiful natural surroundings. Food and accommodation can be simple or luxe, with price tags to match. Your room and bathroom could be dorm-style sharing or private. Will food be a highlight of the retreat or basic fuel for the body? How are food preferences or allergies accommodated?
- Pathways for Support: Is there an acknowledgement that you may need support and clear pathways to access this? Who can you turn to? This can range from quick check-ins with the retreat organizer, to conversations with senior retreatants to in depth 1-on-1’s with the retreat leader to professional psychological support. Is support offered post-retreat, should you need it?
- Intake Process: More than simple registration, an intake process can be a litmus test for you to gauge whether the retreat organizers acknowledge the potential risks of high intensity practice. Some of these factors are acknowledged in the intake process, such as your prior experience and any current physical or mental health issues. Others you may have to check out personally. If people don’t seem to know what you’re talking about or are evasive, consider this a red flag.
The right combination for YOU of support plus challenge creates the optimal learning environment.
- If the challenge level is high, you have vulnerabilities and the support is sparse – think twice. Or prepare yourself so you’re ready in a year or so.
- If the challenge is high and the support is high and you trust the people and structure – go for it.
- When in doubt – check it out further. Always use common sense. Listen to your intuition.