For whatever reason, your life has begun to move in a spiritual direction:
- Perhaps you’ve been immersing yourself in the world’s contemplative and wisdom traditions.
- Maybe you’ve been going deeper into your yoga practice.
- Or you’ve explored a new meditation app that has opened you up to new perspectives and ways of thinking about your life and your place in the world.
Regardless, you’ve begun to identify yourself as a seeker—someone who feels the gentle tug of spirit pulling you toward a life of ever-growing awareness.
You know that you’re growing, changing, and evolving, and are ready to take the next step. But what should that step be? For many people, and perhaps for you as well, it may be to attend a meditation retreat.
What Is a Meditation Retreat?
A spiritual or meditation retreat is an organized course, workshop, or seminar in which groups of people come together to:
- Learn and practice spiritual techniques (such as yoga or meditation)
- Study with a spiritual teacher or guide
- Bond and commune with fellow seekers
- Recommit to their sadhana (spiritual discipline) and recharge their “spiritual batteries”
The retreat often takes place in a secluded, natural, or rural environment—away from the hustle and bustle of the marketplace of daily life. Many types of meditation retreats are available, all of which have their own focus, tradition, lineage, cost, levels of austerity or affluence, and type or depth of practice.
While meditation retreats can offer an amazing opportunity to take your understanding and practices deeper, to the newcomer they may feel somewhat intimidating. What will the experience be like? What should I expect? What follows are seven experiences you can typically expect at a modern meditation retreat. Consider them a sneak peek into the meditation retreat environment.
1. An Inward Stroke
Regardless of the environment in which the retreat is held, the experience of meditation is not about the externals. A meditation retreat is about going within and being in a place with the appropriate conditions to help foster a descent into the more profound layers of your being—a deep dive into your body, mind, and soul. While externals such as locale, venue, meals, and accommodations will vary, the purpose of the retreat is to help take your attention inward, not outward.
Some retreats are silent, austere events designed to intentionally remove distracting external elements from your meditation experience. But even at retreats or workshops that aren’t as strict, it’s helpful to remember that where attention goes, energy flows. By keeping your expectations and attention focused on the inner process of spiritual transformation, you are likely to make the overall experience more profound.
2. A Disconnect from Conventional Daily Life
Meditation retreats, although they take place in the modern world, are a way to sample the traditional monastic life experienced by spiritual seekers throughout history. As such, it’s helpful to use the time of the retreat as an opportunity to make a clean break from your daily life. Explain to friends and family that except for emergencies you will be incommunicado—commit to not looking at emails, engaging in social media, talking on the phone, or watching TV (if one is available).
Unplug from your daily grind as completely as possible. At some retreats this isn’t a suggestion but rather an expectation, so be sure to clarify in advance to what extent you will need to remove yourself from your outside activities. Rather than a hardship, however, consider this an opportunity to be fully present for the experience. You may live your regular life as a “householder,” so even if it’s for just a few days, embracing the monastic experience (if only self-imposed) can provide some refreshing insight.
3. A Safe Space to Be Your Genuine Self
A meditation retreat should be thought of as a sanctuary—a refuge from harm or judgment, both from others and yourself. During prolonged meditation or yoga sessions:
- Stress or tension may be released
- Your emotions may become more pronounced
- You may feel vulnerable or uncertain
- Your sense of self may shift in unexpected ways
These experiences are all normal and shouldn’t be feared. A meditation retreat is a protected environment in which whatever happens in the meditation room stays in the meditation room. You are safe to be yourself in that moment, whatever form that takes.
In addition, many retreats are well staffed with a caring group of facilitators or volunteers to continually hold space for you and your fellow participants in whatever way is necessary.
4. New Possibilities and a Catalyst for Transformation
The meditation retreat is an open invitation to discover new aspects of yourself:
- Intentions and desires
- Hopes, dreams, and fears
Through guided exercises, meditations, music, chanting, drumming, breath, or body work, you are opening yourself up to new experiences that, if embraced, can trigger a deep shift in your awareness. An experience that seems strange or eccentric at the outset may be a doorway that can lead to a profound spiritual insight or shift in consciousness. Use this time to let go of old conditioning and explore the infinite possibilities that lie before you.
5. Sangha and Satsang
These two Sanskrit words embody two of the more profound qualities of a spiritual retreat: community and teachings of the truth. The word sangha means “association” or “community” and can be thought of as the spiritual community created by the participants of the retreat, but also extending out into the larger spiritual community as well. Feeling the connection of a sangha can be a rewarding experience, especially if you have been exploring your spiritual path on your own. Connecting with fellow spiritual seekers during a retreat represents finding your tribe, a profound realization that there are others on this path along with you.
Similarly, satsang in Sanskrit means “a group of like-minded people seeking the truth.” Traditionally, satsang is a meeting with an enlightened being; however, it also includes listening to or reading spiritual teachings, reflecting upon them, and engaging in spiritual dialogue. Together, sangha and satsang reinforce the consciousness of the retreat group, building coherence through a shared intention for understanding, knowledge, and and higher consciousness.
6. A Laboratory for Your Soul
A meditation retreat is an environment within which you can test the most profound questions of the human experience:
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- Why am I here?
- What is the meaning of life?
Inside the safe space of a retreat, you can run the experiment for yourself, using yoga, meditation, and contemplative practices—the reliable, time-tested tools of self-discovery and spiritual science. It is also a receptive space in which a teacher or guide can impart wisdom to assist you on your quest. These teachings or transmissions of knowledge may be part of an oral tradition and represent an unbroken continuum of profound insights handed down over countless generations. Like voices from the seers of the past, they provide the time-honored instructions for you to test their validity in your life.
7. Tools for Integration
Finally, at the conclusion of the event, you will have both the experiences gained during the retreat as well as tools to incorporate the lessons learned back into your daily life. Few spiritual seekers can dedicate months or years to a spiritual retreat, so it is crucial that the teachings and insights shared can be transposed back into daily activity.
Skilled teachers of timeless wisdom know that transitioning back into regular life requires finesse and a plan for integration. Even the most profound self-knowledge glimpsed during a week-long retreat will quickly fade into the fog of memory if it isn’t maintained. Spiritual practice is a perishable skill. The proper going-home instructions will help to ensure the retreat isn’t a one-time peak experience, but rather an invitation to the path that will continue to lead you home—to your true self.
Hopefully, this glimpse of meditation retreats piques your interest and inspires you to take the necessary leap of faith such an experience represents. Go confidently, knowing that you will be one in a long line of spiritual explorers who have heeded the call of their higher self to join a community of like-minded seekers.