Sometimes life gets overwhelming and it’s not clear what to do next. When I find myself in that situation, rather than fight the current or make wild guesses about where to go next, I schedule a mini-retreat.
What is a Mini Retreat?
Essentially a mini-retreat is a period of intensive practice. It can be as short as a Sunday morning. Or a weekend. Or you could really go for it and take a few weeks. Block off time on your calendar and treat it like you would any program you would pay for. Tell people you are unavailable. Go offline and take advantage of that fabulous feature called, “vacation responder.” You don’t need to tell them why.
Why Do One?
When the path gets unclear, you need to find your guidance within. The best way to do this is to slow down, minimize distractions, get quiet and LISTEN. I’ve been amazed how consistently reliable this practice is. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I schedule intensive practice time and watch life unfold in unforeseeable and often amazing ways.
How to Organize it
It helps to write a schedule and post it somewhere you can’t avoid seeing it. Include formal practice, meals, rest, writing if you want, bedtime, practice times, inspirational reading or listening. This is a great opportunity to refine your meditation practice and go a bit deeper. It can be helpful to listen to a recorded guided meditation, like this Introduction to Shamatha meditation to increase focus. Be firm but gentle in keeping to your schedule; not too tight not too loose.
Organize your daily menu and shop for nourishing food. It’s helpful to eat light, nutrient packed foods such as whole grains, vegetables, and protein. Too much sugar or carbohydrates can make you feel heavy and sleepy. Too much fruit or caffeine can make it hard to focus or settle down. One pot meals such as soups are great because you can put all the ingredients together, turn to stove on, and forget about it (i.e. follow your breath)until it’s time to eat.
Prepare an area to practice – make it clean spacious airy and temperate. Bonus if it has a spacious view.
Gather practice materials – cushion, mat, candles, incense, inspiring images, maybe an altar. Create an environment that inspires you, so you’ll actually want to go sit on your meditation cushion.
Most importantly: set your boundaries. Tell friends what you are doing, or let them know not to disturb you. Make phone calls beforehand so you don’t have to speak for the duration of your retreat. Silence is a powerful practice in itself. Set yourself up to benefit from this experience.
Sample Daily Schedule
- 5:30-6:15 Sitting meditation
- 6:30-7:30 Gentle Yoga or Walk
- 7:30 Breakfast
- 9:00-12:00 Sitting Meditation
- 12:00 Lunch
- 1:00-4:00 Read, Journal/Write, Rest, or Walk
- 4:00-6:00 Sitting Meditation or Yoga
- 6:00 Dinner
- 7:00-9:00 Sitting Meditation
Of course this is just a suggestion. Make a schedule that works for you, but then stick to it. I recommend including lots of sitting meditation as this is the foundation for getting in touch with the source of wisdom. If you have another practice you would like to focus on, include it as well. I’ve used this format to do a writing retreat, in which case I just made the 9-12 time slot my writing time. Personalize it as needed.
Just a note on timing. Some traditions recommend rising and settling to sleep with the sun. It can be interesting to watch your mind very early in the morning, especially if it is not something you do normally. Challenge yourself to push your edge a bit, to experience the clarity of your mind.
It helps to have guidance and inspiration, and I find great comfort in books that keep me motivated to practice. So I definitely schedule in time to read. Sometimes I create a retreat around a particular book. For example, one of the seminal Buddhist texts from the Kagyu lineage is a practice guide called Pointing Out the Dharmakaya, by Wangchuk Dorje, the ninth Karmapa (which you can download for free here.) (I recommend the translation and commentary by Thrangu Rinpoche.) This is a fantastic meditation manual for exploring the nature of mind. You can spend a day or two on each chapter and then focus on the particular aspect of practice described within.
Retreat can also be a great time to listen to recorded teachings because your attention span might be more expansive. Pick a theme, and use the time to go deep into an aspect of practice that you might not have time or attention bandwidth for in your regular daily life. Alan Wallace has a fantastic library of free podcasts that walk you through various approaches to shamatha meditation. Identify your program and queue your selections so you don’t spend valuable retreat time browsing your library. If you plan ahead you save yourself from having to make decisions during the retreat. This will help your mind to settle.
Depending on the situation, one luxury I try to arrange is a retreat assistant to shop for me every few days. You can arrange to have them come every so often to retrieve your shopping list and deliver perishables or other necessities. They can also act as a safety net, in case anything goes wrong and you need emergency assistance. Arrange a daily message system in case you need urgent attention.
It’s also really helpful to have a guide or teacher available to discuss your practice. This is beauty of technology these days. While I recommend completely going off-line, we all need a bit of support sometimes. Checking in with your teacher or a meditation guide can help you avoid spiraling down into an emotional funk. Retreat can bring up strong emotions and intense states of mind. When you need support, it’s good to have someone to talk to who has been down that road and can hold the space for you to go through your process with them.
The practice of self-retreat has become a staple in my spiritual diet. It is so important to me that I schedule one at least every year. It’s a time to go deep within and find answers to questions that may not have yet posed themselves. Essentially it’s a way of re-setting your internal navigational system to guide you to your highest potential.