My friends in the Portland meditation community always seem to be talking about meditation retreats. It seems like every few months one of them is headed off to the mountains, to the San Juans, to the beach, a spot in the country, spending the better part of 24 hours to 7 days with others in silence.
I haven’t done this myself, but it always raises questions for me. How would I fit something like this into my schedule? What special things does a long period of stillness offer? Should this be part of my path?
If you are asking yourself these questions, check out How to Create a Mini-Retreat at Home (Trike Daily, 19 Mar 2019) by Chris McKenna. This article was originally published under the title, Getting Real About Exhaustion (Inquiring Mind, Fall 2013), and the emphasis on mini-retreat-as-restoration-of-body-&-spirit comes across very strongly.
McKenna’s instructions are brief and straightforward. So, if this topic interests you at all, I encourage you to read them in full. Nevertheless, here’s an abbreviated description that will give you some taste of what you will find there…
- Stage 1 – McKenna starts by saying, “Block out at least two hours (three to five would be better) on a day off.” The idea is to hold this mini-Stay At Home-retreat at least once a month. So ask yourself, can I put everything on hold for at least 2 hours (7-9 am? 9-11 am?) once a month? McKenna asserts, “if it’s not possible once a month, I recommend looking closely at your priorities. You are way too busy.”
- Stage 2 – Next, spend the first hour lying on your back (supine). Don’t worry about getting drowsy. You are not being asked to “pay mindful attention” in the usual way (although there is nothing wrong if you do), but to allow your body and your mind the freedom to relax, to come into the place where they are, to come ‘into equilibrium’ as we say in our chemistry classes.
- Stage 3 – McKenna describes a variety of sensations and experiences that might arise as you lie still. There is a basic assumption that if you give it a chance, your relaxation response will make itself felt both physically and mentally. There is also an assumption that your relaxed state, like any other experience, will eventually come to an end, and you will arrive somewhere new. This new state is described as a place of “softness, openness and aliveness” that makes itself felt in the foreground of your awareness.
- Stage 4 – When this new state manifests itself, sit up as you would for sitting meditation. McKenna encourages you to “spend at least another hour exploring what it is like to gather and sustain attention from a place of absolute softness.”
- Stage 5 – Then, “finally, bring the softness and sustained attention you’ve cultivated in sitting to your walking. Let the energy you’ve stored up begin to circulate and ‘play.’ ”
I have no idea how this DIY mini-Home Retreat compares to other retreats, but it makes sense to me. I know from long experience that my 30-60 minute meditation sessions usually follow a pattern of sit -> relax -> snooze (and then, depending on how tired I am and how long I am able to devote to my period meditation) -> a much more stable and consistent pattern of attention. I don’t always reach that final state. And sometimes, even after I “wake up”, I still oscillate between attentiveness and drowsiness. So a set of instructions that acknowledge this fundamental pattern, and set it up more as an experience to be had, rather than as problem to solve or a battle to win, is intuitively appealing.