Maybe it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, traveling East seeking a wise guru in robes to reveal all of life’s great mysteries. Or maybe after some time on the road, your travels are starting to feel a bit empty, with another visit to ruins, another café, another attempt to capture the perfect photograph, and now you’re seeking a way to deepen the travel experience. Or maybe you’re looking to check into some kind of mental spa for a week, where you can relax into peaceful bliss. Maybe you don’t know why you want to do it at all. But here you are, searching Himalayan hilltops or Thai forests or the jungle of the World Wide Web, trying to find a place to take your first serious dive into meditation.
Participating in an extended meditation retreat while traveling – whether in a three-day sesshin in Japan, a ten-day vipassana intensive in Myanmar, or a month-long lam-rim course outside Kathmandu – can be a powerful and life-transforming experience. But it can also be challenging and scary. Often it’s just plain boring. But given its potential, it’s important to choose the right center, teacher, and setting to begin your meditative exploration.
Here are things to consider and some friendly advice for selecting a place to learn the ancient art of meditation.
What am I getting into?
Going into retreat is a chance to take a deeper look at yourself and your life. A good retreat will encourage this kind of focus by limiting your access to things we normally distract ourselves with on a day-to-day basis. This typically means no television, internet, or phone, so you’ll have to wait to tell your Facebook friends about finding inner peace until after the retreat. Some retreats may also restrict eating schedule, access to reading materials and music, clothing style, and even talking.
Without these distractions, you will be left with all the hours of the day to be with yourself. For some people, the first few hours of a meditation retreat are some of the most difficult. Others immediately enjoy the respite from life’s everyday distractions. In either case, remember that you are certain to feel different at the end of the retreat than you do at the beginning, so keep in mind that whatever your initial feelings may be, they will change as the retreat progresses.
What will I be doing?
So you like the idea of entering into a meditation center or monastery to break life’s routine, but still you’d like to know: what is it exactly that you will be doing? What is meditation?
The word “meditation” is used to describe a wide variety of different physical and mental practices. It might refer to concentration-developing techniques, contemplations, visualizations, body-awareness, energy work, self-enquiry, observational techniques, relaxation, thinking “not-thinking,” or even doing nothing. Depending on your intention, some techniques might be more appealing, some less enticing, and some might just seem like a bunch of hogwash.
Remember to be gentle with yourself, keep a sense of humor, and know that you are not alone, that everyone deals with similar struggles as they learn to meditate.
A good rule of thumb is to start simple and get some grounding in practice before venturing into the more esoteric techniques. Many eastern traditions choose to begin meditation training with the seemingly simple technique of mindfulness of breathing, and on a good amount of introductory retreats you can expect to spend a healthy portion of your waking hours sitting silently “with the breath.” But even within this basic instruction, the traditions diverge; some teachers will have you focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen, others on the feel of air passing through the nostrils, others will have you affix a mental label to the motions of breathing, such as “in” and “out.” Remember, you’ve traveled all this way to receive guidance, so trust in the method the teacher is prescribing and stick to it. Just because you’ve spent one or two whole days meditating without “success” doesn’t mean the technique is a failure (nor are you).
Of course, you may quickly find that even the simplest techniques are more difficult than they might seem. Remember to be gentle with yourself, keep a sense of humor, and know that you are not alone, that everyone deals with similar struggles as they learn to meditate.
What do I look for in selecting a meditation center?
Since you’ll be setting up residence in a retreat center for a prolonged period of time, it’s important to find a place that will meet your essential needs. Though good centers tend to be a bit Spartan in accommodations, potential retreatants should consider the setting and amenities they desire to have a physically comfortable retreat.
- Do you need a chair or special padding for meditation?
- Are you a picky eater, or do you require vegetarian food?
- Are you okay with doing some work around the center?
- Do you want a silent retreat or a more social experience?
Ask yourself these questions, then inquire about the set-up at the centers you are considering. Keep in mind that retreat centers are generally reflective of the country in which they are located, so choose your place of meditation with care. Also remember that a good meditation retreat will not be your personal spa, so be prepared to live slightly more rustically than you are accustomed to.
Start slow, on a short retreat at a place that caters to English speakers and has the support structure and experience to deal with unanticipated issues.
In addition, if you are a first time retreatant, you would do well to find a center that specializes in teaching westerners. No matter how “hardcore” you expect yourself to be, going on a month-long silent retreat without English instruction is not a good idea for the uninitiated. Start slow, on a short retreat at a place that caters to English speakers and has the support structure and experience to deal with unanticipated issues. You may find you’ll be much happier learning from an experienced practitioner from New Jersey than training with a wise Tibetan guru who you can’t understand.
Most importantly, when selecting a retreat, be sure to choose a tradition and teacher that is legitimate and has your best interests at heart. Working with your mind on an intensive retreat can be a source of great joy and growth, but can be dangerous if done without proper guidance and supervision. Do your research before entering into a meditation center. Start with an open but respectfully critical mind before choosing a place to study.
- Is the teacher generally reputable and respected?
- Have they or the center been involved in any scandals?
- Does the meditative community feel authentic and comfortable?
Trust your intuition and use your common sense. Most good meditation centers charge only enough to sustain the retreat, the center, and possibly residential monastics, so be wary of any retreat that seems exorbitantly expensive.
What should I expect to happen?
It’s natural to want to know what to expect when going into something new, but in meditation, the best advice is to try not to have any expectations. If you’ve never practiced meditation before, rest assured that whatever you expect it to be, it is not. Whatever you consider being “good” at meditation to be, you are probably wrong. So recognize your expectations, and then do your best to let them go, giving the technique a chance to be what it is on its own terms.
That said, it’s important to be prepared to face certain common obstacles which are sure to arise for anyone going on their first meditation retreat. Depriving your mind of its usual diet of sensory input will often result in an intense boredom, for example. When this happens, keep in mind that times when you are bored are often precursors to extraordinary growth and insight, so it’s important not to succumb to the temptation to bend the retreat rules and indulge in a distraction. Be curious about your boredom and stick with the practice.
Recognize your expectations, and then do your best to let them go, giving the technique a chance to be what it is on its own terms.
Other challenges might present themselves in the form of cultural, religious, or ritualistic practices which you are unable to understand or which seem alien, misguided, or counterproductive. Being surrounded by beliefs and spiritual or psychological practices with which you disagree can be extraordinarily discomforting. Keep your sense of skepticism, but remember why you entered into the retreat in the first place, and try to keep an open mind while giving the practice a chance.
The meditative experience can also bring to the surface a more personal kind of uneasiness. A retreat may give you time to see things about yourself and your world that normally remain uncovered by life’s business and distractions. Treat these moments of unease with gratitude, lightness, and optimism. Use your insights as an opportunity for growth. Whatever the challenge, keep in mind that your discomfort is impermanent and is sure to pass during the course of the retreat.
It’s also important not to quit on the retreat, as leaving part way through the experience can be counterproductive and even harmful. Everyone faces struggles, but at the end of a retreat, people are almost always happy they came and stayed. You may find that learning how to gently navigate challenges with patience and kindness is one of the lasting rewards of your experience.
The experience isn’t all doom and gloom, of course. You may have times of great bliss and joy. Try to treat these with the same sense of lightness and awareness of impermanence as you treat the challenges. Again, nothing lasts forever, even if you’d like it to.
Finding the place for you
Determining which centers are legitimate can be a daunting process. Below is a list of just some of the more reputable places around the world to learn how to meditate:
- Goenke Centers (over 120 centers around the world). You can learn Burmese vipassana meditation from renowned teacher S.N. Goenke (albeit via videotape) at any one of his centers in over 90 countries. All first-time retreatants must begin with a ten-day intensive training that involves long period of sitting meditation and a prohibition on talking to other participants. Goenke’s teaching is non-sectarian and practical and is stripped of any religious undertones.
- Suan Mokh (Chaiya, Thailand).Of the thousands of places to study meditation in Thailand, Wat Suan Mokh is likely the most famous amongst westerners. Here, retreatants can learn vipassana in a somewhat less rigorous (although still fairly strict) environment. Again, complete silence is required during the 10-day introductory retreats.
- FPMT Centers (over 158 centers around the world). The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition hosts meditation centers in over 37 countries, teaching in the Tibetan tradition headed by the Dalai Lama. The most popular centers include the Root Institute and Tushita Meditation Center in India, offering regular introductory retreats, as well as Kopan Monastery in Nepal which offers a popular one-month introductory course for over 200 westerners every November. The approach is less rigorous, but has a more esoteric and devotional feel than the Vipassana traditions.
- Plum Village and Order of Interbeing Centers (France, Germany, and the United States). A more relaxed meditation experience is run by the followers of Thich Naht Hahn, one of the world’s most famous peace activists and advocates of mindfulness meditation. Retreats involve as little as a half-hour of sitting practice a day, with more focus on incorporating mindfulness into one’s daily routine. Come here with an open mind, as practices include singing wistful songs (complete with hand-motions) and “dharma discussion” which often resembles something like a group therapy session.
Returning to the world
The end of a meditation retreat can be a time of great possibility. You might feel a sense of renewal and optimism. Alternatively, you might have some fears about going back into the “real” world or integrating what you’ve learned on retreat into your daily life. Remember that it’s difficult to change habitual tendencies that have been ingrained over the course of many years with a few days or even weeks of retreat. Again gentleness and tempered expectations are key. Be realistic and treat your failures with kindness. Remember that the practices and lessons you’ve learned are available to you at any moment of your life. And, of course, you can always go back for more.
To read more about learning while traveling, check out the following articles:
- Immerse Yourself in a Culture While Learning
- Long Term Travel as Education
- Lessons from Around the World: 11 Skills to Learn on Your RTW Trip
Photo credits: teamaskins, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.