Finding the Meditation Retreat That’s Right for You

Maybe you’ve always wanted to travel East to find a wise guru to reveal all of life’s great mysteries.  Or perhaps after some time on the road, your trips are starting to feel a bit empty and repetitive: just another visit to some ruins/ a café/ a natural wonder to capture the perfect photograph before you’re on your way. But now you’re actively seeking a way to deepen the travel experience and have stumbled upon meditation as one way to do just that.

So here you are, searching Himalayan hilltops or Thai forests or the overgrown jungle of the World Wide Web, trying to find the best place to take your first serious dive into meditation.

“Participating in an extended meditation retreat while traveling can be a powerful and life-transforming experience”

Participating in an extended meditation retreat while traveling – whether it’s 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.  Of course it can also be challenging and scary.  And sometimes 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 some 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.

“…remember that you are certain to feel different at the end of the retreat than you do at the beginning…”

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?

Meditating by water

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 exactly is it that you’ll be doing?

We’ll start with a brief definition of the word “meditation”. Meditation describes a wide variety of physical and mental practices.  It can refer to concentration-developing techniques, contemplations, visualizations, body-awareness, energy work, self-enquiry, observational techniques, relaxation, thinking, not-thinking, or even embracing time spent doing nothing.  Depending on your intention, some techniques may appeal more than others, and still others may seem like a bunch of hogwash.

“Be gentle with yourself, keep a sense of humor, and know that you’re not alone. Everyone deals with similar struggles as they learn to meditate.”

A good rule of thumb is to start simple and get grounded in physical practice before venturing into the more esoteric techniques.  Many eastern traditions begin meditation training with the seemingly simple technique of mindful breathing. On a fair number of introductory retreats expect to spend a healthy portion of your waking hours sitting silently “with the breath.”  But even within this basic instruction, traditions diverge; some teachers will have you focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen or on the feel of air passing through the nostrils and 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.  Be gentle with yourself, keep a sense of humor and know that you’re not alone. Everyone deals with similar struggles as they learn to meditate. Just because you’ve spent one or two whole days meditating without “success” doesn’t mean the technique is a failure (nor are you).

What do I look for in a meditation center?

stone buddhas

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 falls in line with what you consider “essentials.”  Though many great centers tend to towards Spartan when it comes to accommodations, you should consider the setting and amenities you need to be physically comfortable before making a decision.

  • Will you need a chair, a mat, or special padding for meditation?
  • Are you a picky eater, or do you have any dietary restrictions (are you vegan, vegetarian, celiac, etc)?
  • Are you okay with doing some work around the center as part of your experience?
  • Do you want a silent retreat or a more social experience?

Ask yourself these questions, then inquire about the set-up and resources available at the centers you are considering.  Keep in mind that retreat centers generally reflect the country in which they are located when it comes to food, and standards of comfort, so choose your destination with care.  Also, remember that a good meditation retreat isn’t a spa; be prepared to live in different accommodations than what you’re used to at home. If you’re a first-timer, you’d 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 instruction in English is not a good plan 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 have trouble understanding.

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. Be sure to ask the following questions before you book a retreat:

  • Is the teacher generally reputable and respected?
  • Have the teacher or the center been involved in any scandals?
  • Does the community and destination 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 on the retreat?

Man and women meditating in Vietnam
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’s not that.  Whatever you consider being “good” at meditation to be, you’re 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.

“Depriving your mind of its usual diet of sensory input will often result in intense boredom.”
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 intense boredom.  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. 

Embrace your boredom as an opportunity 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 may present themselves in the form of cultural, religious, or ritualistic practices that you don’t understand or seem alien, misguided, or counterproductive.  Being surrounded by beliefs and spiritual or psychological practices that you disagree with can be uncomfortable, to say the least.  Keep your sense of skepticism, but remember why you sought the retreat in the first place. Try to keep an open mind while giving the experience a chance.

Meditation 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 temporary and is sure to pass during the course of the retreat.”

It’s also important not to quit in the middle of the retreat, as leaving part way through the experience can be counterproductive and even harmful.  Everyone faces struggles, but in the end, people are almost always happy they came and stuck with it.  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, either.  You’ll likely have times of great bliss and joy to contend with periods of boredom and discomfort.  Try to treat these with the same sense of lightness and awareness of impermanence as you treat the challenges.  After all, nothing lasts forever, even if you’d like it to.

Finding the place for you

Meditation on Mountaintop

Determining which centers are legitimate can be a daunting process. Below is a list of just a few of the more reputable places around the world to learn how to meditate:

  1. Goenke Centers (over 120 centers around the world).  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 participants begin with a ten-day intensive training that involves long period of sitting meditation. First-timers aren’t allowed to speak to other participants.  Goenke’s teaching is non-sectarian and practical and is stripped of any religious undertones.
  2. 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, participants can learn vipassana in a somewhat less rigorous (although still fairly strict) environment.  Again, complete silence is required during the 10-day introductory retreats.
  3. 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. Both offer regular introductory retreats, as does the Kopan Monastery in Nepal which offers a popular one-month introductory course for over 200 westerners every November.  The approach at these centers is less rigorous, but has a more esoteric and devotional feel than the Vipassana traditions.
  4. Plum Village and Order of Interbeing Centers (France, Germany, and the United States).  This is a more relaxed meditation 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 daily. The program focuses on incorporating mindfulness into daily routines.  Come with an open mind, as practices include singing wistful songs (complete with hand-motions) and “dharma discussion” which often resembles a group therapy session.

Returning to the world

Meditation in the world

The end of a meditation retreat is a time of great possibility.  You might feel a sense of renewal and optimism.  Or you might have some fears about going back into the “real” world and integrating what you’ve learned on retreat into your daily life.  Remember that it’s difficult to change habits and tendencies that have been ingrained over the course of years of your life with a only a few days or weeks of retreat.  Again gentleness and tempered expectations are key. 
“Be realistic and treat your failures with kindness.”
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:

manifesto - value growth as much as adventure

Photo credits:, agatha vieira /, Dmytro Gilitukha /,JPL Designs /, Pamela Au /, Dragon Images /, neo2620 /, brize99