Meditation & Retreat Resources
Choosing a Class or Retreat
If you've never attended a meditation class, or if you have experience in only one tradition, you probably have questions about what to expect. Below you'll find answers to some common questions to help you feel more at ease.
In every center the use of cell phones and other electronic devices is prohibited. Be sure to turn off any electronics that might interrupt your class before you enter the meditation center.
Food and beverages are generally not allowed unless they have been provided by the center.
Conversation and socializing are allowed within the building, but usually discouraged or prohibited once inside the meditation hall. Consider this your personal time and don't be offended if other students don't speak to you or avoid looking at you. (Some traditions ask you to lower your gaze as a show of modesty.)
What if I can't: sit for long periods of time? sit still? sit in the lotus position? sit on a cushion at all?
Every center has accommodations for people who are physically unable to sit on a cushion (ie. those in wheelchairs, with mobility restrictions, etc...). If you prefer to sit in a chair, they are typically placed around the perimeter of the room.
Most seated meditation classes are interspersed with periods of walking meditation. This allows you to move your legs before resuming another seated period. The length of time of seated and walking portions vary, usually from 20-45 minutes for seated, and 10-20 minutes for walking. During walking meditation those with mobility restrictions are allowed to remain seated, or to move to the degree they wish.
During extended sitting periods some traditions will allow you to quietly come to a standing position. This can be done when hip or knee pain become severe or if you are extremely sleepy.
There are many different sitting positions and sitting devices you can use during seated meditation. Very few traditions encourage a full lotus position. More commonly you'll be able to choose from several types of zafu (cushions) and different postures to learn which position your body can maintain most comfortably. Some students bring their own cushions, meditation benches, or seating props to class. If you're unsure, glance around the room before taking your seat to see how other students are arranging themselves.
Some traditions place strong emphasis on maintaining a particular posture, and maintaining it without movement. This can be a very good lesson on agitated mind states! Generally speaking, most centers will allow a slow, deliberate shifting of posture. The recommendation, however, is to not shift quickly at the first sign of discomfort, but rather to investigate the source of discomfort, notice if there is an attached mental or emotional response, allow the sensation to change (intensify or dissipate) and then decide how or if to move. In the Zen tradition an instructor may walk around the hall to adjust students' posture.
What should I wear?
You'll want to wear clothes that are loose and comfortable. (Opt for yoga pants or gym pants in place of jeans.) As in any place of reverence, attire should not be revealing or inappropriate. Some centers do not allow shorts or tank tops, and the Zen tradition prefers that you wear subdued, natural colors.
Strong fragrances (perfume, cologne, deoderant, hair products, etc...) are generally discouraged. In an environment free from ordinary distractions our senses become hyper-alert. As a courtesy to those seated around you, you may elect to take a few minutes in the restroom before class to wash off fragrant cosmetics.
Choosing a Retreat
There are many things you'll want to consider before signing up for a retreat. Here are a few guidelines for questions to ask yourself, and the meditation center, to help you find the experience you're looking for.
Solitary or Group
Are you looking for a complete reprieve from humanity? If so, a solitary retreat - with limited or no interaction with others - may be for you. If you prefer group classes, one-on-one sessions with advisors, or communal dining then you'll want to explore a group retreat.
Self-Guided or Directed
Self-guided retreats most commonly are also solitary retreats, although there are some limited-interaction groups that allow you to set your own daily agenda. Directed retreats are led by one or more instrctors (teachers, clergy, etc...). Some centers let you assemble your own group and bring in your own instructor, while others are led by the oganization's own teachers.
Length of Stay
Retreats can last one day or several months. How long you stay will depend on your personal calendar, your budget, and your prior experience with retreats. Most group retreats for beginners are shorter, with 3 to 10 days being the norm. Retreats for those with more experience can last several weeks. Solitary retreat - for those with considerable experience - may last several months or several years.
There is tremendous variety in retreat accommodations. From rustic huts with no electricity to modern facilities with made-to-order meals and private bathrooms, you'll have many options regarding meals, sleeping arrangements and restroom facilities.
Meals may be prepared for you dining- or cafeteria-style or you may have a communal kitchen in which to fix your own meals. Solitary rustic retreats may require you to bring and prepare all of your own food, perhaps supplying your own plates and utensils as well.
Sleeping arrangements may be private, semi-private or group. If not private, you may be allowed to choose your roommate, select pre-requisites for a roommate (gender, age, etc...), or rommates may be pre-assigned.
Toilet and shower facilities can vary considerably. Some rustic accommodations have no running water, with shower and toilet facilities located outside. Others have shared restrooms and showers, and some have private facilities. Be sure to ask about these arrangements before you sign up.
Silent or Speaking
Silent retreats offer the potential for deep personal inquiry. They generally begin with an orientation period for you to meet the instructors and other participants, after which you are asked to maintain silence for the remainder of the retreat. Silence may also entail the Buddhist principle of "modesty of the eyes" which precludes all forms of reading and writing.
Retreats may be non-denominational, exclusive to followers of a particular faith, or based in a religious tradition yet open to all. Don't assume a Christian or Buddhist retreat center will be steeped in dogma. Most present teachings that are universal and all-inclusive. Be sure to inquire with the organization if you are looking for particular religious instruction or would like to ask about their teachings.
There is great variety in the cost of retreats. The price of many group retreats includes everything but your travel expenses. Some have variable rates based on sleeping accommodations and meal arrangements, while others offer a sliding scale for students or those in need. Most solitary retreats are priced by length of stay, with slightly decreasing rates for stays lasting several weeks or months.
Retreats for beginners should have no prerequisites, except perhaps a written statement of your interests or intention. Longer or more intense retreats may require you to have previously participated in a retreat of a specified number of days, with a specified instructor, or in a specified tradition.