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How do you know whether you are ready for your first retreat or not?

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My motivation towards writing this note was due an incident I’ve witnessed. I saw it occur once, on which I felt this could simply be the Karma Cycle or maybe even the evident effects of Dark Night. Those days, most of us were not a part of any common mediation societies, groups or discussions and it took me a while to see this incident re-occur. Today we see it in more numbers happening to people around, on which me and a few friends of mine, feel a "pre-retreat-prep" or atleast a cautious consideration is required. I know the below is not new to most of us and that 1st timer retreaters always manage to land into some issues. Additionally, this does not apply for all retreat centers - this is evidently seen in certain type of meditation centers especially where the Teacher:Student ratio is more than 1:10 or maybe a method/willingness to evaluation, assessment, validation of practise is not standardised.

Again - It is about how a mere passion driven decision to go on a retreat may cause more damage than progress. There are a few careful considerations of certain factors, one should consider before starting this voyage.

One always expects retreats as a great opportunity to develop and deepen one’s wisdom, revive one’s practice, deepen concentration to a new level/stage/jhana, form effective groups for discussions and most importantly a chance to take a giant leap closer to your goal. However without careful consideration, I’ve seen this to not work as expected or planned. This is true especially at centres where access is granted, for all applicants, without evaluating the goals, condition or toughness. I’m not denying that access should be easy for all, however at times some screening for the betterment of the applicants itself is required.

Now, this is not a plea for all retreat Centres and facilities to change their admission process, but simply what one should do before/during one decides to go for a retreat. Points like country, visa, teacher’s profile (MCTB has this covered in detail), technique, ticket bookings, taxi, timings, cost, local guide, emergency procedures, local contacts in that country, sharing your where a bouts and contact medium to your family, etc.. we normally see been promptly followed by most. Mostly, the decision making factor seen is - how passionately one feels about doing this? However I feel it should be more on - how prepared one is for this challenge?

Retreats especially the most disciplined, guided and supervised are the most difficult ones, but most rewarding. Testing your readiness for such retreats is quite important to make the most out of it. Most importantly to avoid causing any harm to self while seeking the Ultimate benefits.

Below are some prime considerations, I feel are important as well:
• Retreat Duration: The duration of the retreat decides upon what should be the level of preparedness and current state of mind and physical capability. Any retreat beyond 6 days of duration for first timers or beginners should be carefully assessed.
• Code of Conduct:
o Mostly concentration & insight meditation are to be practiced for most of the retreat time
o Mostly in Retreats, only communication between the teacher and student is allowed, which is not even once in a day. This makes you follow “maun” – no communication at all with participants.
o There are other conditions wherein one is required to wake up early at around 3:30 am in the morning.
o In some places, food is served only once a day with some light snacks in the evening.
o Most importantly, you are required to Meditate atleast 8 or more hours a day primarily in the sitting/lotus posture

Then there are other considerations also like type of food served, water temperature, principle language of communication, taboos like not to use left hand while eating - however I do not believe this affects as much as the above points listed.

Overall, retreat duration and the code of conduct should be considered to the maximum I feel. If you are going on an intensive 12-day retreat with 8 hours or more of daily practise for example, one must first go for a dry run at home. Maybe on weekend, try and follow a similar schedule as that in the retreat centre. Example: Wake up early at 3:30am, check if you could sit for 8 hours or more in lotus/half-lotus position. Self-score the pain, uneasiness, sustainability, etc. During this 8 hours of dry run, perform both concentration and insight meditation to gauge your readiness and sustainability. Try following similar food habits and timings for a few days. Most importantly, understand you mental readiness now – identify when you perform both insight and concentration meditation in the ‘dry run’, how much is you mind able to cope up with this task. Identify the success percentage. If you can maintain your attention on insight or concentration practise for atleast more than an average of 75% I feel one should be fit for it. If it is above 60%, still I feel it is fine, however the reason for distraction needs to be analysed. Ensure it is not occurring due to a common reason for every single time there is lapse in concentration/mind wandering. If it is a single/common reason, normally it takes time to fix, whether they are - severe pain in some part of the body or some extra-crude mental impression of a recent emotional turmoil. It is better we improve success %, complete the dry run minimum threshold and then proceed. Below 60% scorer’s should not feel disappointed at all and might want to turn towards a lesser intensive path to calm the mind first before turning towards insight. One could start with simple Yogic exercises, evening walk with attempted mindfulness, mantra jaap, candle meditation, tune-in frequency or harmonizing sound balance therapy or might even consider a physiotherapy or a psychoanalysis.

Turning to an insight practise at this juncture (score less than 60%) would most probably mean multiplication of problems by going to a retreat (for which the dry run in similar conditions got you that score). Unless you are blessed with an excellent teacher as your saviour which could still may not negate the entire damage.

• It is seen that people with an urban lifestyle including odd sleeping and eating habits. Addiction is totally a different topic altogether which I would not comment on since it is already been discussed in detail on several different platform on the web. In such cases, experience/feedback log of such individuals indicates extreme misery they undergo with this direct contrast in schedule of the retreat centre.
• Many other people are distracted by, and get into multiple loops, over and over, with their neurotic content. Reaction and more reaction to the content make it more worst, a demon. Finally making them reach some scary decision making/conclusions in relationships, office, life, etc.
• There are examples, wherein no serious issues are present in an individual, but they have simply below average concentration skills and face trouble. It occurs that more than 70% of the retreat mediation time (which is so calm, conducive and highly productive for any action) is spent in mind wandering in these cases. Both in past and future. Forget the hypothetical Karma Chakra which acts in cases when we live too much into the dooms of past of fear for future – but even this level of mind wandering would take individuals with already below average concentration levels to an unstable position. Even close to normal human being disturb their source of living, relationships and the rest.
• The final category that has come to my experience is the ones who are too disturbed due to something or someone and are not even in condition to follow simple instructions successfully. Normally such individuals see and feel pain during insight practices. It is almost impossible in such cases to get the mind out and see mere sensations. Contents wind over technique and this again multiplies misery leading to consequences.

Me along with a few friends of mine have experienced numerous friends and relatives fall in one of the above category that somehow has led to their misery multiplication. Dark night causes scary phenomena if not seen “as it is” however the ones caused by improper practise and unplanned retreats are also quite serious and worth a disclaimer.

The ones with a self-evaluation score of above 70%, or even the ones reaching this benchmark after multiple attempts - for you this retreat is most likely to be a dream come true. All the best in this divine step forward you are planning. May your life be transformed into something beautiful - with lesser aversion, craving and ignorance! May maximum impurities be dissolved in every subsequent retreat!! Be Happy!!! Be Happy!!!

RE: How do you know whether you are ready for your first retreat or not?
Answer
3/5/14 12:53 PM as a reply to world inside.
Good stuff,
In your opinion what percentage of people are having "problems" and what are the results of these problems? How serious is the problem? What is the solution after the problem has occurred?

Warning people beforehand is great but I would also like to see proper encouragement.

I encourage people to start a daily practice. Amount of time increasing until it seems to be"working" towards your goals.
I encourage people to find a competent teacher who can help in evaluating whether your ready for intensive retreat time.
I encourage people to to do day long retreats to get used to the format of longer retreats
I encourage people to read MCTB so they are informed about the benefits and "dangers" of intensive meditation
I encourage people to trust their personal unfolding and follow their path incrementally without "grand planning" from the ego

Good luck,
~D

RE: How do you know whether you are ready for your first retreat or not?
Answer
3/5/14 1:54 PM as a reply to world inside.
Hi, I just did a first retreat. 15 days.
Not being able to sit that long did mean a world of physical pain and accomanied by thoughts and feelings of not being able to do meditation propperly.(giving myself permission, during longer sits, to stretch fixed that)

The setting was noble silence the whole time and ended with 3 days of determination. That is 72 hrs of non stop meditation, alternating walking and sitting.

They did build up from 10 minutes each round(walking 10/sitting 10) adding 5 minutes each day..

Still it was an experience I wouldn't have wanted to have missed. And I can finaly do mediation me..

Anyway just wanted to say that I wouldn't have made the 60% score I think trying to score it myself.
Even though in retrospect I was able to reach that before retreat I don't think I would have seen it in that way suffering slight self-esteem issues.

With Love
Eelco

RE: How do you know whether you are ready for your first retreat or not?
Answer
3/7/14 7:39 AM as a reply to Dream Walker.
Dream Walker:
Good stuff,
In your opinion what percentage of people are having "problems" and what are the results of these problems?


Right. So again - I have not seen this true for all retreat centers. Between me and my mother we have done many retreats in India as "participants" as well as have provided "voluntary service" for participants during retreats. In the initial days (before 2003) mostly all officially organized retreats we attended were at the Goenka Vipassana centers (maybe to lack of access to online forums)

There are many centers in India setup by Hon. Goenkaji as we know, however due to lack of a defined benchmark in "some" centers for authorizing a teacher, moreover the lack of defined 'student evaluation methods' at times - the students are on their own. These same centers maybe excellent centers for old timers, however the 1st time retreaters should either do strong prior preparation or choose an alternate center which has a better reputation for 1st timers. Maybe if you are a fan of the body scanning technique, as a 1st timer Goenkaji's Igatpuri Vipassana & Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Centre, Mumbai are world class facilities with top notch quality teachers who are believed to be at-least Steam Enterers or above. Even student evaluation processes exists here and special attention to 1st timers is present.

Secondly, "I" feel that the body scanning technique (only technique taught in Goenkaji Centers) requires some maturity than the noting technique. Noting as I have experienced, generally once the label is assigned mind usually comes out of the "reaction mode" and keeps it to the label. Body scanning technique in my case, helped me in the later stage to bring more sesations from each part of the body to surface. However to learn to maintain EQ during all different types of sensations, I feel noting technique is the best to start with.

Now, coming back to your comment - Since this is center specific, staff competency dependent and proportional to the suitability of technique followed, I would say - mostly more than 40% first timers do not progress as much in centers non-conducive for 1st timers.

Dream Walker:
How serious is the problem? What is the solution after the problem has occurred?


The problems faced are not so serious in ordinary circumstances. Like we see "Eelco ten Have" commenting all was fine with him. Though it is important to understand whether Eelco ten Have visited a center with staff ratio more than 1:10 with absent student evaluation methods, wherein only sitting samadhi meditation is taught throughout or where it is empasized to follow body scanning technique ONLY.

However, there is also a type of retreaters where we have seen people turn towards retreats - when life is in absolute turmoil (atleast to my limited experience/place where I hail from). Or even visit a meditation center wherein some situations or body conditions have resulted in intense pain (sensations and a strong reactive habit patterns to it). In such cases, exposure directly to insight may cause more reactivity/un-bearability as I have seen.

The solutions I have seen work in such conditions is guided metta, fixing insight technique, other healing techniques or simply practicing concentration until one attains one of the concentration Jhanas that creates some sort of joy which for the moment stabilizes oneself and later allows to enter the Insight zone. I've seen people try shlokas like simple OM jaap or even candle concentration meditation, etc... to start with. Few worst case situations I've seen that required even hypnosis, physiotherapy, shamanism, psychiatric treatment however these were for participants with pre-existing conditions.

Dream Walker:
Warning people beforehand is great but I would also like to see proper encouragement.

I encourage people to start a daily practice. Amount of time increasing until it seems to be"working" towards your goals.
I encourage people to find a competent teacher who can help in evaluating whether your ready for intensive retreat time.
I encourage people to to do day long retreats to get used to the format of longer retreats
I encourage people to read MCTB so they are informed about the benefits and "dangers" of intensive meditation
I encourage people to trust their personal unfolding and follow their path incrementally without "grand planning" from the ego

~D


Absolutely I agree - there are more benefits than risks. Maybe I sounded that way in my initial note, however my apologies if it came out that way. This was not even intended as a warning. Mostly my point to promote a "solid per-retreat preparation" before a retreat. Not simply because of the risks, but simply to set your benefit/progress graph rolling to a swashbuckling healthy upwardly stable line and nothing less than that.

RE: How do you know whether you are ready for your first retreat or not?
Answer
3/7/14 5:33 AM as a reply to Eelco ten Have.
Eelco ten Have:
Hi, I just did a first retreat. 15 days.
Not being able to sit that long did mean a world of physical pain and accomanied by thoughts and feelings of not being able to do meditation propperly.(giving myself permission, during longer sits, to stretch fixed that)

Anyway just wanted to say that I wouldn't have made the 60% score I think trying to score it myself.
Even though in retrospect I was able to reach that before retreat I don't think I would have seen it in that way suffering slight self-esteem issues.

With Love
Eelco


Hi Eelco,

I'm glad you had a good experience with your recent retreat. Maybe it would be nice if you can share more details pertaining to your retreat. Something like the type of technique, student teacher ratio, teacher - student interaction frequency, satisfaction with teacher, other distractions (if any) and if possible the center name and its whereabouts. Maybe this could act as one more option in their ideal center list for the very first retreat

RE: How do you know whether you are ready for your first retreat or not?
Answer
3/10/14 12:04 AM as a reply to world inside.
world inside:

Hi Eelco,

I'm glad you had a good experience with your recent retreat. Maybe it would be nice if you can share more details pertaining to your retreat. Something like the type of technique, student teacher ratio, teacher - student interaction frequency, satisfaction with teacher, other distractions (if any) and if possible the center name and its whereabouts. Maybe this could act as one more option in their ideal center list for the very first retreat


I wrote a liite about my experience here...
my first retreat

Scroll down a bit

With Love
Eelco