I just came back from my first mindfulness meditation retreat in years. While I am very glad for the experience, and would repeat it in a heartbeat, I can also appreciate how challenging it was to make it through the whole retreat. The practice of 'just' sitting and slow walking in silence, day in and day out, for seven consecutive days, was demanding, both physically and emotionally.
In case you are considering going on a retreat, here are some of the ways that helped me survive, and that may make it easier for you as well:
1. Come prepared with your favorite meditation gear
While the facility will most likely provide some, do not run the risk as I did, to be stuck with an uncomfortable chair, and no cushion. Of course, it gave me plenty of opportunities to get in touch with my craving for a better seat, but there is only so much to be learned there . . . And seven days, six hours of sitting each day is a very long time!
2. Give silence a chance
Many people wonder how they will be able to stay silent for so long. The odds are you will get used to not talking, pretty quickly. You may also find you rather like the relief of not having to talk, or endure others' chatter. This was probably the greatest surprise for me. In most retreats, you get plenty of occasions for social interactions, anyway. The only difference, is you are relating on a non verbal level.
3. Think in small chunks of time
Do not panic as I did, when you first see the daily schedule. Yes, six plus hours of sitting and four hours of walking meditation every day, can seem daunting. But that's the wrong way to look at it. You are letting your thinking have the best of you. Consider instead one sitting, one walking meditation at a time. Even better, one breath, one step at a time.
4. Take care of your body
Build in exercise and stretching times into your daily schedule. This will help with repeated sittings. Half way through the first day, I started experiencing excruciating pain in my lower back. Fortunately, I remembered some yoga stretches that proved to be a real godsend. I settled on a 15' sequence early morning, followed by a few poses sprinkled throughout the day, as needed. I also found it useful to substitute some of the slow walking meditations with some fast walking.
5. Find ways to keep up your energy
You will most likely get very tired, particularly during the first few days. One reason is that you are finally getting in touch with the accumulated fatigue you came in with. You are also doing some very intense inner work of concentration, which can lead to mental tiredness. I found taking a shower right after dinner, a good way to get refreshed, and give myself just enough energy to make it through the evening meditations.
6. Be kind to yourself
Sure, you want to try to remain as mindful as possible throughout the retreat. Be careful however, to not try too hard, or you will end up overly straining your attention. Instead, practice relaxed awareness, and let the breath, body sensations, sounds, emotions, or thoughts, come into your awareness, naturally. Also, do not be harsh on yourself, and compare yourself unfavorably to others. The mere fact that you have come to the retreat and have made it so far, is a huge accomplishment.
7. Ask for help
Your teachers will want you to have the best experience possible. From noisy roommates, to emotional struggles, to faulty heater in your room, do not be afraid to ask for help. Since we could not speak, we communicated through written notes on a designated bulletin board in the meditation hall.
8. Trust the process
If you start wondering why you came, and "what's the point anyway of sitting here anyway, and being so uncomfortable", realize you are falling prey to doubt, a very common feeling during retreats. Remember that the retreat format is a time tested tradition, that has been perfected over thousands of years, and been proven to work. It just does.
Going on a long retreat is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself. Where else do you have a chance to get to know the person that's most precious to you, i.e. yourself?