Retreat Instructions Part 1: Entering In
Updated: Apr 20
I’ve spent a lot of time in solitary and group retreats. As these corona days go by, I’ve been surprised to notice some things happening to me that remind me of being on retreat. It has something to do with settling in, slowing down, and feeling a quiet and tender part of myself that I’m often too preoccupied to fully tune in to. We touch that in regular meditation, but there’s nothing like a solitary retreat.
So here, from the retreat cave of my apartment in Bethesda, MD, I offer traditional retreat instructions with our current situation in mind.
Enter gradually: It takes awhile to shift gears and it’s important to settle your physical environment before starting to focus on the new situation. When I arrive for a retreat, I put away my food, unpack my personal things, and then explore every nook and cranny to see what’s there. Only then do I set up my practice space, eat and rest, and do some simple meditation before reading and sleeping on that first night. I think of this as being a hierarchy of needs, where it’s necessary to feel safe, stocked up, and organized before the mind can be at ease enough to meditate. It helps to realize this and not expect too much of ourselves right at the start. We’re all entering into this new and unfamiliar world.
Settle in: I’ve often been so emotionally and physically stressed out before entering a retreat that it can take a few days to calm down and be able to relax and focus. So for those first days I keep a note pad next to me so I can jot down some random thoughts and ideas that are still spinning around in my mind. This helps me to relax and not worry about forgetting important things later. Then these die down, and I put away the note pad. We’re also often physically exhausted by the time we get to our retreat and need to sleep and rest, increasing our meditation schedule once our bodies and minds are more present. I’ve noticed this change lately, as my concepts about what I can and can’t do gradually sink in and create a new normal. I’m not nearly as fixated on the news, I’m relating to food in a more simple and healthy way, and I’m feeling more in touch with myself and the difference between what I think I should do and what I really want and/or need to do.
Set your intention: In our current situation, this can be as simple as deciding to be kind to yourself, making a list of a few people to call, keeping your living space clean, cooking something good, taking a shower, learning something new. And of course the intention to stay healthy and sane for the benefit of those around you is a good one, because one of these days this will end. Contemplate the preciousness of life.
Make clear boundaries: Today, this is all about separating work from personal space and time. Some of my friends who are suddenly working full-time from home use cleansing smoke, like sage, juniper, or palo santo, to mark the end of their work day. You can designate different areas, or even different sides of your table, for work or non-work. You can pay a little attention to what you’re wearing (just a little…) during the day. Etc. Work isn’t just formal work, but active/accomplishing time vs. down time to just relax.
Structure your time: Morning coffee and news, shower and dressing, then work starts at a certain time. If you don’t have that kind of work, you can still do this with things on your list, like writing letters, or cooking, cleaning, reading, crocheting, whatever you want or need to do. The point is to be intentional, but also to be very kind to yourself and not stuck too strictly on it. Just see how it goes and adjust it so that it works for you. Some days you may flop – no judgment. Make time to relax and not expect anything of yourself. Patient and steady is the mantra. No need for great expectations, and every day is different.
Care for your body: Good food, enough sleep, and as much exercise/stretching as you can manage. Remember to breathe.
Care for your mind and spirit: Next blog.
[See Laurence Francville's French translation of this article at https://www.laurencefrancqueville.com/instructions-de-retraite-entree/]