Meditation Retreats 101: How To Find A Retreat and What to Expect

One of my deepest pathways of healing has been my meditation practice. As a regular meditator, I look forward to attending a couple meditation retreats every year to support my practice. We spend so much of our lives in a state of noise and busy-ness. Retreats give us the space to slow down and get quiet-- two of the necessary steps for healing.

A wide range of retreats with all styles of meditation teachings, such as Zazen, Transcendental, Kundalini, and Vipassana, are offered around the world year round. It helps to first develop a daily practice in a tradition and style that works for you, and then find a retreat with a program that works with your chosen practice.

My first two retreats were at centers that work with SN Goenka’s Vipassana teachings. SN Goenka was trained by the beloved Burmese teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Before he died in 2013, Goenka shared the Buddha's Vipassana teachings around the world, eventually opening numerous practice centers on multiple continents.

An altar in a "walking [meditation] room" of Insight Meditation Society

An altar in a "walking [meditation] room" of Insight Meditation Society

For Westerners, Goenka's retreats are considered to be strict in their instruction and rules. There's a dress code, a 4 AM wake-up gong, men and women are separated throughout the retreat, and all people are required to attend three hour-long group sittings in the hall each day (in addition to the other meditation periods throughout the day). The group sittings do not begin until everyone arrives, so if people fall asleep in their rooms or are absent for whatever reason, everyone waits to start the sitting as the staff goes out to find the missing people and bring them back to the group. Other retreats (such as those at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts) do not share this same rigidity.

Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire, England

Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire, England

Meditators new to Goenka's retreats begin with a 10-day course, while "old students" can participate in much longer retreats for up to months at a time. I had my first 10-day course at a center in the countryside of England, in the county of Herefordshire. Until those ten days, I'd never experienced such profound stillness. I was facing a fair amount of grief and anxiety at the time; the stillness gave me the opportunity to truly FEEL and wholeheartedly focus on my own healing. Goenka’s teachings helped me transform my pain in that they gave me the framework to step out of my habitual thought and behavioral patterns and see from a drastically new perspective. This is what the Buddhist teachings can do for us!

I went to my second Goenka retreat with my partner in Massachusetts. I have to say, I highly recommend going on your own retreat and not bringing anyone along, especially if you're a person who has difficulty focusing on yourself. I remember often feeling caught by thoughts about my partner and what his experience was. Even though we were separated for most of the retreat, I still found myself regularly distracted and unable to focus on myself. That said, it was an amazing invitation for me to learn how to create boundaries and develop concentration. I was working on anger during that retreat, and I really let myself explore it!

The meditation hall at IMS

The meditation hall at IMS

The following three retreats I attended were at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts. I was initially drawn to this location because Tara Brach, one of my first meditation teachers, had referenced it in her books. IMS was founded in 1975 by leading teachers Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein. Like Goenka's centers, IMS also offers Vipassana- as well as Metta-based retreats. After experiencing the Goenka retreats, my time at IMS felt much more relaxed and comfortable (some even joke about IMS being a "resort" for meditators). I initially caught myself laughing a number of times, imagining what Goenka would think of the IMS teachers' instructions, which are generally much different from his approach. At first it was nearly impossible for me not to get caught up in comparing my experiences, but eventually I learned how to let go of expectations and let a retreat stand on its own.

In the end, I've returned to IMS because the retreats there varies greatly from the next (visit here to see what I mean), whereas the Goenka courses offer the same standard teachings and guidelines every time (though you can visit different locations, participate in retreats of varying lengths, and have different teaching assistants, which will undoubtedly affect your experience to some degree).

The retreat I completed this past spring at IMS was my favorite experience so far. Ayya Santacitta and Ayya Anandabodhi, two European nuns who currently run a monastery out in California, led our group so skillfully and with such care. Through their earnest commitment to understand and grow from the teachings, I was able to absorb lessons in a new way. Oftentimes modern teachers will share interpretations of the teachings that are far removed from what the Buddha shared; I appreciated diving deeper into the foundations of Buddhism in such a straightforward manner.

A typical room at a retreat center

A typical room at a retreat center

In terms of specific benefits from attending retreats, I’ve noticed that I’m now much more familiar with and kind toward my own patterning (conditioning) than ever before. I have a greater ability to open to my triggers and hold them with tenderness, which has also increased my capacity to hold another person's reactivity. My practice has smoothed out tremendously, and I’m no longer caught up in the same painful cycles I was in years ago. Of course, we never know what will arise, and new challenges will continue to surface, but I can clearly sense my progress, and I'm thankful that life’s waters have generally become easier to navigate. 

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If you’re reading this and thinking that you could never find (or make) the time to go on retreat, I get it. That's how my life felt for many years. But I can say that the rewards are much greater than the everyday mind can fathom. If it's something that you sense you truly need but you're unwilling to make the time for whatever reason, it could be that life will keep presenting larger and larger obstacles until you feel you have no choice but to seek refuge in a retreat. That’s how it was for me, ha. We need a foundation of self-love and respect to truly live freely. Meditation retreats offer us the building blocks to cultivate such a foundation.

The only reason I wouldn’t recommend a retreat to someone is if you’re experiencing severe trauma at this time and you have a hard time being with yourself. If this is the case, I recommend doing intimate one-on-one work with a qualified therapist or teacher before jumping into a long retreat. However, it may serve you to find a shorter weekend retreat and start there.

Signing up for the retreats is easy. As I mentioned above, once you have an idea of what style of meditation works for you, you can google-search your way to finding the option that fits your needs and schedule. I know people who have traveled to India and added a retreat to the end of their travels, for example. I also know many people who, for whatever reason, have never taken a retreat abroad and have only had experience at centers within the United States. Traveling to Asia is not for all of us.

If Insight Meditation / Mindfulness / Vipassana does interest you, I’ve included a list below of reputable centers I know in the United States.

I’m happy to answer any questions about retreats via Email (jen@heartgrounding.com)!

May all beings be happy 😊🙏🏽❤️ 

 

SN Goenka retreat location list:
https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/locations/directory
For NYC folks: There is a center for weekly sittings in the city that you can visit after your first Goenka retreat, but the closest residential retreat centers are in Delaware and Massachusetts. The Delaware site is pretty new and I haven't been there before. The Massachusetts location is considerably comfortable; you get your own room, and the meals are excellent. The center in Herefordshire (UK) was absolutely stunning, and I've heard positive things about the centers in Washington and California.
The Goenka retreats are pay-what-you-can/want, so there's a lot of freedom in that regard. They can fill up months in advance, but if you get on the waiting list, you still have a good chance to get a spot.

Insight Meditation Society retreat schedule:
https://www.dharma.org/meditation-retreats/retreat-center/retreat-center-schedule/
They offer shorter retreats in addition to longer ones, and they're less strict with the instruction. 
They operate on a sliding-scale basis and use wait lists. The popular teachers will have their retreats fill up first. You get your own room and the food is also superb!

Spirit Rock in California is IMS's sister center: https://www.spiritrock.org/

Insight Meditation Community of Washington: http://imcw.org/
IMCW is run by one of my main teachers, Tara Brach. It's similar to IMS in their style and presentation. They don't host overnight/residential retreats at their center, but they organize and host them elsewhere. Here is their schedule: https://imcw.org/Calendar/categoryId/3/PageId/EventListView

Cambridge Insight Meditation Center: https://cambridgeinsight.org/
Like IMCW, CIMC does not host overnight retreats, but they do offer sliding-scale, daylong options, and you can find retreats by their teachers at other locations, such as IMS. I recommend working with their guiding teacher, Narayan Liebenson.

Cloud Mountain in Washington is similar to IMS: http://www.cloudmountain.org

Garrison Institute: https://www.garrisoninstitute.org
They offer a variety of programs and mini retreats. Garrison not far from NYC (just north on the train) and it's an easy option if you want to schedule something shorter and less intense. They offer scholarships as well.

And there's also Kripalu (https://kripalu.org) and Omega Institute (https://www.eomega.org) for East Coasters. Both centers are also not far away. They have a diverse array of programming, including some meditation retreats. Shorter programs won't necessarily be in silence and definitely won't be as "serious" as the options above.

Note: All photos in this article were taken by me, Jennifer Brown. I permit anyone to use these photos as long as I am credited for them. :)