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When No Retreat Center Will Take You… Embarking on Solo Retreat.

2 Heart it! Georgianna Wasia Reid 28
November 1, 2018
Georgianna Wasia Reid
2 Heart it! 28

Meekly I stepped, barefoot, into the high-ceilinged room, with yellow walls and red carpet. I wiggled my toes on the carpet, a mindless tick to release nervous energy as I absorbed the foreign space.


A teacher called for students to grab “zabutons” and “zafus”. Scrolls with Immortal-like figures painted in emerald green, bold blue, and fiery orange adorned the walls. Tibetan calligraphy and golden statues sat carefully arranged on the altars.


Everything and everyone seemed to know their place in this room. Except me.


This is how I started my first meditation retreat.


It’s been four years since that experience and to this day I’m surprised I didn’t run away screaming. Part of me stayed because I knew deep down how desperately I needed to change my life. The other part stayed because I was too curious and dumbstruck to leave.


We each have our reasons for coming to the contemplative arts: illness, dissatisfaction with life, ease from pain, too much stress, or maybe just because our therapists told us to.


For those who’ve been on the path for a while, we know it’s a journey with ups and downs. When we stick with it though, we come to understand that a contemplative practice informs life, and life informs a contemplative practice. Over time, the separation between the two diminishes and the desire to practice meditation or yoga shifts from a to-do list item to an essential part of the day. Practice nourishes our soul, stabilizes our mind, and leads us to freedom.


When I reached that point, going on retreats was no longer a foreign or scary thing, but something I savored and used to re-center and re-prioritize my spiritual practice as the guiding force in my life.


A few months ago I started working at a rural mountain retreat center. While I am working to hold the container for others, as they explore where they are on their own spiritual path, I’ve found my own practice being challenged. Ironically, while working at a retreat center, I feel the call to go on my own retreat louder than ever.


I applied for retreats from California and Texas, to Massachusetts and Georgia. Nothing came through. I became indignant, frustrated and disheartened. My inner four year old, with a big pout on her lips, came out to play, whining “But it’s my turn to go on retreat. I’m tired and want to focus on me.


When she was done throwing her fit, it dawned on me.


No one and no place should hold the key to our spiritual development and life. The practices are not siloed at these retreat centers. I was using the fact that I couldn’t get into a retreat as an excuse for why I couldn’t go on retreat.


We are often our own biggest barrier along the Path, and we must learn to become our own best ally instead.


It usually takes a jolt to get out of stagnant habit energies and embrace change. For me, it was the multiple rejections that spurred to abandon the old energies that were no longer serving me. I took all the expectations I was holding about how retreat experience “should” be­­­––should be quiet, should be at a renowned center, should be isolated, should have an excellent teacher­­–– and threw those out the window.


It’s time to shut up and just sit down. Literally!


For those of you who can’t get away to a retreat center, but are craving to invigorate and strengthen your practice, either for 6 hours on a Saturday or a full solo weekend, here are some tips to empower yourself.


Bring the three jewels: In Buddhism, the 3 Jewels­– the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha– are what practitioners can take refuge in or find support.

First we find support in the Buddha. The Buddha may be the actual idea of the historical Buddha, it can be an acknowledgment of your own inner Buddha nature, or it can be any other wisdom figure that inspires and encourages you in your practice. During the retreat, I placed Buddha and Jesus figures and pictures of my Sufi teachers all around me, to call all of their teachings and support during my retreat.


Next is the Dharma, which is Pali for Wisdom. In many silent Vipassana meditation retreats, teachers suggest that we don’t distract ourselves with reading. For solo retreats though, I recommend bringing a Dharma book and reading a chapter or even just a paragraph. Around the time that a teacher would guide a dharma talk, you can read your wisdom book instead, and use it to guide your practice.


Finally, the Sangha is our community that we take refuge in. When I sat down to do the solo retreat, the first 4 hours were excruciating, as the desire to jump up every few breaths filled me and doubt pounded at the door telling me I was wasting my time. Practicing with Sangha helps us stay when it gets hard. Since I didn’t have physical Sangha with me, I pulled up a bunch of chairs around me and mentally placed my best spiritual friends in them.


Together, we sat.


Set the Tone (attention, intention, and attitude):

When we start anything, it’s likely that unless we check ourselves at the door, we may still be carrying moods or impressions from something we did earlier. When entering retreat, it’s important we set ourselves up for the best possible outcome. To do this, I find it helpful to start a solo retreat with a piece of paper and pen. Then I answer the following questions:

What is my intention for being here? (Why am I spending my time this way rather than binging TV mindlessly or shopping)
What attitude is most supportive and how can I cultivate that?
How will I maintain my Attention? (Choose a form or structure and stick with it. For my retreat, I printed out a general retreat schedule and stuck with that, because that’s what I am most familiar with).


The phone goes OFF: Trust me, just turn it off already! You don’t need it. Your mind will give you plenty of entertainment and distraction to work with. When retreatants relinquish their phones at our center, they give their family our land line, so if an emergency arises, we can get a message to them. Designate a neighbor or close family member as your contact while you’re offline. Save it in a new voicemail message. If an emergency arises, this neighbor or close family member can knock on your door. Your priority is your practice.


Get family support: For those of us who are the sole meditation practitioner in the house, it’s challenging for family to know how to support us. Sometimes they can even distract or derail our practice, as their needs overwhelm our own. Have a talk with your family before starting your retreat, so they can understand why you are doing this, how it helps you show up for them and yourself better, and what you need from them in this 6-72 hour period.


If there are some family responsibilities you can’t put down for the weekend, find ways to integrate them into your retreat. If you have to cook dinner, do so in silence. Really notice each cut of the knife, and each grate of the cheese! If you have to drive your kids somewhere, listen to a dharma talk on the way back or just drive with the silence. Be creative with your retreat. Everything is practice!


Dedicate a space: Set up your cushion or chair in one spot for the retreat and collect everything you need (blankets, water, yoga mat, incense, alter). Having your own space set up helps remind your body and your mind what you are doing.


Set a schedule: Most retreat centers follow a schedule. Schedules help yogis deepen their practice while simplifying the day. I recommend finding a schedule and practicing surrendering to it. No schedule will feel perfect, but it has a purpose. Just follow the schedule to the best of your ability. For those who are new to retreat, I find it helpful to incorporate 30 minutes of something I find fun into my retreat as a breather if it gets really tough­. For example you may set the timer for some mindful coloring, a jog, or playing the piano. Then, begin again.


Consider Mental Health: I have been doing retreats for 4 years now and I was nervous about doing my first solo retreat because I still deal with mental health issues. If you have concerns, I recommend speaking with your therapist before doing a solo retreat. Get the support of a meditation teacher to call once a day if you are doing an extended solo retreat and keep your therapist in the loop. It never hurts to have too much support.


By the end of my solo retreat, I was tired and elated. I felt more empowered and at ease than I have in a long time. Already, I can’t wait to try it again.

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2 Heart it! Georgianna Wasia Reid 28
2 Heart it! 28

Georgianna Wasia Reid Nov 1, 2018 2:36pm

For those of you feeling drawn to a solo retreat, feel free to ask questions! If you’ve already done a solo retreat, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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