When a meditator makes a commitment to sit their first 7 day (or longer) retreat, it’s a big step and often requires a leap of faith. Leaving behind family, work and personal obligations for a week or more may feel daunting. At a deeper level, spending a full week in silence with few distractions may feel even more challenging. Yet, for those of us who make this commitment, we are answering our heart’s calling to touch the moment so intimately that we have no choice but to receive its full embrace.
Once we’ve committed and the time draws closer, some of us may begin to feel anxious and vulnerable. This is normal and in fact is a good sign because it means our hearts and minds are approaching the spacious, unarmored realm where we fully encounter the dharma . However, this vulnerable feeling is often misinterpreted and may lead people to seek out reasons to avoid the retreat. I’ve experienced this myself. Fortunately, I know this pattern well enough that I don’t let it stop me.
Occasionally practitioners aren’t aware of this process. They may start feeling anxious about leaving loved ones behind for a full week or worry about work and personal obligations. A good question to ask: Why does it feel more difficult to be away for a week long retreat than spending the same amount of time on vacation? Of course, sometimes legitimate situations occur that may prevent a person from attending a retreat. Discerning our true priorities is important. One year, only a week before a 10 day Vipassana retreat, my spouse had a serious health issue arise that required surgery and recovery time. I had to cancel the retreat, no question. But more commonly, I’ve had to resist the urge to avoid a retreat by looking more clearly at my thoughts, emotions and priorities.
Early in my marriage, for instance, I felt anxious about leaving my husband for a full week. Various scenarios played out in my mind and I was caught in the grip of fear. Yet, as I mindfully examined the anxiety, I realized I was simply creating stories and scenarios that were unlikely to happen. I moved through the fear and went ahead with the retreat. Attending that retreat not only empowered me, but it was equally beneficial to my husband. Taking care of myself this way actually strengthened the foundation of my marriage. The same once happened with work situation. I was afraid I would miss an art commission deadline if I was away for a week and wondered if I should back out. But as I carefully studied my calendar I realized that with wise time management I could accommodate both the retreat and the commission. I had no problem making my deadline and my client was quite pleased with the finished piece.
I can say that over the last 20 years in which I’ve participated in numerous 7 day and longer retreats, I have not regretted a single one. Long retreats have been, and still are, one of the greatest spiritual gifts I give to myself, and those gifts extend to everyone in my life.
Once we answer our heart’s calling, we soon discover that retreats aren’t only for ourselves.