This is the seventh post in my blog series about recharging and resetting your life, what I call retreating.
I sat in a circle with my ten fellow retreaters at Feathered Pipe Ranch while the facilitator asked each one of us to share our expectations for the weekend. Most people talked about wanting to let go of emotional or physical trauma, some going into detail about their pain. I shot worried glances at my friend sitting across the circle. A co-facilitator, she had invited me on the two-day retreat because she thought I would enjoy it. She let me in for free (I was a poor college student on the brink of graduation). When it was my turn to speak, I had no idea what to say. I didn’t have any expectations. I just came along for the ride and suddenly wondered whether that was a mistake.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience or maybe you’ve never been on a retreat and feel apprehensive about going. What does one do on retreat? What if I don’t buy what they’re selling (metaphorically speaking)? How do I behave among strangers?
This blog focuses specifically on short-term retreating at an organized establishment that caters to personal growth (spiritual or otherwise), mindfulness practices, or wellness. Expectations can vary for travel retreating, volunteering for a cause, and long-term residential retreating; however, one principle applies universally: For maximum benefit, let go of expectations and go with the flow.
What should you expect?
In general, understand what is expected of you by your hosts and the retreat program, and abide by them. We’re talking about house rules and personal conduct, which typically are published on the retreat’s website.
Do expect to get what the retreat promises; that is, whatever the cost covers (room, board, programming, etc.). Don’t expect miracles or epiphanies that will suddenly change your life. That’s not to say those couldn’t happen. Yes, the point of retreating is to awaken and nourish your soul. Epiphanies—and sometimes miracles—can result, but life-changing ones usually happen over time. You might know someone who’s raved about their experience at that retreat, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience or that it will be right for you.
As far as the program goes, know its purpose. What does the retreat offer, its stated intention? For example, you might learn meditation techniques, get one-on-one coaching from experts, and have free time to explore the grounds. Know the practicalities, too, which should be listed on the website. I once came to a retreat expecting bedding only to find I was supposed to bring my own. Luckily for me, another person had left behind her bedsheet and blanket, which the retreat laundered and let me use.
If you know before you go, the only surprises should be what you discover about yourself. If in doubt about any aspect of a retreat, call the hosts and ask.
Are you physically able?
Can you handle the physical demands of the program, such as long hours of sitting, or walking, for meditation? Does the retreat involve fasting or other activities that could push your physical abilities? If you have any health issues that could limit your ability to participate, or potentially be harmful to you, call the retreat in advance to discuss before signing up. The last thing a retreat wants is to put anyone at risk.
Pushing your inner boundaries or risking becoming a new person is okay. Harm of any kind or severe deprivation is not. If during the program you feel physically compromised, stop and take a break. Discuss your concerns with the facilitator. Don’t let anyone talk you into doing something you feel is risky. Several years ago a man died from heat exhaustion on a retreat that involved long hours in a sweat lodge. Don’t be a hero or fall victim to peer pressure. Instead, follow your gut to know when to back off.
It’s possible to have such a powerful emotional experience during a retreat that it becomes debilitating physically. Again, back off if you need to and consult with the facilitator.
You don’t have to buy anything
Apart from your retreat expenses, you aren’t required to buy into what the retreat is selling. Although the retreat facilitators will have their own methods and principles, you don’t have to believe anything you don’t want to. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to disrupt others or badmouth the program. Instead, you are free to take what you need and leave what you don’t. Politely. Even an atheist seeking mindfulness can benefit from a retreat at a monastery without having to believe in Christianity.
If you’re really not getting on with the program, please, don’t complain to others! While on a writing retreat at Omega in upstate New York, I shared a lunch table with a woman who was participating in another concurrent program. After five minutes of listening to her tell everyone at the table, loudly and angrily, how much she hated it, I got up and left. It took me an hour to recover.
Keeping an open mind will take you a lot further than writing off something immediately just because it doesn’t feel right at that moment.
Before embarking on your chosen retreat, read their website or other materials to learn exactly what you’re getting into, what you can expect, and what’s expected of you. Then go and enjoy yourself. Even if you find it a personal struggle, just observe what is happening internally without judging it. The benefits may show up down the road, and you’d have gained something from your intention toward self-care.
Although I felt like an imposter on that first retreat day at Feathered Pipe Ranch because I came with no expectations, that was actually the right thing to do. There were a few things that seemed a little woowoo at the time, but that didn’t matter. Overall, I enjoyed myself and met some beautiful souls. More than 25 years later, I still have a purple quartz crystal on my dresser that a fellow retreater gave to me because he said my smile made him happy. That crystal reminds me that my presence made a difference in someone’s life. That alone was worth it.
A final consideration about expectations: Sometimes you don’t see immediate benefits of retreating. Sometimes the benefits manifest days, weeks, or months later. Think of retreating like saving money in an interest-bearing account. Keep adding to it little bits at a time and one day you’ll be delighted to see your investment has grown.
For links to retreats and other resources, visit my Resources page.
Read my memoir about a two-year retreat I took in Scotland.