How to Retreat at Home

At the start of "social distancing", which is now being referred to as "lockdown", I joked on social media against a jaunty yellow background: "Let's Call it a Retreat!". Secretly, I wished it were. While I had a couple of days off due to postponing courses, I've since been flooded with clients presenting with all kinds of distress and problems.


My own ensuing problem quickly became overwork.


Let's take today for example. My first order of business was a 2-hour lesson at 8:30am. Then a 30-minute birthday call. This ended a few minutes early (you'll see why later) so I whipped up and wolfed down some oatmeal and fruit just in time to teach a Psychic Course session at 11am. This course is taught with 1-hour breaks in between sessions. Then there was an online funeral at 11:30am. I returned a few emails and led the next Psychic Course session at 12:30pm. Following this was a tri-continental family zoom reunion at 1pm. Another Psychic Course session at 2pm. Yoga at 3pm (I had 10 minutes for a snack right before, tsk tsk!). Psychic Course session at 4:30pm.

I'm now at my dinner break (I'd originally booked a client during this break but her appointment was moved) and I'm grateful for a home cooked meal. I've got about 15 minutes to write before hopping back on for today's last Psychic Course session at 5:45pm. Then, the reason the birthday call was short: my niece, nephew and their parents are coming later for a physically-distanced backyard fireworks (probably handheld sparklers) birthday party and homemade cake for my brother-in-law. Normally I'd have booked clients tonight but fortunately I'd taken the rest of the evening off.




Normally, I try to pace myself. Today's funeral, family zoom meeting and backyard party were all last minute, not part of my original day at all. But this is how it goes in the pandemic, isn't it? I'm sure you have your version of chaos too.

With the next few days looking almost as impossible, I've decided to revisit my retreat idea in earnest. No retreat centres happening now. I'm  having my retreat at home.

How, you ask? Well, here's my plan.

Focus


First, what's this retreat about? You might want to focus on writing, nutrition or even building a business. Those sound like deep-dives, not retreats. What I'm taking about is a proper silent retreat, dedicated to my meditation, mindfulness and insight practice. It's about being alone with this body and this mind and knowing their realities. Know what your focus is for the retreat and know what kinds of activities you'll be including to support your focus. In my case, there will be sitting and walking mindfulness practice, mindfulness while eating, perhaps mindfulness while gardening and cleaning and a few supplementary teachings. After all, if you're setting aside real estate in your calendar, it had better be worth the investment of your time.



Dates


A retreat could be a day, a week up to 40 or even 60 days or more. The dates must be consecutive, with no interruptions. No sneaking in work! No socializing! And no devices! Length is also important. Long ago, I attended a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in Illinois. Most of the participants were newbies. By day four, half the meditation hall, including my ride back to Chicago O'Hare, had defected. So, you want your retreat to be long enough to challenge you and boost your practice, but short enough that it's actually do-able.

Eyeing a course postponement in the calendar and a space between weekly mindfulness teaching, I decide on four days at the end of the month. Yippie! Having four days to do nothing sounds divine, but it won't be nothing. I'm investing my time, so I want it to be worth it. I need to set up a routine.

Schedule


Once you block off time, structure each day of the retreat.

At every retreat I've attended and led, there's a rhythm that one follows day after day. Consider alternating sitting and walking practice. Pre-set your waking and sleeping hours and meal times.

Look at how your activities work together. Although mindfulness during mealtimes is part of my practice, I know a walking or active practice after eating prevents to inevitable post-food sluggishness.

Don't pile the toughest challenges ("I'm going to sit still and meditate for two hours straight!") on the first day. Ease in. Last summer, I took my little niece and nephew to Montreal for five wild days of fun to kick off summer holidays (during the Montreal Jazz Festival and long weekend). I then plunged head-first into a 5-day Buddhist insight retreat in silence in the country. Mistake! It took two of the five days just to settle in. Winding down a bit before heading to the retreat is also a great idea, to help you make the most of your silent time. Since I grocery shop for my parents, I'll make sure that's done prior to my retreat, taper off work leading up to my start date and refer folks elsewhere for help.

Location


Set up your space so that it's conducive to practice. If your home environment is cluttered, it could take away from your ability to be at ease. Of course, you should absolutely make any cleaning or tidying up part of your mindfulness in daily life practice. Take a look at the weather before your retreat begins and plan some time outdoors. A change of scenery can really boost awareness and mindfulness. I'll be heading to my local park the first day or two, as a walk by the river will be an ideal place to help ease into deeper tranquility and awareness in my practice later on.


Materials


Think about what you'll need to make your retreat successful. Writing and journaling aren't part of a silent retreat so notebooks are out, but you may want to supplement your practice with reading and listening to lessons or teachings. And although these are wonderful complements to your retreat, they aren't required. If you do go this route, pick out a book or two in advance, not twenty. The idea is to supplement the awareness practice, not get lost in reading. Downloading audio or putting it on CD in advance will avoid temptation to go online.

I've recorded Love in the Time of Corona, a 1-hour guided healing meditation specifically to help with stress and anxiety around this time. I've also created Seven Days of Guided Meditation, a series of short 12-20 minute "guided lessons", which is a great start for beginners. I've downloaded some audio from my teacher's teacher in Thailand that I'll use to supplement my practice for up to an hour each day.

You might be used to using a timer app for your meditation or mindfulness practice. Instead of this, keep your device off wifi and on airplane mode and use an alarm clock and regular watch. If you're off schedule a few minutes, it's ok.


Provisions


This includes making sure you have enough groceries (and toilet paper), plan out your meals and getting a babysitter or handing off work if you need to. Cancel appointments and remember, this is a digital detox as well as a mental detox. Avoid relying on devices.



Silence


This is perhaps the most daunting aspect for many. How will I manage to stay off my phone, device, TV, and stay quiet for a day? A week? A month? And what if I live with others who aren't retreating? Again, ease in and make sure you set some ground rules for yourself and those around you before you begin. Tell your family or house-mates about your retreat, and share your schedule so they're less likely to disturb you when you're in common areas. If you think they'll forget and try to engage with you (even eye contact counts as engagement), you can pre-plan to wear something as a signal to them that you're remaining silent. I'll wear my Silence t-shirt, but you may opt for a simple hat or scarf as a visual cue.




Notify


Tell everyone you're heading on retreat! It will help you be accountable to yourself and it will help others know to resist contacting you until after your retreat is completed. Set your out-of-office notices. Post something up on social media. Stick a note on your door for any deliveries. Set your phone to Do Not  Disturb with a custom message. Send out an email and tell folks that might contact you (I sent out a note to my email list, and linked this post!).

Be Kind


Lastly, remember that this retreat has a purpose: it's to give you an opportunity to invest in yourself and your own development. Take it easy and be kind to yourself. If you can't fall asleep one evening and oversleep the next day, just know you overslept. If you become impatient with yourself, just know the impatience arose. If you feel fearful that you're missing out on something happening in the world, just know the fear. The whole point is to know what's arising in within your heart, mind and body, one moment at a time, with patience and attention.

So, full disclosure, I didn't finish writing this in 15 minutes. And that's okay.

I'll put all of these tips into action in a couple of weeks. I'm really looking forward to it.