By Steve Savels.
Many people who participate in our 8-week mindfulness courses or come to other activities ask us: “What exactly is a mindfulness retreat? What should I expect?” Maybe you have wondered too?
In our retreats, there are always people who have never participated in a retreat before. Some people don’t even have much experience with mindfulness at all. Maybe they tried to practice a bit on their own, or they mainly practiced yoga with a short meditation at the end of a session.
Stepping out of the busyness
Even though participants who are new to a retreat usually start with some nervousness, or even with some skepticism, it’s always wonderful to witness the transformation taking place. At the start of a retreat, you can feel how people are still very much in the “doing mode”. They might have driven to the retreat location after a busy week, and you can almost sense their minds continually spinning and buzzing.
But little by little, you can witness how they let go of tensions, of the busyness, and how they sink into a more relaxed, open state of mind. You can simply see it on participants’ faces: from serious and hardened faces with lots of frowns, a gentle smile emerges and starts to radiate.
In the English language, the verb “to retreat” means “to go away from a place in order to escape from fighting or danger; to go to a quiet and safe place in order to avoid a difficult situation.” It is often used as a military term, when an army retreats away from the battlefield.
Maybe your life also feels like a battlefield from time to time? In the hectic lives we lead, we can easily get stuck in the “survival” mode, and lose fun and meaning. A mindfulness retreat is a chance to step away from that battlefield, in order to recover and recharge with a new, more gentle and centered energy.
The wonderful thing is that this new energy often lasts a long time after the retreat, even if you step back into the hurricane. This is a question people often have: “But what when I get back to my normal life? It can be very nice to wind down and relax, but then I have to get back anyway. Won’t I quickly lose everything I’ve gained?”
A mindfulness retreat is much more than a short moment of wellness. The paradox of mindfulness is that you slow down and relax by becoming more aware of all the busyness inside you.
Dealing more constructively with difficulties
It’s not because you are at a mindfulness retreat that all of the sudden all the endless thinking, planning and worrying stops. On the contrary, it might even increase. So it’s certainly not all bliss in a mindfulness retreat. Sometimes, difficult stuff that has been around for a while might come to the surface.
As mindfulness teachers, we know there are different difficulties you can encounter in a retreat, so we build the retreat around them, and offer suggestions on how to deal with them. These common obstacles include sleepiness and tiredness, many distracting thoughts coming up, difficult emotions, or restlessness.
These are also common obstacles in daily life, and a retreat is the right place to deal with them in a more helpful way. By giving them more space and treating yourself in a kind and friendly way, the knots created by these past difficulties can more easily untangle. After a retreat, you often go home with new insights and ways to be kinder to yourself, so stress doesn’t build up so much anymore.
We always start a retreat with a moment of sharing why you’re there. This sharing helps to realise that you’re not alone, which already has a very calming effect.
After the initial sharing, we invite everyone to remain silent during the retreat. However, there are dedicated moments in which you can share about your experience, either in the bigger group or individually with the trainer.
Some of our retreats are completely in silence, whereas others have silent moments and times in which you can have mindful conversations. The silence in a retreat is often perceived as the most beneficial factor, even if it seems a bit scary at the start. When you stop speaking, there is much more time and space to reconnect with yourself. The social pressure falls away and you get real “me-time”. At the end of a retreat, people are often sad about the silence being broken.
A variety of practices
In our retreats, we introduce you to a wide variety of practices. We don’t only practice sitting meditation, but also mindful movement, yoga, walking meditation, eating with mindfulness, mindful speaking and listening, ... This variation helps you to bring mindfulness into your daily life afterwards, because you can pick and choose from a wider repertoire of practices.
Oh, and if you are worrying about having to sit on the floor in lotus posture, you can relax. Our retreats are all about taking good care of yourself, so you choose how you want to sit, on a cushion, on a chair, or even lying down.
As mindfulness teachers, we are encouraged by our different professional associations to participate in at least one silent retreat per year, but often we do more than one. Because it’s only in a retreat that you really learn to understand the power of meditation. So we speak from our own experience if we recommend you to take part in a retreat!
Have a look at the video below for some visual impressions, or check out our agenda for upcoming retreats.