Planning to go on retreat?
I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are planning to go on retreat soon, and at some stage in the discussion, there’s often an embarrassed acknowledgement of feeling some anxiety about it. Even for people who have been on retreat before and have some familiarity with the set-up, each retreat is unique, so we never really know what to expect. In some ways, that’s the point of it: to open ourselves to the unknown, to explore new territory, and to experience aspects of ourselves that we may not have come into contact with before.
Working with pre-retreat anxiety
It’s natural to experience some anxiety at this idea of facing in to the unknown. Usually though, we think of this as a problem to be avoided, rather than something that can be explored as part of the practice. For example, a few months ago, someone told me they had just signed up for a long retreat at the end of this year and were experiencing some quite strong fear about it already. They wondered how they were going to cope with this fear when they finally got to the retreat, imagining that by that point, it would have become extremely intense. I asked them how they were coping with the fear right now? And they laughed, realising that they didn’t need to wait another 12 months to practice working with fear – they could start in this moment!
Don’t procrastinate … your retreat starts now!
So rather than thinking of pre-retreat anxiety or fear as a problem, it can be helpful to understand it as a natural part of the retreat process. Our retreat doesn’t begin the moment we arrive at the actual retreat centre; it starts when we register for it. From that time on, we can begin to notice any recurrent thought patterns and emotions that start to come up, and relate to them as necessary and useful preparation for the retreat itself. The more we can work with these habits of mind now, the easier it will be to meet them if they do happen to show up on retreat. And of course, it will also make our daily life easier if we’re addressing unpleasant mind-states sooner rather than later, before they have the chance to escalate in intensity and become more entrenched.
Releasing anxiety and fear
A lot has already been written about how to work with anxiety and fear by many highly-experienced teachers, so I won’t try to cover the same ground here. If you’re new to this type of practice, a recent dharma talk by Tara Brach could be a good starting point. She gives a helpful overview and guided meditation here:
Try not to expect the worst
A second very common pattern many people fall into in relation to pre-retreat practice is expecting the worst. Because of our brain’s inherent “negativity bias,”¹ most of us tend to spend a lot of time anticipating potential challenges and problems, rather than considering the benefits to be gained from being on retreat. Yet I know from my own experience, as well as having worked with hundreds of students, that being on retreat offers a powerful opportunity to develop and strengthen all kinds of beneficial qualities: courage, integrity, patience, resolve, energy, confidence, wisdom, kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity … to name just a few.
Enjoy the ride
While it’s possible we might experience some challenges during the retreat, it’s also true that being on retreat supports us to develop the capacity to meet those same challenges with increasing wisdom and compassion. So rather than thinking only in terms of what we have to lose, we can also try to imagine what might be gained – then let go of any expectations, and just enjoy the ride!