Advice on making the most of my first meditation retreat
May 20, 2016 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Next weekend I'm going for a four-day retreat in the middle of nowhere and I am excited but also a little nervous! It's hard to find unbiased information about what to expect, so I'm curious about any of your experiences with these. This previous thread is giving me nightmares.

What I know: Meditation in the Alexander Technique (previously unknown to me, but there's some material to read ahead of time). We wake up at 5:30 am. There will be coffee (thank GOD). All meals are vegan. There will be working meditation. No books or electronic devices. No alcohol or "street drugs" (obviously). Communal living space. No scented perfumes or cosmetics.

Where I'm coming from: Severely lapsed in my Vipassana practice, but I desperately need a break from constant over-stimulation/life in general and would like to form better lifestyle habits.

Most of my days are spent 100% in my comfort zone: Wake up at 8 am when my fiance brings me coffee in bed (I'm spoiled), check email and/or snuggle with our tiny dog while I drink coffee, take a leisurely shower, listen to music, go to work, go to gym, come home, shower again (I love showering and bath/body products) and eat some pizza or similar, enjoy comforts and entertainments such as Netflix and Plants vs. Zombies, have a glass of wine while reading a book to wind down for bed, put a bunch of cream on my face for overnight moisture and go blissfully to sleep around 1 am.

So my usual routine is VERY different from what I think I can expect from this retreat. I have about a week to prepare. How can I make the most of it without suffering too much (I'm aware that suffering is a Thing, but what about myyyy coooomforrrrt zone)? And if anyone would like to share their experiences with these or advice, I will welcome that.
posted by witchen to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is not meditation, in the practical sense. Alexander Technique is a back pain relief process. Is it about meditating in pose all day? I would be prepared to be physically active the whole time, rather than sitting for long periods
posted by parmanparman at 9:40 AM on May 20, 2016

Ooh, I've been interested in an Alexander program for a long time (all I really know is that actors are very into it).

I'm not sure why you're planning to suffer, though. That seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It might be uncomfortable in moments, but that's what you go there for, to step outside yourself and your comfort zone. So discomfort means you're doing it right! And new forms of comfort mean you're doing it right, too, so that's nicely reinforcing.

I'd suggest taking yourself a couple of nice notebooks and pens so you can journal through your discomfort and epiphanies and lessons, and keep a loose running list of all the stuff that's going to bubble up in your head about ideas for creative projects and career improvements and life path stuff. Write it down, don't congest yourself with a ton of things you're going to try to remember for a week.

Treat yourself to the fanciest unscented lotion you can find. Embrace everything new and different. Don't read that other thread, it's deliberately looking for things that could go wrong, for dramatic purposes. Resist the urge to catastrophize.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:41 AM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ah, yes--forgot to add that one reason I picked this one was because it's labeled "beginner" and because I'm having surgery next month and anticipate some physical discomfort there, so I was hoping this technique would give me tools to get through that.

And I am a professional-grade catastrophizer.
posted by witchen at 9:41 AM on May 20, 2016

There is basically zero chance that anything around the Alexander Technique is a cult induction. While it is about posture it is not just focused on back-pain; I am very familiar with it in the context of music performance technique. I would guess that in the context you'll be presented with, there is probably a lot of focus around mindfulness in movement.

I don't think you need to "prepare" in any way at all except to be accepting of and non-judgemental about the fact that things will be different. Bring non-electronic stuff to keep yourself occupied during your own time and approach with the attitude that it will be interesting.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:50 AM on May 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'll tell you, you're going to be just fine :) while I can't speak to the efficacy of the Alexander Technique as a meditative methodology, I went to a very generalized meditation/yoga/happiness retreat this just-past weekend, and it was wonderful. Consider it a way to open yourself back up out of habits: the weekend was a very analog one, without the distractions of Facebook etc., and without the compulsions to always be cognizantly 'available' for all of my friends, always-ready to respond.

(This retreat sounds a little bit more stringent on core concepts being 'requirements' rather than 'recommendations,' and that may be what's bugging you out a little bit. Perhaps it feels like an enforcement away from the norm? Make peace with yourself.)

Do you know that this retreat will be silent all the way through? I couldn't see anything in particular to suggest that the Alexander technique was necessarily meant to be effected in that way, but yours might be different. Mine wasn't silent, personally. Matter of fact, it was absolutely wonderful, meeting all sorts of people who were like-minded and wanted to be at a retreat: usually, because they had some sort of inner goal in mind, some kind of inner peacefulness they were looking to reach. Honestly, I have a feeling you'll come out the other side, very clear, very clean, very kind with yourself and affectionate.

It sounds like you have an intention for your going: set that for yourself, consciously, that that's what you're looking to do. Maybe there's not a lot you can do to actively prepare for it, except perhaps allowing yourself, simply, the needed time and permission to go and fully meet yourself there. That means, to me: Allowing yourself to be open to new ideas, actively forming how you think about yourself in relation to them, endeavoring to take one manifest conclusion away from every discrete moment that you feel yourself experiencing, and working with others to set goals for yourself that you can easily achieve.

You'll see for yourself: this is going to be a good weekend. You'll have your moments where you struggle with the inner quiet inside your head, but the goal is to even let that pass. There is no other feeling quite like the one you get after a long period of good, relaxed meditation: it is acceptance, it is freedom from anxiety and other thoughts: and it is yourself, very attuned to you.
posted by a good beginning at 10:25 AM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

The danger here is almost certainly that you will love it so much you don't want it to end, not that you will hate it. (We're amazingly good at not seeing how certain aspects of a "comfortable" life are actually painful… until they stop.)

And working meditation is weirdly great, even though it's the thing that tends to set people's "is this cultish!?" antennae tingling the most.

All retreats are different, but based only on the vipassana retreats I've attended, I'd be surprised if the "no books or electronic devices" rule/recommendation isn't intended also to include notebooks, journals, and other analog "things to do" with your attention. I'd heartily recommend doing none of these things, since in the context of retreat they often serve more to spin you away from the present into narrative, despite their many beneficial aspects.
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:40 AM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have experience with the Alexander technique (12 sessions) and with Vipassana meditation (a 10-day silent retreat near Delhi) and really, I doubt you need to do anything to prepare for this.

Here's what I found. The Alexander technique seems underwhelming at first but is awesome. I was (re)trained how to sit, how to walk, how to stand. Now I stand and walk and sit in ways that generate less strain, and when I do generate strain I have a couple of stretches that fix it. I used to be mildly-to-moderately physically uncomfortable pretty much all the time; now I am not.

On my meditation retreat, I expected to miss a lot of stuff (my phone! reading in general! good food!) and at first I did. The first day was exciting but hard, the next few were boring and hard, and afterwards it got a little better. I spent some time feeling sorry for myself, and found it extremely difficult to stay in the moment. I couldn't keep my brain from trying to be "useful" -- thinking, analysing, planning, making lists. Plus snatches of music and sitcom theme songs and other stuff kept looping through my head. It was really hard to get past that, but eventually I mostly did. It helped to remind myself not to expect benefits in the moment -- the whole thing was an investment in feeling centred afterwards.

Going to bed and getting up early were easy and felt good. You will be tired at the end of every day.

I'm not sure I would do it again, but I am glad I did it. You will learn things about yourself, probably. Try to avoid focusing on anticipating it being over: it's true that your first cappuccino (or whatever) afterwards will be super-exciting and that is fun, but it's not the main value of the experience overall :)
posted by Susan PG at 10:58 AM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm a longtime practitioner of meditation with many meditation retreats under my belt, and I've had Alexander sessions at three separate times in my life, and here's my advice: Just roll with whatever is going on. It's going to be fine! You may love it! You may hate it! But it is only four days. You can do anything for four days.

The fewer expectations you have, the better off you are. This is true for everyone. If you expect your retreat to be like one you've done before, nope, you'll be wrong. If you expect it to be like a retreat someone else has described to you, nope, that's wrong too. If you try to let go of expectations and just think of it as a kind of mental surfing on the waves of the thoughts and emotions that your mind creates, you'll have an easier time.
posted by janey47 at 12:02 PM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Read this article from XOJane for a first-hand perspective of someone who tried it recently for the first time. (Yes, I know, typically a very annoying website. But this article is good.)
posted by something something at 12:44 PM on May 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

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