Flying Solo: How to Prepare For Your First Solitary Retreat
Yogis in the Himalayas. Shamans on vision quests. Prophets in the desert.
For millennia, in every culture around the world, periods of solitude have been an essential part of spiritual seekers’ journeys.
With no one around, no roles or expectations or external mirrors of the personality, the world and your place in it starts to seem very different.
The idea of spending days or weeks completely alone, dedicating your time to spiritual practice, might strike you as exciting, frightening, alluring or mysterious.
Solitary retreats have their challenges, but they can be among the most beautiful experiences and the most powerful elements of a spiritual practice.
If you are preparing for your first retreat in solitude, or you are just curious about this profound journey, this article will take you through everything you need to now.
How do you know if you’re ready for a solitary retreat?
Maybe you’ve thought about doing a solitary retreat before, but how do you know you’re ready for it?
First, you should already have a solid personal practice. When you’re alone in retreat, you can’t depend on your teacher or friends for inspiration, so the impulse to meditate has to come from within.
It’s helpful, although not necessary, to have already done a silent retreat in a group. This way you will already be accustomed to silence and long periods of meditation.
Finally and most importantly, you know you’re ready for a solo retreat if you feel a calling for it. When something inside you just lights up at the idea, that’s the right time to go for it.
Preparing for your retreat in 9 steps
1. Choose the right place
The first step is to decide where you will do your retreat. Environment has a subtle but profound affect on your mind, which you will notice much more when you’re in retreat, so it’s important to choose a place that’s supportive to your practice.
The ideal place will be somewhere out in nature that’s quiet, peaceful and inspiring. It will be a place where other people have meditated and done retreats, so it’s charged with uplifting energy. It should be safe and comfortable, with all the resources you need or people who can provide for you.
Diamond Mountain, in southeastern Arizona, fits the bill perfectly. We have 27 self-sufficient retreat houses spread over 1,000 acres of pristine desert hills, and dedicated staff on call to support guests in all their needs during their retreats.
Your house itself should be clean and simple on the inside, without too many distractions. If possible, you should visit before you choose a location to get a sense if the energy is right and you will feel comfortable there.
2. Settle everything outside before you go in
Both pragmatically and emotionally, you should have all your loose ends tied up before you go into retreat – especially if it’s a longer retreat.
Make sure your bills are paid and your projects are wrapped up. Get someone you trust to water your plants, feed your cats and collect your mail. Clean up your house so you won’t have a mess waiting when you go home.
It’s simple stuff, but when you’re in solitude these things can gnaw at your mind if they’re not settled.
In the same vein, try not to leave anything unresolved in your relationships. You should have a feeling like your whole life is packaged up and safe, so you can leave it without thinking too much about it for the duration of your retreat.
3. Make sure you have everything you need and only what you really need
Needless to say, you should arrange all the logistics beforehand. Make sure you either bring enough food or you make plans with a support person to deliver groceries. Set with them how often to come and where you will leave notes or how you will communicate in case of emergency.
Since getting any items you forget will be difficult or impossible while in solitude, triple-check your packing list. You might ask the staff at the retreat center you’re going to if there’s anything special they recommend people to bring.
Things you might not think about – like a flashlight or a sun hat – can make a big difference to your experience.
That said, avoid bringing unnecessary stuff. Extra baggage in your room means extra baggage in your mind. Your personal items form a connection to your normal life, which can make it harder to detach from old patterns.
There’s no better time than a solitary retreat to simplify, cut back and see how much you can live without. You can find a special joy in living with minimal possessions around.
4. Prepare yourself with daily practice
Going from zero to 60 is hard. Having a strong, consistent meditation practice of at least one hour every day will give you the foundation you need to get the most out of your time in retreat.
To prepare for longer retreats, two hours per day is better.
Your body should also be ready. Long hours of meditating, plus less movement than usual, can cause problems. Prepare your body with yoga or mindful stretching, and continue this (plus a daily walk) while in retreat.
For longer retreats, try to talk to your main teacher beforehand. They can give you a better sense of what practices you should bring into your retreat and what to focus on.
5. Confront your fears
The idea of solitary retreats is scary for many people. Even if you feel the calling and you’re committed to it, you might still have some fears. That’s fine and totally normal.
If thinking about being all alone makes your skin crawl a little bit, ask yourself where this reaction is coming from. Are you afraid of going crazy? That you’ll get sick or hurt and won’t have any help? That you’ll be bored the whole time?
For the first fear: don’t worry, you won’t go crazy. Really.
Make a plan for if you start to feel ungrounded, like you will take a walk, eat comforting food or look at inspiring spiritual pictures.
Meditation is the best preparation here. Your mind might throw a few curveballs at you during a long retreat, but the more you are able to witness your thoughts without reacting, the less these will shake you.
If you’re afraid of getting hurt, do your retreat at a place with a good support team, people who you know are trustworthy and who you can contact in case of an emergency. (At Diamond Mountain, for example, we have WiFi in all retreat houses and a staff member on call 24/7 just for this purpose.)
Whatever makes you nervous, bring it out into the open. It will seem much less intimidating when you just acknowledge it.
6. Plan your practice
What retreat style suits you best?
Do you want a strict schedule or more free-form?
Some people benefit from following a clear timetable. It frees up the mind from having to make decisions so you can focus on the practice itself. If you tend to get lazy, setting firm boundaries for yourself can help you stay on track.
However, others will get frustrated by a predetermined schedule. It can be extremely liberating to throw away the clock and enjoy the magical sense of timelessness that can come in solo retreats.
Another decision: reading or no reading?
One of my teachers discourages reading of any kind during retreat, since this can just create more filters when you are going for direct experience. Also, if you bring a good book there’s a risk you’ll spend more time reading than meditating.
However, some people like to take time in retreat to study or get inspiration from sacred texts.
7. Turn down the volume in your life
In the weeks leading up to your retreat, start to acclimate yourself to silence and solitude.
Especially if you’re the type of person who’s always surrounded by other people, try to block out some alone time every day.
It’s also nice to cut down on unnecessary mental stimulation. Usually, we modern people are constantly filling up our brains with media and activities.
When you go into retreat, you’ll find all that stuff is still sitting there in your mind, making background noise. I’ve had long-forgotten songs and bits of old movies come flashing up in incredible vividness, begging for attention.
When you’re in retreat, the mind gradually becomes calmer and quieter, and you stop craving so much for external activity. You can get a head start on this process by limiting your exposure to news, movies and social media in the days or weeks before you go in.
8. Get plenty of rest
Do you get enough sleep?
If most of us are honest, the answer is probably a resounding no.
My experience is that often, even if I feel rested enough in my daily life, for the first few days of a retreat I’m sleeping much more than usual.
This is a common phenomenon. Too often, we push our bodies beyond what’s healthy without listening to what they are telling us. We don’t even feel that we’re slightly sleep-deprived because it just becomes our normal state.
But the moment the pressure is off, the body wants to catch up.
If this is your case, I recommend just going with it and letting yourself rest as much as you want for the first day or two. When I do this, afterwards I feel much more energetic and start to sleep much less.
You can skip this phase, of course, if you get plenty of rest leading up to your retreat!
9. Do a ritual to open the retreat
Once all the planning, preparation and travel is finally behind you, and you’ve made it to your retreat place, it’s time for one final step: opening the retreat.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it’s customary to set boundaries around the retreat space, to protect the meditator and call in the support of spirits. A teacher or experienced practitioner can show you how to do this.
It’s very beautiful to start your retreat with a consecration, offering the fruits of your practice to whatever you consider the highest, or dedicate the merit for the benefit of all sentient beings.
You can make offerings, like flowers or a candle on your altar, to whatever deities or enlightened beings you feel most connected to, or an offering to your teacher.
This is also a good time to set your intention for the retreat.
And now… enjoy your retreat!
A solitary retreat can be one of the most beautiful and transformative experiences of a person’s life. It’s a chance to experience life in a totally different way.
The idea can be intimidating at first, but the right setting and preparation can help you feel secure going in. And once you taste the sweetness of solitude, the freedom and quiet joy found within yourself, all the fears are forgotten. Then you’re truly on your way to an amazing retreat.
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