5 Mindful Tips for Not Losing Your Shit at Your First Meditation Retreat

Also: Meditation is not a lobotomy. If you are a jerk when you arrive, you will probably still be a jerk when you leave. Unsplash/Fineas Anton

I blame Steve Jobs for dividing my attention.

Ever since Steve unveiled Promethean fire in the form of an iPhone, I’ve illuminated my face with the perpetual light of a screen that tells me where to go, how to get there, and the fun I’m missing in choosing this activity versus another.

Today, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone. I could argue that each of us are 100 percent more dumb, or at least less in tune with ourselves.

Ironically Steve Jobs, a long-time Zen meditation practitioner, may have been influential in glamorizing chill outs. Aetna, Intel, General Mills, Google, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Target now offer some type of employee mindfulness training to increase productivity and to offset the negative effects of workday stress.

Derived from the Latin word meditor, which means to think or reflect upon, meditation encompasses a wide variety of practices meant to develop compassion and well being.

While the idea is simple, the habit isn’t so easy, especially with advanced technology allowing us to complete several projects at once, or at least feel like we can. Boutique studios like MNDFL provide drop-in meditation classes while apps like Headspace and Calm offer timed sessions via smartphone. The goal is to instill a sense of control by reprogramming people to unitask.

If you’re an internet addict like I am, you check Instagram every hour for the latest cat vids. Watching my unfiltered thoughts—without the ability to share them—is terrifying, until I’m doing it.

Ten minutes of meditation a day really helps prepare for positive interactions with my colleagues. Once a year, I take a weekend meditation retreat to go deeper. I’ve tried everything from Christian contemplative prayer and loving kindness to Zen Buddhism and yoga nidra (yogi sleep). Immersion away from home makes a difference, whether I’m meditating lying down in a spa-like setting or sitting poker straight in a monastery.

But transitioning from a fast pace to sudden silence can make me want to chew off my finger nails—and then to munch on yours.

Nothing tumble dries anxiety quite like preparing for a few minutes of meditation, except packing for an entire retreat dedicated to observance. And yet, learning to be with yourself—when there’s nowhere else to be—can be like seeing a movie with your very best friend.

If you’re about to go wireless on your first retreat, here are five tips to soften the blow:

Know your phone is in your bag somewhere. Most retreat leaders will ask you to turn off your electronic devices. If you’re lucky, you may be in the wilderness without reliable reception. But when you first arrive in a communal environment, you will desire a crutch, like a mental pack of cigarettes, at least until your thumb stops swiping the air. In those virgin moments of stillness, your mind will need a binky and can anchor itself to the density and texture of a glowing rectangle, even if in your imagination while you get your shit together.

Expect lying liars who snore. Upon arrival, you will fill out paperwork that asks for emergency contacts and whether or not you saw logs in your sleep. This information is important for two reasons. First, you should plan to get a reasonable amount of rest by slumbering with peaceful snoozers. Two, in case you’re the unknowing culprit or your bunkmate sneaks in a sleep apnea machine (that doesn’t work), the retreat center will know who to call if the dorm turns Lord of the Flies.

Be prepared to cry. You could be in the middle of work practice—where you’re slicing carrots and remembering your mother’s cooking. You could be admiring a brook or a deer and get a strong sense of déjà vu that makes you well up. Know you are whole. When you have the time to care for yourself, like the sweet companion you are, expect to feel sappy. Embrace emotions all the way through. Let the tears flow.

Meditation is not a lobotomy. If you are a jerk when you arrive at the retreat center, know you will probably still be a jerk when you leave. Mindfulness doesn’t change your personality. You will not suddenly smell ambrosia, engage in group hugs or run barefoot in the snow like a repentant Mr. Scrooge. You will feel like most situations have a bit more space around them. Instead of getting frustrated and starting fights, you can make choices.

You will become your own iPhone. Staying present is your body’s way of shaking a Magic 8 Ball and finding obvious answers. In meditation, a chronically tight throat or neck might tell you what it needs to loosen up: leave a city, change careers or to stand up to an overbearing loved one. At first, your mind may fly from thought to thought. You may be stuck on the same story on repeat, but when your brain surrenders and focuses on the breath, you will lead yourself to your next great adventure. You are more wise and vast than the smartest of smartphones.

Ann Votaw is a freelance writer in New York who has a M.A. in Health Education. She teaches yoga and physical fitness to adults 60 and better.

5 Mindful Tips for Not Losing Your Shit at Your First Meditation Retreat