For many yogis and meditators, going on retreat is a regular part of their practice. A retreat is life simplified, with distractions removed. It's a chance to live at a slower pace, to do less, to make fewer choices.
For beginners, a retreat can be a good environment to learn the practicalities of meditation. Things can be revealed over a few days that are hard to convey in a weekly yoga or meditation class.
A retreat is not an individual experience. We have to share our living space and support each other. All participants help out with the housework (cleaning, cooking, washing-up). Caring for the building, the environment and each other is part of spiritual practice (which is just another way of saying, "part of life").
The meals should be tasty and nourishing. Food should be a joy but not an indulgence. Many of us have developed habits of using food as entertainment or as distraction. Retreats introduce a new way of eating. We don't choose our meal times and we don't make choices about what we eat (although allowances are made for food allergies). We practice eating "just enough": no more, and no less, than is needed to nourish body and soul.
Similarly, we practice speaking "just enough": no more, and no less. In doing the housework, we speak only as much as is necessary to get the job done. At meals and other times, complete silence is the rule. There is also time to catch up with friends and to share our experiences, spiritual and otherwise. But we can also learn to be with each other, to be companionable, without relying on gossip and chatter.
As a further aspect of silence, retreatants can abstain from reading newspapers, magazines, novels and other non-spiritual literature. Some may choose not to read at all, although this is a matter for personal choice. It's a kind of "detox" for the mind.
The retreat is not some ideal society, it is not a replacement family. The world is not a broken place that we need to escaoe from. But the relentless torrent of internet, television, 24-hour news channels, of work, socialising and family duties, can leave us tired, with our senses blunted and dulled. We lose our sensitivity to life's wonder and joy. The good news is that we are not trapped. You can leave behind your usual roles of partner, parent, employee. You can see yourself anew, in a simpler light; you can come again to your senses.
There are many meditation and yoga retreats organised around the country, and I strongly encourage you to try one. The Ranelagh Zen Group will hold a retreat this October (28-30 October, the bank holiday weekend) in County Roscommon. Please come along to our Monday evening meditations if you want to learn more.