A complete plan for creating your own custom retreat to recharge body, mind, and spirit—on any budget

Gesshin Claire Greenwood
Aug 9 · 11 min read
Photo by leninscape via Pixabay.

I exercise regularly and have a strong support system. I take antidepressants and see a therapist I love. I’ve had clinical depression since I was nineteen years old, and for the most part, I have it managed.

Nonetheless, recently I fell into a psychological hole — just as Dante wandered into the dark forest at the beginning of the Inferno, where “the straightforward pathway had been lost.” I had landed a new job and quit my current one, and found myself overwhelmed with anxiety. I would jolt awake at 2 a.m., imagining that my boss hated me, and I would collapse into bed in the afternoon, my limbs so heavy and numb that all I could do was lie under the covers and pray the sky would fall and crush me.

I just wanted to go somewhere that I could rest and recharge while I waited for my increased dose of antidepressants to kick in. But what kind of place was that? A yoga camp? A meditation retreat?

After an internet deep dive researching wellness retreats of various kinds (Yoga! Wilderness! Massage! Yoga in the wilderness with massage!), I realized that most of these were well beyond my budget. Three thousand dollars? I’m a graduate student in counseling psychology, and I work in childcare in the most expensive city in the world, so this kind of expense is beyond me.

Don’t get me wrong — if you have the time and resources to attend a Vipassana or Zen meditation retreat, I highly recommend it. I spent most of my twenties in Vipassana retreats or traveling through Asia while seeking spiritual teachers and trying to get enlightened. Eventually, I ordained as a Buddhist nun and practiced in Zen monasteries in Japan for five years. I no longer live as a Buddhist nun, but today I still carry those values and meditative experiences with me.

Despite — or perhaps because of — my experience leaving home to meditate in far-off locales, I’m of the belief now that we don’t need to leave home to experience a reprieve from the stress and anxiety of daily life.

I also don’t believe such an experience should cost thousands of dollars.

So I decided to do it myself. Armed with 10+ years of experience meditating, with my knowledge of mental health research as a therapist in training, and with my personal willfulness, I crafted a DIY wellness retreat.

I want to clarify that when I say “wellness,” I don’t mean losing weight. I do not believe “clean eating” leads to happiness. Feminists and other thinkers are finally onto the connection between wellness and weight loss. When I say “wellness,” I mean mental wellbeing; I mean vitality, joy, and presence. I mean, in the words of my psychology professor, “aliveness.” My wellness retreat was an experiment in how to experience more aliveness without traveling or spending lots of money.

What I found was that a DIY wellness retreat is both easier and harder than I imagined. A self-retreat is easy because as human beings, we actually have all the tools we need to be present and compassionate with ourselves all the time. We don’t need to buy anything or go anywhere special. But it’s harder to do by ourselves because our patterns of workaholism, perfectionism, depression, and self-doubt are bound to assert themselves. In other words: everywhere you go, there you are. These destructive patterns can interfere with the intention and schedule of the retreat.

If you want to make your own wellness retreat on a budget, these are the steps I recommend—and what you can learn from my experience of doing it for myself.


Write Down Your Intention and Brainstorm Activities

A self-retreat takes planning. The first step is to determine what the goal or intention of the retreat is. “Wellness” is a pretty vague term, and it means different things for different people. For some, grabbing wine with friends and complaining about dating might be invigorating and nourishing; for another person, it could be draining, counterproductive, or feed an addiction. Think about how you are feeling now and how you want to feel differently. Are you tired or stressed? Depressed? Angry? How else would you like to feel? Personally, my intention was to feel more grounded, present, self-compassionate, and joyful.

Once you have identified and written down your intention, come up with activities that will help you feel this way. For example, I was already aware that I was spending too much time on social media, and I don’t like the feeling of needing to check my phone every five seconds, so I included “no phone” as one of the activities of the weekend. Because I wanted to feel more present and joyful, I included yoga, art, time in nature, and self-compassion exercises.

What if you can’t come up with good activities? This is very understandable. Sometimes we can be so focused on our careers and personal lives that we lose sight of the things that actually make us happy. To clarify this for yourself, it can be helpful to keep a log of all the activities you do in a regular week, starting from when you wake up. At the end of the day, rate the mood you had during each activity on a scale from one to ten, with one being “very depressed” and ten being “very happy” (for example: at 10:00 a.m. work meeting, mood was a 2. At 7:00 p.m., dinner with spouse, mood was at 8).

This called a mood chart and is actually a common activity in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; many CBT resources are available for free online. Once you have identified the activities throughout your day that are associated with an elevated mood, prioritize them in your wellness weekend.

Another option is to simply pick activities you’ve always wanted to try or would look for in a retreat, like a new kind of exercise class.


Make a Schedule

I recommend making an hourly schedule and sticking to it. Schedules are an integral part of monastic life, and by extension, in modern meditation retreats. “Just follow the schedule” is a common adage in Zen centers. Following a schedule takes the pressure off of deciding what to do when, and enables us to be fully immersed in the moment.

For a DIY wellness weekend, it usually makes sense to start the retreat on Friday night and end sometime on Sunday.

It’s a good idea to begin each day with a specific morning routine. We are so used to hopping out of bed and moving immediately into work or checking social media; this can set the entire tone of our day. It’s important to interrupt this habit with an intentional activity to encourage mindfulness, creativity, or self-compassion.

Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, suggests beginning each day with something called Morning Pages. This is simply time dedicated to writing three pages of longhand, stream-of-conscious thoughts.

Another possible activity is to fill in the blanks of these questions: “Today I will let go of ______. I am grateful for _____. I will focus on ______.”

Do whatever you believe will help you start your day in a grounded and joyful way, but plan something specific out and stick to it. The most important point is to do something other than work, worry, checking email, etc.

As you plan the rest of your day, try to include a mixture of stationary activities like meditation and art with others that include movement.

Humans are social creatures, and meditation retreats can feel isolation. If you are worried about needing human contact, include activities with friends and family (dinner, a walk, or even a phone call). Of course, it’s fine to have a weekend of silence too. Silence is wonderful every now and then. It’s up to you and what your needs are.

I also recommend some time for reading and/or listening to recorded talks or podcasts. Because I wanted to feel more self-compassionate on my weekend, I found a Ted Talk on self-compassion and listened to that as one of my activities. Do some research beforehand on what content seems appropriate for consumption. For a database of free talks and guided meditations, check out dharmaseed.org/talks. You can even search by keyword to find meditations focused on specific topics. And never underestimate the healing power of laughter. Not every self-care activity needs to be serious and full of gravitas.

Your schedule might look like this:

Friday:

  • 6 p.m.: Turn off phone
  • 6–7:15 p.m.: Vinyasa yoga
  • 7:45–8:45 p.m. Dinner with good friend

Saturday:

  • 8 a.m.: Wake up, breakfast,
  • 8:15–8:30 a.m. Morning journaling
  • 8:30–9:30 a.m. Meditation
  • 10:00 -11:30 a.m. Yoga
  • 12:00–1 p.m. Lunch
  • 1–2 p.m. Rest
  • 2–3 p.m. Walk in the park
  • 3–5 p.m. Watercolor painting
  • 5–7 p.m. Prepare dinner, eat with family
  • 7:30–8:30 p.m. Watch standup comedy/ funny movie
  • 8:30–9:00 p.m. Bubble bath
  • 9:00–10 p.m. Listen to guided meditation online
  • 10 p.m. Bedtime

Sunday:

  • 8 a.m. Wakeup, breakfast
  • 8:15–8:30 a.m. Morning journaling
  • 8:30–9:30 a.m. Meditation
  • 10:00 a.m. –12 p.m. Hike with friends
  • Noon-1 p. m. Lunch
  • 1:00–1:30 p.m. Journal about experience over weekend and intentions for bringing wellness into daily life
  • 1:30 p.m. Turn phone back on — end of the retreat

Plan Ahead

As you will see from the sample schedule, this kind of weekend takes some planning in advance. For one thing, if you’re doing a phone detox, you will need to make arrangements with friends and family about how you can be contacted (if you even want to be contacted).

I recommend mapping and printing out directions to anywhere you need to go beforehand (just like the good old days! Remember maps?).

For exercise classes and yoga, I also recommend enrolling in these beforehand, so you don’t have to spend time over the weekend going online or making phone calls to book them. Most yoga studios offer special deals for beginning students—I purchased unlimited yoga for a month before my wellness retreat and took full advantage of it.

You may also want to do things like purchase groceries or cook in advance. Of course, if cooking is enjoyable for you, feel free to cook and eat whenever feels right. I love cooking so I made meal preparation a planned part of the weekend.


Relax, Follow the Schedule, and Be Kind to Yourself

Now all that’s left is to follow the schedule you’ve already created.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s best to follow the schedule as much as possible without deviating from it. This conserves your mental energy and allows you to focus on the present moment, rather than planning and evaluating what to do next.

On the other hand, this wellness retreat is for you! Don’t beat yourself up if you planned to meditate for 50 minutes but only managed 40 (or 30, or 10…). This isn’t a job and you don’t need to report to anyone.

Be kind to yourself, and treat the weekend as an experiment in living fully and compassionately in the present moment. If you feel resistance to doing a preplanned activity, explore your resistance a bit further. What is creating the resistance? Is the activity actually harmful to your wellbeing, or are you being driven by boredom and restlessness? Give yourself permission to “fail” even as you attempt to complete everything you’ve planned.


Afterthoughts and Troubleshooting

Some things I discovered after designing and completing a wellness retreat myself was that I needed more relational support and accountability. Although I did not turn on my phone for the first part of Saturday, I eventually discovered some excuse to turn it on, and then was actually on my phone on and off until Sunday. By Sunday I was checking (and responding to) email like normal. I realized that on further DIY retreats, I would like to include a friend or family member. Having my husband on the phone during this time was a big distraction, so it would be helpful next time to enlist his participation as well.

Relationships and social environment are a part of wellness, too. Spiritual practice throughout time has relied on the support of community; it’s easier to practice meditation in a communal setting because you are inspired and held by the people around you (and some good-natured peer pressure to meditate doesn’t hurt).

The benefit of a DIY wellness retreat is the ability to design it how you like, to stay where you are, and to conserve funds. However, it’s good to involve whoever is living with you — roommates, spouse, or family. Additionally, relationships in and of themselves are crucial to mental health. One problem with mindfulness as it is often taught in corporations is that it tends to privatize mental illness; the individual becomes solely responsible for their stress and anxiety. But this is simply not true. The environment — our relationships and community — plays a large role in how we feel. When approaching the task of designing a wellness weekend, allow yourself the freedom to ask for and receive help.

After my wellness weekend, I felt revitalized and awake. This made me realize that in my normal life I was not prioritizing my mental health and wellbeing. I had gotten stuck in the habit of going to work, stressing about money, and watching endless television in the evening as a way to relax and unwind.

While I don’t think television and phones are completely bad, after my weekend without screens I realized that I had been relying on quick and easy entertainment — when what I was really needed was deep rest, laughter, kindness, and nature. These things are not found on screens for me.

Additionally, after spending my twenties in Buddhist monasteries, I was relieved to find that the same peace of mind, clarity, and mindfulness I had sought after in Asia was still available to me in my home in San Francisco.

There’s a story I love in the Zen tradition about a man who goes in search of spring. He leaves his house and travels all around the country, asking everyone he can find and searching everywhere. Finally gives up and returns home. When he does, the first thing he sees is the plum tree outside his house, filled with blossoms. Spring had been there all along.

Doing yoga, meditating, eating well, laughing, making art, and being in nature (or in other words, health and wellness) are always available to us. I don’t believe we need to spend a lot of money to achieve this.

In fact, I’ve said before that in our culture, wellness is capitalism trying to sell us back the sanity it stole from us. In other words, “wellness” as it is usually referred to in popular culture and media costs a lot of money and is really only available to a select, privileged few. It is also, paradoxically, a response to our addictive patterns of overwork, exploitation, and mindless consuming.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, to combat the exhaustion and dehumanization of being workers in late-stage capitalism, I believe true wellness must be free and universally accessible.

When I was a freshman in college, I read Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book singlehandedly set me on my path to becoming a Buddhist nun. On the first page of the book, Hanh writes, “Do we need to make a special effort to enjoy the beauty of the blue sky? Do we have to practice to be able to enjoy it? No, we just enjoy it. Each second, each minute of our lives can be like this.”

In creating a wellness retreat at home, it’s important to understand that we don’t need to spend great sums of money or travel far away to experience vitality. The benefit of a meditation or yoga retreat is not the beautiful retreat setting, tropical local, or even knowledgeable teachers.

The benefit is in doing the activity, in actually taking the time to sit down and notice, to be kind with ourselves, to eat well, to smile, and step outside. This is always available. We just have to make the intention to break from our normal patterns long enough to do it.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Gesshin Claire Greenwood

Written by

Author of “Bow First, Ask Questions Later” and “Just Enough: Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan’s Buddhist Temples”

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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