Silent Meditation Retreats are NOT Relaxing, but They’re Something Better

GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF

Recently I underwent a 7-day silent meditation retreat in my own home. I carefully planned the week to involve one yoga session, four mindfulness meditation sits, three mindful meals, and two mindful walks per day. I refrained myself from all communication and technology.

In the context of silence, time, and space, you get the chance to observe a 360 view of all your brain processes. You get to dive deep into a conglomerate of unconscious brain networks by which you work upon everyday, without even knowing it. You get to see all of your thought patterns, corresponding emotional responses, and all of the memories (even ones from early childhood!) that created them. By this, I could now see how silly the notion was of “finding yourself through travel (i.e. a constant barrage of novel and distracting stimuli,” when in reality all you have to do is close your eyes. The combined concoction of restricting stimulation and engaging in mindful meditation for a prolonged period is the key to understanding who you are. And in the process, you get to see aspects of yourself have been helping you, and the ones that have been holding you back.

THE DE-CONDITIONING OF CHRONIC MICROTRAUMAS

Negative emotional experiences left unprocessed overtime eventually take a toll on your mental health. I view it like a repetitive strain injury; just like how continuous small traumas to connective tissue can lead to chronic pain and muskoloskeletal injuries, unprocessed emotions from repeated negative events can lead to mental illness. Here lies the gap in trauma psychotherapy. While many psychotherapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing work to de-condition the emotional response to one highly traumatic, adversive event, little therapeutic modalities are offered which work to de-conditon emotional responses to many, smaller scale microtraumas.

This is where silent mindfulness meditation retreats come in to play. Silent mindfulness meditation retreats have a way of unearthing a multitude of negative memories and emotional responses to them. When you practice, you allow your body to meet and greet the past traumas/ microtraumas and de-condition their adversive emotional power through the power of mindful breath and body awareness. Memories of the similar content usually present themselves one after another; in this way, you get to address all of them at once.

For myself, a person living with chronic mental illness, this process was extremely intense. Reliving all of the crappy parts of your life in one week is not a fun undertaking. However, through this process I was able to work through many difficult and destructive thought and emotion patterns of which I once felt that I could never overcome. I had a renewed sense of energy that could run free after all of the negative mental fog was lessened. While I still live with mental illness, the power it has over me has decreased.

*Here I’d like to caution that if you have a severe psychiatric illness, it is generally not recommended that you do a prolonged meditation retreat without professional supervision, as they can be overwhelming and counterproductive. As with my case,  I have had professional training in meditation prior to the retreat. Current research is still parsing out how to safely tailor meditation programs to those with severe psychiatric illnesses.

THE CAKE IS A LIE, BUT YOU EVENTUALLY REALIZE YOU DON’T NEED CAKE

A lot of people have this notion that the meaning of meditation retreats are to guide you to an enlightened, thoughtless state of ultimate bliss and happiness. I did NOT get here. But… *drum roll* I don’t CARE. From this retreat, I did not attain unwaivering inner peace. Not even close. Rather, I attained the realization that emotions are okay. I learned how to ride and embrace intense waves of emotion. And I learned that while anger, fear, shame, and sadness are crappy, they eventually dissolve and collapse. Similarly, I learned that while happiness is nice, it is just as fleeting. I learned that clinging to any emotion is a recipe for disappointment. I also learned to not take any thought too seriously, and to even laugh at the presentation of negative ones. I learned the meaning of equanimity in an experiential way.

These were the lessons I truly needed. And I would prefer them over relaxation, inner peace, or popular perceptions of enlightenment any day.

[retreat 1 blog]