“The first night I was restless and couldn’t sleep with a wink. When the morning bell woke us, I could barely function and it got worse from then on. . . Day after day sitting, standing, sitting, afraid, lonely. . . My stomach was knotted while it looked like everyone else was relaxed and enjoying themselves. . . I kept thinking: why can’t I do this? Should I go? I’ve never felt so alone and miserable. “
John (not his real name) sits across from me in my office, barely speaking over a whisper. His eyes are averted and his shoulders are huddled in an attitude of defeat and resignation as he restlessly recounts his struggles. I agreed to meet with John after he asked for assistance and stated that he had not “felt right since returning from a 10-day silent meditation retreat organized by a well-known Buddhist lineage outside of my own.” ” have.
John’s experience may sound unusual, it even seems to be some kind of deviation, as meditation retreats are invariably portrayed as helpful breaks from everyday life, where we relax and connect with nature, refine our practice, forge new goals, and connect with deeper priorities .
But it wasn’t that unusual, actually. During a week-long retreat I co-taught several years ago, a woman in her thirties began to move away from the center – which was strange to say the least, given that we were in a remote area of Massachusetts and her journey in the United States began in the middle of it the night. Fortunately, she soon returned and asked me to speak to myself in a clear state of dejection: “I had just been fired by what I thought was ‘him’ and I thought retreat would be a great way to get myself back together . “
Related: 5 Things That Might Surprise You About Meditation Retreats
Continuous meditation practice strategically removes external distractions from practitioners, including verbal and nonverbal communication with others, and forces practitioners to focus on persistent internal sensations, feelings, moods, and thoughts. When it works, we cultivate tools to self-regulate or calm down our persistent states of stress. I have attended and taught my portion of the retreat over the years and have generally found them useful for addressing my own psychological challenges.
But advanced contemplative practice can also activate buried trauma, the emergence of which creates significant emotional strain as one’s ego struggles to focus and stay calm. Days of silence without the regulation of emotions through eye contact and disclosure can be a disastrous choice for participants with a variety of challenges – for example, participants with significant personality disorders. Also, prolonged silence is not a wise choice for those who have recently experienced a breakup or the loss of a significant caregiver. Grief, like fear, requires connecting with others to reveal one’s struggles, which starts the healing process. Retreats are not meant to heal our pain after loss – that is the job of close friends, therapists, sponsors in twelve steps and the like. In fact, isolation from silence and averted gazes only exacerbates feelings of loss and vulnerability. A study by Willoughby Britton at Brown University reported that a significant number of contemplative experiences were “difficult, stressful, functionally impaired, and / or required additional support”.
Retreats are not meant to heal our pain after loss – that is the job of close friends, therapists and the like.
Then why do many Buddhist teachers present retreats as consistently useful? After meeting countless Buddhist teachers over the years – it’s my job, after all – I’ve noticed something interesting: a dominance of secure or avoidant attachment styles in our ranks; These are the personality types found in people who find retreats to be relatively simple experiences and can assume that this is the case for everyone.
Let me explain the attachment styles and what they mean in this context. Safe individuals are those with positive self-esteem who expect the best from others, tend to be confident, and develop an internal conversation that is free from undue guilt or shame. In other words, they achieve emotionally balanced retreats. Avoidant people have a pessimistic view of engagement and intimacy, tend to build up excessive self-reliance and easily break away from interpersonal support, as they find it easy to “turn off” their emotions in stressful situations. It should come as no surprise that such people do reasonably well in extended silence.
But for those who fall under the other two attachment styles due to struggles in their early relationships, fearful and disorganized, silent retreats may not be smooth sailing. Fearful people tend to ruminate; They fixate on their significant other, expect abandonment in relationships, and can easily get annoyed by little things. Therefore, when they come to a retreat, they cannot stop thinking about unresolved issues. No need to guess how they fare in separate settings without any support or understanding. Disorganized individuals are those who have experienced trauma in relationships, often resulting from a childhood spent with parents unable to provide care and security. As such, they can easily get into “blackout” states of losing touch with reality or experiencing intrusive harmful thoughts or even flashbacks of their early abuse, and they tend to focus on self-numbing substance addictions. Again, it should be clear why environments that offer limited interpersonal support should not be encouraged in such cases.
What distresses me most is how ill-equipped so many teachers are to provide meaningful support to those who struggle during the retreat. I’ve heard many teachers begin their retreats with counseling, “When it gets difficult and you can’t stop thinking, just relax, breathe, and do some metta [lovingkindness meditation]. Unfortunately, this advice can all too easily plant seeds of shame if breathing and metta do not alleviate the student’s distress. When a practitioner suffers, they should find one of the guides and express their discomfort.
Given the diversity of the human psyche and the fact that differences in genetics and life experiences can lead to so many different psychological traits, complexes, and challenges, there will never be a single approach to healing and spiritual growth. Today, many centers require participants to fill out forms inquiring about the underlying mental or physical conditions. This is a helpful step.
But those contemplating extended silent retreats should give serious thought to their psychological history and seek advice from wise friends – or therapists, if possible – before participating, especially on this first intense foray into silence. While extended silence sessions in the midst of beautiful landscapes may sound tempting, trust me, they are not panaceas for everyone.