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10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

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10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

Back in 1996, I attended my first silent retreat. It was a Buddhist retreat led by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I was new to meditation, and completely unfamiliar with Buddhism, so I had no idea what to expect.

A friend of mine in Miami, where I lived at the time, told me about it with great enthusiasm. He said the retreat was going to be held in Key West, someplace I had never visited before.

I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I figured that if I wanted to learn about meditation, then training with a Zen master was an excellent opportunity. It was a life-changing experience.

Now, I lead yearly silent retreats in North Carolina to help other people transform their lives like I did at my first silent retreat. In fact, we just had our retreat last month.

There are many misconceptions about silent retreats. Here I am going to share with you what a silent retreat is, and how it can improve your mental health.

What Is a Silent Retreat?

The term “silent retreat” is more of a general term to describe a certain type of retreat. The reason is that since different teachers and organizations provide the retreats, their formats can vary significantly. Some are religious, and some are not.

Basically, a silent retreat is an event where you go and spend some time away from your daily life and personal responsibilities, and engage in a combination of meditation and learning. And of course, it also involves some degree of silence throughout the retreat. That is, you refrain from speaking.

The purpose of the silence is two-fold. First, the silence allows your mind to settle down, so you can begin to see the world with greater clarity. Second, it helps you focus your attention on your inner world, which is why you’re there. We often use conversation and other activities to distract ourselves from ourselves.

Why Attend a Silent Retreat?

The whole purpose of the silent retreat is to facilitate personal transformation. Many of us want to work on ourselves in order to grow mentally and emotionally, but it’s hard to do that kind of work in our daily lives when we’re constantly being distracted by our activities, responsibilities, and other people.

Your whole time at a silent retreat is spent relaxing, and getting to know yourself on a deeper level. You can leave all your responsibilities behind, including cooking and cleaning. You can enjoy true rest and relaxation, something we don’t always do on a regular vacation with a busy itinerary.

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Silent retreats are usually held in some remote location with beautiful scenery, so you can be closer to nature. There is something quite relaxing about being surrounded by nature. I think it takes our mind away from our busy lives, and helps us put things into a different perspective.

Our retreat took place in the scenic countryside of Central North Carolina. There was a lake, trails, and deer roaming freely. Participants went for leisurely walks around the lake, and some even went canoeing. Others caught up on their sleep.

How a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

There are various ways a silent retreat can improve your mental health, some directly and others indirectly. Here are the 10 most common ways.

1. Overcome Stress and Anxiety

One of the benefits of meditation most often touted is that it helps you overcome stress and anxiety.[1] Many of us have extremely busy lives. We have demanding jobs, families to care for, financial commitments, and other activities. These can lead to us stressing over how to keep everything under control.

When you’re at a silent retreat, you get a break from all of your responsibilities, and have an opportunity to let your mind settle down. This alone, will ease stress and anxiety.

You see, we don’t just have too much going on in our lives, we also have too much going on in our mind, and this is what contributes to the feeling of being overwhelmed.

2. Gain Greater Clarity

It generally takes about 24 hours of silence for your mind to quiet down.[2] Once your mind settles down, you’ll naturally begin to see things with much greater clarity.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes going for a short walk helps you clear your mind? At a silent retreat, that effect is much greater.

Imagine the impact this would have on your life. You’ll be able to understand yourself much better, as well as the world around you. This will lead to better decisions that can have long-term implications on the direction of your life. Several participants at our retreat mentioned that they gained new perspectives on their lives, and continued doing so after the retreat was over.

Probably the greatest benefit of having greater clarity is that the world will make much more sense. Confusion will begin to disappear, and as a result, you’ll be able to pursue your life goals without hesitation.

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3. Develop Mental Discipline

There is an old Buddhist story about a man riding a horse, which is used to illustrate what a racing mind does to us. One day, the man was riding his horse quickly down the road and with great determination. A bystander shouted to him, “Where are you going?” The man on the horse replied, “I don’t know. Ask the horse!” Our racing mind does the same thing to us: It takes us for a ride, and we don’t know where it’s going.

Most people don’t have much mental discipline, nor do they think it’s possible to control their mind. They let their racing mind rule their lives. When your mind settles down, it will no longer be racing out of control. Then you’ll gain greater ability to focus your attention, and therefore, have more control of your mind. In addition, your memory, abstract thinking, and creativity will improve.

4. Gain Greater Control of Your Emotions

All of our emotions are triggered by our thoughts, either conscious or unconscious. So if our mind is flooded with thoughts, then it is also flooded with emotions.

When your mind calms down at a silent retreat, you will naturally experience fewer emotions. In addition, with the increasing clarity, you’ll be able to heal the wounds from your past, which fester in your subconscious mind.

Another way a silent retreat can help you gain control over your emotions is by developing greater self-awareness. When your mind is more peaceful, there are much fewer unnecessary thoughts in your mind that hinder your ability to monitor yourself.

5. Gain Greater Control of Your Body

Self-awareness also extends to our body. When we are more aware of our body, we are more conscious of the subtle queues our body is sending us. This will lead to better decisions regarding our nutrition, physical activity, and medical care.

As a result of making better choices for our body, we will feel better physically. This is especially important as we get older. As we age, our body begins to wear down, leading to various physical ailments that cause a great deal of pain and suffering.

With better physical health, we will feel better emotionally. We will feel more confident and energetic. And we’ll avoid emotional problems, such as depression and loneliness, which often come with an aging body.[3]

6. Heal the Wounds from Your Past

Most of us have issues from our past that we haven’t fully resolved. They can range from unpleasant situations to traumatic events. Whichever the case, they’re always festering in our mind, whether we’re conscious of them or not. If they’re in our subconscious mind, then they continuously manifest themselves in our attitudes, and therefore, our actions.

Silent retreats are great for healing the wounds from your past. As you develop greater clarity through a calming mind, you’ll be able to see past issues from a different perspective. In addition, your calming emotions will help you look at them with greater objectivity.

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The silent retreat is also a supportive environment where it is safe to deal with unresolved issues. Since the other participants at the retreat are also dealing with their own issues, you develop a bond with them that aids the healing process.

7. Improve Your Relationships

As your mind and emotions calm down, and you heal the wounds from your past, you will behave much differently in your relationships, especially with loved ones. You will be less likely to react to provocation from others. You will also speak and behave with more love, compassion, and gentleness.

As your behavior improves, so will your relationships. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the behavior of other people in your life will improve, but at least you’ll be less likely to engage in behaviors that provoked them.

There is one thing to keep in mind. As you become less likely to react to provocation from others, this can be unsettling to them because they are used to pushing your buttons. This forces them to either ramp up their efforts, or change their behavior.

8. Get in Touch with Reality

Many of us are not fully in touch with reality. We are either living in the past, or in the future, neither of which are reality. The past is already gone, and the future has not yet arrived. To be fully in touch with reality means to live deeply in the present moment. This is where all of reality is taking place.

When we’re in touch with the present moment, we make decisions based on what is truly happening, not on unrealistic thinking. This will lead to better outcomes, and less worrying about how things will turn out, because with a calm mind and emotions, we’ll be better able to accept the outcomes.

9. Speed up Your Personal Development

A silent retreat can accelerate your personal development in just about every way physically, mentally, and emotionally. The work that you do at a retreat basically enables you to perform at an optimal level by eliminating the barriers that are holding you back. Such barriers include stress, unresolved issues, and a racing mind.

The reason a silent retreat speeds up your development is that you’re focusing all of your attention on your personal needs the entire time you are there. You are essentially doing several years’ worth of work in just a matter of days.

I would even argue that the results you achieve at a silent retreat can’t be replicated in any other setting. You see, at a silent retreat, your mind reaches a level of calm that takes a continuous combination of silence and meditation to achieve. It is like driving on a highway, compared to the stop-and-go of a street with traffic lights.

I should point out that optimal physical performance still requires exercise and good nutrition. You can’t develop a good looking and healthy physique by just meditating. However, the silent retreat will help you be more effective in your pursuit of your health goals.

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10. Gain Greater Peace and Happiness

Overall, a silent retreat will help you realize greater peace and happiness. You will overcome stress, heal the wounds from your past, and gain greater insights about yourself and your connection to the rest of the world. At our retreats, participants become so peaceful that they begin speaking much more softly without even realizing it.

Imagine how liberating it would be to no longer have any unresolved issues from your past. There is a great comfort that comes from healing and accepting things that have troubled you for so many years. You also stop accumulating more baggage.

It is also very comforting to understand yourself, others, and the world on a much deeper level. Some of the greatest mysteries of the world are often revealed to you when you’re able to see the world with greater clarity and objectivity. The result is a much happier and fulfilling life.

Final Thoughts

I have always been intrigued by the potential of a human being. I’ve always wondered what I could accomplish if I developed my mind, body, and emotions to their fullest capabilities.

I’ve been on a path of personal development since I was 23 years old. After attending my first retreat with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, I realized that a silent retreat was the best tool I had to help me reach my greatest potential.

A silent retreat is a life-changing experience. It’s hard to put into words the impact it will have on your life. You will learn things about yourself that will amaze you, and you’ll develop the inner strength to stay in control of yourself, and pursue your life goals without hesitation.

To truly understand what I’m talking about, you will just have to try it. You won’t be disappointed.

More to Calm Your Mind

Featured photo credit: Thomas Kelley via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Mayo Clinic: Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress
[2] eLuxe Magazine: 6 Amazing Benefits Silent Retreats Can Bring to Your Life
[3] American Psychological Association: Aging and Depression

More by this author

Charles A. Francis

Author, meditation teacher, and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute

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Last Updated on November 8, 2021

How To Do Focused Meditation Any Time

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How To Do Focused Meditation Any Time

Do you often feel stressed for most of your day? Maybe you always feel a burden that you just can’t get rid of? Focused meditation might be your answer.

In this article, I’ll explore what focused meditation is, how it differs in the pool of many styles of meditation, and how to implement and start this practice today. Likewise, I’ll highlight the benefits of a focused meditation practice for your overall health.

What Is Focused Meditation?

Meditation is the practice of becoming self-aware through breath and attention to connect the mind, body, and spirit.[1] Meditation as a whole can change the structure and function of our brain. That being said, focused meditation or a guided meditation for focus is by far the best one. Meditation for focus and concentration can come in different forms. Experienced meditators use the following:

  • Mindfulness – this meditation involves us to be focusing on your breath and observing thoughts. This allows us to focus on our feelings without becoming too absorbed in them.
  • Concentrative – a meditation that gets us to focus on a particular point; be it a word, breath, object, or a point in the space you’re meditating. This is meant for us to pay attention to that point and prevent our minds from getting distracted.
  • Moving – this meditation involves gets us to focus on slow and repetitive movements similar to yoga or tai chi. The goal is again to be focusing on your breath while relaxing your body and mind with the movements.

Focused meditation, also known as concentrative meditation, is the practice of meditating and bringing your attention to one single object. This object can be something practical and tangible, such as a mandala painting or a candle flame. It can also be something abstract, such as a phrase (also known as mantra) or a sound (such as Om).[2][3]

Whatever you settle your attention on becomes the focal point. None of these object examples are better than others—they are simply choices depending on what you’re looking to get out of your practice. For example, practitioners will choose candle gazing to interpret the images the flame makes in the shadows while others will choose a mantra because that particular phrase or word empowers or heals them.

How Does It Differ From Other Meditation Styles?

All meditation styles and practices overlap and build on each other. Their basic foundation is the same: to bring the practitioner insight and introspection.

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There is no right or wrong way to meditate, however, the various types of meditation can enhance particular qualities. Based on your personality and needs, one type of meditation may be more useful to you than the other. The 9 types of meditation are:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Spiritual meditation
  • Focused meditation
  • Movement meditation
  • Mantra meditation
  • Transcendental meditation
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Loving kindness meditation
  • Visualization meditation

Focused meditation, specifically, is the practice of focusing on one single object for the duration of the practice. How this differs from other meditation styles is that it gives the practitioner something tangible to do: focus. It’s almost like giving your mind an action to perform—listen to this sound, repeat these words, watch this flame, etc. This is also one of the reasons why this particular meditation style is great for beginners!

One of the biggest challenges in any meditation practice is that the mind gets carried away and we lose ourselves to random thoughts. This “obstacle” is actually a style of meditation in and of itself called Vipassana.[4] However, in focused meditation, we give the mind something to do so that it’s not simply left to its own devices. This type of meditation is beneficial for beginners and for practitioners who prefer some structure and guidance to their meditations.

The Benefits of Focused Meditation

In this style of meditation, what you’re really doing is exercising your mental muscles. Your brain is highly affected by dedicated and concentrated meditation practice.

Scientists have performed countless studies on focused meditation and have found that active meditators have more gray matter volume in their brain and, therefore, offsetting the cognitive decline that comes with aging. So, not only does practicing focused meditation help you learn how to focus better on certain tasks, but it also improves similar functions, such as memory. [5]

Likewise, it helps in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, which our society is currently crippled with.[6] By settling your attention on an object, you are essentially building your ability to observe your thoughts and sensations from a place of objectivity. This allows you to detach from negative self-talk that is often the breeding ground for depression and other mental illnesses.

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From a guided meditation for focus to practicing it yourself, daily meditation for focus comes with several benefits:

  • It’ll reduce stress
  • Help you to control anxiety
  • Enhance your self-awareness
  • Improve attention span
  • Helps you to focus on the present moment
  • Increase your creativity and imagination
  • And boost your patience and tolerance for things.

How to Practice Focused Meditation

Here are six tips to help you practice focused meditation. Based on your availability and interest, these tips may change and evolve. That’s the point: to create a structured practice that caters to your needs.

1. Find a Comfortable Seat

As with any meditation practice, comfort is truly key. The physical body responds to meditation practice by alerting you to whether it is comfortable and supported or stressed out and in pain. This is best observed in practitioners who tend to slouch and lose the tall, supported spine that is essential to meditation practice.

A simple rule in meditative sitting is to ensure that your hips are higher than your knees. Therefore, choosing to sit in a chair instead of on the floor may be a smart decision or perhaps propping yourself up on a cushion. For meditation techniques overall, it does not matter how you sit. All that matters is that you are supported and comfortable sitting for some time.

2. Choose Your Object of Focus

Every meditation training session is going to be different because no single day is the same for any one person. Therefore, experienced meditators know that choosing an object is more about listening to what you need at this time versus following any doctrine or “rule.”

If you’re not sure and have a hard time deciding, make focusing on your breath and pay attention to the inhale and exhale is a good option. Then, assign each inhale and exhale a number, and once you reach 10, start over. This is one of the simpler methods of keeping your mind occupied—by giving it a task. This also trains your mind, and over time and with practice, your mind will easily focus on an object without too much effort.

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3. Set Your Desired Time or “Go With the Flow”

If you have a structured routine and would like to stick to your schedule, by all means, set a gentle timer for how long you’d like your meditation to be. This is also your opportunity to throw out the notion that any meditation has to be a certain length of time to be correct—it does not.

Likewise, if you have the time, you can also listen to your body and come out of your meditation when you feel it’s right to do so. This is often a beautiful practice of listening and tuning in.

4. Relax Your Body as You Focus on Your Meditation

Typically, when we are focusing on something, we tend to tighten our body. Observe this next time that you’re concentrating on something: your jaw will tighten and your shoulders will squeeze up towards your ears.

As you sink into your meditation, keep this in mind and check in with your body every once in a while. Let your shoulders sink down your back and release any tension through your jaw and face. Lastly, relax your brow and let your eyes be heavy in their sockets. Then, return to your object of meditation. Observe if your meditation changes at all by relaxing your physical body.

5. Return to Your Breath and Object When You Get Distracted

Notice that I didn’t say “if you get distracted.” That’s because you definitely will drift off with random thoughts or get pulled away from your object of focus. In meditation, distractions are almost guaranteed. Therefore, it’s your opportunity to practice detaching yourself from feeling guilty or inadequate to continue.

Over time and with practice, you will find it easier to stay with your object of focus. In the meantime, however, notice when you get distracted. Pause and take a big breath in and out. Check in with your physical body and relax. Once you’re ready again, return to your object of focus. Meditation is simply one long cycle of wandering and coming back to yourself.

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6. Journal Your Experiences

When your meditation practice has ended, another powerful practice is to jot down any experiences that you felt. There may have been insights and “downloads” that you acquired during your session that you may want to record.

Likewise, you could write about any challenges that you faced. These are great lessons that will continue to show up for you, and it’s nice to keep a journal of them to see how they evolve and progress over time (and they will). Lastly, you can write about what works and what doesn’t, as far as picking your objects of meditation go. This way, you can learn what you most associate with and feel comfortable with.

While these steps are simple, it’s easier said than done. Whether you’re starting out with a guided meditation for focus, loving kindness meditation, or transcendental meditation, anticipating failure the first time you try these things is healthy. Furthermore, congratulate yourself for even making slight progress like noticing and returning to the present moment and noticing the sensations you experienced.

Final Thoughts

If practicing meditation causes you to feel distracted and unsupported, give focused meditation a go! With the help of an object to bring your attention to, it structures your meditation time and offers guidance and support.

Dedicating yourself to this style of meditation will help increase your memory, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote better cognitive function. Even though any style of meditation is a powerful way of taking care of your mental health, focused meditation gives your mind a tangible task with which to grow and strengthen.

More About Focused Meditation

Featured photo credit: Lua Valentia via unsplash.com

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Reference

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