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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

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

How to Start Living in the Moment and Stop Worrying 20 of the Best Guided Meditations for Sleep and Insomnia How to Learn to Let Go of What You Can’t Control How to Cope with the 5 Common Stressors In Life and Feel Better 10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

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Published on April 9, 2021

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry. However, few people truly understand what it is. My aim here is to teach you what mindfulness is and how it helps your mental wellness. By the end of this article, you will understand the meaning and benefits of mindfulness. Additionally, you will develop the ability to integrate mindfulness into your daily life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is approximately 2500-years-old with deep roots in the Eastern world as a spiritual, ethical, and philosophical practice. These roots are intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation.[1]

Mindfulness continues to be practiced as a cultural and spiritual tradition in many parts of the world. For Buddhists, it offers an ethical and moral code of conduct. For many, mindfulness is more than a practice—it is a way of life.[2]

However, mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for wellbeing. The evolution began around 1979 when Jon-Kabat Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[3] Since then, mindfulness has emerged in the health and wellness industry and continues to evolve.

It is important to recognize the distinctions between mindfulness as a clinical practice and mindfulness as a cultural practice. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.

Many researchers have integrated aspects of Buddhism and mindfulness into clinical psychiatry and psychology. Buddhism has helped to inform many mental health theories and therapies. However, the ethical and moral codes of conduct that drive Buddhist practices are no longer integrated into the mindfulness practices most-often taught in the Western world.[4] Therefore, Western mindfulness is often a non-spiritual practice for mental wellness.

Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment.[5] However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.

The only necessary condition for mindfulness to occur is non-judgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does not need to be complex even though structured programs exist.

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How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Wellness

Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).[6]

Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. The following is not a comprehensive list of all its benefits, but it will begin to uncover how mindfulness helps mental wellness.

Benefits on Your Mental Health

Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Optimism

Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood. Overall, people who practice this appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.

Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. It also helps to reduce rumination, which is a repetition of negative thoughts in the mind.

MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain. It has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with:

  • Reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of relapse in depression
  • Reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders
  • Prevention of major depressive disorders
  • Reducing substance-use frequency and cravings

However, more research is needed before these clinical studies can be generalized to the public. Nevertheless, there is promising evidence to suggest MBSR may be beneficial for mental health.[7]

Benefits on Your Cognitive Health

Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.[8]

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To explain this another way, practicing mindfulness can improve the ability to shift from one task to the next, increase attention span and increase awareness of bodily sensations and the environment. Therefore, it has the potential to literally change your brain for the better.

Harvard researchers are also interested in studies of the brain and mindfulness. One researcher studied how brain changes are sustained even when individuals are not engaged in mindfulness. Their research suggests that its benefits extend beyond the moments of mindfulness.[9]

Another study found that the benefits of mindfulness training lasted up to five years. In this particular case, individuals participating in mindfulness activities showed increased attention-span. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase problem-solving and decrease mind wandering.[10]

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements:

  • An object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds)
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Openness to experience whatever comes up
  • Acceptance that the mind will wander
  • The intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders

A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.[11]

There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.

Four Mindfulness Meditations and Their Benefits

Not all forms of mindfulness are created equal. Each practice has unique goals, structure, and benefits. The following four mindfulness meditations are linked with improved mental wellness related to vitality, happiness, and attention.

The results come from a study designed to explore the benefits of these four practices. All of these stem from traditional Buddhist practices.[12]

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1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.

The study found that eight-weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of closeness to others. However, it did not reduce negative feelings towards enemies. Additionally, one week of loving-kindness mixed with compassion training increased the amount of positive feelings participants experienced.[13]

2. Breathing Meditation

Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath.

In many different mindfulness and yoga practices, specific breathing (pranayama) practices are taught. However, for beginners, simple diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on each inhale and exhale is sufficient.

The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed. Buddhist monks who practiced breathing meditation were able to process a greater amount of information than monks who practiced compassion meditation.

3. Body Scan Meditation

A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax.

When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.[14]

4. Observing Thoughts Meditation

In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment.

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Within the study, participants practiced structured observation of thoughts. First, they brought their attention to their thoughts and labeled them within several categories: past, present, future, self, or others. Then, they practiced observing their thoughts without an emotional reaction.[15]

The benefits of this practice were robust. First, participants showed great improvement in the ability to observe their thoughts without judgment. Second, the practice greatly reduced rumination. As a result, participants had fewer emotional reactions to their thoughts and developed greater self-awareness around their thinking patterns.

In summary, there are many different ways to practice mindfulness meditation. The choice may be determined by the benefits each practice offers. For example, body scanning can increase bodily awareness. Thought-observation can increase self-awareness and decrease rumination. Regardless, every practice may increase positivity, energy, and focus.[16]

Considerations Before You Begin Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is still a relatively new concept in clinical research. Critics worry that its benefits have been overstated. There is also concern that the Western world has changed it into something most Buddhists would not recognize.[17]

Mindfulness is a state of mind that builds self-awareness. As a result, it may force individuals to face difficult emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a study of long-term, intense mindfulness practices, 60% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. Some cases are related to depression, anxiety, and psychosis.[18]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. Mindfulness offering promising results but there are also risks involved. Working with a therapist may be a great way to start a mindfulness practice while monitoring for risk.

Final Thoughts

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that has deep roots in Buddhism. It is a practice of present-moment awareness, acceptance of the present moment, and non-judgment of thoughts, emotions, or circumstances.

It has many benefits that may increase mental wellness. However, there are also some risks to consider. Overall, you should consider your unique profile before beginning a practice or consider working with a therapist at the start.

More About Practicing Mindfulness

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[2] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[3] Greater Good Magazine: What is Mindfulness?
[4] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[5] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[6] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[7] NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology
[8] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[9] The Harvard Gazette: When Science Meets Mindfulness
[10] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[11] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[12] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[13] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[14] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[15] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[16] Greater Good Magazine: How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
[17] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?
[18] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?

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