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Published on November 6, 2019

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

10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health How to Learn to Let Go of What You Can’t Control How to Live in the Moment and Stop Worrying 20 Best Guided Meditations for Sleep and Insomnia The Beginner’s Guide to Practicing Self-Compassion Meditation

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Last Updated on November 15, 2019

10 Real Reasons Why Breaking Bad Habits Is So Difficult

10 Real Reasons Why Breaking Bad Habits Is So Difficult

Bad habits expose us to suffering that is entirely avoidable. Unfortunately, these bad habits are difficult to break because they are 100% dependent on our mental and emotional state.

Anything we do that can prove harmful to us is a bad habit – drinking, drugs, smoking, procrastination, poor communication are all examples of bad habits. These habits have negative effects on our physical, mental and emotional health.

Humans are hardwired to respond to stimuli and to expect a consequence of any action. This is how habits are acquired: the brain expects to be rewarded a certain way under certain circumstances. How you initially responded to certain stimuli is how your brain will always remind you to behave when the same stimuli are experienced.

If you visited the bar close to your office with colleagues every Friday, your brain will learn to send you a signal to stop there even when you are alone and eventually not just on Fridays. It will expect the reward of a drink after work every day, which can potentially lead to a drinking problem.

Kicking negative behavior patterns and steering clear of them requires a lot of willpower and there are many reasons why breaking bad habits is so difficult.

1. Lack of Awareness or Acceptance

Breaking a bad habit is not possible if the person who has it is not aware that it is a bad one.

Many people will not realize that their communication skills are poor or that their procrastination is affecting them negatively, or even that the drink they had as a nightcap has now increased to three.

Awareness brings acceptance. Unless a person realizes on their own that a habit is bad, or someone manages to convince them of the same, there is very little chance of the habit being kicked.

2. No Motivation

Going through a divorce, not being able to cope with academics and falling into debt are instances that can bring a profound sense of failure with them. A person going through these times can fall into a cycle of negative thinking where the world is against them and nothing they can do will ever help, so they stop trying altogether.

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This give-up attitude is a bad habit that just keeps coming around. Being in debt could make you feel like you are failing at maintaining your home, family and life in general.

If you are looking to get out of a rut and feel motivated, take a look at this article: Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It)

3. Underlying Psychological Conditions

Psychological conditions such as depression and ADD can make it difficult to break bad habits.

A depressed person may find it difficult to summon the energy to cook a healthy meal, resulting in food being ordered in or consumption of packaged foods. This could lead to eventually become a habit that adversely affects health and is difficult to overcome.

A person with ADD may start to clean their house but get distracted soon after, leaving the task incomplete, eventually leading to a state where it is acceptable to live in a house that is untidy and dirty.

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is very real to some people. Obsessively checking their social media and news sources, they may believe that not knowing of something as soon as it is published can be catastrophic to their social standing.

4. Bad Habits Make Us Feel Good

One of the reasons it is difficult to break habits is that a lot of them make us feel good.[1]

We’ve all been there – the craving for a tub of ice cream after a breakup or a casual drag on a joint, never to be repeated until we miss how good it made us feel. We succumb to the craving for the pleasure felt while indulging in it, cementing it as a habit even while we are aware it isn’t good for us.

Over-eating is a very common bad habit. Just another pack of crisps, a couple of candies, a large soda… none of these are needed by us. We want them because they give us comfort. They’re familiar, they taste good and we don’t even notice when we progress from just one extra slice of pizza to four.

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You can read this article to learn more: We Do What We Know Is Bad for Us, Why?

5. Upward Comparisons

Comparisons are a bad habit that many of us have been exposed to since we were children. Parents might have compared us to siblings, teachers may have compared us to classmates, and bosses could compare us to past and present employees.

The people who have developed the bad habit of comparing themselves to others have been given incorrect yardsticks for measurement from the start.

These people will always find it difficult to break out of this bad habit because there will always be someone who has it better than they do: a better house, better car, better job, higher income and so on.

6. No Alternative

This is a real and valid reason why bad habits are hard to break. These habits could fulfill a need that may not be met any other way.

Someone who has physical or psychological limitations such as a disability or social anxiety may find it hard to quit obsessive content consumption for better habits.

Alternately, a perfectly healthy person may be unable to quit smoking because alternates are just not working out.

Similarly, a person who bites their nails when anxious may be unable to relieve stress in any other socially accepted manner.

7. Stress

As mentioned above, anything that stresses us out can lead to adopting and cementing bad habits.

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When a person is stressed about something, it is easy to give in to a bad habit because the mental resources required to fight them are not available.

Stress plays such a huge role in this that we commonly find a person who had previously managed to kick a bad habit fall back into the old ways because they felt their stress couldn’t be managed any other way.

8. Sense of Failure

People looking to kick bad habits may feel a strong sense of failure because it’s just that difficult.

Dropping a bad habit usually means changes in lifestyle that people may be unwilling to make, or these changes might not be easy to make in spite of the will to make them.

Over-eaters need to empty their house of unhealthy food, resist the urge to order in and not pick up their standard grocery items from the store.

Those who drink too much need to avoid the bars or even people who drink often.

If such people slip even once with a glass of wine or a smoke or a bag of chips, they tend to be excessively harsh on themselves and feel like failures.

9. The Need to Be All-New

People who are looking to break bad habits feel they need to re-create themselves in order to break themselves of their bad habits, while the truth is the complete opposite.

These people actually need to go back to who they were before they developed the bad habit.

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10. Force of Habit

Humans are creatures of habit and having familiar, comforting outcomes for daily triggers helps us maintain a sense of balance in our lives.

Consider people who are used to lighting up a cigarette every time they talk on the phone or munching on crisps when watching TV. They will always associate a phone call with a puff on the cigarette and screen time with eating.

These habits, though bad, are a source of comfort to them as is meeting with those people they indulge in these bad habits with.

Final Thoughts

These are the main reasons why bad habits may be difficult to break but it is important to remember that the task is not impossible.

Do you have bad habits you want to kick? My article How to Break a Bad Habit (and Replace It With a Good One) gives you tips on well, how to kick bad habits while my other article How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit? Science Will Tell You gives realistic information on what to expect while you’re trying to quit them.

There are many compassionate, positive and self-loving techniques to kick bad habits. The internet is rich in information regarding bad habits, their effects and how to overcome them, while professional help is always available for those who feel they need it.

Featured photo credit: NORTHFOLK via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] After Skool: Why Do Bad Habits Feel SO GOOD?

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