Some experiences in life can really affect us deeply and help shape who we become and what we seek out. For me, my two silent meditation retreats that I attended at Gaia House in Devon, UK, were some of those significant life experiences. My first one was at a time when I will still recovering from depression, and the second not long after that tough time in my life.
The things I have learned and experienced during my retreats have stayed with me since and profoundly helped me to understand my own mental health in a much better way. In this blog, I want to share my own insights in the hope that they will be helpful to you as well. And perhaps I’ll be able to encourage you to consider meditation and retreats for yourself.
What are silent meditation retreats?
Meditation is about calming the mind. It’s about becoming mindful of our moment-to-moment experience without judgement. And it’s about cultivating wisdom and compassion for ourselves and others.
It truly is a wonderful practice.
So at a silent meditation retreat you get the chance to engage in a lot of meditation sessions whilst being silent throughout the day (and night). In my case, my first retreat was 5 days and the second 8 days long.
The silence is really about creating a calm, quiet and simplified environment. As well as not talking, you are also asked to turn off your phone and to not read or write throughout the retreat. It really is about removing all of our usual distractions and becoming quiet and calm.
The days are structured and start early, typically with alternating periods of sitting and walking meditations. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are eaten together with the other retreatants – in silence. There are break periods where you can wander in the garden or rest inside, again in silence. You can look each other in the eye (at my retreat anyway) or not – nobody will judge. And each evening, at Gaia House at least, there is an incredibly inspiring talk led by the retreat teacher(s), about topics such as mindfulness, suffering, compassion and more. But you just sit there in silence and listen. No big discussions with others afterwards.
And whilst Gaia House is a Buddhist retreat centre, all religious backgrounds are openly welcomed. Or in other words, you don’t have to consider yourself a Buddhist to attend and feel welcome there. It’s all fairly low key and minimally (but beautifully) decorated.
In essence, silent meditation retreats offer you the chance to well and truly disconnect from your normal life. They are an incredible antidote to the hectic and busy lives that most of us live in the modern world. You can step away from all of your normal responsibilities. Take a breather, get some space. You can enter into an incredibly nurturing environment and community. Become still. Do less. Focus on being. You also don’t need to make many decisions as the days are structured for you. And if needed, you can share any thoughts or struggles with the meditation teacher(s) if you arrange a session with them.
What silent meditation retreats have taught me about mental health
As I’ve said earlier, my own experiences have been truly transformative. They are memories I very much treasure. And hearing about the experiences of some of the other retreatants after the retreat finished, I know I’m not the only one feeling this way.
So here’s what my experiences have taught me about good mental health.
- Silence, solitude and retreating from the normal world
In a world that can forever feel noisy and fast-paced, silence can be such a relief. Being silent over several days allows you to reconnect with yourself. To not feel so rushed. To not feel pressured or anxious over saying the right things. It also offers you the chance to notice what is actually arising within you. To notice your thoughts and to notice your emotions, and with practice to do so without becoming too attached, aroused or disturbed by them.
The solitude, too, helps with this sense of coming home to yourself. You can focus on your own experience whilst feeling supported by the other retreatants. So many of us take care of others in our day-to-day lives and we sometimes end up neglecting our very own needs. Spending time on your own can therefore be incredibly soothing and very much needed for good mental health. You can recharge your own battery.
- Learning to meditate
When you really take the time to engage in mindfulness meditation, you get the chance to develop a much healthier way to relate to your own thoughts and feelings. Many people believe that meditation is about stopping all thoughts, but that’s not actually correct. Mindfulness meditation is much more about becoming aware of your thoughts, and noticing how they continue to come… and then go… and then come… and go. All the time.
The same applies to your feelings. Through meditation practices you start to realise that feelings, too, often come automatically. Becoming aware of your feelings: naming them, allowing them to be there, not judging them… those are all healthy ways to relate to your emotions. That way, you can learn to not be so attached to your feelings all the time. Something that is particularly helpful with challenging emotions such as anger, shame, sadness or fear!
Mindfulness meditation truly offers you a chance to reconnect with yourself. To feel more at peace, calmer and more content. And to open your heart to all experiences in your life without feeling so resistant to the ones we wish were different.
- Throwing yourself into new experiences
Throwing yourself into new experiences can be great for your mental health and confidence. So choosing a safe and supported space such as a retreat centre is a great way to do that. You get out of your comfort zone and into the stretch zone where learning can truly take place.
If you go on your own, you can break free from any expectations you may feel coming from others in your life. You can explore different ways of being. You can try new things. And you can grow as a person. And as a result, you may also find new solutions to certain challenges in your life.
- Less doing, more being
- Community of like-minded people
Finding yourself within a community of like-minded people is like a soothing balm for your mental health. Particularly if you have been feeling lonely and disconnected from others. Even when it’s a silent community!
And it also becomes clear how nobody is perfect. Everyone has their ups and downs, their own challenges and struggles. Nobody is perfect. But everyone fundamentally wants to feel happy and well, just like you.
- Compassion for yourself and others
If you’re gripped by anger over someone else’s actions or words… Or if you feel ashamed over something you have done… Maybe you are disappointed over how certain things have turned out in your life…. If you have regrets or if you are grieving… all kinds of emotions and experiences can be so hard to bare that we shut them down. We don’t want to feel them. We close our hearts. And sometimes we can then become bitter and resentful. Or we ignore things that could really do with being addressed.
And we suffer as a result. Big times.
Practising compassion through meditation can be such a powerful healer in this case. When we can soften our hearts and care for the sadness within us, or the shame, or regret or disappointment. When we can soothe what needs soothing. When we can wish ourselves well. Well that’s self-compassion and it’s incredibly healing.
In a similar way, when we can set firm boundaries with others who have hurt us, but when we can also see their own suffering and pain beneath their hurtful actions… Well, then this form of compassion for others is incredibly healing for us, too.
Most of us would agree that this world simply needs more kindness, more compassion and more love.
Meditation can be a powerful tool to help us cultivate greater compassion with incredible and lasting benefits for our own mental health.
- Personal moments of discovery and insight
I’m not chasing such experiences when I meditate now, but as long as you stay open to possibilities you just don’t know what may come your way during this practice.
If you are interested in attending silent meditation retreats
Attending silent meditation retreats often isn’t very costly and many centres offer their prices on a sliding scale depending on your finances.
Below is a list of some of the centres that offer silent meditation retreats. Depending on where you live, I’d encourage you to search for one near you.
A note of caution for those with severe mental health distress
Attending a silent meditation retreat is likely not the best choice if you are currently suffering from severe mental health problems including severe depression. Contact the relevant retreat centre for further information on this.
If you are suffering severely, then working with a skilled practitioner might be a better option to explore mindfulness and compassion so that it is done in a safe and helpful way.