I write this post having returned this week from an intensive meditation retreat and feeling particularly inspired to communicate something of the experience here. It was probably the most moving, insightful and profound for me personally of all the retreats I’ve ever done, and also my favourite. This is saying something as I’ve done on average one or two retreats a year since 2011. I also felt I wanted to write about it as I read a newspaper article not long before going on this retreat headlined “Meditation retreats lead to fear and anxiety, says study”. There has been quite a bit of media interest in mindfulness particularly, and probably also as a result, meditation more generally, over the last few years since it became more mainstream with the introduction of 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) into healthcare in the UK. Unfortunately, often these articles contain inaccuracies. I’m sure these are unintentional, but journalists can’t be expected to be experts in everything and if you have studied a specific subject in depth for two years the errors in understanding the nuances are easy to spot. Anyway, I digress, back to the specific article in question, which was short and seemed balanced and accurate, aside perhaps from the rather sensationalist headline.
So, the truth of the matter is lots of things can happen on retreats, just as lots of things can happen when going about daily life. All sorts of feelings can arise for all sorts of different reasons in both situations. The article says 3 in 10 people were found to have “suffered “unpleasant” episodes, including feelings of anxiety or fear”. I wonder how many people would experience having those in an average week of their life if surveyed? I’ve experienced anxiety on retreat as well as pretty much every other pleasant and unpleasant emotion there is going (and likewise I’ve experienced anxiety and every other emotion in daily life)! When the unpleasant emotions show up on retreat it’s because they’re there lurking under the surface anyway and the greater awareness and chance to be with yourself that being on retreat offers brings them to the fore. Once they have surfaced in this way, it then allows you to work with them and provides you with ways to do this that have been effectively practised for over 2500 years. And when the pleasant show up it’s incredibly blissful because you have the chance to experience them so much more fully than in daily life without all the other distractions that involves!
So, I guess my conclusion from all this would be if you want to avoid emotions and try to ignore, suppress or bury them, then definitely DO NOT go on retreat! And I’d also suggest don’t start a meditation practice either as it would put you more in touch with your feelings. But personally, I would never recommend that anyone approach emotions in this way as it goes against years of psychological research and is not good for mental or, in the longer term, physical health either. What I would suggest for anyone who is interested in going on retreat is that you establish a regular meditation practice first under the guidance of a trained mindfulness or spiritual teacher who can give you guidance if you do have difficult emotions arise. I’d also advise starting with just a weekend retreat, which are often described in the retreat calendar listings as suitable for people new to retreats. This would give you a gentle introduction with less and shorter meditations. You can always build up to ones that last one or two weeks later when you know if being in a retreat context suits you. And I’d also say book your first few retreats at established retreat centres with experienced teachers leading them. These are all steps I followed when I started attending retreats and I’m glad that I did; it makes it a safe way to enter what really is uncharted territory. It would also be advisable to book a day off work the next day to ensure you have space to process anything that has come up for you on the retreat. And my final piece of guidance would be not to start off by going on retreats involving Vipassana or Koan meditation as the article states that people who engaged in these forms of meditation were more likely to be affected by anxiety or fear. This makes intuitive sense and going on a Vipassana-based retreat was also something that I built up to. They are very intense with many hours of meditation a day and involve questioning the permanence of the self and the reality of sensations, which can have a destabilising effect and are likely to be anxiety provoking if you are not very well prepared for it.
Having said all this I would thoroughly recommend going on retreat in the graded way I’ve suggested. It can give you so much opportunity to practice meditation without life admin to do, technology or thinking about work the next day to interfere. And it will likely give you insights into yourself and highlight areas of your life where you might want to make changes when you get home.
I offer day retreats of six hours in Exeter on a quarterly basis, which would give those of you who are local the chance to see how you would find a day of meditation practice in a group. I also host a Mindfulness Practice Development Group on Facebook if anyone wishes to join and ask any questions about meditation practice or going on retreats.