“I was uneasy by the first night, couldn’t sleep a wink, so when the morning bell woke us I could barely function, and it grew worse from then on . . . day after day of sitting, standing, sitting, anxious, lonely . . . my stomach was in knots, while it seemed everyone else was relaxed, enjoying themselves . . . I was constantly thinking, Why can’t I do this? Should I leave? I’ve never felt so alone and miserable.”
John (not his real name) sits across from me in my office, talking barely above a whisper, his eyes averted and shoulders slumped in a posture of defeat and resignation as he restlessly recounts his struggles. I had agreed to meet with John after he asked for support, explaining that he hadn’t “felt right” since returning from a 10-day silent meditation retreat organized by a well-known Buddhist lineage outside my own.
John’s experience may sound unusual, even seem like an aberration of sorts, given that meditation retreats are invariably presented as helpful respites from the grind of daily life where we unwind and connect with nature, refine our practice, forge new goals, and connect with deeper priorities.
But it wasn’t actually so unusual. During one weeklong retreat I co-taught several years ago, a woman in her thirties started to walk away from the center—which was curious, to say the least, given that we were in a remote region of Massachusetts and her journey started in the middle of the night. Fortunately she soon returned and asked to speak with me, in a clear state of dejection: “I just got dumped by someone I thought was ‘the one,’ and I thought a retreat would be a great way to pull myself back together.”
Continuous meditation practice, by design, strategically deprives practitioners of external distractions, including verbal and nonverbal communication with others, forcing the practitioner to focus on ongoing internal sensations, feelings, moods, and thoughts. When it works, we cultivate tools to self-regulate or self-soothe our ongoing states of stress. I’ve both attended and taught my share of retreats over the years, and I have generally found them useful in addressing my own psychological challenges.
But extended contemplative practice can also activate buried trauma, the surfacing of which produces significant emotional distress as one’s ego struggles to focus and remain calm. Days of silence, without the regulation of emotions provided by eye contact and disclosure, can be a disastrous choice for participants with a variety of challenges—for example, those with significant personality disorders. Extended silence is also not a wise choice for those who have recently experienced a breakup or the loss of a significant attachment figure. Grieving, like anxiety, requires connection with others to disclose one’s struggles, which starts the healing process. Retreats aren’t meant to heal our pain after losses—that’s the job of close friends, therapists, twelve-step sponsors, and the like. In fact, the isolation of silence and averted gazes only exacerbates the feelings of loss and vulnerability. One study, by Willoughby Britton at Brown University, reported that a significant amount of contemplative experiences were “difficult, distressing, functionally impairing, and/or requiring additional support.”
Retreats aren’t meant to heal our pain after losses— that’s the job of close friends, therapists, and the like.
Why, then, do many Buddhist teachers present retreats as uniformly beneficial? Having become acquainted with countless Buddhist teachers over the years—it’s my job, after all—I have noticed something interesting: a predominance of secure or avoidant attachment styles in our ranks; these are the personality types found in individuals who find retreats to be relatively easy experiences and who may assume that will be the case for everyone.
Let me explain about attachment styles, and what they mean in this context. Secure individuals are those with positive self-regard, who expect the best of others, tend to be confident, and develop inner talk free of excessive guilt or shame; in other words, they arrive at retreats emotionally balanced. Avoidant individuals have a pessimistic view of commitment and intimacy, tend to establish excessive self-reliance, and detach easily from interpersonal support, as they find it easy to “shut off ” their emotions during stressful situations. It should not be a surprise that such people do quite well in extended silence.
But for those who, because of struggles in their early relationships, fall under the other two attachment styles, anxious and disorganized, silent retreats may not be smooth sailing. Anxious individuals are prone to rumination; they fixate on their significant others, expect abandonment in relationships, and can be easily angered by slights; thus they can’t stop thinking about unresolved issues when they arrive at a retreat. One needn’t guess how they fare in disconnected settings, without support and understanding. Disorganized individuals are those who have experienced trauma in relationships, often stemming from a childhood spent with parents incapable of providing care and safety. As such, they can easily fall into “blackout” states in which they lose touch with reality or experience intrusive harmful thoughts or even flashbacks of their early abuse, and they tend to gravitate toward self-numbing substance addictions. Again, it should be clear why environments providing limited interpersonal support should not be encouraged in such cases.
What dismays me above all is how poorly equipped so many teachers are to assist in meaningful ways those who are struggling during retreats. I’ve heard many teachers begin retreats by counseling: “If it gets hard and you can’t stop thinking, just relax, breathe, and do some metta [lovingkindness meditation].” Unfortunately, this advice can all too easily plant seeds of shame, should breathing and metta fail to alleviate the student’s distress. If a practitioner is suffering, they should find one of the guides and express their discomfort.
Given the varieties of the human psyche, the fact that differences in genetics and life experiences can result in so many different psychological traits, complexes, and challenges, there will never be any one-size-fits-all approach to healing and spiritual growth. Today, many centers do require participants to fill out forms inquiring about underlying psychological or physical conditions, which is a helpful step.
But those considering extended silent retreats should seriously reflect on their psychological histories and seek the counsel of wise friends—or therapists, if possible—before attending, especially that first intensive foray into silence. While extended sessions of silence amid beautiful landscapes may sound alluring, trust me, they are not panaceas for all.
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