After going on a silent retreat in the Blue Mountains recently, I experienced a very simplistic and easy way of living through silence and regular meditation. For the record, I am not an avid yogi or someone that practices mindfulness regularly. Instead, I am more sporadic with mindfulness and someone who often tries to keep busy all the time, keeping my mind occupied and avoiding too much down time. This silent retreat helped me realise the importance of time away from distractions, regularly practicing mindfulness, and how both are very beneficial for mental health and happiness
I went on a 2-day silent retreat with a lot of nerves and apprehension about what it would be like and the overall experience. I didn’t have much of an objective of what I wanted to get out of it. Instead, I wanted to broaden my understanding of mindfulness and meditative practices so I could be more present with my partner, with my work, and my everyday living. Upon arrival I awkwardly said nothing when checking-in at reception, unsure of whether I can speak yet or not. I checked in, met the presenter for the weekend, and other participants of the silent retreat. We introduced ourselves, spoke about our goals or reasons for attending, and then we handed our phones in to a communal bowl, not to be used again for another 36-hours.
We then were allowed time by ourselves to settle in and start to experience silence. Over the next two-days there were several different mindfulness, meditative and silent activities that we all participated in, aiming to slow us down, make us more present with ourselves and our surroundings, and giving us time to reflect on ourselves. I won’t go through the details of each session and what was involved, instead I want to relay my experiences when doing regular relaxation and meditative practices.
Throughout the first full day on the retreat, I found myself relaxing more and more. I found I was becoming more and more comfortable with doing nothing and being by myself, in silence. Every time a thought about work crept into my mind or something that I remembered I had to do, I became better at letting the thought pass and being present with where I was and whatever activity I was then doing. Over the retreat we would start each meditation session with a certain breathing technique to help us settle into the meditation. It may be one where we do two quick inhales, followed by a long exhale. It may be box breathing (e.g., inhale for 5-seconds, hold for 4-seconds, exhale for 6-seconds), or alternate nasal breathing. Once we had initiated the meditation, we then were asked to focus on what we could hear, then our thoughts, our body, then finally, our breath. In the past, I’ve found it very hard to settle into meditative practice because of constant thoughts and distractions. If you are one of those people who have tried mindfulness but found it too difficult to switch off and relax, I encourage you to follow the above steps – an introductory breathing technique, followed by the recognition of sound, thoughts, your body, and finally your breath. There are some great people on the internet to follow – Adya Shati, Tara Brach, and Rupert Spira, just to name a few. Don’t feel like you have to practice mindfulness for 30-minutes a day either, it can be as simple as a few deep breaths, or a 5-minute session and slowly building up. Like anything, being mindful and still requires practice, so be patient with yourself and understand that thoughts and distractions will occur.
The benefits of regular meditation are proven – It can improve focus and concentration, improve your mood, and it can reduce your stress and anxiety. It does this by ‘tricking’ the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is responsible for the regulation of internal organ functions, such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as other activities including coughing and swallowing1. Meditation can improve the function of the vagus nerve, resulting in a better heart rate response and balance of your sympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed, busy and anxious, we increase our ‘flight or fight’ response (sympathetic nervous system activity) and when sustained for long-periods of time, can increase our cortisol levels, causing inflammation and damage to our vascular structures. Sustained damage can lead to serious heart conditions. Studies have shown meditation can even improve the symptoms associated with depression and chronic pain2.
Next time you are exposed to a stressful situation try to implement the 6-second rule. When you are stressed, you release cortisone and norepinephrine (Adrenaline) and a structure in your brain called the amygdala is designed to react to threats or danger3. If you can identify a stressful situation and quickly implement a mindfulness practice, like two quick inhales through the nose, and a prolonged exhale, you are improving your ability to deal with stressful situations in a healthy, mindful way. Remember that mindfulness can be as simple as walking outside in nature, a moment of silence, or a single deep breath. Try to implement mindfulness practices into your daily routine, just like exercise, and see how it can improve your mood, concentration, and overall happiness!
Silent Retreat was at Happy Buddha Retreats, Wentworth Falls, NSW. Check their website for further details. If you are suffering from mental health issues, need support or just someone to talk to, see the reference list for support services