3 Things I Learnt From A Meditation Retreat
Last month, I did something that was quite far out of my comfort zone - I spent the weekend on a remote island off the coast of South West Ireland at a meditation retreat. It was a 40th birthday present from my husband. We’ve both been meditating (TM) for about a year now. However, meditating twice a day on your own for 20 minutes is very different from being on a secluded island with a bunch of strangers for the weekend!
When I was trained in Transcendental Meditation, whilst I felt the actual meditation itself and the daily habit was super helpful, there was a lot surrounding the technique that was way over my head. There are a lot of traditions and teachings around the different levels of consciousness/awareness, and some of the Eastern influences and narratives are a bit beyond my philosophical level of understanding and belief system. As a result, I wasn’t sure what the retreat would be like.
It’s amazing what the brain will do when it’s up against something new - all the worst case scenarios present themselves, the ‘what ifs’ we conjure up are endless, and the excuses not to step out of your comfort zone get louder and louder. Ironically, my daily meditation practice (and years of reading about the mind, and how and why we think and behave in certain ways when contemplating new experiences/change) meant it was a fascinating experience to just watch and witness all this happening inside my head, whilst knowing full well that I was definitely going to go on the retreat, and that I’d just have to let go and accept whatever it was going to be like.
And, low and behold, as is often the way when you’re anxious about an event or situation, it was just the best weekend! Because everyone there was into meditation, the vibe of the place was just so open and welcoming. Sometimes, when you’re into something a bit different, or want to do something that’s a bit against the grain, it can feel a little isolating; like you’re a bit weird in some way. It was great to be surrounded by people on a similar journey. Because meditation helps you decompress and process a lot of personal ‘baggage’, I found everyone was so open, friendly, profound, and kind.
As predicted, some of the topics discussed really were way over my head (Google “yogic flying” if you want to blow your mind!), but I saw it as an opportunity to learn different ways of thinking, and to listen to the views and beliefs of others with openness and curiosity. I imagine it’s a bit beyond my comprehension at the moment because there’s a lot more growth to be had in the way I think and see the world - we'll see.
When I got back, I reflected on what I had learnt from the weekend. It tied in well with me turning 40, which I felt brought about a deep period of self-reflection, too. So I pulled together my thoughts...
Three things I learnt from a meditation retreat:
1. Life is much more simple than we think.
When you get away from everyday life, slow down, do some yoga poses and meditate solidly for two days (which, I admit, is not always practical!), you realise that it’s so easy to get caught up in the drama of life. A break from the norm aids a wider perspective (helped by being on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere!), helping you remember that, deep down, we’re just animals floating around on a tiny planet, which forms an even smaller speck in a much larger universe, which in turn floats around in endless space. There’s something quite peaceful about that realisation, I think. It makes you wonder why we sweat the small stuff so much.
2. We attach to our thoughts way too much.
Whilst this reminder didn’t solely come from the retreat, the phrase “you are not your thoughts” has been one that baffled me for a number of years. If we’re not our thoughts, then who are we? I define myself by my thoughts every day. Based on what I’m thinking, I conclude that I’m anxious, angry, a negative person, not happy, etc, on a regular basis. The retreat (and the neuroscience that supports TM) helped remind me that what we think has very little to do with who we are. There’s a theory that our thoughts simply stem from energy, which bubbles up in our bodies in a variety of ways, and we interpret this energy as an emotion (e-motion = energy in motion). The problem is, we spend too much time attaching to the interpretations/thoughts that stem from this, and what they say about who we are and how we feel about things. What if they don’t mean anything? What if it’s just 'energy' that needs releasing? We drink caffeine, get stressed at work and our bodies are flooded with cortisol (amongst other things). We become irritable, but blame ourselves/others, and even start to define ourselves by those feelings, when, in fact, it might just be a product of what’s going on our bodies at that particular time.
Prime example - women a few days before their period - we think and feel so many things that then suddenly change the day our period starts. Yet, we believe all those thoughts and feelings (planning our divorce, googling 'how to get your child adopted', hating on our friends and family, etc) all for it to change in a day or two. It just shows you that our thoughts aren't always accurate!
3. Deep down, most of us are decent people.
A lot of time, we forget that many of us are incredibly stressed on a daily basis. Not always in the traditional sense, more so that our nervous systems are constantly on high alert for a variety of reasons (workload, economic and social pressures, social media, news updates, etc). This makes us more and more likely to lash out at other people due to our in-built ‘fight or flight (or freeze)’ response system. When something or someone seems to threaten us in some way, we protect ourselves automatically by responding in a variety of often unhelpful ways - criticising others, making snide remarks, gossiping, putting others or ourselves down, lashing out physically and verbally, avoidance, denial, being lost for words…the list goes on.
When you meditate, the idea is that it helps you calm down your nervous system, which, in time, helps you realise that you’re a very different person when you’re relaxed and your nervous system is raging all over the place. When you’re in a room with a group of people who also meditate, you realise that, as a race, humans are really quite decent - we're naturally really social, caring, curious, with a huge desire to connect with and help each other out. We often see each other as the enemy for some reason, and it’s really not the case.
I hope some of these reflections get you thinking. I’m in no way affiliated with the Transcendental Meditation movement, but if you’re interested in learning more about the technique, you can find out more on the website here.
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