Do you think that going on silent retreat is the gold standard for a mindfulness practice? Do you feel that you should go on retreat? Do you feel as if you’re not really a serious practitioner unless you’ve been on a weeklong (or longer) silent retreat?
Going on retreat puts us in a situation where we are given the opportunity to be with our emotions in silence, where we come up close and personal with our emotional landscape. It’s like boot camp for working on emotional resilience.
I come from a career in mindfulness and retreat work. I’ve managed a retreat center, lead retreats, encouraged others to go on retreats, and been on retreats. Retreats are challenging. Even when a retreatant talks about a “good” retreat, they probably mean that they managed their emotions in a way that is a testament to their mindfulness and self-compassion work. Or they discovered that their emotions won’t kill them. It probably doesn’t mean the retreat was fun (although there are some people who truly, out-and-out enjoy the experience)! It means they got through it reasonably intact: an ex-boyfriend of mine described 3 months of army basic training in the same way.
Some people feel that they need to go on retreat to develop emotional resilience, a term used to describe our ability to be with our emotions in a way that means we are able to have perspective, anchor ourselves, and not be hijacked by our feelings. Emotional resilience is what allows us to hold our experience so that it doesn’t control us. Going on retreat puts us in a situation where we are given the opportunity to be with our emotions in silence, where we come up close and personal with our emotional landscape. It’s like boot camp for working on emotional resilience.
So, is this the path you should choose to develop emotional resilience?
If we are working hard to get through our regular day handling the emotions we already have, we don’t need to pull ourselves out of our home environment and into a sea of strangers to mine for more emotional challenges.
Statistics form the Sidran Institute suggest that 80% of us in the US have experienced something traumatic in our lives (meaning we had an experience where our coping skills could not keep up). About 20% of us have developed some form of post-traumatic stress adaption in order for us to integrate our traumatic experience into our existence so that we can function. Many of us have had to put a lot of energy into emotional resilience just to get through the day. We have developed really neat coping strategies that help us do our work, tend to our children, support our friends, and take care of ourselves. Many of us have an amazing ability to be with our emotions in a skillful way because we had no choice. We don’t need to go on retreat to develop or test that ability.
If we are working hard to get through our regular day handling the emotions we already have, we don’t need to pull ourselves out of our home environment and into a sea of strangers to mine for more emotional challenges. We need to find and consolidate the support and tools we can use in our daily life to help us live fully, deeply and compassionately. And there are lots of those available in our modern, connected society. I live in a city in the U.S. midwest and I can probably list 20 groups in my city that I could go to for support.
If you’re beating yourself up for not going on retreat, give yourself a break.
Silent retreat is always an option. But maybe it’s not the right option right now. And maybe it won’t ever be. And that’s OK. No need to beat yourself up for not going on silent retreat. There’s plenty of great work you can do on your personal development and your emotional resilience right in your home town, online, or in workshop-style settings in groups which are informative and interactive.
If you’re beating yourself up for not going on retreat, give yourself a break. Maybe do some journalling about what you are doing to help yourself be with your emotions, including those things that might typically be call “maladaptive” (anything done in excess could be seen as maladaptive). I don’t see how anything we’re doing to help ourselves get through the day is maladaptive. There may be more skillful ways to get through the day, and we certainly want to keep finding more and more skillful ways of living, but I don’t see any point in labeling a strategy “maladaptive.” We just don’t need that extra burden of judgement, and being kindly honest with ourselves about where we are helps us to accept who we are so that we can learn to continue to support ourselves in deeper and more creative ways.
I’d love to hear what you’re doing to get through your day. How are you supporting yourself? What are your tools for emotional resilience? My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to keep exploring ways your practice can move you toward more and more skillful ways of being with yourself, maybe we can do some work together as part of the Radical Emergent Self-Wisdom mentoring program. You are not alone. And you deserve some company!