Every winter, I yearn for a vacation. Surprisingly, ice and snow, the post-holiday blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder are not the chief motivators. What drives me is the chance to stop routines, habits and patterns — even the healthy ones: the dietary habits I’ll resume, the exercise routines I worked hard to put into place. Ever since I took my first meditation retreat over the week between Christmas and New Year’s, vacation has meant more to me than just fun and sun. It has meant permission: permission to relax, to reconnect inner body and outer body, and, most of all, to stop talking.
Meditation, the act of sitting quietly and concentrating on normal breathing through the nose, has been studied by Western science in recent years for its numerous health benefits. Researchers have found that, contrary to the belief that meditation shuts down mental activity, the brain is intensely active during meditation. When separated from its normal routines, the brain is left to hum along to its own tune, which is vibrant and powerful and intensely active.
The first time I tried meditating I lasted just 20 minutes before I had to open my eyes. But just that short amount of time paid off; I felt rested and restored, and my day seemed to progress more efficiently. After a few months of meditating a few days a week for up to an hour, my energy level was markedly higher. I was already reaping the benefits of meditating at home, and I knew a meditation retreat would offer me a new paradigm of renewal.
Meditation retreat: A detox for the brain
Like a body detox, the point of meditation is to feel renewed. I’ve been detoxing my body regularly for a while — mostly juice fasts in spring and summer — which always improves my skin, my digestion and my sleep. It’s uncomfortable at first, but in the end a good detox is nothing short of extraordinary.
A meditation retreat, interestingly, works the same way. It’s like a fast for the brain, both rigorous and enlivening. The essence of a meditation retreat is simple: Go away to a remote location, sit quietly for three hours at a time (up to 10 hours a day) and concentrate on your breath. Don’t read, don’t exercise, don’t text. Don’t do errands or make plans. It is both simple and torturous.
So I signed up. The Vipassana (an ancient form of meditation) retreat started the day after Christmas in the woods of a summer camp shut down for the winter. Women and men bunked separately. We were asked to take a vow of silence and refrain from exercise (besides walking) and most other activities — even reading and writing. Impulses for a cup of coffee (unavailable on these retreats), for chattering with friends or colleagues, or to overwork at the office all went unfulfilled. Despite the strict format, the free retreat was full at 75 people, with a waiting list.
It wasn’t easy. We awoke (via gong) at 4 am and trekked through snow to breakfast. We meditated most of the day, taking time out for a snack, lunch, and fruit for dinner. Days one through three I desperately clung to mealtimes, which were silent, but public. Picking up a plate, pouring salad dressing, refilling my water cup were welcome distractions. I relished the woody flavor of my twig tea and the warm stewed prunes in my oatmeal as if they were explosive fireworks for my palate.
By comparison, living within my own thoughts was like a day in the mines. Meals and sleep were the only breaks from listening to myself. It was exhausting. The difficulty increased up until day five or six. Incidents, people and fantasies I had buried or harbored for years were suddenly alive and coexisting with the falling snow I could see out the window. My mental discomfort became physical. My back hurt — I wanted to stretch, to run.
But after seven days I started to acclimate to everything: the early wake-ups, the small, tasty meals and the 10 hours a day of meditation. All the self-improvement mechanisms I had built into my attitude and identity softened and started to melt. My body accepted that queasiness and discomfort were temporary. My brain began to reset. By New Year’s Eve I had stopped longing for conversation and even the 4 pm fruit snack. I had found contentment and quietly dedicated the rest of my retreat to friends and family. Generosity of spirit was the most surprising side effect to spending time alone.
By day 10 — when we could speak again — I re-entered society with an unusual sense of joy that I knew, deep down, was real. Never had I felt so relaxed, happy and clear-minded. I had seen, after 10 days, that brain activity was just that: activity, independent of day-to-day events. It was an incredible relief to know firsthand that my thoughts were merely thoughts, prone to change on their own, and therefore not the final word on who I thought I was.
An at-home mental retreat
If going out of town to a meditation retreat isn’t possible in the immediate future, try waking up early some weekend morning while your home is still quiet. Find a comfortable pillow to sit on, and close your eyes while you watch your breath. For support, try any of the numerous CDs, podcasts and even mobile apps that exist just to aid the new meditator. Start by meditating for just 10 minutes, then gradually increase your time up to 20 minutes (or more!). Set your own pace, and you will own your own meditation practice. It will become like a mini vacation waiting for you, whenever you have the time.