What is the first thing that goes through your mind when you think of a silent retreat? Is the idea compelling? Repelling? Is it one of those, “that sounds like a good thing to do, but awful!” like running a marathon, or some other monumental task. I was more like the last camp.
As a teacher and student of Mindfulness practices and interventions, the awareness that I must, at some point, attend a silent meditation retreat has been looming for some time. Although I primarily teach mindfulness based CBT as a skill in daily living (i.e. ACT, DBT), I knew that the deeper practices were needed to continue my growth. So when a post on a professional list serve showed up in my in box announcing a last minute cancelation for a retreat with fellow clinicians, I jumped.
I reserved the spot.
My mind began struggling, before I even got there. I procrastinated on booking the flight. Images of the long flight, rental car, ferry, then an hour more drive, to share a room with three strangers…. And the list of discomforts goes on.
I compelled myself to counter these negative worry thoughts with images of the beautiful local, the time for myself (as I had not had a vacation this year), and of course, the benefits of going. Most of all, I teach mindfulness skills every day to clients and other clinicians. If I don’t go, I am a complete hypocrite!
So the balanced thoughts won out and off I went.
Freedom comes from structure: On developing a discipline
My time slot for the bathroom was at 5:30 am. So I got to sleep later than most in order to be ready to go for brisk walking in the gravel courtyard at 6:00 am. But falling asleep the first night in my top bunk, above my snoring roommate, proved difficult. The hours ticked by, my last glance at the clock was at 3:37 am.
Now, one thing I am very mindful of about myself (as is anyone who knows me well at all), is that my coping becomes highly impaired when I am sleep deficient.
All day I battled my mind like a giant prehistoric dragon. “Why am I here?!” it screamed. “I could be home in my comfy new home!” “The weather was beautiful at home when I left and it is drizzling and cold here.” I fought the valiant fight. “Back to the breadth Lara. Start at step one. Feel the breadth Lara.” When that failed I engaged the mantra I assign my clients when racing thoughts plague them. “I am inhaling with awareness, exhaling with acceptance. Inhaling with awareness, exhaling with acceptance.” ……. “But seriously” my mind tugged on “I could call a cab. I could say my dog is sick, so I have to leave.” . . . “I am inhaling with awareness, exhaling with acceptance. Inhaling with awareness, exhaling with acceptance.”
This battle raged on. Back and forth, back and forth. Until eventually, I realized, “I am here” and “I’m just ‘white knuckling it.’ I’m not even practicing.” In one brief moment of silence from the struggle, my “Wise Mind” offered me the answer to the question “What am I doing here!?!” with a new mantra. “This is a long term investment. This is a long term investment.” This, I knew, was a true thought.
It was the struggle of this first day that showed me the importance of setting the stage, so to speak, for our practice (and that of our clients) with a concrete structure. Just as children do not want or like being reigned in with rules and disciplines, so to our learned habits of action and thinking (and that of our clients) will push back, fiercely at times. But we (and they) need this tangible concrete, at times rote memorization, of what to do (in thought and action) to get back to center. Controlling the only thing truly in our control, our behavior, leads to the larger long term gains of shifts in thoughts and feelings.
Deepening of experience, Increasing bandwidth
The next morning, with relatively more sleep, I awoke ready to recommit to my practice. One of the fundamental benefits I found, as a clinician, of attending an experiential intensive retreat, is the critical “felt sense” of the struggles of developing this practice. And it is a developmental process, beginning with the concrete, and building up to increasing amounts of awareness. Each day on the retreat seemed to build on the prior. Formal mindfulness practice moves from a closed focus attention on the breadth, to open focus. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR, calls this “choiceless awareness,” the open, or “evenly hovering attention” as Freud called it, to all aspects of awareness (bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, impulses). After day one’s wrestle with my monkey mind, I could feel myself settle in to that place of still observation.
I have felt this stillness previously, primarily after a strong yoga class, but also in the moments after meditating. What was new for me was the lingering effect of such intensive practice. I found that between practices, (and even after the retreat was over) my senses opened up, as if an entire other bandwidth of experience and awareness became clear to me. Colors seemed brighter; my experience of the world around me became one of wonderment. This is what the Buddhists call Beginners Mind.
So why is this shift in awareness beneficial????
My experience showed me that when all the bandwidths are open to us, there are endless opportunities to find joy in each moment. Or, said another way, if we can see the entire spectrum of experience, with a perspective of equanimity, the experiences, which we are predetermined to judge as “bad” take on less significance. This has important application for emotion regulation. When I teach my clients that joy comes from balancing “feeling better” with “getting better at feeling,” (Hayes, S.C.), the common reply is, “I already feel too much!”
Many of us have felt this way at some point in our lives. The brilliance of the third wave CBT treatments based on mindfulness, is the guidance they provide to counter intuitively move us towards our experience. CBT therapists and researchers have long known that repeatedly and systematically exposing one to an uncomfortable experience, leads to decreased distress (habituation). Interestingly however, more recent research (e.g. Craske, M.) has found that the reductions in long-term distress are not related to the reductions/habituation during the exposure. Instead, the long-term improvements are related to the number of reengagements with spikes in discomfort.
This seems to correspond with the mindfulness and acceptance view. One of the primary objectives of these treatments is to foster a willingness to experience distress- we learn to shift our relationship to the experience- actively practice acceptance- so that the experience becomes less distressing. From my experience, I wonder if the reduction in long term distress does not also come from the opening up of the bandwidth of experience (and subsequent reduction of the primacy of undesired experience)?
Balancing awareness of inside with awareness of outside
As this expanded awareness grows, we move from being aware of what is going on inside ourselves, to balancing conscious awareness of what is going on outside us, in the environment and, importantly, with someone else. This awareness came to me during and between formal sitting practice. But we can all draw examples of the subtleties of social interaction from our everyday experience.
The formal practices were organized so that we practiced 25-30 minutes of sitting, with 5 minutes of walking in between. This format moved one from primarily internal focus, to a small, but relevant pull adaptive responding from the environment. In formal walking meditation, the practice asks practitioners to maintain a steady space between. Meditating with others offers this dedicated opportunity to notice the shifting of attention and having to continuously adapt from our own internal musings to the demands of the environment. Interestingly, (I thought) when I first practiced walking meditation years ago, I experienced impatience, rushing, “let’s move!” Now, I observed the need to adjust to maintain the pace with the person ahead of me.
This led me to believe “you have to be mindful slow, before you can be mindful fast”. My clinical practice specializes in problems of emotion dysregulation. So most of the time, I am working with clients to reduce behavioral impulsivity and racing thoughts, as these are the two symptoms that can lead to most problems. When dysregulation occurs, clients report moving from one extreme to the other; moving faster and faster to keep up with beliefs and “shoulds”, until they burn out and then they withdraw entirely.
So, in essence, this insight is linked to insight one. From the discipline of structured slowing down time, we are better able to recognize (conduct a functional analysis if you will) our own patterns/tendencies, and adjust to the demands of the environment more appropriately. In other words, we become familiar and aware of what is coming from inside me, versus what is coming from some objective difficulty (and thus requires a response). We learn to engage ourselves with more compassion and acceptance of these thoughts and feelings, which are based on past programing, so that we may more effectively engage the world.
From this place, the next developmental task is to develop a more conscious and compassionate awareness of others. This is akin to the work of Mentalization psychotherapy. According to the Fonagy, mentalization is the ability to understand the mental state of oneself and others, which underlie overt behavior. In our day-to-day interpersonal interactions we make countless number of assumptions, stereotypes, and biased interpretations of the intentions and internal states of others. These biases grow largely out of ignorance (i.e. limited experience) and are a source of much of our interpersonal difficulties. We do it to others, and others do it to us. A good recent example from the media is Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards. What was your interpretation of the internal motivations of Ms. Cyrus? Was it kind, or judgmental? How about the opposing political party? Do you believe your beliefs with no room for alternative explanations? Or can you consider a more compassionate interpretation?
This movement from self awareness to a mentalizing stance is precisely what I teach my clients to practice with the “compassionate reinterpretation” strategy for managing angry feelings (i.e. irritation, frustration, annoyance). Compassion is not really for the other, but for ourselves, to release us from the load of negativity. However, this cognitive reframing strategy will be less effective if self-compassion is not practiced first. We cannot give what we do not have. And so we cannot be compassionate with others until have learned to be compassionate with ourselves.
As I left the retreat, and walked mindfully through the hustle and bustle of the airport, onto the plane, and back to Los Angeles, I could feel the lingering effects of focused ease and wonderment. I contemplated the take away insights of how this disciplined practice, led to a deeper experience of the observer or transcendent self, which led to an ability to actively practice this state of mind with others. Ultimately, as a clinician, we can only take our clients where we ourselves have been. And so, while I still believe we can learn and teach mindfulness as a cognitive and behavioral skill in daily living, something else entirely is brought to the interaction (clinical or social) when we model mindfulness from this deeper sense of knowing.
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