Mental Health Silent Retreats Have Changed My Recovery Story
by Mike Veny
It’s 7:00pm on a Friday night. I’m driving alone through Dutchess County, which is about an hour north of New York City, and it’s the dead of winter. I just got off the highway, and I’m heading down the main road. I could probably get to the camp without looking for signs, but because of my anxiety, I still need some reassurance that I’m on the right path. When I don’t have reassurance, my anxiety goes through the roof, and my obsessive thinking is in rapid fire mode. When this happens, my thinking becomes distorted, and my decisions become impulsive. With or without anxiety, you don’t want to get lost up here where there are no lights and civilization seems nonexistent.
After about ten minutes, I eventually find the camp. I pull in and head over towards the cabin. When you enter, this one-floor cabin has a large living room with a kitchen. There are four bedrooms, and each one has bunk beds and a bathroom. Being there reminds me of being a kid at sleep-away camp.
I’m feeling anxious again, but this time it’s because the owner left the door unlocked for me. I sometimes wonder if someone will be waiting to attack me once I’m inside. Being from New York City, this mentality is completely understandable. New York City has a reputation for crime and being aware is taught to us from a young age. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced this.
I walk up the stairs to the cabin, open the door, and turn on the lights. As I unpack, I anticipate the journey on which I’m about to embark for the next twenty-four hours. Although I’ve done it before, I know that each experience is different. Once I finish unpacking, I read the rules that I’ve established for myself out loud.
After the rules are agreed upon (by me and myself), I shut off my cell phone, take out a smudge stick (sage), and a lighter. I walk out to the front porch, light my smudge stick, and begin to get clear on my intentions for the next day. How do I want to feel? Who do I need to forgive? What do I want to accomplish?
This sage ritual is the official start of my twenty-four-hour silent retreat.
A sage ritual is an ancient Eastern, Asian, and Greek practice that involves burning dried sage bound together by a thin string. Sage is believed to be a healing herb with mystical properties. The burning is done to give your physical space and personal aura a spiritual cleansing.
Periodic silent retreats have become an important part of my life. Although I would like to do them once a month, it doesn’t always happen, due to my rigorous travel schedule as a mental health speaker. Even though I’m unable to engage in these retreats as much as I would like, the results that I have experienced have been profound, and lasting.
The concept of a silent retreat is not in my nature. I have Type A personality and am constantly on the go. I work fast and thrive off momentum. My former assistant gave me the nickname, “Rocket Boots.” From the moment the day begins until I fall asleep, my shoe leather is smoldering: it’s GO GO GO GO GO GO GO…. into the atmosphere and beyond!
In addition to having a personality type that’s not designed to withstand silence for longer than a minute, I also have obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. My mind thrives off of obsessing. It often feels like an old short film playing over and over again in my mind, with the pacing sped up. Sometimes I’m obsessing about a person. Other times it’s about my health. Sometimes it’s my pet fish. Regardless of the subject, all this noise gets in the way of being present, productive, and living life to its fullest. In one sense, obsessing can become incredibly frustrating when it’s combined with my Type A personality. In another sense, both the OCD and Type A personality have served me in being productive at work.
I also live with depression, which often expresses itself as anger. My anger manifests from resentments. My resentments include people who have hurt me but are mostly about myself. In my recovery journey, I am starting to see my depression as a manifestation of things that have been weighing on my conscience that I have avoided. Taking an honest look in the mirror is tough. I have character flaws and people whom I have harmed because of my decisions. I own that and I am working very hard to forgive myself on a daily basis.
I frequently worry that if I don’t deal with these issues, then they will eventually have an impact on my physical health.
My mom died of cancer almost one year ago. Even though she had no diagnosed psychiatric disorder, it was evident to me that she lived with lots of resentment. I am not a medical professional, however, I’m a big believer in the idea that cancer, and many other diseases, can manifest from unresolved anger. I don’t want to die because of what I hold against other people.
As a person in recovery from depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, I’m doing much better these days. In the past, when I was at my lowest points, each day was a gamble. I didn’t know if I would be able to get out of bed, take care of myself, and get my work done. I would often act out with aggressive and verbally abusive behavior toward my loved ones. To ease my emotional pain, which often became a physical pain, I would resort to harming myself (which temporarily distracted me from my pain). I spent most of those days hoping my pain would just ease up, even just for a few hours.
Nowadays, I still have to work hard on coping and managing my emotions. When I am proactive about putting time into this, life significantly improves.
Silent retreats have been an important tool in my recovery. They have allowed me to forgive, heal, and gain clarity. Through practicing silence, I’m forced to sit with my feelings and feel them. Sitting with my feelings is still new and uncomfortable for me because I’ve spent most of my life running away from my feelings and acting out in self-destructive ways. Frequently, my feelings are painful, uncomfortable, and confusing. As soon as I notice them, I go into a mental panic that intensifies whatever I’m already feeling. It’s a downward spiral that leads me to a dark place for extended periods of time.
During my silent retreats, these same painful, uncomfortable, and confusing feelings arise. As soon as I notice them, I pause and take the time to listen to them and explore them with a childlike curiosity. Giving myself the time and space to engage in this process has lead to new levels of self-discovery. It’s also freed me up to experience happiness, which is still brand new for me.
You are reading this because I want you to forgive, heal, and gain clarity.
Why We Need Silence
As a society, experiencing prolonged periods of silence is not a part of our culture. Even if we are alone, from the time we wake up until our bedtime, we interact with our mobile devices. As time goes on, we are spending more time each day with them.
That’s not good for our mental health.
What to Do on a Silent Retreat
The short answer is NOTHING. Show up, and shut up.
I have found that it’s important to have some structure to the silent retreat. For me that includes time for:
Sitting with my feelings
I do mine in a cabin at a Presbyterian Camp. You could do your retreat on a campground or in a hotel. There are even retreat centers throughout the country that you can rent. The cool thing about doing it at a retreat center is that you have other people around. Regardless, you still need be silent.
Some people may have more structure, and some have none at all. It’s entirely up to you to make it whatever you want it to be.
What if It Seems Impossible?
In the spirit of transparency, the idea of going on my next silent retreat (even nowadays) is scary and daunting. Also, the thought of keeping my mouth shut and my phone off for twenty-four hours seems BORING.
People who haven’t experienced it often tell me:
1. They think they will go crazy.
2. It doesn’t make any sense.
3. They don’t understand why they can’t just do it at home.
The above points are valid and here are some thoughts.
1. Thinking you may ‘go crazy.’ (NOTE: It’s quite interesting to discuss this in a mental health recovery article). It’s important to talk to a mental health professional about doing this before you do it. For some people, it could be a triggering experience.
2. Thinking it doesn’t make any sense. Blindly trust me on this one. 🙂
3. Thinking about doing it at home. Yes, you could, but there is something special about stepping outside of the environment you live in and going to a different place.
If you try this, I promise that you will learn something about yourself. It will be a huge step toward forgiveness, healing, and clarity. Although it may seem impossible to make a day-long retreat, once you begin, you’ll probably never want to stop.
Quick Tip: Try spending two hours in silence in the week. You will immediately start to feel the benefits.
It’s now 7:00pm on Saturday night. As I pack up my clothes, food, journal, etc., I’m reflecting on the past day. How do I feel now? What did I accomplish? Why did I do this? After I finish packing everything except for my smudge stick and my lighter, I walk out on the porch.
I light my smudge tick and begin to get clear on what my intentions were for this retreat. This ritual is the official end of my twenty-four-hour silent retreat.
When will you schedule your silent retreat?