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My Silent Retreat Experience Prepared Me For Quarantine — Here's How

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Two months and what feels like a million years ago, I decided to take a breather from driving, work, happy hours, dishes, everything. It was March 4, 2020 and what seemed like the perfect time to shelter myself from the headlines (a deadly tornado had ripped through Tennessee; Super Tuesday results were in; markets tumbled; the emerging coronavirus was thought to be "very safe") and unplug for a bit. So after undergoing a screening process by phone (to ensure I was prepared to participate), I signed up to experience my first silent retreat at the Lake Shrine Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades, California, where $70 a night will get you a single room, three vegetarian meals, plenty of space to meditate, and complete quiet.

I wasn’t there long, (unlike actor Jared Leto, who recently wandered out of his 12-day meditation retreat in the desert and into a world overtaken by COVID-19). But what I learned in a mere 48 hours onsite ended up being the best boot camp for self-isolating amid a global pandemic, which kicked into high gear about a week after my quiet getaway. Does the act of staying at home stoke personal growth as well as stymie the spread of a novel virus? Ahead, my firsthand learnings, and the insights of psychologists Dr. Jessica Del Pozo and Dr. Tracy Thomas on what happens when we drop out of social life and tune into our inner selves.

Silent Retreat Experience Takeaway: Surround Yourself With Less

The Self Realization Fellowship Retreat doesn’t bill itself as a luxury, five-star hotel, so I was fully prepared to go without turndown service and spa amenities during my stay. Still, given the posh property in the Pacific Palisades (the gardens are so manicured they give Disneyland’s a run for their money), I had prepared for a certain degree of aesthetic design and comfort. But when I checked into my room, I found a stripped-down setting: a single bed, desk, reading lamp and a small balcony that afforded sweeping pacific views. Don’t get me wrong — that multi-million dollar view is killer, but otherwise, the room felt a bit like camp. Turns out that’s totally intentional.

“Our focus is designed to help people appreciate the beauty of nature, and one way of doing that is keeping things more simple and toning down the thought process, because if you have a lot of clutter around you, your thoughts are going to respond to that clutter,” says Sister Sarala, a nun who oversees the Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat Program.

Del Pozo cosigns this idea, reinforcing what countless #stayathome Instagram posts have shown in the past month or so: This time of isolation may be the best for Kondo-ing your home. “Uncluttered space can reflect uncluttered minds,” she notes. “Simplifying the space around us, where we can find things in our kitchens and closets, does allow for more [mental] flow because we’re not being overwhelmed with managing stuff.”

Managing less stuff frees space to enjoy and connect to the beauty around us, whether it’s nature, a thoughtfully designed building, or your own home. “That simplicity is reminding us we don't need much more than safety in the accommodation and a little bit of comfort," says Del Pozo, whose work focuses on burnout mitigation and resiliency building. "When we do without, that leaves room for internal work and serves as a reminder that we provide the most support for ourselves — it doesn’t come from the outside. There’s a lot of fear going on right now and it seems when our comfort is threatened, then, boy, do we dig in. We could talk about toilet paper [hoarding], but even without it, we're going to be OK.”

Silent Retreat Experience Takeaway: Create A Safe Space (Even In Scary Times)

Another strong shift I noticed when on retreat: In a very short time, I felt myself becoming less and less guarded. In this tranquil place, I didn’t have to worry about traffic, whether someone was following me on the street, or even what I was going to scrounge up for dinner. I was shocked by how quickly I assimilated into living with a sense of complete safety and how that state of mind allowed my thoughts to flow more freely. But when I run this experience by Del Pozo, she’s far less surprised.

“You can't grow personally or professionally if you don't feel safe,” she says. “You can try, but that safety piece is key.”

Outside of the carefully curated bubble of a retreat center, is it even possible to create a sense of safety, particularly when in the middle of a pandemic? Yes, says Del Pozo. But it will take some work. She suggests designating a space in your home or on your property — like a cushion or chair in your apartment, porch, or yard — that feels nurturing and far removed from push notifications and distractions that put you on high alert. “Use this place to physically retreat and separate yourself from media, noise, and all the distractions we’re surrounded with and notice how your breathing shifts,” she says.

Silent Retreat Experience Takeaway: Disconnect Your Phone

Staying at a silent retreat facility may be the one time when you won’t have to hang or illuminate a “do not disturb” sign once inside your room. Instead, the move becomes hitting “do not disturb” on your phone as you begin your vow of silence.

“The encouragement on our side is to try to disconnect and see what that does for your mental process, emotional health and well-being, and your life,” Sister Sarala notes. So I turned my phone off — and it was really hard to keep it that way. But after a while, I started to have very clear ideas about what I most wanted to do with my life, the kind of stuff that disjointedly ricochets around in my head and is often interrupted by work, texts, and the unrelenting lure of Instagram before getting lost in the chaos.

“It’s like our phone is threatening us and attacking us all the time because there’s always something coming at us [via alerts]. When you’ve shifted out of the threat zone, the nervous system can finally shut down in the way that it wants to,” notes Thomas, whose work as an emotional scientist helps people tap into their own emotional strength.

Silent Retreat Experience Takeaway: Take A Nap (Then Take Another)

So, what happens when you neutralize the threat of your phone and the outside world and allow your body to shut down the way it wants? If you’re me, you take a lot of naps. During my time at the retreat, I slept a marathon 10 to 12 hours a night and took a nap or two a day. Who knew I was that tired? Sister Sarala later told me it’s common to sleep like a house cat when in retreat.

The same thing may be happening for many during this time of self-isolation. “Twelve hours per day is as far as the nervous system really wants to go, but we keep on pushing it and pushing it,” Thomas says. By drastically slowing stimuli and taking ourselves out of a reactive mode, our bodies can relax and sleep more deeply than they have in a long time.

Silent Retreat Experience Takeaway: Resist Busywork

Sleeping for 14 to 16 hours eats up a good chunk of the day. Still, I found myself with nothing but time when in silence. On top of that, I didn’t bring a single face mask, bottle of nail polish, or book. How was I supposed to busy myself during those other eight-odd hours? The answer: I wasn’t. Because, according to Del Pozo, giving yourself a heck of a lot less to do is “the space where healing happens physically, emotionally, and mentally.”

Idle time may end up being some of our most valuable time spent while sheltering in place. “Many of us run at maximum capacity, so when curveballs like, say, a global pandemic, come, it throws us off," says Del Pozo. "But maybe this forced retreat can provide time for people to experience sharper mental focus."

Her tip: Instead of engaging in the usual multitasking (which, let's face it, is really just doing a few things haphazardly), try working through just one task — or thought — at a time. The payoff? Clearer thinking and more engaging experiences.

Silent Retreat Experience Takeaway: Lean Into Slow

Not since I was in the back seat of my parents’ car, whining, “Are we there yet?,” have I felt time inch forward ever so slowly as in the first 12 hours at Lake Shrine. Did it feel uncomfortable and regressive? Absolutely. But as Thomas explains, all that isolation and incredible slowing of time can take us from a place of chronic overstimulation and reactivity to one of intention — which is exactly where we shine.

“In our modern society, we’ve never been in a more reactive status individually and collectively," Thomas says. "But when you’re making a shift from the reactivity that comes from chronic overstimulation to a place of intention, you’re strengthening your emotional center and starting to select what you’re doing. As we do that, our brains can actually do what it’s designed to do, which is to allow the creative capacity to flow.”

The outcome isn’t just more free-flowing creativity but a better connection with one’s self — which explains why, after a while, I felt my discomfort with time’s glacial pace dissipate as I began to tap into what I was feeling in the moment (tired, grateful, centered, agitated). It’s a level of awareness that Thomas says is a long time coming. “What I see in this difficult time is people are actually getting the experience that people have been paying me millions of dollars to give them for years, which is self-connection,” she says. “It’s one of the most overdue things that people need right now.”