Retreat for Health
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“retreat confirmed the importance of taking time out of our busy lives to quietly reflect and connect with ourselves. I learned countless lessons that could have only happened through direct experience. Perhaps most importantly, I deeply accepted myself and vowed to continue leaning into my fears.” – Alyssa Siefert
Retreat can be a powerful experience. But, in some ways, is like being on vacation. Everything is taken care of, beds made, towels and linens provided, all meals prepared, and time is dictated by a detailed schedule of meditations, talks, question and answer periods, and reflective time. All the individual has to do is show up, meditate, relax, contemplate and listen. The retreatants are terribly spoiled! That seeming ease, however, is deceptive.
Retreat is actually quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it can run from early in the morning till late at night every day. It can also be physically challenging as engaging in sitting meditation repeatedly over the day is guaranteed to produce many aches and pains in the legs, back, and neck. But the real challenges are psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Retreat can be a real test. The darkness can descend. Deep emotional issues can emerge and may even overwhelm the individual. Many participants will spontaneously burst out in tears. Others may become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and break out in cold sweats, and still others are sleepless and tormented. How can this be, that something so seemingly peaceful as silent retreat can be so emotionally wrenching? The secret is that the situation removes the minds ability to hide and distract.
Humans have done a tremendous job of providing distractions for the mind including books, movies, magazines, music, television, sports, amusement parks, surfing the internet, tweeting, texting, etc. Any time troubling thoughts or memories of traumatic experiences begin to emerge in everyday life, the subject can easily be changed by engaging in a distraction. So, the issues never have to truly be confronted. But, in silent retreat there is no escape. Difficult issues emerge and there is no place to hide. They must be confronted and experienced. With all these difficulties, why would anyone want to put themselves through such an ordeal and go on a meditation retreat? People go because they find that retreat produces many profound and sometimes life altering benefits.
In today’s Research News article “The health impact of residential retreats: a systematic review.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5761096/ ), Naidoo and colleagues review and summarize the effects on health of attending a retreat. They discovered 23 scientific studies of the health effects of retreat of which 8 were randomized controlled trials. These studies included a wide range of participants including healthy individuals and people with mental and physical disorders. The retreats lasted from 2.5 to 15 days with most around a week.
They found that without exception the studies reported statistically significant improvements following the retreat in some outcome measures of mental or physical health. These benefits included significant improvements in quality of life, perceived physical health and health symptoms, as well as psychological and spiritual well-being, and even genetic markers of longevity. These benefits appear to last long after the completion of the retreat. So, retreat appears to produce substantial and lasting health benefits.
It is very difficult to find appropriate comparison conditions for a retreat or have a retreat with blind participants or researchers. So, there is a considerable risk of bias in all of these studies. Nevertheless, the universal findings of the scientific studies that have investigated the effects of participating in a retreat find significant psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits for healthy or sick individuals.
So, retreat for health.
“A 1-month Vipassana meditation retreat may yield improvements in mindfulness, affect and personality, even in experienced meditators.” – Montero Marin
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Dhevaksha Naidoo, Adrian Schembri, Marc Cohen, The health impact of residential retreats: a systematic review. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2018; 18: 8. Published online 2018 Jan 10. doi: 10.1186/s12906-017-2078-4
Unhealthy lifestyles are a major factor in the development and exacerbation of many chronic diseases. Improving lifestyles though immersive residential experiences that promote healthy behaviours is a focus of the health retreat industry. This systematic review aims to identify and explore published studies on the health, wellbeing and economic impact of retreat experiences.
MEDLINE, CINAHL and PsychINFO databases were searched for residential retreat studies in English published prior to February 2017. Studies were included if they were written in English, involved an intervention program in a residential setting of one or more nights, and included before-and-after data related to the health of participants. Studies that did not meet the above criteria or contained only descriptive data from interviews or case studies were excluded.
A total of 23 studies including eight randomised controlled trials, six non-randomised controlled trials and nine longitudinal cohort studies met the inclusion criteria. These studies included a total of 2592 participants from diverse geographical and demographic populations and a great heterogeneity of outcome measures, with seven studies examining objective outcomes such as blood pressure or biological makers of disease, and 16 studies examining subjective outcomes that mostly involved self-reported questionnaires on psychological and spiritual measures. All studies reported post-retreat health benefits ranging from immediately after to five-years post-retreat. Study populations varied widely and most studies had small sample sizes, poorly described methodology and little follow-up data, and no studies reported on health economic outcomes or adverse effects, making it difficult to make definite conclusions about specific conditions, safety or return on investment.
Health retreat experiences appear to have health benefits that include benefits for people with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, various cancers, HIV/AIDS, heart conditions and mental health. Future research with larger numbers of subjects and longer follow-up periods are needed to investigate the health impact of different retreat experiences and the clinical populations most likely to benefit. Further studies are also needed to determine the economic benefits of retreat experiences for individuals, as well as for businesses, health insurers and policy makers.