Our grow­ing at­trac­tion to spir­i­tual re­treats

Re­search shows that a daily prac­tice of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion at home can also help re­duce anx­i­ety and bol­ster good health

Gulf News - - OPIN­ION -

s she walked along a New York City street on an Oc­to­ber night seven years ago, Katie Ko­zlowski was so up­set that her part­ner had stood her up that she didn’t even no­tice the taxi­cab be­fore it hit her head-on and threw her across the road. She was able, amaz­ingly, to pick her­self up from the gravel, deeply star­tled but com­pletely un­harmed. The ac­ci­dent prompted Ko­zlowski to re­flect on her life. Af­ter suf­fer­ing through a string of abu­sive re­la­tion­ships and bouts of heavy drink­ing and de­pres­sion, she knew some­thing had to change.

“I wanted to go some­where so I could fig­ure out how to stop hav­ing all of these neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences,” she said. Not long af­ter, she packed her bags and boarded a plane to gather with more than 200 peo­ple on a week-long spir­i­tual re­treat in the heart of Ire­land.

While there, Ko­zlowski learned to med­i­tate and lis­ten to her­self, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mo­ments of awe and tran­scen­dence. She loved the feel­ing of deep calm and in­ner peace the group med­i­ta­tions gave her. “It brings aware­ness to what goes on in­side of your sub­con­scious mind,” she ex­plained. She has since at­tended the re­treat three more times. “Ev­ery sin­gle time that I would leave, I would have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing and more ac­cep­tance of my­self,” she said.

As Amer­i­cans re­port feel­ing more stressed, in­ter­est in mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, adult colour­ing and other calm­ing tech­niques grows. More peo­ple are now turn­ing to spir­i­tual re­treats as a way to un­plug and re­set. In the last few years, rev­enue for “well­ness tourism”, which in­cludes med­i­ta­tion and other spir­i­tual re­treats, in­creased by 14 per cent, from $494.1 bil­lion (Dh1.81 tril­lion) in 2013 to $563.2 bil­lion in 2015, a growth rate more than twice as fast as over­all tourism ex­pen­di­tures, ac­cord­ing to the Global Well­ness In­sti­tute. Chris­tian re­treats are also re­port­ing re­newed in­ter­est.

In a re­cent study pub­lished in the jour­nal Reli­gion, Brain & Be­hav­ior, sci­en­tists from The Mar­cus In­sti­tute of In­te­gra­tive Health at Thomas Jef­fer­son Univer­sity have dis­cov­ered that there are ac­tual changes that take place in the brains of re­treat par­tic­i­pants. The find­ings, al­though pre­lim­i­nary, sug­gest that en­gag­ing in a spir­i­tual re­treat can have a short­term im­pact on the brain’s “feel good” dopamine and sero­tonin func­tion — two of the neu­ro­trans­mit­ters as­so­ci­ated with pos­i­tive emo­tions. Re­searchers stud­ied the ef­fects of at­tend­ing a week-long re­treat in­volv­ing silent con­tem­pla­tion and prayer based on the Je­suit teach­ings of Saint Ig­natius of Loy­ola. They scanned the brains of 14 Chris­tians who par­tic­i­pated in the study, rang­ing in ages from 24 to 76, be­fore and af­ter the re­treat.

‘Life-chang­ing re­sults’

The study sub­jects showed marked im­prove­ments in their per­ceived phys­i­cal health, ten­sion and fa­tigue, as well as re­port­ing feel­ings of self-tran­scen­dence. Though more re­search is needed, the co-au­thors high­lighted the strong emo­tional re­sponses that have long been as­so­ci­ated with sec­u­lar and re­li­gious re­treats such as “re­duced stress, spir­i­tual trans­for­ma­tion ex­pe­ri­ences, and the ca­pac­ity to produce life-chang­ing re­sults.”

Not ev­ery­one is able to ac­cess or af­ford to at­tend a spir­i­tual re­treat, but a grow­ing body of re­search has found that a daily prac­tice of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion at home can also help re­duce anx­i­ety and bol­ster good health.

Psy­chol­o­gist An­jhula Mya Singh Bais ex­pe­ri­enced the ben­e­fits of med­i­tat­ing dur­ing a ten-day Bud­dhist re­treat last year. “My body started reg­u­lat­ing it­self ... I could feel the stress and cor­ti­sol melt away.”

Prior to her trip, Bais had been strug­gling with sev­eral per­sonal re­la­tion­ships and was un­sure of how to move for­ward. By the end, she said she felt more in con­trol of her thoughts. “Af­ter the re­treat, one be­comes si­mul­ta­ne­ously calm and ex­hil­a­rated,” she ex­plained. Ko­zlowski is now a mind­ful­ness teacher in Con­necti­cut af­ter her re­treat ex­pe­ri­ences fol­low­ing the ac­ci­dent.

A life-long nail biter who hid her habit by ap­ply­ing fake nails while se­cretly still chew­ing her own, she knew some­thing pro­found had taken place when, af­ter her sec­ond time at the re­treat, she re­alised she had stopped nail-bit­ing. More im­por­tantly, she no­ticed that the fears and neg­a­tive be­liefs she had about her­self be­gan to dis­solve. “I used to be what peo­ple call very prickly, mean­ing I didn’t take crit­i­cism very well.”

Now, seven years af­ter that fate­ful night with the taxi, Ko­zlowski said her life has been trans­formed. “I no longer have re­la­tion­ships with men who are ver­bally abu­sive — I don’t go out drink­ing in bars un­til I’m in a stu­por,” she said. “All of those sort of be­hav­iours, I would never do that now, be­cause I ac­tu­ally like my­self.”

Cindy Lamothe is a Gu­atemala-based writer and jour­nal­ist who writes of­ten about so­cial sci­ence, women’s health, par­ent­ing, so­cial jus­tice, and a variety of other top­ics.

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