That Time I Ran Away From a Meditation Retreat
It’s 8am, my heart is beating inordinately fast, by body is rigid with tension and my mind seems to be running its own ultra-marathon of worry.
The ironic thing is I’m in a warm, comfy room at a meditation retreat deep in the countryside. We're doing something called Qigong, a holistic exercise to cultivate and balance qi or ‘life energy’ (thank you Wikipedia). With each audible out breath and dramatic swaying of my arms, I can feel the fear surging and the adrenaline coursing through my veins; I’m on my way to a panic attack.
The final straw is when the teacher informs us we must bring our hands together to end the session, otherwise we might turn invisible...
A LIL' BACK STORY
Back in 2012 I was first introduced to the concept of mindfulness during a particularly rough patch with anxiety. I would halfheartedly practise it until I’d start to feel better, then drop it. I soon lost faith, believing that it clearly didn’t work as I was falling back into anxious episodes fairly regularly.
Now, it probably doesn’t take a genius to realise that there was a pattern in my ups and downs. Practising mindfulness = feeling more content v.s. not practising mindfulness = feeling shit.
By 2016 I made the commitment to meditate everyday for at least 10 minutes, first on my own and then with the help of Headspace. I saw steady improvements in myself over the coming months and have been meditating most days since then.
It all therefore made sense for me to take my meditation to the ‘next level’ with a retreat; where a whole weekend would be dedicated to mindfulness. A friend and I booked onto a course and headed off on a cold December afternoon.
I’m not going to name the retreat as many people come away from it happy and calm. Unfortunately, it just so happen to have the absolute opposite effect on me, such is life.
LET'S GET OUR ZEN ON
The guys who ran the retreat were perfectly lovely people, all having gone through their own mental health struggles which led them to where they are now. For me, their way of teaching wasn’t what I was hoping for. It was clouded in quite heavy philosophical questions, looking into ‘the self’ and reality.
For anyone who has experienced feelings of depersonalisation, this is not something you want to be suddenly throwing on yourself. It was tapping into my fear of ‘losing the plot’ like a bloody sledgehammer.
For the first two days I tried my hardest to ignore my super busy, worried mind (not very mindful) but it all came to a head during a session of Kundalini Yoga. I was told Russell Brand calls Kundalini Yoga the crack cocaine of yoga (do not quote me on that).
I had never tried this type of yoga before so my perception might be skewed now. However, many people say it's very beneficial so I don't want to upset those who are fans.
A HYPERVENTILATING MESS
We were instructed to breath sharply in and out whilst repeating different types of arm movements, e.g. punching, reaching to the ceiling etc.
Whether it was the point of it or not, it was essentially producing the symptoms of a panic attack: quick breathing, rapid heartbeat, pins and needles in your extremities etc. We did this for 10 minutes whilst some intense audio of chanting was playing in the background. What followed was one of the oddest moments of my life. We were instructed to go straight into a meditation following the yoga and all of a sudden people were breaking down in tears around me. Like, full on crying.
I want to note that there is NOTHING wrong with crying. Crying does not make you weak, a loser or whatever we've been led to believe. However after triggering the symptoms of a panic attack in a dark room full of strangers (minus my friend), with loud, obtrusive chanting continuing in the background, being surrounded by sounds of crying did not help. I held myself together and went back for dinner.
That evening I couldn’t sleep due to constant surges of panic and that brings us up to trying not to turn invisible during Qigong. I can happily say I succeeded and am still entirely visible.
I called it quits after that and my friend was kind enough to agree to head off early.
I can not stress enough that many people learn a lot from this particular retreat. Whilst those who run it do so in their best interest. It also doesn’t mean that you would have a similar experience if you went on a retreat. I'm personally not giving up on them just yet.
WHAT I LEARNT FROM THIS EXPERIENCE:
We don’t have to wholeheartedly believe in someone’s words just because we hold them in high esteem. I went into the retreat almost idolising these guys before I even met them. Therefore their teachings were gospel to me and that's really not the point of meditation and mindfulness.
Another reminder of how powerful thoughts can be. All that anxiety and panic was triggered by me analysing what was being taught and spiralling into what I was thinking/feeling.
Most importantly, you won’t turn invisible after practising Qigong.
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