Silent retreats are not for the unstable
In 2010 I experienced a ten day silent retreat and was advised not to attend if I had any mental health problems. Now, as a body- mind psychotherapist I questioned this because my first thought was that tons of meditation would be extremely helpful. However, my first thought was soon replaced with ‘now I appreciate why’ once i had completed the experience. And the following is how I came to that conclusion.
When you are at a silent retreat, your behaviour goes against social convention. You see when you make eye contact it is to engage with others but in this situation, engagement was actively discouraged, therefore I found myself constantly looking down.
And at first I didn’t really notice how those previously held social etiquettes helped maintain my emotional balance, until around day three. I then started to feel isolated, unconnected and starved of human interaction. This was of course the main aim of the retreat - letting go of attachments.
What became very apparent was how my body posture was impacting on my mood. The constant looking down and avoiding eye contact with people brought about an anxietycoupled with low mood. Consequently, my body posture effectively induced a state of anxiety and depression.
This is when the penny dropped! I had previously learned body language in my studies and how to ‘fake it until you make it’ etc. but I had not linked that posture can dictate your emotional state.
Looking up - feeling up
Looking down - feeling down
Fast forward to now, amidst the CV pandemic.
When out for my daily walk, I have noticed that the majority of people I pass, not only cross over or give me a wide berth, they tend to look down with a fearful and/or concerned look on their face. And experiencing this took me straight back to my retreat and how I felt then 😭 It dawned on me how much emotional distress those passers by will be experiencing as a result of their body closing down, in addition to any pandemic fears!
I purposefully keep my head held high, give eye contact and smile 😊 to maintain a balanced emotional state. Why? Because unless you are balanced emotionally, your behaviour is driven by your animal/primitive brain. And your animal brain can take over quite easily as your posture changes.
When you think of a stereotypical depressed person how would you describe their body posture? Pretty much like what I am seeing on the streets right now - head down, slumped shoulders, avoiding eye contact, wearing an apathetic or worried expression?
And what about a stereotypical happy relaxed person, how would their body posture be?
Open body, smiley, relaxed, good eye contact etc.?
It is often marketed to ‘fake it until you make it’ which is using your mindset to help change your behaviour, known as top down processing. Trouble is, when you are anxious or depressed, your animal brain is driving your behaviour and your mindset is less accessible.
BUT there is another way!
Bottom up processing. This works by changing your body posture to change your behaviour and thinking. Therefore if you notice that you are feeling anxious or low, pay attention to your posture: is it open or closed?
If it is closed, open it up and look up, just like you are daydreaming.
Think of it like this: when you daydream your mood tends to be optimistic and you focus on good things. Whereas, when you look down, it’s like you are weighed down by guilt or shame and your outlook is negative and you focus on bad things.
Change your body to change your mood in an instant! No need for affirmations or giving yourself a good talking to, just open your posture, look up and smile and allow the magic to work all by itself!