Why a Mindfulness Retreat Is the Best Gift I Could Have Given Myself

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I participated in a four-hour mindfulness retreat yesterday that included mindful sitting, walking, eating, lying down, yoga, and loving kindness meditation. During the four hours, we maintained silence and custody of the eyes (keeping attention "inward" and avoiding eye contact). While the idea of four hours of silence and custody of the eyes may cause some people to scream, I absolutely loved every second of it. Granted, my introverted nature means I embrace silence to begin with, but I do have an overactive mind, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to mindfulness in the first place.

When I started on my mindfulness journey over a year ago, my original goals with a regular mindfulness practice were to:

1) Reduce stress and improve my overall sense of well-being. I am a firm believer in the mind-body connection. While taking care of the physical body is essential to good health, I believe that mental well-being must be cared for as well. The stress from work was affecting me physically so that I had high blood pressure, anxiety, and insomnia. In the mornings, I could literally feel the tightness in my chest as I approached work. Now that I practice mindfulness, things have changed for the better. I start my workday at my desk, sitting in silence, and focus on my breath for just a few minutes. During the course of my day, when I start to feel overwhelmed, I "center" myself and take a few deep breaths. Whenever unpleasant situations arise, as they often do at my job, I accept the situation for what it is, deal with the anger or frustration, but then I try my best to "let it go." Yes, this is EXTREMELY difficult and some might say impossible, but I know now that I can't let myself "marinate" in anger, hurt, or disappointment. Replaying an argument with a colleague over and over in my head is what I used to do. Disappointment over a failed project or missed promotion? I'd carry it with me for months after it happened. And what good did that do me? Absolutely nothing. But by allowing myself to feel the hurt (rather than suppressing it) and then letting go, I have freed myself. Of course, those memories will come to mind from time to time, but when they do, I gently tell myself that replaying painful stuff from the past serves no purpose, and then I remind myself to focus on the present moment. This is much easier said than done, but mindfulness has definitely helped. It has taught me how to gently stop replaying unpleasant thoughts in my mind so that I can refocus and be present to what is truly happening at this moment.

2) Incorporate mindfulness in everything I do. What does that mean for my daily life? It means that when I'm talking to my husband, he has my undivided attention and I'm not multi-tasking or making a mental to-do list in my head. It means that when I eat my meal, I am mindful of what I'm putting in my body and aware of all that went into my meal being prepared. It means that when I'm out walking my dog, I, just like my dog, am "in the moment." Honestly, my dog is a perfect example of what it means to be mindful. When she's on her walk, she embraces every moment and every single thing about her walk. She loves smelling the grass. She stops to enjoy when a breeze blows through her hair. She delights in chasing squirrels, and an ordinary stick sends her over the moon. Why and when did I lose my love for the simple things of life? Prior to my mindfulness practice, while walking my dog, my mind would be consumed by worries of the future or annoying memories of past events. Now, I make it a point to "take in" everything around me. I enjoy the brisk air. I appreciate the warmth of sunlight on my face. I am aware of sensations throughout my body as I walk. I no longer take for granted just how much is involved in the simple act of walking. What has really surprised me now that I practice mindfulness while walking my dog is that I see things on my street that I haven't noticed before, and I've been living here for years! It's amazing how much of life passes us by when we are consumed by our own thoughts -- when we are running on auto-pilot.

3) In stillness and silence, understand what it is I am here to do. What is my unique gift and how can I use it to help other people? Ever since I've started practicing mindfulness, I am very much aware of how blessed I am, and so for everything I have, for everything that has happened, good and bad, I am grateful. Only now do I understand that everything has happened for a reason. I know I can do more to help people, but it still isn't clear to me how or what I am to do. What IS clear to me though, is that mindfulness will help me figure it all out.

4) Be more compassionate to myself and others. It's amazing how much we beat ourselves up over things from the past. I know that for me, I've found it very difficult to really forgive myself and let go of past transgressions. If you are like me and want to start showing yourself some true compassion, then loving kindness meditation is a great place to start. I think of it as a support to mindfulness meditation. Every time I practice loving kindness, I am overwhelmed with such a strong sense of love and compassion for myself. I am able to truly love and accept myself with all my flaws and imperfections while at the same time love and accept all the other people who come to mind during this practice, because loving kindness isn't just about me. It includes people I love, respect, and have struggles with. It is all-inclusive, which makes it such a beautiful practice.

Yesterday's mindfulness retreat is the best gift I could have given myself. Practicing mindfulness has had a positive impact on my health, relationships, and overall sense of well-being. I would encourage anyone looking for peace or help in quieting an overactive mind to seriously consider a mindfulness practice. It is not easy, but the benefits are immeasurable.