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One Teacher’s Perspective: the Rewards and Risks of Seclusion and Extended Silent Retreats

Ananda said to the Buddha, “Is it not true that half of the holy life is wise and safe friendship and companionship?”
The Buddha replied, “Don't say that Ananda. Wise and safe friendship and companionship is the whole of the holy life.” (Upaddha Sutta, SN 45)

We humans are designed to bond and associate together. Neuropsychologists like Allan Schore (UCLA) show us—in his landmark text “Affect Regulation and the Repair of Self”—that we are hardwired for ongoing mutual interactions that are both reliable and secure. And its not a surprise that the single, dominant theme of late 20th Century psychology, found in the ground breaking work of J. Bowlby, W.R. D. Fairbairn, D. Winnicott, E. Miller, M. Main, M. Ainsworth, J. Masterson, H. Kohut and on, is the resolute insight that our social relations are not secondary psychological processes. Personality is not the result of competing drives, as Freud proposed, but are in fact the result of actual relational needs, leading to formative interactions that shape an infant’s growing brain. Our core emotional and motivational processes resolve around connection; our emotions are not only mechanisms to communicate our states of being with others, our emotions are actually expressions of our relationships with others (for example, I Granic’s “Emotion, development, and self-organization.”) We feel frightened and dispirited by rejection and shaming; happy and at ease upon receiving acceptance and empathy. Indeed, we organize our behaviors and thoughts in such a way to stabilize secure relationships with others in the world; attaining functional interactions is to our greatest survival advantage; the brain is made for society (left hemisphere for language, right hemisphere for emotional connectivity); we all depend on some form communal existence if we are to function smoothly. 

As such, early childhood relationships form the deep patterns for the relationships to follow in life; in the best case scenario, we may have what D. Winnicott called the “good enough” mother, who provides enough tolerance, empathy and mirroring that we grow to be confident with others and willing to explore the world, with its wide array of possible interactions. This is known as “secure attachment,” and decades of clinical research defines the role early experience plays in our ability to regulate emotions (note and express), not to mention how well we withstand disappointment and frustrations without becoming ungrounded, aggressive or dissociative.

Of course there are early attachment styles that can go terribly awry: for a few examples, let’s consider the abandoning parent who discourages an infants early attempts to explore the world, discouraging relationships with others; such parents may regularly withhold emotional tolerance, while occasionally encouraging regressive clinging; this often results in borderline personality disorder, people who are hardwired to expect rejection and disappointment, incapable of making sense of their actions, while drawn to compulsive sex, for the latter presents a safe substitute for true, vulnerable intimacy. Another example: some caretakers present themselves as omniscient and all important, and repay the child’s attention with idealization: stories of perfection, entitlement and uniqueness. Occasionally these parents switch unpredictably to harsh, punitive and shaming rejection, creating as the result a future narcissist, one who lives in denial of their inauthenticity, with poor impulse control and little empathy for others.

All of us who grew up in environments where psychological needs were routinely unmet—for example a lack of empathy for fear, unpredictable emotional tolerance for frustration or anger, a failure to present ideals worth aspiring towards, a sense of membership and installed confidence—are left with damaged self-worth, in some cases a fragmented sense of identity. (I grew up in a sporadically violent, alcohol dominated environment, and experienced much of the above.) Some of us have few inner resources to maintain stability during difficult interpersonal events; and since painful and rejecting relationships are the cause of our suffering, we may have little interest in seeking others for core emotional needs; we may wind up unduly suspicious of others, or sidetracked by hypervigilence or avoidant tendencies during conflicts. 

And so the relationally scarred will at first seek out drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, workaholism and a host of other compulsive addictions to self-soothe. In essence, craving and addiction can be seen as an attempt to replace other people with substances or hollow performances that win approval and acclaim. The heroin addict seeks out opiates as a way to regulate anger, for they have few early experiences of anger being expressed usefully; often they’ve seen anger result in brutal violence. We alcoholics seek alcohol for the neural inhibition of GABA, which helps us regulate our anxieties and  fears; often, in childhood, we received little comfort from core caretakers.

To heal these wounds we have to overcome our desires to replace others and seek consistent, nurturing, mirroring safe containers that can hold and manage our destructive impulses; healing wounds and restoring emotion regulation can only be done in the context of healthy relationships.

It must be noted that a psychologically complex, if unaddressed, factor in contemporary Buddhist practice is perhaps the fetishization, if not outright idealization, of long term silent retreats as a solution for all forms of suffering and despair. In some forms of insight practice, known as the progress to insight (Visuddhimaga), practitioners are purposely led towards ‘dark night of the soul’ states where all forms of experience, including interpersonal relationships, are investigated as impermanent and unsatisfactory. In the progress of insight, states wherein the mind is gripped by “helpless fear,” Bhaya ñana, or misery Adinava ñana, are deemed essential for the path. Such techniques, for those needing reliable attachment schemes, can result in severe states of regression and re-traumatization. Over the years I’ve observed, as a fellow practitioner, many people reduced to helpless despair amidst the lack of support during silent retreats. (And, as a matter of record, one should never, ever go off mood stabilizing medications while on retreat!) As a teacher at retreats I’m determined to be there for practitioners during times of distress, carefully noting those who need a break from silence and support.

Yes, I believe most people, raised in secure attachment schemes, have the resources to self-stabilize during weeklong stints where all forms of eye contact and communication is discouraged. Even many people raised in insecure or abandoning attachment styles can withstand the rigors of the silent retreat. When it works as planned, during extended silence people learn to sit with difficult emotions and triggering thoughts, creating, through mindfulness practice the ability to note, hold and investigate, through the four foundations of experience, ways to relate to all of life’s experiences. In short we learn how to provide a safe container for all of life’s internal states, from the pleasant to the most disruptive forms of suffering.

But many practitioners will struggle due to early traumas, and its essential that all teachers know how to treat people who experience emotional destabilization, decompensation, regression or fractured experiences of reality when they arise. It’s important to feel confident that the teachers who lead any retreat know how to provide a safe container, extended periods beyond the allotted 15 minute interview, where a practitioner in despair can voice their experience in a tolerant environment that normalizes and stabilizes. In these situations emotional neutrality from the teacher doesn’t help; the teacher should strive to provide a reassuring emotional exchange.

Finally, it should be noted that practitioners who haven’t attained an array of interpersonal care in life, should understand that vipassana or mindfulness meditation is not enough. In such situations mindfulness can be a form of spiritual bypass, for those who grew up in abandoning families will often go to great lengths to avoid getting help, and will try isolating spiritual practices as a way past risking therapy or support groups. But, as the Buddha said, wise friends are the whole of the path, there is no way around the work we do together.

—Josh Korda 060214


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