Using A “Silent Retreat” to Process Difficult Emotions

May 24th, 2013 by Laura Longley

A few weeks ago I went on self-designed silent retreat. As per my usual experience over the last 6 months, nothing went anything like the way that I had planned it or what I expected. That’s been one of my lessons I’m finally starting to realize. I need to be letting go of some expectations and be more in the moment.

I want to share what happened for me once I really got to that silent place. Let me start by sharing how I set it up. I had decided to go to the ocean. My intention was to spend a lot of time walking on the beach and journaling about things, and really just processing and integrating things that have been happening in my life over the past several months.

What really happened was this. I was leaving on Thursday morning for three days. On Wednesday I woke up with a migraine. Lately, those have been lasting a day, so I didn’t think much of it, figured it would be gone the next day.

But I still had it on Thursday and I still had it on Friday. It was really impacting my ability to do things the way I had planned to on this retreat. Any of you who have had migraines, you know you’re not going to sit down and write in a journal when your head is killing you and you feel like you’re going to throw up at any moment. I really had to look at: what is this telling me? What is the message in having this migraine for 3 days, which is not normal for me?

I used a variety of methods get in touch with that. One of them that really connected was to ask a question with my tarot cards. What immediately came up was that I was pushing too hard. I was not allowing myself to be in the flow, not allowing this processing to happen in the time and way that was natural. This is another lesson in my life over the past year that’s very familiar to me. So, I got that.

Here’s what happened next. I had planned so that I would have no distractions at all, because I know that when I start getting into this place that feels uncomfortable to me emotionally, I distract myself by doing other things that take my focus away from it. I hadn’t brought any books with me; I hadn’t brought anything else to do. The hotel I stayed at had no television and no telephone; there was no wireless, no internet access. All I could do was just be.

It is unusual for me to be in that place for this long a period of time. After about a day and a half, what happened is that I started to have waves of emotion come up. I did a lot of really, really deep crying, which I hate to do, but I know is very cathartic a lot of the time.

That went on beginning Friday afternoon and continued into Saturday. By Saturday it started to feel a little bit overwhelming. I started to get a bit scared. At that point I made some conscious choices to do things that I know numb me, and distract me from those feelings. For me, those things are watching TV, and playing games on the computer The other thing I did, which I haven’t done in a very long time, was I deliberately went and bought some specific junk food that I really love. I haven’t eaten that in probably a couple of years.

I’m pointing out that I did this consciously. I made the choice to do it, not that I went unconscious and started doing it. The reason I make that distinction is because I want you to know that when you get in those scary places you can choose to pull yourself back.

The following day I was journaling about what had happened. In retrospect, what would have been ideal is if I had allowed myself to stay in what felt scary at the moment: being in that wash of emotion. Intellectually, I know that it wouldn’t have lasted forever and it was what would have needed to be done to really process through what was going on for me. It really would have been a catharsis and it would have been a really good thing to do.

So, the next time I’m in that place, which I expect will be very soon, I feel stronger about staying the course. Recently I’ve felt kind of blocked and I think it’s because I’m not allowing myself to fully process those emotions. Now I’m ready to go the next step down that road.

If you feel that you have some processing to do, and want to do a similar process here’s how to go about it:

  • Choose a day or days when you can completely withdraw from distraction. That includes self-imposed distraction as well as other people coming to you and creating distractions.


  • Do whatever it takes for you to get out of your head and into your body or your feelings. That’s why the journaling idea I had was not going to work for me. It kept me in my head. I needed to get into my feelings and into my body.


  • Resist the urge to numb yourself. We all have ways that we do that. You can choose it deliberately or choose it consciously, but resist doing it for as long as possible.

Then see what happens. Remember that you always have the ability to take a step back and go into that place where you are allowing distraction, or where you are numbing, if it gets too scary for you. Have the courage to try and see what happens because it can be very cathartic and will help you move forward in your life.

I would love your feedback.

Have you ever done a silent retreat? What was it like?

If you haven’t, what are your worries or concerns about it?

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