New neuroscience research helps explain our growing attraction to spiritual retreats
As she walked along a New York City street on an October night seven years ago, Katie Kozlowski was so upset that her boyfriend had stood her up that she didn’t even notice the taxicab before it hit her head-on and threw her across the road.
She was able, amazingly, to pick herself up from the gravel, deeply startled but completely unharmed. The accident prompted Kozlowski to reflect on her life. After suffering through a string of abusive relationships and bouts of heavy drinking and depression, she knew something had to change.
“I wanted to go somewhere so I could figure out how to stop having all of these negative experiences,” she said. Not long after, she packed her bags and boarded a plane to gather with over 200 people on a week-long spiritual retreat in the heart of Ireland.
While there, Kozlowski learned to meditate and listen to herself, experiencing moments of awe and transcendence. She loved the feeling of deep calm and inner peace the group meditations gave her. “It brings awareness to what goes on inside of your subconscious mind,” she explained. She has since attended the retreat three more times. “Every single time that I would leave, I would have a better understanding and more acceptance of myself,” she said.
As Americans report feeling more stressed and interest in mindfulness meditation, adult coloring and other calming techniques grows, more people are turning to spiritual retreats as a way to unplug and reset. In the last few years, revenue for “wellness tourism,” which includes meditation and other spiritual retreats, increased by 14 percent, from $494.1 billion in 2013 to $563.2 billion in 2015, a growth rate more than twice as fast as overall tourism expenditures, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Christian retreats are also reporting renewed interest.
In a recent study published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, scientists from The Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University have discovered that there are actual changes that take place in the brains of retreat participants.
The findings, although preliminary, suggest that engaging in a spiritual retreat can have a short-term impact on the brain’s “feel good” dopamine and serotonin function – two of the neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions. Researchers studied the effects of attending a week-long retreat involving silent contemplation and prayer based on the Jesuit teachings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. They scanned the brains of 14 Christians who participated in the study, ranging in ages from 24 to 76, before and after the retreat.
The study subjects showed marked improvements in their perceived physical health, tension and fatigue, as well as reporting feelings of self-transcendence. Though more research is needed, the co-authors highlighted the strong emotional responses that have long been associated with secular and religious retreats such as “reduced stress, spiritual transformation experiences, and the capacity to produce life-changing results.”
Not everyone is able to access or afford to attend a spiritual retreat, but a growing body of research has found that a daily practice of mindfulness meditation at home can also help reduce anxiety and bolster good health.
Psychologist Anjhula Mya Singh Bais experienced the benefits of meditating during a ten-day Buddhist retreat last year. “My body started regulating itself. . .I could feel the stress and cortisol melt away.”
Prior to her trip, Bais had been struggling with several personal relationships and was unsure of how to move forward. By the end, she said she felt more in control of her thoughts. “After the retreat, one becomes simultaneously calm and exhilarated,” she explained. “I was in a better position of not only enhancing my own life but [also] serving others.”
Some people who attend retreats return hungry to share what they’ve learned. Kozlowski is now a mindfulness teacher in Connecticut after her retreat experiences following the accident.
A life-long nail biter who hid her habit by applying fake nails while secretly still chewing her own, she knew something profound had taken place when, after her second time at the retreat, she realized she had stopped nail-biting. More importantly, she noticed that the fears and negative beliefs she had about herself began to dissolve. “I used to be what people call very prickly, meaning I didn’t take criticism very well.”
Now, seven years after that fateful night with the taxi, Kozlowski said her life has been transformed. “I no longer have relationships with men who are verbally abusive – I don’t go out drinking in bars until I’m in a stupor,” she said. “All of those sort of behaviors, I would never do that now, because I actually like myself.”
The Washington Post
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