November 4, 2022
I wonder if there’s a placebo effect on meditation retreats that helps the mind gather and calm. Equally, if you approach a silent retreat thinking, “Argh, I can’t talk or have fun for days” maybe you’ll have a bumpier start. To be clear, I think the placebo effect is something real that we should take advantage of. I don’t use that word to mean “sham” or “ineffectual.” I think the influential meditation teacher Rob Burbea would probably talk of the placebo effect as an example of how we fabricate experience. Our beliefs and expectations shape what we get. My point is that, if part of our ability to access greater collectedness and mindfulness on retreat is simply due to a placebo-like belief that “I’m on retreat so this is possible now” then we can cultivate the belief this is also possible in daily life and experience the same benefits.
I remember one retreat when it had snowed heavily and the roads were blocked. I had to walk through the quiet snowy woods for an hour and a half to reach the retreat center. By the time I arrived, I was already feeling calm and collected. Once I’d registered I sat in the dining hall watching the thick snowflakes fall and drinking a cup of tea. I was consciously taking time to adjust and settle after an experienced friend, a long-time student of Rob Burbea, had told me he spends the first day or so of a retreat just relaxing, letting the pace of daily life subside. Of course, in a sense, we spend the entirety of a retreat relaxing but I think what he meant was taking care not to bring a heavily goal-oriented mindset from the cut and thrust of workaday life and crash into the stillness of the retreat at 90 miles an hour.
Anyway, this journey provided a magical framing for the retreat: only a few dedicated people had made it, the world was silent and white and the rest of the world couldn’t reach us even if they knew we existed at all.
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