Don’t waste your time meditating on meditation retreats!

post by Anton Rodenhauser (anton-rodenhauser) · 2023-06-01T16:56:44.499Z · LW · GW · 7 comments


  What I would NOT do on meditation retreats
  My experience with only doing meditation without emotional work
  Therapeutic progress: The true reason why most people meditate
  Make your “silent meditation retreat” an “emotional work retreat” instead
  Core Emotional Work practices
  Auxiliary Emotional Work practices
  Recommendations for emotional work and normal meditation retreats alike
  A typical day on an Emotional Work Retreat
  Why meditate at all on Emotional Work Retreats?
  How to prevent re-traumatization?
  Further comments & tips

Do "Emotional Work Retreats" instead!


If your goal is therapeutic progress - the kind of progress you also hope to get from going to a therapist, i.e. become happier long term, get rid of unhealthy emotional patterns, and improve your relationships with others and yourself - then spending 6+ hours meditating each day on meditation retreats is not the best use of your time. Instead, I recommend you meditate for 3-4 hours each day and spend the rest of your time doing various therapeutic practices like Internal Family Systems, Focusing, Ideal Parent Figures, CBT, Core Transformations, etc. If possible, include as many therapy sessions as possible during the retreat (potentially over Zoom), as well as some deep talk, Authentic Relating, cuddling, etc. with friends or even with romantic partners. I would still remain silent as much as possible for most of the retreat except for anything related to emotional work.

I offer 'Being your retreat buddy' as a service, i.e. sitting 'emotional work retreats' with you for 30€/day.

What I would NOT do on meditation retreats

I recommend not getting distracted by and not "wasting your time" trying to do any of the following:

In my view, these endeavors are simply not the most effective/quickest way towards therapeutic progress. They are also somewhat "all or nothing": You gain almost nothing becoming almost enlightened or almost reaching the Jhanas, but you will have wasted a lot of time. Even if you reach the Jhanas, it's not clear at all how they help you with long-term therapeutic progress. And in my experience, insight into Emptiness, No-Self, etc., is transitory and not helpful anymore once you’ve stopped meditating huge amounts for a while. Even enlightenment is, at least in my experience, much less helpful for therapeutic progress than one might think.  The world is full of enlightened narcissists, for example.

Even if you ONLY care about Enlightenment, I strongly suspect, based on my experience, that focusing on therapeutic progress first and completely ignoring The Path actually gets you there quicker!

My experience with only doing meditation without emotional work

I once did two 10-day silent meditation retreats with 10+ hours of meditation each day. For the first one, I only did the usual “just focusing on the breath” meditation. For the 2nd one, I mostly did Sam Harris’ Waking Up style non-dual mindfulness/"do nothing" natural awareness meditation. My experience with both these retreats was very similar: I temporarily became extremely happy in a very deep sense. Really nice!! But: It mostly only lasted for the retreats and stayed like that after the retreats with a half-life of maybe 2 to a few days. 6 months later, these retreats made basically no (or maybe very little) difference to my mental health.

My experience is similar with meditating a lot off-retreats. I’ve spent months consistently meditating for 3+ hours a day. The upshot: Meditation is extremely effective in making me happy and making my life more beautiful - but mostly only as long as I keep doing it!

In my view, this is bad! Sure, if you want to keep meditating a lot and go to retreats several times a year for the rest of your life, great! But most people don’t want to do that. 

That's why in my view, the goal really should be to make permanent therapeutic progress that persists even if you stop meditating - and to that end, just meditating is simply not the most effective way. Instead, I recommend doing 'Emotional Work Retreats'.

Therapeutic progress: The true reason why most people meditate

Emotional Work Retreats are all about therapeutic progress, which I define as the kind of progress you would usually go to a therapist for, for example:

There is a mechanism in which just standard meditation practices on their own can give you all of the above. But it's definitely not the shortest path to get there. Mostly, meditation just makes you happier short term. That said, meditation is extremely effective in making you happier! So yeah, if your goal is to quickly stop a crippling depression and just feel better, doing nothing but just meditating is maybe the quickest way to get there. 

Make your “silent meditation retreat” an “emotional work retreat” instead

To be clear, I still recommend meditating most of the time on retreats, i.e., 60-90% of the time. But don't "waste" the times you feel best during the day with meditation, i.e. often the first session of the day or the session after a break. Instead, I recommend reserving those to do “emotional work”, which I would aim to do 2-4 hours a day, though emotional work can be very tiring and many find it very difficult to do that much. 

For me, the role of meditation with regard to therapeutic progress is similar to the role of strength and endurance exercises for a professional acrobatic performer. You need a certain level of endurance and muscle strength, and it makes sense to regularly train for just that specifically. Some figures, like flip-flops, cannot be done without a minimum amount of muscle strength. But ultimately, strength and endurance are not the means but just an end for what an acrobat ultimately cares about.

Core Emotional Work practices

I recommend making the following self-therapy techniques the core thing you do on a retreat, with everything else just there to help with that:

Auxiliary Emotional Work practices

Here are some more things to do on an Emotional Work Retreat that you wouldn’t do on a normal meditation retreat

My tentative recommendation here is to limit the combined talking time with friends, family, or therapists to no more than one or two hours a day. There is a trade-off between "talking to someone is really helpful for therapeutic progress" vs. "talking to someone brings a lot of unhelpful disruptive turbulence to the mind that makes your meditations and everything else on the retreat much more agitated, less deep, in a not helpful way". In any case, I’d try to be as mindful as possible for all these conversations, to get more therapeutic value out of them, and limit the turbulence they brings to the mind.

Recommendations for emotional work and normal meditation retreats alike

Even on an Emotional Work Retreat I would still:

A typical day on an Emotional Work Retreat

Here is what a typical 16-hour day might look like:

8:00: get up, get some sunlight, have breakfast, get ready

9:00: 1-hour core emotional work: Ideal Parent Figures, Internal Family Systems, (self-administered) EMDR, etc. If one hour is too long, you can always choose to do emotional work for as long as you can/want, e.g. maybe just 30 minutes and then continue with meditation.

10:00: 2x 1-hour meditation with 5 minutes break in between.

12:00: Exercise, Qi Gong, yoga, etc.

13:00: lunch break

14:00: therapy with a therapist or on your own, or deep talk with friends or family, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy exercises

15:00: long mindful walk

16:00: 3 hours of more emotional work or meditation

19:00: dinner

20:00: Deep talk with friends or family, cuddling, Circling or Authentic Relating games, mindful walks, more meditation, relaxing and reflecting on the day, etc.

23:00: last hour before going to sleep: Just do nothing. Something sitting on a bench and looking at nature and letting the impressions of the day sink in.

24:00: Sleep. Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest if you struggle to fall asleep.

Why meditate at all on Emotional Work Retreats?

Given how much emphasis I put on emotional work and therapeutic progress, you might wonder why not just do ONLY emotional work on a retreat. Why still make meditation by far the biggest part of it?

Well, I think meditation is EXTREMELY important for therapeutic progress. And "just a little bit" is not nearly enough for the kind of progress you want to achieve on an Emotional Work Retreat. You want many hours of meditation, as many as possible, each day. In my experience, the benefits of meditation scale roughly linearly all the way up to 10 to 15 hours a day. 

Meditation on Emotional Work Retreat is crucial for a couple of reasons: 

How to prevent re-traumatization?

The topic of "don't get flooded and overwhelmed in an unhelpful way with negative emotions and suddenly no longer suppressed traumatic memories memories", i.e. get re-traumatized, is so important that it deserves its own blog post. But the short incomplete story is: 

You prevent re-traumatization by being mindful whenever suppressed negatively charged material surfaces from unconsciousness. You must not get lost in it but remain metacognitive awareness. You also stay engaged with your surroundings, with the present moment, and/or with your senses, especially your physical senses. For example, you can focus really hard on your hands or feet. 

Meditation and developing strong mindfulness really help with that and is therefore key to minimizing the risk of re-traumatization during emotional work.

Be aware of what re-traumatization is NOT. It's not the process of previously unconscious suppressed beliefs, emotions, or memories now suddenly spooking around in consciousness, causing you to feel much worse for potentially quite a long time, maybe weeks. This is completely normal, and in a way, it's actually exactly what you want to happen! Bringing unpleasant, suppressed material to the surface just is what needs to happen for emotional healing.

Further comments & tips


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comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2023-06-01T20:11:39.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't tried doing an emotional work retreat as described here, but I endorse the general idea that most people will get more of the thing they want out of a combination of meditation + emotional work practices rather than meditation alone. Or if they had to choose just one, they'd probably be better off with the emotional practices rather than meditation.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2023-06-02T15:50:22.074Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And in my experience, insight into Emptiness, No-Self, etc., is transitory and not helpful anymore once you’ve stopped meditating huge amounts for a while.

Counterpoint: the research reviewed in Altered Traits suggested increasing permanent effects from meditation the longer you practice, with time spent on retreats being one significant factor.

... at the start of contemplative practice, little or nothing seems to change in us. After continued practice, we notice some changes in our way of being, but they come and go. Finally, as practice stabilizes, the changes are constant and enduring, with no fluctuation. They are altered traits.

Taken as a whole, the data on meditation track a rough vector of progressive transformations, from beginners through the long-term meditators and on to the yogis. This arc of improvement seems to reflect both lifetime hours of practice as well as time on retreat with expert guidance.

The studies of beginners typically look at the impacts from under 100 total hours of practice—and as few as 7. The long-term group, mainly vipassana meditators, had a mean of 9,000 lifetime hours (the range ran from 1,000 to 10,000 hours and more).

And the yogis studied in Richie’s lab, had all done at least one Tibetan-style three-year retreat, with lifetime hours up to Mingyur’s 62,000. Yogis, on average had three times more lifetime hours than did long-term meditators—9,000 hours versus 27,000.

A few long-term vipassana meditators had accumulated more than 20,000 lifetime hours and one or two up to 30,000, though none had done a three-year retreat, which became a de facto distinguishing feature of the yogi group. Despite the rare overlaps in lifetime hours, the vast majority of the three groups fall into these rough categories.

There are no hard-and-fast lifetime hour cutoffs for the three levels, but research on them has clustered in particular ranges. We’ve organized meditation’s benefits into three dose-response levels, roughly mapping on the novice to amateur to professional rankings found in expertise of all kinds, from ballerinas to chess champions. [...]

Sticking with meditation over the years offers more benefits as meditators reach the long-term range of lifetime hours, around 1,000 to 10,000 hours. This might mean a daily meditation session, and perhaps annual retreats with further instruction lasting a week or so—all sustained over many years. The earlier effects deepen, while others emerge.

For example, in this range we see the emergence of neural and hormonal indicators of lessened stress reactivity. In addition, functional connectivity in the brain in a circuit important for emotion regulation is strengthened, and cortisol, a key hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress, lessens.

Loving-kindness and compassion practice over the long term enhance neural resonance with another person’s suffering, along with concern and a greater likelihood of actually helping. Attention, too, strengthens in many aspects with long-term practice: selective attention sharpens, the attentional blink diminishes, sustained attention becomes easier, and an alert readiness to respond increases. And long-term practitioners show enhanced ability to down-regulate the mind-wandering and self-obsessed thoughts of the default mode, as well as weakening connectivity within those circuits—signifying less self-preoccupation. These improvements often show up during meditative states, and generally tend to become traits.

Shifts in very basic biological processes, such as a slower breath rate, occur only after several thousand hours of practice. Some of these impacts seem more strongly enhanced by intensive practice on retreat than by daily practice.

While evidence remains inconclusive, neuroplasticity from long-term practice seems to create both structural and functional brain changes, such as greater working connection between the amygdala and the regulatory circuits in the prefrontal areas. And the neural circuits of the nucleus accumbens associated with “wanting” or attachment appear to shrink in size with longer-term practice.

While in general we see a gradient of shifts with more lifetime meditation hours, we suspect there are different rates of change in disparate neural systems. For instance, the benefits of compassion come sooner than does stress mastery. We expect studies in the future will fill in the details of a dose-response dynamic for various brain circuits. Intriguing signs suggest that long-term meditators to some degree undergo state-by-trait effects that enhance the potency of their practice. Some elements of the meditative state, like gamma waves, may continue during sleep.

Replies from: anton-rodenhauser
comment by Anton Rodenhauser (anton-rodenhauser) · 2023-06-02T16:50:11.498Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fascinating! Really cool stuff! Thanks for sharing.
Okay, I concede! Amassing many hours of just meditation on and off retreats over many years is definitely not "useless". Some effects definitely persist! That is actually also my experience with 5000+ hours of meditation and many retreats. I guess my key point is that those changes are overrated - especially given how much effort they take, and that in general there are far more effective ways to reach very similar goals! But there are some important exceptions to this. If you for example do manage to get enlightened and stabilize that state, that's just absolutely amazing, and no amount of ordinary therapeutic progress will ever get you the kind of beauty and certain mental superpowers that come with that.

Replies from: anton-rodenhauser
comment by Anton Rodenhauser (anton-rodenhauser) · 2023-06-02T18:01:16.314Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But the question remains: Did these new traits persist even years after these people have stopped meditating or reduced their meditation to less than 30 minutes a day?

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2023-06-03T20:18:59.085Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a fair question, I would guess that most of the people responding to those studies would still be in the habit of meditation.

On the other hand, I think that once people start hitting that intermediate range, they get to the point where meditative practices become automatic enough to happen in the middle of daily life. I myself only do a pretty limited amount of formally sitting down for a dedicated meditation session - my meditation app reports an average of 15 minutes per day over the last year - but I do feel like I do quite a bit of it at the same time as doing other things like walking or cooking, and that helps maintain some of the benefits as well (even if not as effectively as a more dedicated formal practice might). A lot of the time it's also so automatic as to be effortless.

So eventually it becomes possible to maintain more of it with less of an explicit time investment, IME.

Replies from: anton-rodenhauser
comment by Anton Rodenhauser (anton-rodenhauser) · 2023-06-04T10:46:48.852Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. I agree. Yet, there is this: 
I've spent the last 3 years averaging around 3 hours of meditation a day. I've had many months with 6+ hours meditation a day. I had times when the boundary between formal practice in daily life was indeed very thin - in other words, it was relatively easy/automatic to be mindful more or less 24/7.
Yet, in these rare times when I did not meditate at all for, say, 2 weeks (mostly because of health issues), I very quickly lose that ability to automatically be mindful throughout the day. I would guess that if I stopped meditating for a year and would not bother trying to be mindful throughout the day, my "mindfulness throughout the day" level would go back to basically zero.

comment by joshwclement · 2023-07-19T00:58:10.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a Zen saying: When walking, walk. When eating, eat.

When meditating silently for a week, meditate silently for a week.

Like you, I don't have serious mental health issues, but when I sat my (only) 10 day retreat, longstanding 'trauma' and negative stories couldn't stop bubbling up from my subconscious. I understood my one task was to not cling to them. That's q bloody hard enough a task in itself, I wouldn't want to tease them apart or spend any more time with them with a therapist.

I think the beauty of a silent retreat is the ridiculous contrast with busy, loud modern life. It's detonating a depth charge in your psyche and I was then able to spend the rest of the year occasionally talking to a therapist, or noticing and teasing apart my schemas. 

We need to keep a regular mediation practice for one reason .. Any time spent 'on autopilot' (even if you are enlightened), is going to reinforce bad habits. A small amount of regular meditation helps keep that in check.