What to Expect on Retreat
Updated: 4 days ago
Before a practitioner takes his or her seat to meditate, much of the preliminary work has already been done. It takes firm resolve to begin a practice and a strong will to maintain one's resolve. This inner work must be done prior to attending, and it's done alone. It takes discipline to commit to a new regimen and patience to change and grow. Only you can choose to subject yourself to the rigors of this discipline, to face uncertainty and discomfort, and to challenge yourself. Only you can mediate the inner dialogue between the part that wants to remain in the familiar and the part willing to venture into the unknown; the part that wants to stay home, and the part ready to explore new possibilities. Only you can determine if this discipline of self discovery is worth your effort. You choose how to prioritize your time. You decide what is important to you. Setting intentions is part of the practice. We call this conative training. Conative refers to intention, volition, will. It's the first and most important step.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." It's a common proverb. That first step is important.
Setting a goal is one thing, following through on that goal is another. To follow through, one must cultivate resolve and discipline. There are 2,000 steps in a mile. You'll need grit to continue when the feet get blistered at mile 15, when the knees start to buckle at mile 25, when the skin starts to chafe and bleed at mile 30, when the storms roll in at mile 100 and you're still on the path with bugs in your teeth- tired, wet, spent, aching- with 900 more miles and 1,800,000 steps to go, wondering why you thought to do this in the first place.
I've been on this path for 30 years. The landscape of the mind is indeed beautiful, but the terrain can also be intimidating, the climbs steep, the conditions challenging, and the journey very, very long.
You've taken the first steps. Training conative (volitional) balance and cognitive flexibility will prove indispensable when motivation wanes.
Two structures in the brain have been implicated in taking or inhibiting action: the prelimbic cortex and infralimbic cortex (Amaya and Smith, 2018). The prelimbic cortex mediates a “go” signal, whereas the infralimbic cortex sends a “no-go” signal. The goal of training is to build a robust and responsive system. That is, we train the brain to execute a "go" signal for those things we've set the intention to do (whether it's meditate for 20 minutes every morning, exercise 5 days a week, eat nutrient dense foods, or stick to a consistent sleep schedule) and "no go" to those behaviors we're determined to eliminate (whether it's drinking, consuming ultra-processed foods, or reducing time on screens). Training this go/no-go system is key to developing self-discipline, and self-discipline is key to getting things done.
So, you set the intention to meditate and followed through. This is no small matter. The decision is even more impactful if 1. you are intentionally training the go/no-go brain, and 2. part of you was resistant and did not want to attend. We liken this to training an elephant or an ox. Your mind is the elephant; Intention is the handler.
Once you arrive, you set up your space, mat, cushion, etc. We have mats and chairs for those who need them. We start with introductions. We're reintroduced to the Self. We connect with our beingness, not some abstraction or construct or the conditioned self you imagine yourself to be, but that which is regulating your heartbeat now, digesting now, regulating temperature, pH balance, and homeostasis now, that which breathes you now. We dive right in to present moment sensory experience.
After introductions, we begin with breath work. We practice different exercises to regulate our physiology, change our biochemistry, increase our pain threshold and tolerance to discomfort. With breath, we learn to change the ph balance of our blood, increase or decrease oxygen saturation, change our systolic blood pressure, increase body temperature, slow or raise heart rate, and strengthen our immune systems. These are physiological changes we can measure, and, more importantly, induce on command.
These exercises are not only useful for meditators sitting on cushions. Elite cyclists, runners, free divers, and other endurance athletes benefit from breath work. You'll learn to simulate the effects of high-altitude training by inducing both a hypoxic (lack of oxygen) and hypercapnic (high carbon dioxide) response. These two effects lower sensitivity to carbon dioxide, increase endurance, reduce the discomfort and fatigue from lactate build-up, increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, improve breathing economy, and improve VO2 max. For me, the result was improved health and elite athletic performance. While my report is anecdotal, it is one of thousands of data points consistently replicated and validated in peer-reviewed research studies.
We learn breathing techniques to regulate the mind, increase mental alertness, or change the pattern of brain wave activity.
Before meditation we review preliminaries. To live mindfully, we attend to fundamentals. Meditation, mindset, a good night’s sleep, a balanced exercise routine, positive social connections, and a nutrient dense diet are some of the habits that promote not only physical well-being, but mental clarity, improved concentration, and emotional balance. We share actionable, research-based protocols that affect practice. The most impactful are:
Each meditation technique drives different cognitive-control states. You will learn techniques for strengthening the neural substrates underlying perception, perceptual decoupling, attention, and interoceptive awareness.
Below is a characteristic profile of an engaged, busy mind. The screen-shot represents a measure of brain wave activity during a typical workday. The beta frequency is most pronounced.
Brain waves occur at the following frequencies (from slowest to fastest): delta (0.5–3 Hz), theta (3.5–7 Hz), alpha (8-–13 Hz), beta (13–30 Hz), and gamma (30–100 Hz). Brain waves are measured in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. The more demands on the mind, the faster the cycling.
The frequencies are like the gears on a car with 5 speed manual transmission. And retreat is like driver's education for the motor that is your brain.
Below is a screenshot of a focused meditation practice. The alpha channel (associated with relaxed focus) is most pronounced. I'm in 3rd gear. At the experiential level, the mind is alert but calm.
Below is the profile of a meditation sit with eyes opened. Alpha, beta, and gamma frequencies are dominant. My objective was to dial up the faster frequencies which promotes neural synchronization for optimal cognitive functioning. Gamma-band oscillations support multiple cognitive processes. They are associated with improved memory and recall and faster reaction times. Experientially, the mind is in a high state of alert concentration.
Below is the profile of a practice that shows the brain cycling all the way down to a delta wave state (<4 hz), consistent with deep, non-REM sleep, yet I remain conscious. I'm in 1st gear; the brain is in a deep state of rest.
This degree of cognitive control is trainable.
We begin with focused attention. We will review the attention cycle and provide tips to optimize training. We review mindsets and the neuro-mechanisms that control attention, selection, and inhibition to get the most out of each sit.
We proceed to train interoceptive awareness with a focus on temperature, contraction, touch, and pain.
We will learn strategies for managing strong emotions.
We take movement breaks. Each practice is evidence based; exercises are tiered with variations for beginners and athletes.
These are some of the basics we cover from 9-12.
From 1-3, we cover other mindfulness practices.
We do light breathwork and will learn a powerful technique for resetting the mind to optimize cognitive performance.
There are more movement breaks in the afternoon.
We end with everyday mindfulness tools we can use off the cushion which include: communication frameworks, gratitude practices, present moment awareness, financial freedom, job crafting, addiction recovery, savoring (appreciating the simplest things), and accountability measures to disable wayward thoughts.
The path goes much deeper. Mindful living is a way of life. We develop an "always-right-here" mind. We deconstruct the seeming self. Emptiness of self meditation is a stand-alone practice. We go beyond identity and begin operating out of a much more expansive and creative field of awareness. There is the practice of emptiness of time, where we settle into the present moment. There is only ever this. Our moment to moment experience shifts when we operate out of this field of awareness.
There is too much to cover in a day. Sign up for as many sessions as you'd like. These retreats are donation based. No gimmicks, no upselling, no sales funneling, no nonsense. I have no secrets to share. I do not promise enlightenment. You won't be invited to live the best version of yourself. The rejected, broken and exiled parts that live in the shadows are welcomed. The anxiety, hopelessness, sadness, frustration, or stress you experience may be an invitation to look inside and may be the most authentic and beautiful expression of your humanness.
The path I follow leads to the destruction of all that is false and fake and insubstantial- this includes the little self we imagine ourselves to be- the mask we present to others. I can't say if your chakras will be cleansed, if your vibration will align with Infinite Intelligence, or if you will meet your spirit guides in the astral plane. We're not manifesting anything, just tuning into what is moment by moment. We're not training to attract abundance or soul-mates. I am not mocking these approaches, I just don't practice what I can't measure or replicate. I can't measure Enlightenment; I can measure heart rate variability, have my blood drawn to measure high sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hsCRP) concentrations, or use pulse oximetry to measure oxygen saturation levels to infer whether I'm recovered, stressed, or rested.
You won't live happily ever after or find your life's purpose after attending a one day course. That said, I can assert with confidence that you will leave with many practical and actionable protocols you can use to enhance your day to day well-being.
Aware of my own biases, however, I'll close with feedback from participants. While student ratings are also subjective and biased, their feedback can also be used to evaluate the quality of a teacher's instruction. My reviews are generally positive:
"This put my mind and body into a state of deep rest and healing. Truly the best guided meditation I’ve ever experienced."
"Thank you Jonathan. Those strategies were very helpful."
"An absolutely beautiful, educated, accurate and scientifically based outline- gems of simple wisdom. I am very grateful for your dedication to help reduce the suffering we all face. You show a generosity of spirit and grace in your knowledge and self-revelations."
"Didn’t want to stop… that was really good."
"So helpful. Thank you for the guidance and reassurance!"
"Really helpful. Made me feel calmer and more at peace. Soothing yet powerful voice."
"Wow wow wow! Super nice. Gentle instructions and lots of quiet space to sink in. Really excellent, had very little wandering mind. Many thanks."
"I have no words to say how perfect this was for me. May you be blessed for the gift you gave."
"Straightforward and no nonsense."
"This was helpful for my depression and PTSD. I was able to transcend worried thoughts."
"Well goddamn, this worked. You struck a balance of professionalism and empathy."
"Probably the best meditation training I have come across so far in my journey till today!"
"Very powerful for me, gratitude. You have a very clear distinctive tone of voice which triggered memories for me of my military service (15 years over 30 years ago!). It reminds me of the rigour required for this yet the beauty. When you used the word beautiful it was like balm. What powerful things mind and meditation are. Thank you 🙏 very much."
But I also appreciate criticism. I learn from it. Feedback helps me improve my craft:
"I don't know why, maybe it's because I have asthma and had pneumonia as a baby, all meditations that start telling me how to breathe end up making me more anxious, so this did not work out for me, but I enjoyed what was said."
"Cadence was a bit too quick. It actually made me struggle to calm my mind down."
"Maybe a bit too directive for those of us who try too hard: "if you need to move you can", "if you sleep it's ok", etc. can feel more accepting, and therefore relaxing, to some of us."
"Found the talking was fast and too much."
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