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:

  • Become enlightened, reach the Jhanas, stream-entry, etc.
  • Generally, "make progress" with meditation. Deepen your practice. Gain Insight into Buddhist concepts like Impermanence, No-Self, Emptiness, Arising & Passing, the nature of suffering, etc. 
  • Really figuring out Sam Harris’s “Look for the one who’s looking” or other so-called “pointing out instructions”, perfecting non-dual mindfulness

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:

  • Become permanently happier in a lasting deep and broad sense. Get a sense of Deep Okayness, a much higher well-being.
  • Resolve (complex childhood) traumas (in the broadest sense of the word). Unburden your Exiles (Terminology from Internal Family Systems).
  • Get healthy high self-esteem; Transform your inner critics into inner mentors.
  • Get rid of unhelpful emotional patterns/schemas: Perfectionism, imposter syndrome, people pleasing, procrastination, struggling not to be a workaholic, being controlling, trust or anger issues, etc. 
  • fixing mental health illnesses other than depression: OCB, personality disorders like narcissism, borderline, eating disorders, etc. 
  • Fixing attachment Issues: Becoming secure rather than avoidant or anxious in relationships. 

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:

  • Ideal Parent Figures
  • Internal Family Systems
  • Focusing
  • Internal Double Cruxxing
  • Core Transformations
  • other similar introspective techniques
  • EMDR, with a therapist or self-administered on your own. This is not an introspective technique, but I still consider it a core emotional work practice. 

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

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I think doing CBT on a retreat is great. E.g. identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts and beliefs and replacing them with more accurate, more truthful versions, using some of the standard CBT works-sheets. Feed your mind with the right kind of thoughts and really let them sink in afterwards during the meditation!
  • A healthy dose of exercise, yoga, Qi Gong, etc. And why not include a little bit of mindful ecstatic dance? Anything that connects you with your body is great!
  • Therapy sessions. I’d try to have as many therapy sessions as possible. Group therapy might also be great. I personally had a great experience having three therapy sessions per week on an otherwise silent meditation retreat. I feel like each of these therapy sessions was worth many times more than usual.
  • Deep conversations about emotional topics with friends or other retreat participants. Circling & similar Authentic Relating practices are also great. You can talk about interesting emotions and memories that came up during meditation, get help with your CBT work, get emotional support, etc. There are many ways how other people can aid your therapeutic progress. I would not talk about "normal" topics that are not related to emotional work. If the other person doesn't attend the retreat, you could agree in advance that the conversation will only focus on you. 
  • Talk to your parents. Maybe there's something that you've always wanted to say to your dad. During the retreat might be a great time for that!  Again, I would limit the conversation to deep talk only. I once did a six-week mostly silent meditation retreat and my dad visited me for a few hours at around week three specifically to talk about emotional topics. It was extremely helpful to me! 
  • Lots of hugs and cuddles with friends & romantic partners. I'm sure most traditional meditation teachers would scoff at that, but we don't care about traditional meditation! The feeling of safety, connection, and calm, the release of oxytocin - physical touch can be a great therapeutic tool. Know one of those stories where the main character goes through nonstop action for a prolonged time with seemingly no emotional strain on them, but then they find physical comfort and safety in a hug with someone and finally crack up and start to cry helplessly and release all of their emotions?! That's exactly what you also want to happen on an Emotional Work Retreat.
  • If you have a romantic partner that you feel safe and secure with, how about making a deal where you still sleep in the same bed but don't talk to each other except maybe for a limited amount of deep talk? Obviously, some good judgment is needed here. The last thing you want are some relationship problems inhibiting your progress on the retreat! So in some cases, including romantic partners could be a terrible idea! The question of having sex during emotional work retreats is even more complicated, and I have no strong opinion here, but I suspect it's not a good idea.

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:

  • Remain (mostly) silent/do not talk - the only exceptions being the ones discussed above.
  • Be on a "dopamine diet", i.e. no phone, no social media, no music, and no leisure activities like movies, books, etc. No writing except for CBT, and maybe for journaling or reflection that you really think is worth it.
  • In general, I would try to keep the "serious" attitude that you would also bring to a silent meditation retreat. You are here to do deep, important, and serious work, not to have a break and fun. Just like on a normal meditation retreat, really try to sit down on the cushion and do the work as much as possible each day, ideally using the full 16 or whatever hours that you are awake. Work diligently, patiently, and persistently! Then you are bound to be successful!
  • Try to be mindful throughout the whole retreat. Not just during the meditation sessions but also while eating, brushing your teeth, sitting on the toilet, in between breaks, while trying to fall asleep in the evening and as soon as you wake up in the morning, etc. Really trying to be mindful while talking to your therapist or a friend is also highly recommended. As Sam Harris likes to put it: "There is no boundary between meditation and the rest of your life. Your whole life is your practice!"
  • Avoid ruminating as much as possible. This is the flip side to "always be mindful", and it's even more important on an Emotional Work Retreat. After all, when dealing with traumatic topics, you REALLY don't want to get caught up in unhelpful repetitive thought loops unchecked without conscious awareness.
  • When you do want/need to take a break, the kind of break I would do is:
    • "Do nothing" Zen-style meditation, possibly lying down. This is the type of meditation where you don't try to do anything, not even to be mindful. You simply "exist" with your eyes open or closed.
    • Non Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)
    • Mindful walks

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: 

  • Preventing re-traumatization. See the next section.
  • Meditation on its own - even without any emotional work - still leads to therapeutic progress through a process Buddhists sometimes call "purification of the mind". Here, emotionally charged memories, unhelpful or extreme beliefs, or not yet fully processed emotions automatically arise from unconsciousness during the silence of meditation and linger in your peripheral awareness, all while you ignore them and just continue to focus on the breath. This allows for their reevaluation, reprocessing, and updating.
    • This "purification of the mind" may actually be the key driver for your therapeutic progress, even on Emotional Works Retreats. I often had the experience of being able to bring some emotionally charged metal object close to or in consciousness during an IFS or therapy session but not being able to make any progress with it. Only afterwards, during an ordinary breath meditation session, when I was still noticing the mental object at the corners of my mind but ignored it, did healing happen automatically. Actually, I've probably healed most of my traumas while just ignoring them during a breath meditation! But this would have happened much less had I not combined my meditation practice with IFS etc.
    • Instead of ignoring, you can also choose to make these charged mind-objects the direct mindful focus of your attention. Or you just rest with them in so-called natural awareness or non-dual mindfulness. I’ve done this a lot, and while this may intuitively seem like a more efficient, superior way to heal yourself, my personal experience is that I've benefited more from the "ignore it but let it linger in peripheral awareness" - strategy.
  • Meditation greatly increases your introspection skills, allowing you to see much more and in much finer detail all your various subtle thoughts, emotions, and other mental events, making it much easier and more fruitful to work with them. It also becomes easier to talk about them with friends or therapists. When doing parts work like IFS, you can better access parts, talk to them, feel their needs, etc. Felt senses (terminology from Focusing) become much more obvious and nuanced.
  • The strong concentration you get with mediation allows you to sustain various visualizations in much more detail and for longer and with less mental effort, which is extremely helpful for lovingkindness meditations, Ideal Parent Figures, or re-imaginations, e.g. of key childhood experiences, as is, for example, necessary for a key step in Internal Family Systems.
  • Meditation gives you an increased ability to look at uncomfortable corners of your mind and not flinch away from unpleasant thoughts and feelings. This is often necessary, e.g. when you need to re-experience and mentally live through extremely unpleasant memories again to heal them. In general, these uncomfortable corners of the mind are often where you can learn the most, and without sufficient meditation you might often not even realize that these corners exist because your mind is so good at diverting your thoughts away from them.
  • Without sufficient meditation, your mindfulness might not be strong enough to hold extremely unpleasant thoughts and emotions in your consciousness and work with them productively without getting overwhelmed.

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

  • It's extremely easy to procrastinate on the emotional core practices like IFS and instead be content with just meditating a lot on retreats. After all, isn't meditation already extremely good for the mind? Well, yeah it is. But you just get way more out of it if you combine many hours of meditation with some emotional work each day.
  • Similarly, it's very easy to haphazardly jump from one emotional work technique to the next one, from dealing with one emotional issue with the other. I'd try not to do that.
  • What has worked for me is that I do some emotional core practice until I feel like my mind is really on the edge and suppressed negative emotions etc. start to arise. Then I do ordinary "just focus on the breath" meditation for a prolonged time until my mind has calmed down again. Then I bring in emotional disturbance again by doing more emotional core practices. Repeat. When I feel like I'm plateauing or stuck with something, I use self-administered EMDR to break through that.
  • For the first few days of the retreat, it might be a good idea to put some special emphasis on cultivating positive feelings, for example with lovingkindness and self-compassion practices. This can act as some kind of lubricant for your later emotional work, and it prepares you for the potentially very difficult emotions that may surface later in the retreat.
  • And really do emotionally prepare yourself for negative emotions that might come up. Don't be surprised by them. For me, some Emotional Work Retreats were extreme emotional roller coasters! For example, I never experienced panic attacks in my normal life, but I did have them on retreats.
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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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.