Meditation: The Ultimate Mental Detox
If you're hooked on thinking, then it's time to give your mind a break.
Posted September 10, 2012
If you’ve invested anytime studying health and nutrition, you’ve most likely heard of detoxing. People swear by the health benefits associated with fasting, juice cleanses, colonics, and more. The premise of all these treatments is the same: We’re constantly being presented with unhealthy foods and a polluted environment. When we rid our bodies of toxins, we promote healing. Although this post isn’t about suggesting any particular dietary regimen, what I am advocating is that we regularly detox our minds.
Second-hand Thinking Is Hazardous to Our Minds
If we’re smokers, and we decide to quit, it takes about half the time that we’ve been smoking for our bodies to completely recover from the damage of cigarette dependence. So if we’ve been smoking for 10 years and stop, it typically takes five years for our bodies to recover from our addiction.
Meditation is to our minds what smoking cessation is to our bodies. We start thinking at a very young age. And once we fully indulge in the practice, we think endlessly. Our minds are flooded with a non-stop barrage of thinking and reacting.
Outside a good night’s sleep, we don’t get many breaks from this mind chatter. Even if we’re not thinking, we’re surrounded by external stimuli such as television, music, and conversations around us. If we were hooked on tabacco, it’s as if we were chain smokers who were surrounded by second-hand smoke. Our minds get so addicted to stimulation that when the time comes to finally lay our heads down to sleep, we frequently find ourselves unable to pull the plug on mental commentary.
But unlike smoking, which does stop at some point—even if it’s just in our sleep—we’ve trained ourselves to create mind chatter all day long, non-stop. Imagine if we indulged in any other activity with such fervor: If we ate all day we’d become obese. If we worked out all day we’d eventually injure our bodies. After all, even the top athletes need rest.
Pitfalls of Silence
I began meditating when I was about 19 years old. As a college student, I would study so much that at the end of the day my mind actually hurt. It wasn’t like a headache—it was information overload. The pain was a result of taking in so much information at once, non-stop. So meditation came as welcome relief.
I learned to stop, sit, be still and feel genuine peace and relaxation. But it took me years before I truly experienced a mental detox. I recall one period of time in particular when I signed up for a meditation retreats. Before the event began, I was listening to music as I drove to the retreat. For the first two days of the event, the lyrics repeated over and over. Finally, on day three, I was able to reach mental silence.
Fast forward to today. I love giving retreats, and I enjoy seeing how long it takes participants to get their minds still. A lot of times, what happens is that when we become still, things come up; things that we didn’t even know were inside of us. We start feeling them and what arises doesn't feel very good. It’s not that these feelings were never there. They just never caught up with our minds because we never stopped long enough to allow them to surface. At first it can be overwhelming—even frightening. At the same time, the process is also very healing.
I recall the first time I did a body detoxification. I broke out with red spots that took about two weeks to go away completely. In hindsight, I believe that the skin reaction was a result of my body getting rid of toxins. The toxins weren’t going away on their own, I had to force them leave by making changes. It’s the same way with our minds; they need breaks. We need to give our minds the opportunity to work through things, to heal, and to get better.
What War Teaches Us About Healing
Over the years, I’ve worked with many war veterans in my private practice. When they returned from battle, they thought that they were okay because they had survived, and the events were now behind them. When they were in combat and their minds were in “war mode.” They fought and did what they needed. Now that they were home, all of a sudden they’d break down. It was a sign that it was time to heal—unless they turned to addictions to shut off the feelings that surfaced.
We’re like these veterans. We need time to check in and find out what’s going on inside of our minds and our hearts. Typically, we just keep going and going and we never truly figure out what’s taking place within. That’s the beautiful thing about meditating regularly; it allows us to witness how we are.
But sometimes we need an extended period of time to give our minds a break. Yes, it’s wonderful to spend an hour a day meditating: half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night. It’s even better to periodically go on one day retreats where you get away from it all, slow down, and have lots of time to be still.
What's best of all, however, is that once a year, you go on an extended retreat where your mind is still for long periods of time. I suggest five to seven days or even longer if you can. Again, it’s detoxing our minds. We need long stretches of time to process and heal. Even if nothing comes up, it’s still beneficial because we really need to give our minds a rest. If you can only do it once every five years, you’ll realize that it was worth the effort.
The key to meditation retreats is that we have lots of silence. I state what seems like the obvious because we can be busy—even if we’re in a quiet place. For instance, even reading and studying requires mental commentary, so it’s important to regularly meditate to the point where we truly do shut off our minds.
Commit to a meditation practice everyday. Then throughout your day, give your mind mini-breaks. Lastly, once a year, or even more often, attend a meditation retreat. Silence gives you peace that surpasses understanding. Regular mental detoxing is one of the most transformational experiences you can ever have.