(Phototography by www.wetravel.com)
"Self-acceptance needs to come from both outside and inside."
This past weekend, I went on an overnight retreat with my college's center for spiritual life. We stayed in an old farmhouse which has been renovated as a retreat center and has served thousands of people over the years. The location was an hour away from the city of Boston. Once we arrived, we were surrounded by the forest and fresh air. Without any expectations, I decided to let the retreat take the wheel and essentially "go with the flow."
On the first night, we set ground rules for our time in this space, shared our intentions for coming to the retreat, and opened up on our spiritual journeys through life. Looking back, I realize how all of these activities required some sort of self-reflection. What makes me comfortable to be myself in front of others? What am I hoping to learn? How have I grown into the person I am today?
After a homecooked meal of delicious chili, we finished the night by making s'mores by the fireplace. I had wonderful conversations by that fire. With the retreat's foundation built in openness and trust, I felt comfortable having deeper and more genuine conversations with others. As encouraged by the guidelines of the retreat, I also abstained from using my phone, and didn't really feel a desire to use it. I looked around at all the other participants, observed the walls of the farmhouse, watched the fire crackle, paid attention to sounds and smells. I felt totally connected with the environment and the moment.
I listened to music, acoustically provided by a couple of the retreat goers who brought their instruments and talents to share. When a song was played I knew, I joined in. There was a sense of community in the air. It felt like a family already and we only knew each other for a few hours.
The next day, we started the day off by choosing between activities inspired by mindful meditation, Judaism, Catholicism, and Christianity. I particularly enjoyed the Judaism-inspired activity that focused on how we can individually unwind from the stresses of busy day-to-day life. I reflected on how technology can be a mindless distraction. For that, I wrote down in my journal how I should read on the train and before sleep. I also reflected on how I can rely on socialization to feel fulfilled. To unwind from that, I wrote what makes me feel fulfilled when I am alone, including going on long walks, learning Italian, cooking, writing stories. After brunch, I went on a hike in the woods, where I felt completely serene in the presence of nature and practiced meditation with a couple others.
By the end of my wondrous, relaxing, and eye-opening time at the center, I asked others about what I thought was the most central part of the retreat: self-reflection.
How can it impact your mental health?
Harrison: For me, integration, allowing for our whole selves, is important for mental health. Self-reflection helps us grow and accept where we are.
Ann: It's important for me to take a break from my college life. It's hard to keep track of the self until you self-reflect. Sometimes you need to slow down to keep going forward.
Jen: Self-reflection plays a big role in mental health because being your most authentic self drives your individuality.
Manal: I'm a naturally reflective person–it means I'm more aware of situations. I'm aware of what I need and when to ask for support.
Katja: It has to be a balance because I'm someone who's always been focused on self-improvement. It helps me grow but also can be a spiral of thinking about what's wrong with me. It's important to find silence for reflection. Knowing yourself is the first step to knowing and empathizing with others.
Lucid: As a queer person, self-reflection is important to myself and self-being. Without it, I wouldn't be half as happy or half of myself as I would be. Knowing is the first step. Self-acceptance needs to come from both outside and inside. To get there, it's a constant practice.
Yuxing: It's healing because you can accept your weakness or shortcoming, instead of hating yourself, or shame. Sometimes it helps you discover a new part of yourself.
If you ever have the opportunity to go on a retreat like this, take it. The removal from the busy day to day life can help you reflect on what's truly important. It makes you remember the restorative effects of relaxation, meditation, and time in nature. Self-reflection is also a powerhouse tool that can help you evaluate your growth as a human being and help you can find balance.
But if an opportunity like this is hard for you to attend due to external reasons, consider how you can immerse yourself into a calm state of mind, a place where you can reflect. Is it a friend's cabin in the mountains? Going outside for a walk? A day at the beach? A drive at night? Is it listening to an album?
There's no one way to reflect or place to do it. It's something anyone can do, anywhere.