ADHD Goes to a Meditation Retreat
I recently suffered, survived, and thrived at a weeklong silent meditation retreat. If you know me, you understand what an accomplishment it was for me to be silent for a week. My wife couldn’t imagine it!
Meditation retreats are enlightening…they turn up the lights on our internal world and our perception of the external world. A week of mediation leaves no room to escape seeing oneself with the clarity of a microscope. Acceptance, compassion, and suspension of judgment are the meditator’s tools. A retreat is not a magical mystery tour, nor a vacation. It is the challenging practice of seeing and accepting life as it is, impermanent as it is, at any given moment.
As expected, the retreat experience did not cure my ADHD. I took it with me, sat on a meditation cushion with it, experienced it fully, and brought it back home with me.
You might ask, then, how my ADHD brain has benefited from meditation retreats. Here’s how. I see my symptoms more clearly. I observe lapses in mindfulness more quickly and reset my attention more seamlessly. I listen more fully and speak more succinctly. I’m less defensive when criticized. I complain less and attend more to the beauty that surrounds me. I’m less judgmental of myself and others. I’m more conscious of ways I can be helpful to others in my daily life, and more aware of when I need to pause and regard myself as I regard others. Over the many years that I have practiced meditation, I have gradually achieved more ease of being in my life.
Now, you might ask how I know that I still suffer from symptoms of ADHD. Here’s how. For one thing, I discovered on day six of the recent retreat, while turning the pages of the schedule, that it had a seventh day! I had scheduled psychotherapy clients for that entire last day. My need to depart early changed the work schedule. When preparing to take a walk on my last morning, I was approached by a retreat manager who whispered, “Are you making breakfast this morning?” I mimicked his whisper, “Yes, I’m on my way now,” which was partially true…I only had to turn downhill to the left, instead of uphill to the right (the cafeteria was downhill).
I elected to journal in my room during an optional yoga period one day (I injured myself at yoga the day before…who does that?). After the yoga period, I mistakenly thought it was time for the next walking meditation, and I walked right past the person striking the moktok, a wooden instrument that alerts us to the next round of sitting meditation. I discovered at the end of my half-hour walk that all the other participants were where they (and I) belonged…on the meditation cushions.
I felt certain that other meditators saw me as oppositional. But judging them for judging me was not mindfully correct at an insight meditation retreat. The judgment was just my mental activity and not necessarily theirs. I returned my attention to observing my string of incessant thoughts, as if watching them on a screen. I dropped the judgment…aware that I don’t know what I don’t know…and don’t need to try to know what I can’t know…and don’t even need to try not to try…to know…you know?
Ease of being does not come easily, but the benefits are worth the effort — i.e., the effort involved in abandoning unwise effort. The practice of meditation has proven beneficial to adults with ADHD, but it will not “cure” a neurological difference that you were born with. Living well with ADHD requires acceptance and practice, not just understanding. It is not about becoming better than you are…it is about being who you are and cultivating skills to unleash your creativity and resourcefulness.
Thanks for writing about this. I have ADHD, and this question popped into my head last night. I wondered if anyone with ADHD had gone to a silent meditation retreat. Seemed like it might be a bit impossible or at least something that would drive a person to an uncomfortable place that isn’t sustainable. Reading your experience has affirmed that fact that getting back to meditating more will definitely help.
Thanks for your wise comment. For me, silent meditation retreats begin with peaceful silence, progress to mental chaos, and end with a more sustainable ease of being. Practicing tolerating the discomfort of being with myself usually ends well, as long as my goal is mindful awereness vs peace. One time I spent at least half of a retreat trying to rid myself of anxiety about a seemingly impossible situation. Peace eluded me until a teacher encouraged me to breathe it in and let go of my story line. I was only disturbing myself; there was nothing more to it. Discomfort is like a threshold for me. I have to walk through that door to get somewhere…which is nowhere but here…like entering my own sanctuary, my own home. It gets easier when you learn that the only problem is between your ears. I have to keep up the practice to stay mindful of that, just like a jogger has to continue running to stay in shape. Peace to you!