Guest Blogger, Dr. Tanya Hollo, ND
Everybody loves vacations. But not everyone comes back from their vacation feeling rested & restored, like they’ve learned something new about themselves & the universe, and healthier than when they left. There’s this amazing kind of vacation that actually accomplishes those things: allow me to introduce the healing retreat.
The first healing retreat I went on blew my mind. My entire life has changed because of it. I’ll tell you a bit about my experience before I talk about all the amazing things a retreat can offer you, and there are many.
Ayahuasca & Perspective Shifts: My Point of View is Different From Yours and That’s Okay
A few years ago, I went to the Jungle, for an ayahuasca group retreat with Gabor Maté. Maybe some of you have seen TJ Dawe’s play, Medicine, which he’s touring at the Saskatoon Fringe festival this summer, or the Nature of Things documentary, that the lovely Robin McKenna helped to make. Both of these featured Gabor’s work in bridging Amazonian plant medicine with modern stress and addiction theory, where nighttime ceremony experiences are coupled with daytime group psychotherapy. The goal is to help uncover patterns of behaviour and the origins of those patterns in childhood traumatic experiences.
Everyone has experienced some level of trauma, some more severe than others. The idea is that chronic stress and addictive behaviours develop out of a learned suppression of emotions, and a need to escape the pain. It’s not a conscious choice: behaviours that developed as coping mechanisms in early childhood are still being activated in the present, so it’s like the mind/body is reacting to something that happened a long time ago as if it is still happening.
Uncovering these patterns becomes a pathway to healing. Now, I’m not entirely sure how it got uncovered – Gabor is a notorious laser-beam when it comes to pointing out tension and suppressed emotions – but it went something like this.
We all went around the circle, and each person shared why they were at the retreat. I went last. Somehow it came out in my speaking that I feel in colours.
Gabor: You feel in colours?
Me: Yes? (Thinking "doesn't everyone?")
Gabor: Can you describe that?
Me: Well, whenever I have an emotion or feel a physical sensation (and I'm being generous here; there's no way I was that articulate back then), I see a colour. It’s always there when I close my eyes, but sometimes, if the feeling is strong enough, I see it out loud. Like with my eyes open.
Gabor: That's kind of weird.
And there it was: my entire worldview shifted. Not because I had been called weird (truthfully, I still wear that as a badge of pride in my heart), but because the only thing I had ever known, the only way I had ever experienced the world had just been called into question. Not everyone sees things the same way I do.
Fundamentally, this is true for everyone. Everyone has a view from which they experience the world, and that view was shaped early on in life. For me, there’s a beautiful, rainbow-like, actual visual effect in the way I see things, and not everyone has that, but the principle is the same.
(On an awesome note, it turns out this phenomenon of seeing colours when I have feelings or hear sounds (that happens too) is called synesthesia. I’ve known about synesthesia for a long time, and always thought it was so cool, without ever even considering the fact that I might have it.)
“I felt the most connected to people when there was a subconscious belief that they understood me, that they were speaking my language.”
Over the course of the week, we took the discoveries deeper. It turns out that not only did I see colours when I had feelings, I learned at a very young age to suppress this side of myself, to not talk about it, because people didn’t understand when I did. Underneath the beautiful rainbows was a deep sense of loneliness that I felt as a result of not being able to express myself.
I had one experience in ceremony where I got to look at all these experiences I had, in conversations with others, where the focus was on colours. All of my favourite people has talked colours with me at one time or another; there was this one game I loved to play where a friend and I would name a colour, then by talking about all the things associated with it, the colour would take on a personality. Like red, the kind of passionate, strong, fierce one; or white, the kind of peaceful, calm, accepting one.
I felt the most connected to people when there was a subconscious belief that they understood me, that they were speaking my language: the language of colour. As I said before, I wasn’t exactly emotionally articulate back then, and speaking in colours allowed me to express, or at least feel, these emotions.
10 Reasons Why Retreats Are Awesome
These discoveries were incredibly liberating for me, and I truly don’t believe it would have been possible for me to achieve the depth of understanding that I did had it not been for the retreat setting.
Let’s look at some of the things that a retreat has that daily life (generally) does not:
Nature - It is so good for you to get out into nature. Things move slower, air is cleaner, and being in nature actually lowers your cortisol levels. (Cortisol is your main stress hormone.) And whether you believe it or not, plants have an intelligence and a soothing presence; whether you believe that’s through consciousness or just through their lovely smell is up to you to decide.
A group - There are many benefits to working through your stuff in a group setting. The group serves as a big, ugly mirror, and helps you see that your problems are really similar to other people’s problems, that you’re not alone, and that humans are really amazing and wonderful and lovable. Plus you get to make new friends who are interested in bettering themselves. Pretty sweet.
A facilitator - A facilitator is literally someone who helps make things easier. How wonderful would it be if life always came with someone to help you see things clearer?
Intention - It’s possible for life to always have an intentional focus, but it’s much more common for us to forget what and why we’re doing things. At a retreat, there is a constant reminder of why you’re there, and who you’re there for: yourself.
The food is taken care of - Really, it’s just so nice to have someone else prepare your meals for a period of time, especially if they’re healthy and nice and made with love, as they often are on retreat.
And some of the things that a retreat doesn’t have, that daily life generally does:
The mundane & little stressors - Like driving and traffic, waiting in line for things, emails, phone calls, groceries, picking up kids,
Constant computers and cell phones - It’s so good for your brain to put down the internet for a while. And when you’re on retreat, you get to put down the internet and submerse yourself in nature, allowing your brain to relax and focus on something with a bit more temporality to it.
People who want things from you - Bosses, kids, husbands, wives, moms, clients, students, etc. While having most of these people in your life is generally a very good thing, getting away from them all for a while can help you really appreciate having them around when you do.
Familiarity - There’s something about stepping outside of your comfort zone and the places you know that serves as a catalyst for healing and transformation.
Overstimulation - Let’s face it: Western society is nuts. There’s so much going on, all the time, that it’s hard to relax and take a real break.
I’ve since gone on several retreats, both in the same setting and in different contexts. I’ve discovered much, much more about myself, the way I relate to the world, and where it all comes from.
I believe there’s more available in a healing retreat than there is in a regular visit to a doctor’s (or therapist’s) office, and there doesn’t need to be ayahuasca there for you to have profound healing. Even more gentle retreats achieve significant health effects, by taking a little break from life and creating a community goal of self-betterment.
I strongly encourage anyone facing health challenges, or anyone who has stress in their life, to consider a retreat for their next vacation.
Dr. Tanya Hollo is licensed to practice naturopathic medicine in British Columbia. She is a member in good standing of the BCNA and the CAND, and currently practices in Gastown, Vancouver. She is excited to be co-leading the first Moon Medicines retreat on Salt Spring Island at the end of August (with Danielle Hoogenboom). Later this year, she will be returning to the Jungle to study with her soon to be father-in-law, Gabor Maté, so that she can further incorporate techniques of deep healing and integration into her medical practice. She lives with her almost-husband, Daniel, in a basement suite in East Van. You can find out more about naturopathic medicine and how to book an appointment at www.drtanyahollo.com.