What I learnt from a tinnitus spike on a silent retreat

Last week I attended a 6-day silent retreat. We ate together in silence, we passed each other in the corridor in silence and we meditated in silence. The only time we spoke was at our daily meeting with a retreat guide.

This is probably my 10th retreat. I normally manage quite well in silence. In fact, I enjoy the lack of distraction. My tinnitus is there (it, unfortunately has not learnt the art of silence!) but I am able to focus on meditating, eating or whatever activity I choose to pay attention to.

On the 4th morning of this retreat I was meditating in silence when it happened – psssshhhhhhHHHHH! I swear someone stuck their hand in my head and turned my tinnitus dial to 11.

I couldn’t believe it! Of all the times and in all the places my tinnitus chose to spike, this was a potential nightmare. I had been looking forward to this retreat for months, and still had another 3 days left of sitting in silence. How on earth was I going to manage?!
By lunchtime it was clear that this spike was not going to disappear anytime soon. At least there was one positive to me being on a meditation retreat – I was in the perfect place to use practices that might help. This is what I did:

1. I deliberately did not look for reasons as to why my tinnitus had suddenly become more intrusive. For me, there was nothing going on at the time that could have contributed to a spike. Even if that were not the case, spending hours poring over what might have caused a spike is often a waste of time and energy. Tinnitus spikes, often for no obvious reason. Fact.

2. I made the decision not to worry about how long this spike would last. What was the point? I couldn’t control it. What I could control was whether I reacted to it in frustration and distress, or whether I responded to it in a positive and helpful way.

3. I took time to notice the strong emotions I was experiencing. I felt disbelief that it should happen on a silent retreat. I felt annoyed, frustrated and more than a little bit sorry for myself. I felt betrayed by my brain – I can’t remember the last time I had a spike. Why the heck now?! All these emotions were perfectly valid and natural in the circumstances.

4. I did a deep dive into self-compassion. I knew that pushing myself to fight this spike, like some kind of warrior, was the last thing I needed. Instead my whole body was crying out for kindness and understanding. The retreat was going to be much more of a challenge now, so I needed to be gentle with myself. I shortened my meditation periods and made them more frequent. I paid attention to when my teeth clenched, and my shoulders tensed, and took my body outdoors for mindful movement and the chatter of bird noise.

5. When my thoughts wandered off to the very insistent tinnitus noise, I gently brought them back to the activity I was doing. Sometimes it felt that I was doing this every 10 seconds. Rather than telling myself what a rubbish meditator I was, I congratulated myself on how mindful I was being each time I noticed that my focus had strayed from the activity.

6. As and when the tinnitus sound became overwhelming, I used the three minute breathing space practice as a pressure reliever to calm my body and mind. It’s a very helpful reset button for those moments when anything is feeling too challenging. Listen to it here

7. I used the physical tools available. Even though our mobile phones were meant to be off for the duration of the retreat, I was allowed to turn mine on so I could play my favourite soothing sound of water to help me sleep. I resisted the urge to rely on it during the day, as I know from experience it reduces its effectiveness if I need it at night.

8. Finally, I shrugged my shoulders and accepted where I was. Tempting as it was to spend three days moaning to myself and my retreat guide about how unfair this was, how much money I’d spent on the retreat, how I might as well go home and reinstate all those client appointments I had moved to enable me to attend, I chose not to. Why? It would not have been helpful to me. I either had to quit the retreat, or take a deep breath and continue, with my tinnitus singing along beside me.

How do you manage your tinnitus spikes? If you would like support from me on your tinnitus journey, find out more here