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The Phenomenal Benefits of a Mental Sanctuary (and how to create one)

2011 May 2
tags: Effectiveness, Happy Place, Mental Sanctuary, Productivity, Self-Care, Stress-free Zone
by Andrew   
mental retreat


Have you ever wanted the ability to re-center yourself after a significant shock? Or wanted to be able to create and sustain a calmness of mind and body in the midst of immense stress? One way to achieve these results is with a mental sanctuary.

Most of us have heard “go to your happy place” at one time or another. For most people, their happy place is a memory or mental image of somewhere pleasant and safe, such as a secluded beach, a mountaintop vista, or their grandmother’s kitchen. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these happy place images, because they’re effective for their owners. But, a mental sanctuary is so much more than a simple image, and has many more benefits. They also take time to create effectively. I have been building mine for over 25 years, and they have grown richly detailed (and all the more effective for it). Don’t worry, though! I’m going to tell you how to create an effective mental sanctuary in just a few minutes. Then, the more you use it, the better it becomes.


The benefits of a mental sanctuary

Ultimately, the benefits you receive from a mental sanctuary are dependent on your commitment to develop the sensory “imagery” and practice it. But even a small amount of practice, say fifteen minutes a day, will yield some fairly amazing results for most people:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased (and more effective) respiration rate
  • Decreased cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
  • Decreased irritability
  • Improved, more restful, sleep
  • Greater tolerance for stressors
  • Greater relaxation
  • Improved ability to remain calm and relaxed in stressful environments
  • Greater sense of well-being

The first five benefits are typically realized immediately each time you shift your awareness into your mental sanctuary. With a small amount of practice, they become sustainable and you can begin to experience the longer-term items on the list.

Creating a mental sanctuary

Building a mental sanctuary is not difficult, but it takes practice. Creating the basic visual imagery is easy enough to do, but adding additional sensory “imagery” takes some effort to maintain. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work quite right the first few times. It will “stick” with practice.

Your sanctuary can be anyplace you like, but I will suggest one for practice that will be easy for most people. There’s also no reason you can’t have more than one. I have three.

  1. Find a quiet place to practice. You can create the imagery in an environment full of distractions, but it’s much more difficult. Eliminate the likelihood of phones ringing, chat apps notifying you of new messages, and people knocking on your door. Turn off the tv and music.
  2. Get comfortable. Dim the lights. Make the temperature pleasant. Use a sound machine or a fan if there are distracting sounds you can’t control. Sit comfortably or lie down. Sitting comfortably often works better because you’re less likely to fall asleep.
  3. Think of a forest clearing on top of a mountain. Don’t become bogged down in worrying about where, or what kinds of trees or plants, or much else. Just think “natural forest clearing” and allow your mind to create an image. Normally, it will. If you need to jump-start it, that’s fine. Simply think of a small clearing in a forested setting, with large trees and brush at the periphery of your vision. The area where you’re standing is grassy, with occasional patches of wildflowers.
  4. Breathe. For now, hold the image of the clearing in your head and breathe deeply several times. Don’t worry about rhythm. Simply fill your lungs with air and exhale in a natural rhythm. “Listen” for your heartbeat. It will have begun to slow down after several breaths. Continue breathing slowly, in a natural comfortable rhythm, until your mind begins to wander.
  5. Listen. What do you hear in the clearing? Are birds chirping? Are insects buzzing from plant to plant? Can you hear a breeze in the trees? It doesn’t matter if you know what kinds of birds and insects belong in a mountaintop clearing. The benefit is obtained from the sensory engagement, not from accuracy. If you do know what belongs, by all means use it. But don’t worry about it if you don’t. Add visual details from the sound environment. Can you see the birds? Are bees or butterflies on the flowers near you? Integrate the details into the overall environment.
  6. Feel. Did you hear a breeze earlier? Can you now? Remember what a warm breeze feels like. Feel the ebb and flow of the air, and hear the sound it makes in the trees. Reach out and touch the grass and flowers. Feel the solidity of the ground beneath your feet. Lean against a tree and feel it supporting your weight. Integrate these details with the other sight and sound details as you continue to breathe slowly. As you walk, feel the ground under your feet.
  7. Smell. What’s there? Wildflowers? Pine or spruce needles? A metallic smell from sunlight on the rock outcroppings? Rain in the distance? Add these to your overall impression of the environment. Smell is often challenging to sustain at first. But smell is the greatest sensory trigger for memory, so developing the ability to populate this space with smell will yield great results.
  8. Taste. Look around. There’s probably already something here. Is there a stream? Drink from it. Imagine the coolness of the water as you dip your hand. Imagine the crisp, cool taste of the water. Are there berries nearby? Try them. Are they sweet or tart? Or both?
  9. Enrich. Add details to the environment. If you don’t like something, change it at will. Let’s start off by making a place to rest. Imagine you have a view of the valley far below just beyond the edge of the clearing. A path leads to a simple stone bench where you can sit. Walk down the path and sit on the bench. Do any of the environmental sounds or smells change? There should be a slightly stronger breeze here. But, outside the clearing, the Sun is bright. So, let’s imagine an arbor around the bench. It’s covered with flowering vines, blocking out much of the heat and shading the bench.

See? That was relatively easy. And the more you do it with an environment that’s relaxing for you, the easier and more effective it becomes. Practice is key, as it is with becoming skilled at anything. If you aren’t able to engage all of your senses simultaneously, don’t worry. The more of them you engage, the more powerful the imagery becomes; concentrate on senses you’re best able to maintain and practice the more difficult ones over time.

Take care, and enjoy life,


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