Meditation teacher James Baraz played this video of Ram Dass‘s words at a recent dharma talk, and it’s beautifully done: Sit Around the Fire. When you’re in the right mood, watch it on full screen for 8 minutes. Truth.
“Mindfulness of Consciousness” Meditation Retreat
N.B. I’ve organized all my blog posts on meditation retreats and Buddhist into this one long page. If you’re new, you can read that page for more context on my journey to date, my summary of the Buddhist argument, and my experiences at other long retreats. This post is a dispatch from my latest retreat.
The Rollercoaster of Retreat / Life
A few days into my fifth silent Buddhist meditation retreat in April 2022, I walked out of my dorm building and ambled down toward the meditation hall to make the 4pm guided sit. I noticed a half dozen people standing at the bottom of the path, staring intently out at the hills behind me. In the next moment, I smelled smoke, and turned around to face the scene that had captivated the other meditators: smoke billowing over the hills and down into the Spirit Rock campus.
Was it a wildfire? Were we on the midst of being evacuated? My first thought: “Yes! The retreat may be cancelled and I can go home early.” Despite all my time meditating on silent retreats, they’re still hard for me. Hard first and foremost physically: sitting on the ground for so many hours does a number on your knees, back, and shoulders. And of course it’s hard mentally: the endless stretch of time with no company but your own out-of-control mind.
Nobody made any evacuation announcements, so I walked into the meditation hall for the regularly scheduled sit, half-wondering if fire trucks were going to interrupt the whole retreat at any moment. Amazingly, despite the distractions, I actually had a really good sit. My mind was still. Clear. Luminous. Present. My body felt settled. I was aware. I stayed in the hall after the bell had rung and others had left to bask in the unexpected stillness. The quiet in my mind.
When I got up to leave, I thought to myself: “Oh man, this is amazing. I need more days here. I hope there’s no evacuation.”
And there would not be an evacuation. It turned out a building structure nearby had caught fire and was quickly extinguished.
The emotional gyrations of that one afternoon embody what happens in your mind over all 10 days within the uniquely barren and silent retreat container: “This is amazing!” Followed by: “No this is terrible, get me out of here.” On retreat, the task is to achieve some level of equanimity during these ups and downs, which of course is also a task in life: learning to ride the rollercoaster of highs and lows with a smile, learning to dance with the craziness of life, learning to find some modicum of inner peace in a world which is so impermanent.
The Instructions: Be Aware of Consciousness
In previous posts I outlined the basic instruction of Vipassana practice.
The fundamental instruction of this particular retreat, which was geared towards experienced practitioners, was to maintain “Mindfulness of Consciousness.” The retreat drew upon Theravada Buddhist frameworks in general and Vipassana meditation instruction specifically for the first few days. Be aware of an object of concentration (e.g. the breath) in order to collect and unify the mind. On Day 3, the teachers instructed us to expand our practice into the broader field of awareness. Then become aware of the fact that you’re aware, and then further become aware of the fact that you’re aware of awareness.
It was very meta. And very inward looking. The idea is that by turning your mind inwards, you can become mindful of consciousness itself: its steady, mirror-like qualities. Consciousness is like clear, clean water — there is no flavor. In a big sky meditation, teacher Sally Armstrong instructed: “The mind is clear and empty, like a limitless sky. To see if this is so, look within your own mind.”
“Look within your own mind” is the quintessential Buddhist meditation instruction: you are told time and time again to observe and experience stuff first hand in order to come to conclusions. Do not accept claims on blind faith. This retreat sought to cultivate in us a subtle awareness of the steady capacity of knowing — to look within your own mind not just to notice the coming and going of thoughts and sensations, but to to observe the steadiness of consciousness itself.
One way to get at the nebulous feeling of consciousness was to feel “spaciousness.” We were frequently told to imagine endless space around us. To cultivate in your mind a sense of an endless horizon. Sally Armstrong quoted this line once: “She opened the clenched fist of her mind and fell into the midst of everything.” To fall into the midst of…everything. To feel spaciousness physically can enable you, the teaching suggested, to relax the intensity of the gaze in your own mind and take in a wider frame. If you soften your focus a bit, you’re able to relax into a state of being mindful of consciousness.
In one sense, this awareness of consciousness skill is supposed to be an “advanced” skill. You work on it only after several days of more straightforward concentration practice. And it’s a skill being taught on a retreat open only to those who had been on at least a couple retreats before (and about half the group of 90 people had been on more like 10+ silent retreats). And it’s a practice that, apparently, leads one to better knowledge of emptiness, a concept that’s definitely not in the beginner Buddhism cannon.
On the other hand, the instruction for being aware of awareness is so simple that many students think they are missing something. For example, we were told to ask ourselves: “Am I aware?” You answer yes, you rest in that awareness until that awareness breaks…and that’s it. Or, you visualize your palm facing outwards, and then the palm turning inwards toward your body. And that triggers your mind to turn inward and notice awareness. Or, you visualize a vast open sky, as your consciousness, and you notice anything hitting your sense doors or any thoughts as objects arising and falling, like fireworks, in the sky you have visualized in your mind.
I’m not sure how well I “got it” but once I sort of relinquished the idea that it was an especially difficult skill and instead took comfort in the straightforwardness of any of these instructions — I think I rested in awareness somewhat successfully. Guy Armstrong’s dharma talks in particular on emptiness were quite stimulating, but I can’t say I fully and deeply saw the connection between emptiness and awareness of consciousness.
The Pleasure of Perfect Stillness
It’s hard to convey the nature of the pleasure you feel when you’re perfectly still physically and mentally.
Sometimes, when sitting, I felt like my body was a 300 year old majestic mountain, anchored into the core of the earth and standing tall, not flinching in the wind. Perfectly solid yet with no clenched muscles.
Mentally, the majority of the time on retreat, the mind is as out of control as normal. But there are moments. Sometimes a sequence of moments that when strung together add up to an evenness of mind. Moments where whatever is happening is happening, and you’re in that moment exactly. No ambient noise or thoughts. Just the breath. Or just a specific sound or ache or a feeling.
As on previous retreats, this time, during mental stillness, I sometimes generated a visualization in my mind of my mind as so sharp, so in my control, that by merely directing the mind and my attention — as sharp as a razor — toward a glass window in my mind’s eye, the glass would shatter.
During one of Phillip Moffitt’s evening dharma talks, we were all sitting quietly and listening. It wasn’t formal meditation, but we were sitting silently in a meditation hall. There was occasional shifting of positions or sighs or coughs or what have you, as folks sat back after a long day to take in the final lecture. Then Phillip said, “Let’s all experience the next moment. Everyone just be still for this moment and then another moment.” Heeding the request, everyone in the hall ever so slightly erected their posture, froze their bodies, closed their eyes, and awoke to the present moment.
There was total stillness in the hall. It was quiet before. But now the silence was absolute and stretched perfectly taut from one end of the room to the other. After a few more moments, Phillip said, “Did you just feel that? Did you feel that wave of stillness roll through the room? I find that so nourishing.”
And I did. Stillness did sweep the room all at once, like fog rolling through the early evening of a San Francisco night, wetly kissing all its residents at once. I had never thought of stillness as nourishing before.
Deep Memories About One Place
I have now spent 30 days and 30 nights on the Spirit Rock campus. 30 exceptionally personal, intimate, intense days when time passed slowly and every little thing in the physical space around me came under microscopic presence.
The first thing you notice is the stunning natural beauty: wild turkeys, soaring hawks, salamanders, and assorted critters sharing the golden rolling hills.
Despite the vastness of the overall campus, your day to day experience mostly plays out on a finite number of paths and benches and walking paths in and around the dorm rooms, meditation hall, and dining hall.
You begin to develop associations with particular paths and benches. For example, on one of the trails, there’s a bench next to a differently shaped tree. Four years ago, during a concentration retreat, I sat on the bench and contemplated death. Really contemplated the inevitability of it. It was a powerful moment for me then. This time around I came upon that tree and that bench, having forgotten about my previous experience there, and it whipped me back in time.
Circular Habits of Mind
When you spend hours observing your mind, you notice patterns. One pattern I noticed on this retreat is that if I’m in a bad mood or if my mind gets trapped on a negative pattern, the mind inclines toward other topics for which I have built-up negativity. It bounces around from grievance to grievance, pet peeve to pet peeve, injustice to injustice. One after the other.
And if the agitated, negatively-inclined mind happens to hit upon a topic or person for whom I usually have warm feelings? The warmth is nowhere to be found, and I invent something negative.
How long do these cycles last normally? Well, in normal life, not very long. In part that’s because you have distractions. Turn to your phone. Turn on a show. Go attend a meeting in which you have to focus and put on a certain face — and push the negative thought cycle out of mind, at least temporarily.
In normal life, the most problematic time for these negative patterns to take over is at night, when trying to fall asleep. Or for me, it’s usually the middle of the night. I awaken at 2am and can’t fall back to asleep.
On retreat, when an agitated mind emerges, there are no distractions. Nothing to run towards. You have to sit there and take it. It’s the hardest part about a retreat, for me. People think it’s the not-talking-to-people that’s hard. Kind of — but not because you just miss talking so much. What you miss is the ability to distract yourself with socializing. Being alone with your thoughts is the hardest.
When you have nothing to do but observe the mental pattern, you realize its power. You wonder how often those thought patterns lurk in the subconscious, conspiring almost in secret to drag us down.
The ultimate goal of Vipassana practice, as once framed by Steve Armstrong, is to uproot these negative habits of mind by noticing them each time they emerge. And in the noticing, you become not so lost in them, and eventually, they become so weakened, they disappear altogether.
Speaking of patterns, it wasn’t all negative. Indeed, throughout any given day, most of my thoughts are neutral or positive, as I’m generally a reasonably happy person. The one spiky positive pattern I observed on retreat: my dog Oreo! It was interesting how prominently my dog Oreo featured in any thoughts that involved joy and happiness. I mean, he is the best boy, so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising?
Softening the Gaze with Relaxed Effort
To meditate you need to be relaxed. It’s not uncommon for beginner or advanced meditators to forget this basic instruction. Meditators often find themselves grasping too hard to “achieve” something — effortfully trying to concentrate their mind, track the breath, track other objects, make something happen in their mind. Meditation masters will say that the more you try to make something happen, the tighter you grasp, the less likely you are to have the outcome you desire. Instead: Just sit. Just breathe. Soften your gaze. Don’t try to make anything happen.
You hear similar advice in sports. In sports, you hear coaches tell players to ease up, to back off, to loosen their grip on the bat, to “let the game come to them,” to loosen up, to remember to have fun. There’s something about applying too much effort that backfires.
It’s not advice you hear as much in the realm of business or management advice and I wonder why. It seems relevant. Sometimes we can become too wrapped up in a goal, in a project, in an analysis. We can be trying so hard to solve something, to fix something, to dissect a relationship, that our very focus on the outcome inhibits our ability to succeed.
Easier said than done, of course. To relax our focus, to soften our gaze, to let some of our emotional energy around the issue arise and then pass away. Less grasping, more fluidity. It’s counterintuitive to think that if we think less about something, if we try less hard, somehow we could realize a better outcome. I wrote about this in a previous post about a retreat: “receptive effort.”
One of my fears anytime I upgrade my standard of living is: Will I ever be able to go back? If I become accustomed to three star hotels, can I stay again at a two star hotel? If I upgrade to a nice SUV car, can I ever again be comfortable driving a small compact?
You learn on retreat that you can, in fact, live simply. My little dorm room was perfectly adequate. The suitcase of clothes was plenty. I loved my little in-room sink for brushing my teeth, and the shared bathroom was no big deal. How or why do I sometimes think I need 5 different sweatshirts to choose from when just one will do?
Joseph Goldstein: “We feel pleasant unworldly feelings on retreat, in the renunciation of our familiar comforts. We begin to enjoy the beauty of simplicity… When I go on retreat, it is so clear that everything I need is right in my small room, and when I think of my regular life, it seems so cluttered by comparison.”
An Easy Yogi Job
When you first arrive for a retreat at Spirit Rock, you get assigned a chore on campus — your “work meditation” or “yogi job.” The chores range from cleaning dishes in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, scrubbing toilets, taking out trash bins, vacuuming rooms, and so on.
My first time at Spirit Rock I got assigned pot cleaning duty in the kitchen. I had never worked in a commercial kitchen before, so it was an experience. I washed hundreds of dishes and pots and pans and equipment every day after lunch. As I wrote about in my post about that retreat, a fellow pot cleaner wrote me a nice card and handed it to me on the last day: “Ben, it’s been a pleasure doing pot scrubbing meditation with you. I hope your time here has brought much benefit and renewed your love for practice. Many blessings to you.”
My second retreat there I got assigned bathroom cleaning duty in our dorm room. Every day for an hour I scrubbed toilets and cleaned the shower area.
Both were “hard” jobs, as far as yogi jobs go.
This time, after checking in, the staffer scanned his sheet for the available jobs: “Let’s see, it’s mostly bathrooms and kitchen duty at this point…well, it looks like there’s courtyard sweeping available too. Which would you like?”
I tried to keep a poker face. Courtyard sweeping — moving the leaves off the grounds right in front of the meditation hall, as photographed above — I could do at any time during the day, solo. It was an ideal gig, I thought. So much easier than the other gigs. But I didn’t want to seem too greedy, too self-interested when signing in for… a Buddhist meditation retreat. “Ok, well let’s see,” I told the volunteer, in an even, wannabe reflective tone, “Previous retreats I did toilet scrubbing and dish cleaning. Maybe I’ll try courtyard sweeping this time.” So it was assigned, and I was thrilled, and also somewhat amused with myself for how I felt the need to posture to the volunteer check-in coordinator about my previous good deeds.
Then something interesting happened. I found the courtyard sweeping job a dud — way less satisfying than my two previous jobs. While indeed easy and simple, it did not feel useful. There were precious few leafs to actually sweep off the courtyard. Scrubbing toilets involved grime, but I knew how much I appreciated a clean toilet in the dorm, and it felt satisfying to keep the bathroom clean for my housemates.
No Sleep, No Problem
I don’t do great on low sleep. That’s a truth, borne from experience, that I have never questioned. But I wonder if that’s a story that’s overly hardened in my head?
My most disastrous day of the retreat was about midway through. I didn’t sleep well the night before. I was up for hours in the middle of the night, including from 12am midnight until 4:50am, with my mind racing in every which direction (ironic, I know, being on a retreat). By that time, I knew I’d be woken again by the 5:30am wake up bell. I then did something I’ve never done before: I got out of bed and took a Tylenol PM at 4:50am. I sometimes take TyP when I travel or if I’ve had several rough nights of sleep, just to lock in a solid night’s sleep when I feel like I need it. But I always take it earlier in the evening because if it enters my body too late it can cause drowsiness the next morning. Taking it at 4:50am seemed crazy but I was desperate for sleep and concerned about losing a whole day of a retreat to sleep-deprivation. It knocked me out for about 90 mins. I awoke at 8am.
I missed the early morning sit and breakfast. I threw on my sweatpants and hustled down to the dining hall to grab a couple soft boiled eggs that were left in the fridge. I felt tired, groggy, and grumpy. I rolled into the meditation hall at 8:30am for the guided sit.
Then something funny happened. I had a series of excellent sits and walks. I felt tired, a bit, but not too bad. I felt concentrated. I felt aware. And my day kind of unfolded rather nicely.
It made me wonder: Do I stress too much about getting a bad night of sleep? Being stressed about getting enough sleep can inhibit your ability to get sleep, for sure — there’s a weird feedback loop. So it’d be nice if the reality of my experience is that I can manage on low sleep, at least if it’s not too many days in a row.
What Would a Virtue Bootcamp Look Like?
If I had access to a facility as beautiful as Spirit Rock, and had 10 days of my life blocked off, what other worthy spiritual or intellectual adventures could one construct? In other words, could you craft something around developing virtue and wisdom, via lectures and discussions and some meditation and some reading, where the experts or books come from a range of spiritual and intellectual traditions? What would a “virtue bootcamp” look like?
Intentions vs. Goals
A teacher once said on this retreat: “Trust your intention when you signed up for the retreat.” It made me think: What was my intention with the retreat?
I don’t really think about “intentions” but in re-reading some of Phillips’ writings, I found the distinctions below, as described in his book, helpful:
Living from your intentions is quite different from living from your goals. It is not oriented toward achieving a future outcome. Instead it is a path of practice that is focused on how you are being in the present moment. Your attention is on the ever-present now in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions by understanding what matters most to you and making a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.
Cultivating intention does not mean you abandon goals. You continue to use them, but they exist within a larger context of meaning that offers the possibility of peace beyond the fluctuations caused by pain and pleasure, gain and loss. Goals help you find your place in the world and make you an effective person. But being grounded in intention is what provides integrity and unity in your life.
Students often ask me whether values and intentions are the same thing. In my view, values come from understanding what is important to you and are part of your personal philosophy, whereas intentions are the application of your values in daily life. You have an array of values that extends into all aspects of your life. For example, you may value loyalty in friendship, earning an honest living, individual privacy, self-understanding, living a certain lifestyle, etc. You also have a core set of intentions that are based on your values and with which you want to meet every moment of your life, such as integrity, compassion, not causing harm to others, being accountable, and so forth. So if one of your values is self-understanding, it is through your intentions of practicing integrity and accountability that you manifest the wisdom that you gain from self-understanding.
In Buddhist psychology, your path to well-being begins with understanding the values you want to live by (your intentions) and the direction you want your life to go in (your goals).
Your values and intentions form the foundation of your inner priorities. So in setting inner priorities, you are specifying how you wish to feel inside no matter what you are doing. Begin by naming your values and intentions and reflecting on what brings you peace of mind and joy. Acknowledging that you are a work in progress, set reasonable priorities that are truly possible for you to live out in daily life. As best you’re able, rank your inner priorities on a scale of 1–3, with 1 being your most important priorities and so forth.
“I Feel the Sincerity”
Throughout the course of a retreat you have an opportunity to meet with teachers 1:1 a couple times. In my first meeting, I shared a question that I won’t repeat here.
The teacher, after talking for a bit, paused and looked me dead in the eye: “I feel the sincerity of your question.”
No one has ever said that to me before. That they feel my sincerity. For some reason that line is still ringing in my memory as I look back on the retreat.
The Best Version of Yourself
A silent meditation retreat isn’t real life. Not even close. The physical setting and conditions are hard to replicate in normal life and indeed, even establishing a regular meditation practice at home after retreat is not made dramatically easier just because you’ve been on retreat.
So what’s the lasting benefit of a retreat? A significant part of it, for me, is that you see the best version of yourself on retreat. You will likely be as peaceful, as compassionate, as level headed on a silent meditation retreat as you will be anytime else in your life. You’re not like this all the time on the retreat. Just for moments.
In the same way that mindfulness practice leads to moments of genuine freedom, in the Buddhist sense of that word, going on retreat leads to moments where you catch a glimpse of what your best self looks like. What the best version of your mind looks like: clear, stable, collected, radiant.
It’s a benchmark against which to compare other moments. It’s a true north. It’s a version of yourself that you know is possible.
N.B. I’ve organized all my blog posts on meditation retreats and Buddhist into this one long page. If you’re new, you can read that page for more context on my journey to date, my summary of the Buddhist argument, and my experiences at other long retreats.
Book Notes: The Mind Illuminated
The best practical guide on meditation I’ve ever read, as informed by a Buddhist understanding but written in exactingly clear and precise English, is The Mind Illuminated by John Yates and Matthew Immergut. I first read it several years ago at Russ Roberts’ recommendation, and re-read it for a second time recently. There is a great deal of commentary on the book that you can find online, including an entire subreddit dedicated to the book’s approach to instruction. I’ll include below direct quotes from my Kindle highlights that I think helpfully define some traditionally hard-to-define concepts. I appreciated the distinction between attention and awareness, which I bolded below liberally. It’s a powerful idea to internalize. Highly recommended to beginner or advanced meditators alike who seek very concrete instructions.
For your personal reality to be created purposefully, rather than haphazardly, you must understand your mind. But the kind of understanding required isn’t just intellectual, which is ineffective by itself. Like a naturalist studying an organism in its habitat, we need to develop an intuitive understanding of our mind. This only comes from direct observation and experience.
The Insights called vipassanā are not intellectual. Rather, they are experientially based, deeply intuitive realizations that transcend, and ultimately shatter, our commonly held beliefs and understandings. The five most important of these are Insights into impermanence, emptiness, the nature of suffering, the causal interdependence of all phenomena, and the illusion of the separate self (i.e., “no-Self”).
Attention and awareness are two different ways of knowing the world. Attention singles out some small part of the field of conscious awareness to analyze and interpret it. Peripheral awareness provides the overall context for conscious experience.
“Concentration” as a concept is rather vague, and in danger of being misinterpreted or of having meditation students bring their own preconceived ideas to it. I prefer to use the more accurate and useful term, “stable attention.” It’s more descriptive of what we’re actually trying to do in meditation.
Now, sustaining attention is trickier than directing attention. Why? It’s possible to voluntarily direct attention. However, the part of the mind that sustains attention for more than a few moments works entirely unconsciously. We can’t use our will to control how long we remain focused on one thing. Instead, an unconscious process weighs the importance of what we’re focusing on against other possible objects of attention.
Throughout the Stages, you use conscious intention to train the unconscious mind in a variety of ways. The correct use of intention can also transform bad habits, undo incorrect views, and cultivate healthier perspectives. In short, skillfully applying conscious intention can completely restructure the mind and transform who we are. This is the very essence of meditation: we reprogram unconscious mental processes by repeating basic tasks over and over with a clear intention.
But with sati, we pay attention to the right things, and in a more skillful way. This is because having sati actually means that you’re more fully conscious and alert than normal. As a result, our peripheral awareness is much stronger, and our attention is used with unprecedented precision and objectivity. A more accurate but clumsy-sounding phrase would be “powerfully effective conscious awareness,” or “fully conscious awareness.” I use the word “mindfulness” because people are familiar with it. However, by “mindfulness,” I specifically mean the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness, which requires increasing the overall conscious power of the mind. Let’s unpack this definition.
Attention has a very specific job. It picks out one object from the general field of conscious awareness, then analyzes and interprets that object….Peripheral awareness, on the other hand, works very differently. Instead of singling out one object for analysis, it involves a general awareness of everything our senses take
Peripheral awareness allows us to respond more effectively by giving us information about the background and context of our experience—where we are, what’s happening around us, what we’re doing, and why (e.g., not mistaking the rope for a snake, since we’re in Alaska, and it’s winter).
Attention analyzes our experience, and peripheral awareness provides the context.
Any new sensation, thought, or feeling appears first in peripheral awareness. It is here that the mind decides whether or not something is important enough to become an object of attention. Peripheral awareness filters out unimportant information and “captures” the objects that deserve closer scrutiny by attention. This is why specific objects can seem to pop out of peripheral awareness to become the objects of attention. Attention will also browse the objects in peripheral awareness, searching for something relevant or important, or just more entertaining, to examine.
As attention hones in on something, peripheral awareness is alert and on the lookout for anything new or unusual. When awareness takes in something that might be of interest, it frees attention from its current object and redirects it toward the new object. Say you’re engrossed in a conversation while walking when, out of the corner of your eye, you notice a shape moving toward you. Peripheral awareness alerts attention, which quickly processes the information, “We’re in the bike lane and a biker is heading straight for us!” So you grab your friend and step out of the way.
Fortunately, not every experience needs to be analyzed. Otherwise, attention would be quite overwhelmed. Peripheral awareness takes care of many things without invoking attention, such as brushing a fly away from your face while you’re eating lunch. Attention can certainly be involved with brushing the fly away, as well as with other small things, like choosing what to eat next on your plate. But there are simply too many basic tasks that don’t require attention.
On its own, attention usually involves a strong concern for “self.” This makes sense, considering that part of attention’s job is to evaluate the importance of things in terms of our personal well-being. But it also means that objects of attention can be easily distorted by desire, fear, aversion, and other emotions. Attention not only interprets objects based on self-interest, it leads us to identify with external objects (this is “my” car), or mental states (“I am” angry, happy, etc.). Peripheral awareness is less “personal” and takes things in more objectively “as they are.” External objects, feeling states, and mental activities, rather than being identified with, appear in peripheral awareness as part of a bigger picture. We may be peripherally aware, for example, that some annoyance is arising. This is very different from having the thought, “I am annoyed.” Strong peripheral awareness helps tone down the self-centered tendencies of attention, making perception more objective. But when peripheral awareness fades, the way we perceive things becomes self-centered and distorted.
Also, because attention works by isolating objects, it cannot observe overall states of the mind. If you do turn your attention introspectively, it takes a “snapshot” from peripheral awareness of your mental state right before you looked. Say someone asks, “How do you feel?” When you look inside, attention tries to transform awareness of your overall mental state into a specific conceptual thought, like, “I am happy.”
Why aren’t we naturally more mindful? Why does mindfulness have to be cultivated? There are two main reasons. First, most of us have never really learned to use peripheral awareness effectively. Second, we don’t have enough conscious power to sustain mindfulness, especially at the times when we need it most.
The first of these two problems I describe as “awareness deficit disorder.” This means a chronic lack of awareness due to overusing attention. Most people overuse attention because it’s under direct conscious control and peripheral awareness isn’t.
Think of consciousness as a limited power source. Both attention and awareness draw their energy from this shared source. With only a limited amount of energy available for both, there will always be a trade-off between the two. When attention focuses intensely on an object, the field of conscious awareness begins to contract, and peripheral awareness of the background fades. Intensify that focus enough, and the context and guidance provided by peripheral awareness disappears completely. In this state, awareness can no longer ensure that attention is directed to where it’s most necessary and beneficial. This is like wearing blinders or having tunnel vision. We simply don’t have enough conscious power to continue to be aware of our surroundings while focusing so intently on the object.
Because attention and awareness draw from the same limited capacity for consciousness, when one grows brighter the other becomes dimmer, resulting in suboptimal performance and loss of mindfulness.
The goal, therefore, is to increase the total power of consciousness available for both attention and awareness. The result is peripheral awareness that is clearer, and attention that gets used more appropriately: purposefully, in the present moment, and without becoming bogged down in judgment and projection.
Increasing the power of consciousness isn’t a mysterious process. It’s a lot like weight training. You simply do exercises where you practice sustaining close attention and strong peripheral awareness at the same time. This is the only way to make consciousness more powerful. The more vivid you can make your attention while still sustaining awareness, the more power you will gain.
The goal isn’t just getting to a calm, quiet pool, but learning about the makeup of the water itself as it goes from choppy to still, from cloudy to crystal-clear.
Because of these different qualities, the breath is used as the basis for the practice of Tranquility and Insight (śamatha-vipassanā), dry Insight practices (sukkha-vipassanā), and meditative absorptions (jhāna).
Keep your attention on the area where the breath sensations are clearest. Don’t try to follow the air as it moves into the body or out of your nose. Just observe the sensations from the air passing over the spot where you’re focusing your attention. Remember, the meditation object is the sensations of the breath, not the breath itself.
Interestingly, what you consider the start and end of a breath cycle matters. We automatically tend to regard the beginning as the inhale and the pause after the exhale as the end. However, if you’re thinking about the breath in that way, then that pause becomes the perfect opportunity for your thoughts to wander off, since the mind naturally tends to shift focus when it has completed a task. Instead, try this: consider the beginning of the out-breath as the start of the cycle. That way, the pause occurs in the middle of your cycle, and is less likely to trip you up. This may seem like a small detail, but it often makes a difference. Another approach is to silently say the number during the pause at the end of the out-breath. This “fills the gap” and helps keep the mind on task.
Even if you use a meditation object other than the breath, counting is still a wonderful way to transition from daily activities into a more focused, meditative state. Just as with Pavlov’s dogs, the mind becomes conditioned over time to counting as a sign to start meditating, and it will automatically calm down.
The best antidote to this kind of agitation is to take up the practice of virtue. When we behave virtuously, we don’t create further causes for Remorse or Worry. But what is virtue? I don’t mean morality in the sense of adhering to an external standard demanded by a deity or other authority. Nor do I mean ethics, as in following a system of rules that prescribe the best way to act. Both moral principles and ethical codes can be followed blindly without necessarily having to resolve your own bad mental habits. Rather, virtue is the practice of inner purification, which results in good behavior.
Also, avoid becoming annoyed or self-critical about mind-wandering. It doesn’t matter that your mind wandered. What’s important is that you realized it.
Beginning meditators often try to stabilize attention by focusing intensely on the breath and pushing everything else out of awareness. Don’t do this. Don’t try to limit peripheral awareness. Instead, to cultivate mindfulness, do just the opposite—allow sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings to continue in the background.
The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice. While this isn’t always easy, a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation. Notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable, or when the mind is focused and alert.
When you find the mind agitated and there are more distractions, ask yourself: Is the breath longer or shorter, deeper or shallower, finer or coarser than when the mind is calm? What about the length or depth of the breath during a spell of drowsiness? Do states of agitation, distraction, concentration, and dullness affect the out-breath more or in a different way than they do the in-breath? Do they affect the pause before the in-breath more or less than they affect the pause before the out-breath? In making these kinds of comparisons, you’re not just investigating the breath to sharpen and stabilize your attention. You’re also learning another way to detect and become more fully aware of subtle and changing states of mind.
Unconscious conditioning is like a collection of invisible programs. These programs were set in motion, often long ago, by conscious experiences. Our reaction to those experiences—our thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions—may have been appropriate at the time. The problem is they have become programmed patterns, submerged in the unconscious, that don’t change. They lie dormant until they’re triggered by something in the present.
Thus people who have cultivated mindfulness are more attuned and less reactive. They have greater self-control and self-awareness, better communication skills and relationships, clearer thinking and intentions, and more resilience to change.
Whenever some event triggers one of our “invisible programs,” we have the chance to apply mindfulness to the situation so our unconscious conditioning can get reprogrammed. Anytime we’re truly mindful of our reactions and their consequences, it can alter the way we will react in the future. Every time we experience a similar situation, our emotional reactions will get weaker and be easier to let go of.
In particular, the thoughts, feelings, and memories we associate with a sense of self are seen more objectively, revealing themselves to be constantly changing, impersonal, and often contradictory processes occurring in different parts of the mind.
As you “look beyond” the meditation object, don’t just look at the content of peripheral awareness. Become aware of the activities of the mind itself: movements of attention; the way thoughts, feelings, and other mental objects arise and pass away in peripheral awareness; and any changes in the clarity or vividness of perception. By using the breath as an anchor while you mindfully observe the mind, you’re “watching the mind while the mind watches the breath.” This is metacognitive introspective awareness…
You want to create some objective distance from these unpleasant emotions. Verbalizations are important for this. If you have the thought, “I am angry,” replace it with the thought, “Anger is arising.” This kind of rephrasing isn’t just useful to avoid getting tangled up in emotions. It’s simply more accurate. You’re not these feelings. There is no self in emotions. Remember that, like everything else, emotions arise due to specific causes and conditions, and pass away when their causes disappear. Do your best to dissociate from these emotions, keeping the role of an objective observer, even though that can be challenging.
No matter the emotion, your goal is always the same: acknowledge, allow, and accept. As meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “It’s not what we are feeling that’s important, but how we relate to it that matters.” Let the emotion just be until it goes away. Sometimes it will simply disappear. Other times, it will remain, but become less intense.
It’s simple: any moment of consciousness—whether it’s a moment of seeing, hearing, thinking, etc.—takes the form of either a moment of attention, or a moment of peripheral awareness. Consider a moment of seeing. It could be either a moment of seeing as part of attention, or a moment of seeing as part of peripheral awareness.
The second aspect of metacognitive awareness is being cognizant of the state of your mind. This refers to its clarity and alertness, the predominant emotion, hedonic feelings, and the intentions driving your mental activity. In everyday terms, you’re aware of being patient or annoyed, alert or dull, focused or distracted, obsessively focused or mindfully
You cultivate metacognitive introspective awareness by intending to objectively observe the activities and state of the mind. This means that you intend to know, moment by moment, the movements of attention, the quality of perception, and whether your scope is stable or expanding to include distractions. Are thoughts present in peripheral awareness, and if so, are they verbal or nonverbal? Is the mind restless, agitated, or relaxed? Is it joyful, or perhaps impatient?
That aversion opposes pleasure should not come as a surprise. It’s harder to feel pleasure when we’re angry, and harder to stay angry when we’re feeling pleasure and happiness. But there’s more to it than that, because aversion is a cause of pain, as well as an effect.
When you know that you’re remembering something, in the sense that you’re aware of a memory coming up in the background, that’s actually part of present-moment awareness. Likewise, being aware that discursive thoughts are coming up in the background, or even being aware that you had been engaged with those thoughts just a moment before, is part of being fully present.
Mindfulness with clear comprehension also has two other important aspects. The first is clear comprehension of purpose, which means being metacognitively aware of why you’re doing, saying, thinking, and feeling whatever it is that you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. The second is clear comprehension of suitability—of whether or not what you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling is appropriate to this particular situation, to your goals and purposes, and in accordance with your personal beliefs and values.
Nothing in Life is Perfect, Permanent, or Personal
In Buddhism there’s a concept called The Three Characteristics. The Three Characteristics define all experiences in life: Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering), Annica (impermanence), and Anata (not-self). If you examine the nature of each life experience that you have, the Buddha argued, you’ll find an element of each of the Three Characteristics in it.
No positive experience is completely satisfying; there’s always some lingering unsatisfactoriness. And of course there are plenty of negative experiences, too.
No experience is forever; it ends at some point, including life itself.
And no experience is inextricably tied up with “you”; the experience relates to component parts of an experience that do not amount to a stable “you.”
Buddhism argues that the highest happiness is peace. Put differently, being at peace with the nature of reality — the unbending laws of the universe, which includes the three characteristics — is key to deep happiness.
The principle of Three Characteristics can be valuable in understanding business and life in a non-Buddhist context. Let’s try to map them into lay terms:
Nothing is perfect, permanent, or personal.
Perfect. If you strive for excellence, as I do, you’ll never be fully, totally satisfied. Nothing can ever be perfect. Be at peace with that.
Permanent. This too shall pass. Whatever is going well right now, whatever is going poorly — it’s not permanent. Be at peace with that.
Personal. Whatever is happening to your business, don’t take it personally. It’s bigger than you. More to the point, your company mission is bigger than any one person, including you. You are merely one person in a larger ecosystem of forces that shape the success or failure of your business. Be at peace with that.
Being at peace with these realities is easier said than done. In fact, developing this kind of peace may require nothing less than an ardent spiritual undertaking to fully internalize what these truths mean.
But even at a surface level, I think the 3 Characteristics can be useful reminders to laypeople. To me it’s one of the more helpful applications of Buddhist thinking to real life.
10 Day Samadhi (Concentration) Retreat at Spirit Rock
So you should view this fleeting world —
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
— The Buddha
I recently got back from another 10 days of silent meditation at Spirit Rock. One of the retreat teachers said, in the closing session, “You may want to talk a lot to people about your experience here these past days. I’d encourage you to gauge accurately other people’s level of interest in hearing the details. You may find that ‘It went pretty well’ is a perfectly adequate summary for most people.”
The retreat went pretty well! You want more than that? Okay, well you asked for it. Here are 6,000 words of detail.
First, a quick outline of the last 14 years of practice for me, as it’s been quite a journey, with links to some of my many posts about the topic in the past:
Phase 1 (2002-2012): I felt stressed in high school, read a book about stress relief, and learned about meditation. I knew nothing about Buddhism. I meditated sporadically on my own. I wandered by the SF Zen Center in 2006. Many years later, in 2012, I signed up for a 10 day meditation retreat with the simple goal of survival. Just getting through it. I did indeed endure the physical endurance test of a 10 day retreat, even though I continued to know precious little about Buddhism and meditation.
Phase 2 (2012-2014): I maintained a near daily Goenka style Vipassana meditation practice, I did a follow up 3 day Goenka meditation retreat, and began to dig deeper into the Buddhist psychology.
Phase 3 (2014-2016): Independent explorations, more intensive reading, day long retreats, community, spend time with friends interested in the topic, weekly sitting groups in SF and Berkeley.
Phase 4 (2016-2018): I completed a Steve Armstrong 10 day silent retreat on open, choice-less awareness. I wrote my most extensive post to date about my practice afterwards as that retreat helped me understand the core Buddhist argument. I became friends with Bob Wright, who recently published Why Buddhism Is True. I published my notes from Sam Harris’s Waking Up, one of the best books on secular spirituality. And in general, I broadened and deepened my intellectual engagement through books, online courses (such as Bob’s Coursera class on Buddhism and Modern Psychology and a couple Spirit Rock online courses), and sought out conversations with smart people on the topic.
Phase 5 (Present): I completed a 10 Day Concentration retreat, the subject of this post.
The TL/DR on This Retreat Experience (August, 2018)
- I’m as compelled as ever by the Buddha’s core argument about the nature of the human mind and the nature of reality, the delusion that causes suffering, and the keys to happiness.
- If you want to improve your mind and better understand reality, you have to train your mind. If you want to be happy with a human brain and heart not wired to prioritize happiness, you have to train your heart and mind. Train. It’s like going to the gym to exercise: you have to work at it. It doesn’t happen automatically. Meditation is one way to do this.
- Silent retreats remain fantastic experiences for me and I continue to recommend them to others even if someone isn’t interested in meditation or Buddhism, because 5-10 days off the grid and in silence is profound on its own.
- I’m not sure how far along I am on the path of liberation. But I’m newly energized that this is a path I should be on and want to be on.
- Samadhi (concentration) practice, which I just did, is a worthwhile focus area if you want to establish a more stable mental foundation for Vipassana practice. It is a means to an end. If you want really want are jhanic experiences, psychedelics are probably a faster route than concentration meditation.
Recap of the Buddha’s Argument
The Buddha taught that there is suffering in the world, and he taught a way to liberate yourself from that suffering. I’ve written elsewhere about the full scope of the argument. I will repeat the core logic tree here for my own refreshment. Feel free to skip if you’re already familiar.
1. 2,500 years ago, the historical Buddha, in reflecting upon his own life of worldly success, said that life naturally involves “suffering” –or unsatisfactoriness. “I’ll finally be happy if I…” Get a boyfriend? Have a kid? Make a million dollars? No matter. We will constantly seek greater and greater pleasures, and obtaining those things will not bring lasting happiness or peace. (Robert Wright argues that natural selection “designed” our brain, for good evolutionary reasons, to keep us on this treadmill of dissatisfaction.) All of us must live with a brain that was never designed to produce happiness. What’s more, old age, sickness, and death are inevitable. Those account for the ultimate suffering.
2. Day to day suffering is caused by “visitors to the mind” that cause us anger, jealousy, resentment, anxiety, etc. These seeds of discontent — say, a feeling of anger — take up residence in our mind usually in response to specific causes and conditions.
3. An untrained mind reacts endlessly to these experiences with craving and aversion. When something good happens, we crave more of it — we want that good feeling to stay and intensify. “I’m happy I made a million dollars…and now I need 10 million dollars.” When something bad happens, perhaps we get laid off or someone close to us dies, we do whatever we can do to avoid the feeling and wish it to go away. No one wants to experience sadness, but feeling sadness and desiring that the sadness goes away is worse than simply experiencing sadness in the present moment. The Buddha called our reaction to experiences the “second arrow” that hurts us. The first arrow is the experience itself; the second arrow is our unwise reaction to it that magnifies the effect.
4. Mental restlessness enables these defilements and our thoughtless reactions to them. The wandering mind chatters on and on and on almost sub-vocally, shaping your beliefs, emotions, and identity. As a result, you are not really aware of how these defilements affect you. You might have an experience (for example, someone cuts you in line at the supermarket) that causes you some mental discontent. Because you aren’t aware of that experience and the feeling it brought about in that moment, the feeling of annoyance implants. And triggers a whole cycle of negative thinking. You are deluded because you are unaware of the causes of your thoughts. You are deluded because you are blind to the cognitive biases that pile up.
5. With mindfulness practice you are remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience. You recognize what’s happening in your mind on a moment to moment level, enabling you to short circuit — and ultimately uproot — the aforementioned unwholesome habits of mind: you recognize when the craving of more pleasant things or the aversion to bad things enters your consciousness as the thought is still in formation and before it can take root. When you feel joy you can just feel joy in that moment. If you begin to crave more joy in that moment, as many of us do to our detriment, a mindful mind will notice it in that moment and curtail the craving. If you feel anger, with mindfulness you can notice that anger depends on thinking anger related thoughts in that moment and you can choose to return to the present moment’s experience instead.
6. A stable mind is required if you wish to observe your experiences in such a way to understand their true nature. The practice of meditation helps you develop a mind that is concentrated, balanced, pliable, equanimous, alert, collected. A collected mind (“samadhi”) can recognize the present moment’s experience, receive/sit with/observe the defilements and the unwholesome patterns of mind that inevitably arise, and ultimately not let those defilements take residence in your mind.
7. With Vipassana or Insight practice, you are taking your stable mind and observing your experiences moment to moment — the lessons you glean from this process are the “insights” of Vipassana/Insight meditation. There are plenty of ordinary insights to be gained through meditation regarding your mental obsessions and habits of mind — e.g., “Gosh, I think about my relationship with my mother a lot.” There are also deeper truths to had.
8. The first of these deeper truths is that unsatisfactoriness pervades all of our experiences, per the previous point about craving and aversion toward good and bad phenomena.
9. The second deep truth is that everything changes, everything is impermanent. The unpleasant sensation of annoyance or envy eventually passes away. The pleasant sensation you get after enjoying a nice piece of pizza or a job promotion or whatever — it too passes away. Thus, craving and aversion is pointless: it all passes away. Vipassana is the practice of “learning to grieve the loss of every moment effectively.”
10. The final deep truth is that, because all phenomena are ultimately impermanent, it’s mistake to consider them personal to you in any way. “You” are not annoyed; you have the thought or sensation of annoyance. “My pizza” is not delicious; a sensation of deliciousness was felt. The feeling you’re feeling is not yours; it’s not who you are. Ultimately, nothing is substantially you because you are just a constitution of millions of atoms that are always changing. Practically speaking, you “thin out the self” when you’re in flow, when you’re totally present with experience here and now.
11. These three characteristics — unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and not-self — are referred to as the 3 Characteristics of all phenomena. In modern terms: Nothing in life is Permanent, Perfect, or Personal. Or: Life is hard, it will change, but don’t take it personally.
12. Want to understand the 3 Characteristics at a profound level? You can only do so through direct observation of your mind and body. Intellectual “knowing” is not enough. You must observe the reality, moment to moment. Hence the practice of meditation. You can read about these ideas in books but it comes to you as knowledge, not wisdom. Wisdom is experientially knowing it for yourself. The Buddha said not to take his word for it.
13. There are a set of ethical beliefs that the Buddha said should accompany the practice of meditation. For example, don’t steal, use harsh speech, etc. He argued you need to train your heart to have the right intentions. And then be mindful about each thought, speech, and action so as to harmonize your inner values with your outer actions. Wisdom and compassion are the two wings of a bird: You need them both.
14. If you can liberate yourself from craving and clinging, you can achieve the highest form of happiness, which is inner peace. Peace is not permanent (nothing is) but can be always accessible. Peace is not a grey, neutral, muted life. It’s the inner contentment and serenity that comes from the knowledge that no matter what happens in nature, you can always access happiness. You are free from suffering. You are free from being involuntarily triggered by stimuli. You are free from identity. You are free from delusion — you have taken the red pill. You see reality clearly. You are happy.
The sequence of these steps and how one goes about realizing them practically is best described in the phenomenal book The Mind Illuminated, which I will write about in a separate post.
The Samadhi Retreat @ Spirit Rock
This was a “Concentration” retreat. To use the Pali words, the instructions focused on using samata techniques to cultivate samadhi — a concentrated, unified, collected mind.
The practical meditation instructions in a concentration retreat differ considerably from a traditional Vipassana retreat. In standard Vipassana practice, you pay attention to hindrances, observe them, watch them pass away. You’re mindful of bodily sensations. In some teachings, you’re told to be mindful of a broad range of stimuli and just notice them in the present moment. Pure, in-the-moment awareness of whatever you’re experiencing, thinking, feeling.
With concentration practice, you focus on a specific object of concentration — in our case, the breath — and you stay steady on that single fixed object. Don’t heed thoughts or noises or body sensations. Stay with the breath.
By staying on one object, your mind can become very concentrated. Why is a concentrated mind helpful? For practitioners of insight meditation, a steady, unified mind is a necessary foundation for developing insight. If your mind is all over the place, you won’t be able to pay attention closely enough to what’s going on in your reality. Concentration increases inner stability; it makes you less disturbed by disturbances. So, in this framing, concentration practice is a means to an end: the end being the insight that comes from mindfulness. Mindfulness requires a concentrated mind.
Alternatively, deep concentration practice that collapses the distinction between subject (the meditator) and object (the breath) — i.e. very deep absorption into present moment awareness — can result in a bag of temporary spiritual goodies that may not contribute to your liberation but can deliver extreme bliss in their own right (in what are called jhanas). Some practitioners spend years of their life pursuing jhanas.
Prior to this retreat, I never thought I could spend so many hours over so many days focused on so many nuances related to the breath. But that’s what we did. We were told to aim for the breath with our attention, then “connect” with it, and then sustain attention with every successive breath. We were told to examine the first half of the inhale and compare it to the second half of the exhale. We were advised to notice “pauses” in between breaths and to rest our attention somewhere (perhaps on our lips) during such a pause. We were told to feel the breath more than to verbally note (in our mind) our awareness.
We were told to love the breath, to see it as a life force, as a friend. If you find the breath boring, you won’t be able to rest attention on it productively, we were told. Because I do not intuitively “love” my breath in the way it seemed I needed to, I tried thinking about some about my breathing techniques in scuba diving and how the breath serves as lifeline underwater. (Above water too, of course, but you’re more consciously aware of it with each breath under water.) That worked okay.
Counting breathes is a common technique to stay focused. To give you a sense of how concentrated you get amid the physical seclusion: At home, I often struggle to count to 10 on breaths without my mind wandering. (Try it sometime — count each inhale/exhale as “1” and see if you can do it 10 times without your mind going elsewhere.) On this retreat, I counted easily to 70 with complete focus and then just stopped and sunk back into more spacious awareness.
Staying with the breath, in one sense, is “easier” than traditional Vipassana practice. There’s only one thing to do. And we were told to do whatever we need to do to accommodate this one task. For example, if we felt pain in our posture, we were encouraged to stand up in the meditation hall. Or change postures. Whatever relaxation supports your focus on the breath. Just keeping coming back to the breath, over and over again.
In a different sense, samata practice struck me as “harder” than the Vipassana instructions on past retreats. Steve Armstrong’s teaching of Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s awareness framework meant that we could never be “doing it wrong” so long as we were aware. If someone coughed loudly in the meditation hall, and I was aware that I was hearing, I was doing the practice properly — I was aware. In a concentration retreat, if a cough distracts you from the chosen object of concentration — e.g. the breath — you can become agitated.
Beyond the breath, we tried one other concentration technique for an hour each day: metta practice. It’s effectively a mantra technique except the mantras are loving-kindness phrases like “May you be happy” or “May you be free from inner and outer harm.” You repeat these phrases over and over again, directing them to different people (yourself, loved ones, neutral people, enemies, all beings) and through the repetition, your mind becomes more concentrated. While metta may have benefit in terms of inclining your heart towards compassion, it didn’t work as well for me as a concentration method. That said, I did direct the well-wishing phrase to different people as I walked by them on retreat — i.e. as I passed someone, I glanced at them and thought, “May you be happy” — and that generated warmth.
On this retreat, I didn’t approach true jhanic states of absorption, where the teachers and many others report psychedelic effects. I did, however, achieve very, very deep levels of calm. In my late night sits, my heart beat was so small and soft, I could hardly feel it. I likely wandered into “access concentration” states which is the level before the first jhana. A couple nights, when I returned to my room and brushed my teeth, I looked at the mirror watching myself brush my teeth and noticed my mind incredibly still, like a pond of perfectly still water at dawn.
I’m not sure how much I care about accessing jhanas through meditation, given the weeks and weeks of silent retreat experience that apparently are necessary to enter those states. It seems like psychedelics is a much faster way of inducing similar states of mind. In general, that would be a main counterargument against extensive meditation practice: not its effectiveness, but its efficiency relative to other methods.
Expecting Progress But Not Measuring Progress Too Often, and Keeping the Faith in the Interim
When I work on projects, I tend to have an end in mind and, along the way, I like to routinely check in on whether I’m making progress.
It’s rather easy to do this with simple, short meditation sessions. If you want to relax a bit, you can sit down for 5-10 mins, focus on your breath, and if you check in how you’re feeling at the end, you’ll probably feel calmer.
For longer meditation sessions, or during a long retreat, or in the context of a long term habit of meditation, teachers advise against an attitude that measures progress too much. They say to set “intentions” but to not “expect” specific, measurable payoffs. Expect results over time, they say, but don’t track those results moment-to-moment, week-to-week, month-t0-month.
In this retreat, we were exhorted to notice our concentrated mind but not to “measure the quality of the concentration.” Instead, we should just keep practicing and if we lose our focus on the breath, to keep starting over. Occasionally, the teachers would dangle tantalizing personal examples of jhanic absorption experiences, but those examples would be quickly followed up by reminders to not expect those same experiences ourselves. “The development of samadhi practice is mysterious,” one teacher said in the nightly dharma talk, “Be careful not to develop any narratives, explanations, or expectations around what is happening.”
In the private 15 minute teacher meetings that occur every other day on retreat, I asked one of them about how I should balance this instruction to not measure progress with my natural instinct measure and iterate based on progress. Sally relayed the Dalai Lama anecdote of someone asking him if Buddhism has helped him over the past year. His reply was: Probably not, but it’s definitely helped me over the past five years. Point being: Do check in on whether you’re making progress but do so at the right, long term intervals.
Okay. That makes sense. But it’s one thing to relinquish metrics and goals for 10 days. It’s another thing altogether if you’re going to spend hundreds of hours meditating or studying Buddhist psychology — what if you aren’t seeing a step function increase in benefit as the hours pile up? Can you maintain the motivation to stick with it? Myself, I have experienced a lot of progress and I’m happy about it, but I can still wrestle sometimes with doubt.
This is where faith comes in. You need faith to stick with projects that deliver progress in “mysterious” ways over long periods of time. By “faith” I’m not referring to belief in God; I mean having faith that time you spend in contemplative practice is time well spent. The religious infrastructure of Buddhism supports the faith individual practitioners need to pursue Buddhist meditation. This infrastructure takes the form of cultural and physical artifacts that have accumulated over the past 2,600 years in the way of stories, traditions, rituals, words, and beautiful meditation centers and temples. Most importantly, the infrastructure facilitates a worldwide community of people drawn toward the same goal and interested in learning practice for achieving that goal: freeing themselves from suffering.
The packaging of ideas matters. I’m pretty sure that if a new secular spiritual movement presented identical ideas to Buddhism in an office building in downtown San Francisco led by a pair of 40-something wise professionals, I’d have a harder time sustaining the habits and internalizing the truths.
It’s not too dissimilar from startups and entrepreneurship in some sense. Starting a company can be an irrational affair. To muster the faith that you can beat the odds, you need to tap into a broader support community that tells stories of those who came before you, gives you advice and involves you in various rituals, and encourages you to stick with it even during darker moments. The religion of entrepreneurship. This is why your chances of success go up if you start a company in a startup hub.
Proactive, Focused Effort vs. Relaxed, Receptive Effort
Applying the right amount of effort in meditation proved to be one of the trickiest instructions in the samata practice. The teachers would distinguish between focused, almost aggressive, effort — which would involve strong conscious attention on the breath, really zooming in on microscopic details — and a more relaxed effort, in which you let the attention “come” to you.
In one of my interviews with the teacher, he asked me if I was “close” to the breath. I nodded. He encouraged me to “back off a bit, don’t be so close, but more spacious in your awareness of the breath. You’re overexerting.” I think I understood what he was talking about.
Here’s an interactive example he offered. Take one hand and hold it out face up. Take the other hand and hover it directly over the other hand, not quite touching. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Not much. Now take the top hand and squeeze the bottom hand tightly. Clench it. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Some, but it’s muddied and overly tight. Now gently rest one hand on top of the other. You feel all sorts of pulsing and heat sensations. Gently resting one hand on top of the other is what we aim to do with our attention on the breath — gently rest attention on the breath.
In sum, you want to exert effort in meditation practice but not more than necessary. A bird flaps its wings and then soars on momentum, and doesn’t flap again until it needs to.
This struck me as a relevant life theme. There are situations that call for gritty effort; there are situations that call for more “receptive” effort; and there’s a skill to knowing which type of effort to employ and when.
Experts Understand Simple Things Deeply
I love the notion that experts at a craft understand the simple things about their craft very, very deeply. They continually master the basics. NBA players practice how to dribble — a skill they’ve mastered for years but in the additional understanding, they arrive at a new and subtler understanding. Professional concert pianists practice the basic scales with a nuance a novice doesn’t understand.
On this concentration retreat, each day we did metta/loving-kindness practice for an hour. On the first day of these instructions, the teacher asked us all to raise our hands if we had attended a dedicated metta meditation retreat before. More than half the hands went up. That meant more than half of the 90 people hadn’t just practiced metta but actually attended a retreat specifically devoted to metta practice. After seeing the hands go up, the teacher said, “Okay, that’s helpful.” I expected the teacher to deliver some newly advanced instructions to accommodate with the years of experience in the room. Instead, he proceeded to deliver the standard, simple instructions all of us novice and experienced meditators alike have heard before. Metta experts understand simple things about the practice very deeply.
Another example from retreat: We heard dozens of hours of instructions and dharma talks on the topic of the breath. Attending to your breath is often the most basic meditation instruction given. And yet here we were, at an advanced retreat, returning to that most basic meditation, with great depth and wonder.
Surrendering and Trusting the Process
Days on retreat are fairly well structured: There are scheduled sitting and walking meditation times, scheduled meal times, scheduled dharma talks, scheduled wake up bells, scheduled quiet hours in the dorm rooms.
After five days, my entrepreneurial self took over and, as is my tendency once I understand parameters of flexibility, I began to think about ways to optimize my experience — in this case, optimize my meditation schedule to suit my own idiosyncrasies and body rhythm. I figured that if I customized my day to involve exercise, good rest, good meal times, and very late night sits — I would have more success. Specifically, I was questing after a particular type of experience I enjoyed on my first retreat some year ago — a specific pleasurable mental state and physical sensations that are hard to describe.
So I crafted the perfect day: I would nap during the lunch break, do wind sprints and pushups and squats in the meadow during one of the scheduled sits, stretch out my back in the yoga room (to aid in my sitting posture), take a shower just before dinner, meditate in my room, eat a light meal at dinner so that I wasn’t too full for the scheduled evening sits, eat peanut butter from the kitchen after the Dharma talk in place of the final scheduled session to address my hunger needs, and then sit by myself in the meditation hall — after everyone else had gone to bed — until midnight. I even noticed a beautiful morning sky and I made a plan to stargaze at night while sitting on one of the outdoor benches in the middle of the night. Planning mind, expecting mind, comparing mind…
The day fell apart starting at 4:30pm. I had exercised, napped, showered, and skipped some scheduled sits. All was going to plan. I was ready to pursue my newly backloaded schedule! When I went to sit in my room, some light whining noise coming from the ceiling distracted me. I gave up. I ate a fine dinner and the dharma talk was stimulating. But afterwards, when I made my way to the kitchen, I discovered the peanut butter container was empty for the first time on the retreat — the one time I felt like I needed it. I went back to the meditation hall with some hunger and frustration, and planted myself on the lower level to sit privately. But unlike in past nights, a couple other people had discovered “my” spot, so I didn’t have the privacy I expected. My mind was jumpy during the sits, unable to get comfortable. At around 10pm, I wandered outside, frustrated with my lack of concentration. I looked up at the sky: cloud cover had totally obstructed all the stars. I went back into the empty meditation hall and stayed until midnight, with varying levels of peace as I alternated between my bench on the floor and the chair. As the clock struck midnight, I felt some good sensation of breath but then also had a dream-like sensation — it felt like some dreams were passing through my mind, as if I were half-asleep, even as all the while I was observing every in breath and every outbreath. I took that as a sign that it was time to go to bed. I went back into my room, lay in bed, and reflected on how my “perfect” day had been anything but. I dreamed some crazy and intense dreams. It’s common to experience vivid dreams when you’re on silent retreat but these were crazier than prior nights.
When I awoke the next morning to the 5:15 AM bell, a bit spent from my exertion the prior day and my somewhat restless night of dreams, I declared to myself: Fuck it. I’m going to surrender to the schedule. I’m just going to go through the day, do the sits, eat when I’m supposed to eat, go to bed when I’m supposed to go to bed. I’m going to assume nothing will work out as I planned.
What happened? Naturally, I had my best day of the retreat. My sits were productive, I had a good interview with a teacher, I went on a beautiful hike. When I made a plan to hike up a short hill and sit on one of my favorite outdoor benches on the retreat grounds, I joked with myself that the bench would likely be occupied and my plan would be foiled. Sure enough, the bench was occupied, but I took it in stride.
11 years ago I blogged about my favorite Toni Morrison line from Song of Solomon: “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.” There’s a lot of power in the idea of surrender. Many of us exert agency in so many facets of our life that it can be easy to forget when surrender — or “trusting the process” — is a wiser way of being. I re-learned this truth on day 6 of the retreat.
Everything Is Impermanent… “And Yet”
In one of the dharma talks, Donald relayed a story about the Taliban destroying a bunch of Buddha statues after 9/11. Someone asked Buddhist scholar Gary Synder why Buddhists would care about the the broken statues if everything is impermanent. If nothing will last forever, who cares if the statues got destroyed? In a larger sense, if life itself is impermanent, who cares about compassion?
Synder replies and quotes haiku master Issa:
Ah yes . . . impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the sufferings of others because they are merely impermanent beings. Issa’s haiku goes,
“This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
That “and yet” is our perennial practice. And maybe the root of the Dharma.
“Dewdrop world” refers to Diamond Sutra quoted at the top of my blog post — the famous Buddhist phrasing that life is as fleeting as a drop of dew, a flicker of light, a bubble in the stream. So yes, this is a dewdrop world…and yet. Compassion matters. Life matters. Living matters. Even though none of it matters.
I find Snyder’s answer, and the haiku he quotes, a perfect encapsulation of a paradox — maybe contradiction — in Buddhist thinking. But it’s a paradox fit for a contradictory world. Zen koans and zen haiku exist to speak to complexity that normal “wisdom” cannot encapsulate.
Preparing for the Worst Day of My Life (Which Hasn’t Happened Yet)
I am fortunate to not have experienced trauma in my life. I am fortunate to not have yet experienced searing grief over the death of someone close to me. I am fortunate to not have suffered physical or mental ailments. In the questionnaire I filled out when registering for the retreat, I checked the “No” box when asked questions about whether I was taking medicine for anything, about whether I was in therapy for anything, about when I was struggling with particular emotional problems. My life isn’t perfect, but I’ve been luckier than most so far.
In Vipassana practice, where one of the more ambitious aims is to “uproot” negative defilements of mind, it can be very disturbing to bear witness to these memories or thought patterns as they surface and you observe them and make sense of them. Put differently, for a lot of people unresolved inner material surfaces to conscious attention during meditation and it can be painful to work through this material.
I’m not one of those people, most of the time. I don’t have a lot of unresolved inner material (so far as I’m aware) and I’m apparently not enough of a master meditator such that I’ve found myself wrestling with dark personal questions. I do have dark inner material but it’s not “unresolved” in the sense that it’s repressed and haunting me.
I say I’m “fortunate” about these facts and about my general well adjusted mind and body, and of course I am, but the flip side of this good fortune is a lingering curiosity or anxiety (depending on the day) about whether I will be able to endure serious hardship when it occurs. I know it’s just a matter of time before something goes seriously wrong in my life. I actually imagine what could wrong wrong a lot. I often imagine people I care about dying in car accidents and me delivering eulogies at funerals.
Sam Harris, in his excellent conversation with Dan Harris, said that spiritual and contemplate practice is in part about preparing for the worst day of your life. This totally resonated. My spiritual practice is not about “solving” some terrible problem in my life right now. It’s about training my heart and mind to be stronger and more adept here and now. And stronger still when put to the ultimate test.
Random Nuggets About This Retreat Experience Itself
– Philip Moffit, Sally Armstrong, Donald Rothberg, and Susie Harrington taught this 10 day retreat. All have been teaching Buddhist meditation for 20-30 years. All are extraordinary. Philip’s background particularly intrigued me. He was a successful publishing entrepreneur who, at age 40, quit his job as Editor-in-Chief & CEO of Esquire magazine to seek spiritual truths that would provide his life more meaning.
– This retreat had a prerequisite: Participants must have attended at least two residential meditation retreats of at least 5 days in length. So everyone was experienced. My comparing mind got a workout in the first couple hours after arriving at Spirit Rock, before Noble Silence took effect, as I overheard people discussing prior retreats and it became clear to me that for many people, this was their 10th+ meditation retreat. For me, it was my fourth residential retreat. I didn’t feel inadequate though.
– Three things were striking about the demographics of the ~90 participants. First, everyone was white or Indian. Second, it was generationally diverse, and I’m always inspired to see people in their 70’s and 80’s — some in wheelchairs — taking notes and diligently practicing. Third, there were as many well to do white collar professionals as classic spiritual hippies — e.g. software people, private equity professionals, math professors, sales reps, etc.
– The first afternoon, after unpacking my stuff in my small, simple dorm room, I lay on bed and I noted to myself that I was quite lucky to be at a point in my life where I am able to physically seclude myself for several days, be totally disconnected and silent, and travel within. I dropped into the “noble silence” that night easily and naturally. During my first retreat the silence was part of the challenge; in my fourth retreat I relished it. As Steve Armstrong says, it’s easier to learn how to drive in a parking lot than in the middle of a freeway. It’s easier to learn how to meditate in an atmosphere of silence.
– All yogis/retreatants have to do a “job” each day. Mine was cleaning toilets and bathroom floors. It may not sound like fun, but like many yogis on retreat, I enjoyed having something to do other than meditate, and I took pleasure in keeping the bathroom clean for everyone else. A couple years ago, I washed pots and pans in the kitchen, which had its own delights. (Again – only on retreat!)
– Posture is especially important on retreat. When you sit for 20 mins at home, you can maintain virtually any position. When you’re meditating for close to 8-10 hours a day, every muscle will ache unless you’ve nailed a position that’s comfortable. 3/4 of the way through the retreat a teacher told me I needed to add pillows to my chair setup, to raise my butt above my knees and to support my arms hanging down off my shoulders. Tall people problems. It made a big difference. If you’re headed to a meditation retreat, make sure you have a strategy for your posture.
– Throughout the days I had numerous inappropriate thoughts about pranks one could run on meditators on retreat. The whole environment is so serious, so focused, so…silent, that it was hard for me not to conjure jokes that would have, shall we say, awakened the silence.
– Several times I thought about how I was going to describe an experience I was having in this very blog post or in a conversation with someone. I have a hard time turning off the journalist inside my head…even on a meditation retreat.
There is so much more to explore. On the academic side, I would like to understand the concept of not-self more thoroughly. It’s such a slippery concept.
On the practice side, I will continue to practice Vipassana meditation, integrating the samata techniques I learned on this retreat. I also will re-visit some of the Goenka body scan techniques that I learned on my first retreat, as I have a newfound appreciation for some of his approaches.
Overall, I am grateful to have the practice in my life and this body of work to guide my spiritual pursuits. We should all be so grateful to the people who brought the Buddha’s teachings to the west and made them accessible to laypeople, especially Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, who brought this particular tradition to our shores.