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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
And yet―”

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.

What’s Next

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.

“Happiness Is Just Like This”

There’s a wonderful, brief piece in Lion’s Roar about the following truth: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

If you feel a positive emotion, be mindful of it. Mindfulness, as my teacher Steve Armstrong taught, is remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience. To wit:  “If you’re in the mind-state of contentment and want it to continue, place your attention on the emotional sensations of contentment.”

Attend to where you’re feeling the emotion:

So the next time you have a positive emotion, see where that emotion is experienced in your body. Any positive experience will do. Say, you’re walking down the street and you see a small child do something that makes you smile. Put your attention on your smile and any emotion you experience for at least twenty seconds

Just stay with the positive emotion. You might say to yourself something like, “Happiness is just like this.” Don’t start thinking about why you’re not happy all the time, or fearing that the happiness will end, or any of the countless other ways we mess up our positive emotions.

Hat tip to Bob Wright on Twitter.

Samatha Meditation Practice

During both my 10 day silent meditation retreats, there were moments where I felt a deep calm, my mind got very bright, and I possessed an ability to control my attention in a way that seemed totally profound. I don’t think my experience constituted a state of jhana — how the Buddha referred to blissed out, immersive, “absorbed” states of mind. I was probably experiencing “access concentration“, a precursor to the jhanic states; in any case, those minutes of absorption were utterly memorable for me. I remember returning to my dorm room afterwards, late at night, and lying in bed thinking to myself: I have a new superpower.

Like many beginner meditators who experience momentary states of profound absorption and stillness, I have foolishly quested after that state in subsequent meditation sessions. On my second 10 day retreat, I craved the state of ultra concentration that I felt during my first retreat. I intently sat late at night in the meditation hall. And then, as I felt my mind ease into a deeper stillness, I told myself, “Here it comes. Here it comes. Is this it? Is this what happened to me last time?” See ya later, still lion mind. Hello, monkey mind. On my 3 day residential retreat, I never entered deep concentration, probably because of this mental chatter around wanting it.

I think I could use more practice at stabilizing the mind — without the questing and excessive effort — before I go deeper on practicing insight meditation. So I’m going to focus more on samatha over the next year or so. The samatha concentration practice involves stabilizing, unifying, and collecting the mind into what the Buddha called samadhi, or a state of concentration. With a clear and collected mind, you can begin to discern more subtle sensations, and begin to more clearly perceive the truths about your mind and reality.

I recently attended a one day retreat at Spirit Rock on samatha practice. The teacher distinguished samatha from vipassana. Samatha practice is like trying to stabilize a pair of binoculars and getting them into focus. Vipassana is looking through the binoculars in order to observe reality as it actually is.

Throughout the day, we practiced basic relaxation. “Release tension in your body. Now release a little more,” the teacher said, as we scanned each part of the body.

With total relaxation, you can begin to quiet the mind, and focus on an object of concentration — in our case, the breath. The anapanana practice of studying the breath can become quite a granular analysis. For example, we practiced:

  • Noticing whether breath is long or short
  • Noticing the beginning of the breath, the middle part of the breath, the end of the breath
  • Focusing on spot underneath nostril where breath enters
  • Counting breaths up to 10 and then starting again at 1

On the Goenka retreats, you spend the first three days doing nothing but breath awareness, so I have some practice at it. But I never understood how object-awareness connects to broader vipassana practice until now. To deepen my understanding, I’m taking an online class at Spirit Rock on concentration/samatha practice, with 8 hours of video lectures.

I want to thank a blog reader who wrote me a very helpful comment/email last year in response to my blog post about my awareness + wisdom retreat. He helped me explore the difference between samatha and vipassana. After some gentle corrections, he included this line of encouragement at the end: “Not many people have gotten as far as you have with meditation and Buddhism. You also ask good questions and have good insights. You should definitely keep up your practice. It is a rare gift.”

As I get older, praise from others does less and less for me, in terms of emotional impact. This one was different. I’ve been exploring Buddhism and meditation seriously now for about six years and the deeper I go, the more I realize the complexities of the practice. The complexity can be daunting. Hearing encouragement a year ago made a difference to me. So, thank you to Tracy. And thank you for alerting to me to the prospective benefits of a more focused concentration practice.

10 Day Awareness+Wisdom Meditation Retreat


“All conditioned things are impermanent.
They are arising and passing away.
Understanding this deeply,
Brings the greatest happiness which is peace.”

When someone close to you dies, there’s a gaping emptiness. Death causes a lot of people to engage in spiritual inquiry. It sparks a realization that there’s more depth to life than whatever you’ve experienced.

I imagine this is what happened to a fellow retreatant on the 10 day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock that I completed a couple weeks ago.

During lunch on day 4, I entered the dining hall and noticed a postcard someone had pinned to the “Meal Dana” board. Retreatants can choose to donate money (“dana”) to sponsor the cost of a meal in order to honor or remember someone they love. A retreatant had sponsored our lunch for the day and wrote a brief remembrance of her husband on the pinned postcard: “In loving memory of my beloved husband who, on this day 36 years ago, set off on a wondrous adventure with me. He died two years ago. I miss him more than words can say.”

After reading the note, I took took my seat and began to eat. It was a silent retreat, so there was no talking, no passing of notes, no eye contact. Everyone kept to themselves. As I nibbled on my vegetarian meal, I wondered which woman had shared the remembrance. It was likely one of the several elderly women in attendance who, late in their own life, had found themselves at Spirit Rock.

After finishing the plate of food, I went out and sat in the sun on a bench. I stared off into the mountains. I thought about the woman and her husband. Mainly, I thought about death and its inevitability. Death had come up a lot in Dharma talks on this retreat. The Buddha said impermanence was one of the three characteristics of all phenomena — including the phenomenon of life itself.

Tears welled in my eyes as I sat there. No one interrupted me. No one asked what I was thinking about or how I was doing. Everyone was in their own world. I felt totally mentally secluded, even though I was sharing the space with about 70 other people. I felt completely comfortable being completely raw in that moment.

I then walked to a bench positioned in front of a big stone Buddha statue. My eyes were open. With a soft gaze I looked at the ever-so-slight curl of the lips on the Buddha’s face. I had the thought: “Human war is really a tragedy. We’re all here for such a short period of time, and we kill each other over stupid things.” I know. It sounds like pop-Buddhist cliche. Yet it’s a true statement, I think, and it’s the feeling I had in that moment, and it’s the sort of thought you’re prone to having on retreat, and I wager there are worse thoughts one could have.

Now, for the most part on this retreat, I didn’t feel as emotionally raw as I did on that afternoon. I felt much more like I was in a mental workout class, sweating profusely: training my mind over and over again to recognize the present moment, to notice the sensations on the body, to understand the damaging “visitors to the mind” that lead to suffering, to build a mind that’s equanimous in order to respond to the world around me (rather than thoughtlessly react) and, ultimately, maybe, eventually, finally… achieve peace and happiness.

You know: just little things.

This Retreat: Awareness + Wisdom

My first 10 day silent Vipassana retreat was four years ago. Since then, I completed a 3 day silent retreat and various day-long and weekend retreats. On my own, I meditated for 500+ hours. So I didn’t go into last week’s 10-day retreat as a newbie. Yet, I felt I had so much practice to do. My daily practice had waned. And I still felt confused about some of the key tenets of Buddhism informing the physical act of meditation.

In his excellent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris writes, “No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.” Bingo. I wanted to continue to train, and to traverse the continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom in the direction that would lead to individual and social salvation. (Like I said: just the little things.)

This retreat, at the insight meditation facility of Spirit Rock, was titled “Awareness+Wisdom.” Awareness (used interchangeably in this context with “mindfulness”) was defined as “remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience.” Wisdom was defined as the insight you gain through personal experience and direct observation about the nature of the mind and the nature of reality. In this context,  wisdom enables you to realize the highest form of happiness, which is peace.

Steve Armstrong and Carol Wilson taught the retreat. They each have been practicing meditation for 40+ years, including tours as monks and nuns in Burma. They are Theravadan Buddhists who teach Vipassana (or “insight”) meditation in the tradition of their Burmese teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya.  There are many branches and sub-branches of Buddhism generally; many varieties of meditation; even many varieties of Vipassana insight meditation specifically. Tejaniya’s style of meditation emphasizes open, continuous, choice-less awareness of thoughts, sights, sounds, emotions, smells, feelings, etc.

Unlike Goenka’s popular meditation retreats, Tejaniya doesn’t start with object-awareness like the breath or a bodily sensation. He starts with awareness of any thought or anything coming through one of the “sense doors,” and emphasizes the higher level awareness of the fact that you are perceiving an object over focusing on that object itself (like the breath or a sensation).

Here’s what we were asked a thousand times on the retreat: What does the mind know right now? Are you aware that you’re seeing something with your eyes open? Are you aware that you’re hearing something? Are you aware of a specific thought? You are reading this blog post right now, but are you aware — right now — of the fact that you’re reading? Tejaniya teaches that you need to maintain this awareness continuously in order to build momentum, and so it should start from when you wake up, walk around, run, hike, sit for meditation, brush your teeth, etc.

A common modern example of lack of awareness, for me, is when I’m on the web. I open my web browser to load a certain URL and accomplish a specific task, and 20 minutes later, I’m reading some random article about politics and I literally forget what I initially set out to do. I spent 20 minutes completely unaware of the fact that I was clicking on a link about Donald Trump.

Awareness practice is a continuous quest to separate out you from the experience you’re having–to look upon the present moment’s experience from some remove. Otherwise, according to this teaching, you and the experience you’re having merge into one, and you forget that you are living here right now. It’s as if all of us are in a movie theater and life is playing out on the big screen. Most of us live spellbound in the movie of our lives. Do we remember that we’re actually in the audience and not just on the screen? Can we train ourselves to glance at the green “Exit” sign glowing on the side of the room of the figurative movie theater in order to wake up from living the movie itself?

Noticing our mind’s mental patterns is part of what it means to be “free.” Harris again:

Become sensitive to these interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else—something that no longer supports your current emotion—allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.

You see this dynamic in children especially. As Joseph Goldstein has noted, it’s not uncommon to see a child bounce between tears to laughter and back to tears again, in short succession, as the child’s mind reacts to unpleasant and pleasant sensations. As adults, we know that a particular mental state will likely pass away. Adults maintain more equanimity. Imagine if you could be so aware as to maintain that equanimity to an even greater degree than you do now? To have more moments of awareness — to be “free” of the tug and pull of momentary sensations of blame, praise, success, failure, gain, and loss?

A Tibetan teacher described the practice of liberation: “Short moments many times.”

The Buddha’s Argument for Happiness

Over the years, I’ve been learning more and more about Buddhism. Robert Wright’s Coursera class on Buddhism and Modern Psychology is excellent. Books like Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein, Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. On this retreat, the Dharma talks — lectures — really helped crystallize the logic chain for how Buddhists think about happiness.

There are approximately six million books and articles talking about Buddhism and happiness, but I’ve attempted to write out the argument as I understand it, if nothing else to solidify my own understanding (and expose my ignorance, perhaps!). Here goes.

1. 2,500 years ago, the historical Buddha, in reflecting upon his own life, argued that life involves “suffering” –or, life involves unsatisfactoriness, which means that life often becomes a constant quest for something more. “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. Getting what we want will not make us happy. Nothing can change our basic mental makeup. From Barack Obama to the homeless woman on the street: all must live with a brain that was never designed to produce true happiness. (As Robert Wright has argued, natural selection “designed” our brain, for good evolutionary reasons, in the way the Buddha described.)

2. The Buddha said there was a way out of this suffering and it involves disciplining the mind to understand reality and your mind as it actually is, and then training your mind in such a way as to enable you to realize true happiness.

3. Suffering is caused by “visitors to the mind” — defilements — that cause us anger, jealousy, resentment, anxiety, etc. These seeds of discontent — say, a feeling of anger or anxiety — take up residence in our mind usually in response to specific experiences and causes.

4. Mental restlessness enables these defilements. 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, but since you aren’t aware of that experience and the feeling it brought about in that moment, that feeling of annoyance implants and festers. And triggers a whole cycle of negative thinking. You are living a life of delusion.

5. We experience endless craving and aversion around whatever our mind experiences. When something good happens, we want the feeling around that to stay and intensify. “I’ll finally be happy when I make a million dollars and marry a beautiful woman.” That soon becomes: “Now I need 10 million dollars, a more beautiful woman.” When something bad happens, perhaps we get laid off or someone close to us dies, we do whatever we can do avoid the feeling and wish it to go away. Craving for more good stuff and aversion for less bad stuff both lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. For example: 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.

6. With mindfulness, you begin to recognize the seeds of your own suffering. When you observe and indeed name the phenomena as it forms, you take away some of its power. You recognize what’s happening in your mind on a moment to moment level, enabling you to short circuit — and ultimately uproot — those unwholesome habits of mind: you recognize when the craving of more pleasant things or the aversion to bad things enters your consciousness as it’s still in formation and before it can take root.

7. When you are observing your experiences moment to moment, you begin to recognize the impermanence of all phenomena. (This is part of the “wisdom” that emerges from a Vipassana practice.) The unpleasant sensation of annoyance 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 effectively.” You can’t hold onto anything; everything passes away; so grieve you must.

8. Only through direct observation of your mind and body can you develop the bone-deep understanding of impermanence and craving. Intellectual “knowing” is not enough. You must observe the reality, moment to moment. You must sit with the torments of the mind. Hence, the practice of meditation.

9. Because all phenomena are ultimately impermanent, it’s a 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 anger 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. Visitors to the mind ultimately leave the mind. The very notion of a steady “self” is questionable.

10. Stability of mind is required if you wish to observe your experiences in such a way to understand their true nature. The practice of meditation, when pursued more ambitiously than just trying to garner surface-level stress reduction, helps you develop stability a mind. By which I mean developing a mind that is concentrated, balanced, pliable, equanimous, alert, collected. A collected mind 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 over and dominate your mind. You observe them until they, too, pass away. Or, in a positive instance, with stability of mind 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 collected mind will notice it in that moment and curtail the craving.

11. There are a set of ethical views and beliefs that the Buddha articulated to accompany the practice of meditation. For example, don’t steal, use harsh speech, etc. He argued you need Right View and then the wisdom that comes from direct observation of your mind (meditation) in order to develop the right mental discipline. You need to train your heart to have the right intentions.

12. If you can do all the above (in sum: 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 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.

Is the Highest Form of Happiness “Peace”?

Inner peace is one definition of happiness. The flavor of happiness more familiar to me, and the one propagated in the West more generally, emphasizes peak experiences, ecstasies, unforgettable moments of joy, and so on. Buddhism argues that those moments of joy, in addition to causing you to cling to them and crave them even more, will inevitably fade away, so you can’t count on them. Maybe so. But I know people who’d say their peak ecstasies are worth any corresponding despondence they suffer on the other side of that high. Joseph Goldstein, a meditation master and Buddhist expert, has noted that there’s a risk in the Buddhist path of losing your connection to what the ancient Taoists called “the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.”

True Happiness Is A Fine Goal…But What Benefits Accrue Nearer Term?

Even if “true happiness” seems a bit out out of reach, there are shorter term spiritual and practical goodies that one can attain via a mindfulness practice.

First, the mainstream mindfulness meditation movement focuses on stress relief, calmness, a more focused mind. All real, good, important things. Various research supports these claims. As I described in an earlier post, this was my entry point into meditation. I was stressed beyond belief and sought relief.

Second, mindfulness training can help you more skillfully respond instead of react in real life situations. If you develop enough momentum with moment-to-moment awareness, when something happens it’s easier to detach from the situation, note the moment and any reactions you may be feeling, and then deliberately and intentionally respond appropriately.

Finally, the Buddhist ideas of unsatisfactoriness and impermanence are valuable even if only partially understood. That is, even if I don’t understand them as thoroughly as would be necessary to qualify as “wisdom” in the Vipassana sense, just spending time recognizing craving and recognizing the transience of all emotions and sensations — it’s helpful. These truths underlie some of my arguments in my other essays Happy Ambition and The Goldilocks Theory of Wealth.

The Retreat Experience

Meditation is humbling. Retreats especially. You clear out your schedule, sign up for a retreat, spend real time and money to be there, enter a quiet meditation hall, and have nothing to do other than meditate. Finally, time and space to meditate! Then, two minutes after sitting, your mind has completely wandered off, and you’ve lost any grip of the present moment.

There’s a saying that novice meditators sometimes feel like have beginner’s luck. In a 45 minute sit, their mind only wandered 3 times! With more practice, they sit and their mind wanders 25 times. What happened? Well, the first time, their mind wandered 3 times…for 15 minutes each time. Later on, they noticed their attention more frequently, and re-set their mind each time.

It took a couple days to settle in to the silence — the physical seclusion, the mental seclusion, the somewhat monastic schedule and lifestyle. Early on, your mind is still dull, worn out, or as the Buddha wrote, as “inert as a bat hanging on to a tree, as molasses cleaving to a stick, or as butter too hard to spread.” But by day 3 or 4, I began to feel the calm that comes with having no work obligations or stressful social stimulation all while physically nestled in a beautiful nature setting. And the sharpness of mind that comes from steadiness. Days 4, 5, 6 of a 10-day retreat are most engaging in my experience. And by “engaging” I mean “when you’re quiet enough on the inside to really go deep with the practice.” (The last couple days you’re distracted by your impending departure.)

The day to day schedule of a retreat usually works as follows. You get up at 5am or so and until about 10pm you’re alternating between sitting and walking meditation, with breaks for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and some other rest periods. Some of the sits are guided — that is, the teachers actively instruct — for other sits, the teacher just rings the gong when time is up. In the evening, there’s a Dharma talk — a lecture — on some teaching of the Buddha. During tougher days, when you’re bored out of your mind and cursing yourself for signing up for this voluntary detachment from the sensory-rich real world, you just try to make it to the Dharma talk. By the time of the Dharma talk, you know you’ve made it another day.

Spirit Rock is a great center in which to practice insight meditation. Nestled in the Marin headlands about an hour outside San Francisco, it’s utterly accessible yet very tranquil and remote-feeling. The dorms, showers, dining hall, etc. are all basic but comfortable. It’s a privilege to be part of such a rich tradition at Spirit Rock. In 1970, a small handful of Americans went to Asia, learned Buddhism and meditation, and returned home to introduce Buddhism to the west. (Not a bad legacy: introducing Buddhism to the west!) Some of these people set up the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and, some years later, Jack Kornfield and others who worked in Massachusetts set up Spirit Rock in California. People come from all across America to Spirit Rock.

The culture of the place is relaxed. “Do the best you can, and let that be good enough,” Steve said one evening before a meditation sitting. Outside of the meditation hall, rules were enforced but “do the best you can” felt like the prevailing culture in all aspects.

The Bright Mind State

About 80 hours into my first 10 day retreat, four years ago, I entered a different sort of mental state. My posture was fully erect, my body as still as a mountain, and my breathing had softened such that it was barely-noticeable. My mind got very bright. I felt, for a period of several minutes, that I was in utter control of my attention — every thought, every breath. My mind felt empty and airy and light. It was a non-ordinary state of consciousness. I did not arrive at any special revelation about the meaning of life. My life did not flash before my eyes. Nothing like that. Still, it was a profound experience of stillness and awareness, and I remember distinctly walking back to my dorm room in the darkness (it was late at night), rolling into my bed, and lying in the dark and thinking that that I had just taken a glimpse at a different state of mind.

Since that retreat, during my own sits at home, I’ve returned to that “blissed out” consciousness state every so often (about once every 20 sits) on my own. Usually for a few minutes at time, and at night. I don’t want to overstate things: usually my meditation sits are more banal, and I never experienced this state prior to a 10 day retreat.

On this most recent retreat, I returned, briefly, to this state of deep calm and awareness on day two. And then, counterproductively, I spent the rest of the retreat craving it. I knew what I was doing — craving, clinging — and that became its own meta self-critique in my mind. “Just sit there, don’t expect anything!” I told myself. But the bright mind experience was so unusual, I wanted more of it.

I talked to one of the teachers about this state of mind and she referred to it as a “spiritual goodie” that’s not bad but also not the ultimate goal of a Vipassana practice.  And she reminded me that having expectations (craving it) was a no-no. That said, she encouraged me to do a concentration (samadhi) retreat if I wanted to more deeply focus on single objects, as that sort of practice mind more often gives rise, she said, to the blissed out state I described.

Becoming A Bit More Eastern

Does Buddhism mean relinquishing ambition, goals, attachment to excellence? Do Buddhist doctrines lead one to building a fundamentally passive life in which “nature happens” and you sit and observe and let the world pass you by? It’s been a longtime question of mine, and from other entrepreneur friends.

I’m less concerned about this than I used to be. What I’ve realized is that having spent my entire life in the West I am so immersed in Western thought, culture, customs, and assumptions…my brain is so intertwined with the ideas of individualism and striving and impact…that it’d take several lifetimes to re-wire many of my bedrock assumptions about what I should do with my life.

Meditating and subscribing to certain Buddhist beliefs makes my spiritual disposition a bit more eastern, yes. But I’m not at risk for somehow moving into a monastery for the rest of my life. Many of us in the west would benefit, I’d argue, from inching a bit toward the eastern side of the spiritual spectrum. There are great truths in eastern texts. There is great happiness in a mind that’s more at ease, a set of goals that are less materialist, a perspective that’s more communal than individual.

Relatedly: A friend asked me, “What’s so good about being in the present moment?” It’s an interesting question. Some of my most important creative insights or enjoyable mental reveries happen when I’m daydreaming and decidedly not present. But, we spend most of our time lost in thought like this. And most of that time is not especially productive. Being a bit more capable of being present, of being here now when we want to, is surely a good thing. No one is saying to never think ahead, problem solve, creatively dream up future scenarios. Just become a bit more mindful. Inch a little further toward the mindfulness end of the spectrum.

What Can You Know Only Through Experience?

The historical Buddha was not a deity whose truths you take on faith. He was a man in India who, upon realizing his princely wealth wasn’t making him happy, studied his own mind and offered thoughts on suffering and happiness. Contrast the Buddha life story to the Christian narrative of Jesus, who’s billed as the son of the creator of the entire freakin’ universe! Although there are celebrity spiritual gurus alive today, in the Vipassana retreats I’ve been on, there is a kind of disavowal of higher spirits or gurus. Rather, the emphasis is: It’s up to you to study your own mind and come to your own awakening. (To be sure, other branches of Buddhism, like Tibetan Buddhism, emphasize deities and other supernatural forces, and most Buddhists in Asia do believe in some form of God.)

One of the specific contentions in the Vipassana tradition is that you can only fully understand the three characteristics of all phenomena — impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta) via careful observation and personal experience. You must sit with your unwholesome states of mind, however agitating they may be, before you can understand them. You can’t just intellectually know it. Is that true?

Perhaps. It’s maybe a question of how well you can know the phenomena. You can study basketball for 10 years but if you never play the game, your knowledge will be superficial at some level. But, the vast majority of things we know about we do not have any first hand experience with.

It’s something I want to think more about, as the entire physical practice of wisdom meditation hinges on the claim that unless you put in the hours to observe the impermanence, you won’t really understand it.

Compassion and Existential Anxiety

I wrote in an February, 2013 post about meditation — six months after my first 10 day retreat — that “I don’t think my practice has yet made me more compassionate or alleviated fundamental existential anxieties.” Joseph Goldstein, in Mindfulness, quotes Mingyur Rinpoche to highlight the connection between an awareness practice and compassion:

But the best part of all is that no matter how long you meditate, or what technique you use, every technique of Buddhist meditation ultimately generates compassion, whether we’re aware of it or not. Whenever you look at your mind, you can’t help but recognize your similarity to those around you. When you see your own desire to be happy, you can’t avoid seeing the same desire in others, and when you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion, you can’t help but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger, and aversion. When you look at your own mind, all the imaginary differences between yourself and others automatically dissolve…

I can see that. Occasionally I’ve experienced some of these moments of clarity: “So and so is struggling just like I’m struggling, and so he deserves my compassion.” It’s compassion through awareness of your similarity with another person. This feels like a more likely compassion-generator train of thought for me than simply extolling or trying to embrace the virtue in the abstract.

With respect to fundamental existential anxieties — by which I mean death, mainly — I can’t say meditation or Buddhist study has necessarily helped. If anything, it’s made the inevitability of death and the lack of solidity of everything I hold dear even more acute in my mind, which isn’t a totally pleasant feeling. Bill Gates once said he tries not to think about death too much. This is partly why they describe Vipassana practice as potentially agitating. You’re wrapping your head around ideas that are not necessarily warm and fuzzy, with the ultimate hope that you can become truly accepting of the uncomfortable realities of life, and thus realize inner peace.

Qi Gong

On this retreat, I completed 10 hours of “movement awareness” practice — Shibashi Qi Gong. (Think of the old Asian ladies you see in city parks in the mornings…) Franz Moeckl, the instructor, was incredibly charismatic. German by birth, he now lives in Southern India, and his accented English was charming. The key acronym of Qi Gong, as he described it: MBA. Movement, Breath, Awareness. The movements with your arms and legs are smooth and continuous. Coordinating inhales and exhales with physical movement pumps a kind of energy through the body. And being aware of where you are in that moment — feet connected to the earth, the sky above — extends the practice of continuous awareness.

I especially enjoyed the final minutes where Moeckl encouraged us to visualize in our mind’s eye a white pearl in our abdomen, the power of our breath shining the pearl with a silk cloth, and the light of awareness causing the pearl to shimmer. Then he said: “May I be safe from inner and outer harm. May I be healthy and strong. May I be happy and joyful and accepting things as they are. May I have ease of well being. And just as I wish this for myself, I wish this for all beings, be they in the earth, in the sea, in the air. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering. And may all beings live in peace with one another.”

Goenka vs. Tejaniya

A lot of people conflate “Vipassana meditation” with “Goenka.” Goenka’s teaching approach is probably the most popular in the world — there are hundreds of centers, all free of charge, that offer his style of teaching. Dhamma.org is the URL for Goenka Vipassana centers. My first meditation and second retreats were taught by Goenka (via audiotape and videotape) with assistant teachers in the room only as additional resources.

Goenka has an approach. He only teaches sitting meditation. He’s very strict about the schedule, about sitting on the floor rather than chair, about observing all the precepts around food and drink, and about the intensity of your overall meditation practice. The culture of the retreats reinforce the strictness. On my first Goenka retreat, a couple days in, I was in so much physical pain from sitting on the floor that I decided to skip a morning sit. The retreat manager noticed I wasn’t in the hall, tracked me down in my dorm, and told me to bust my butt up to the hall. When I met with the teacher later in the day to say that my knees were throbbing and I didn’t think I could continue on, his advice was to just observe the pain and note the specific sensations of heat, throbbing, tingling, blood movement, whatever I was feeling. “That’s it?” I said. “Just observe it. Your mind is probably magnifying the pain,” he replied. I was incredulous, but in the end, I realized he was kind of right.

The actual meditation practice that Goenka teaches emphasizes body scans (“sweeping”) from head to toe, from toe to head, over and over, and you’re to note all bodily sensations.

By contrast, Tejaniya’s approach makes everything you perceive or think fair game for supporting an awareness practice–so you never feel like you’re “failing” if you get “distracted” by a cough or a random thought or smell or whatever, so long as you’re aware of it. You don’t scan your body; you simply maintain alertness to whatever enters your mind or body. This can be easier for beginners. Yet, I actually think the simplicity of the Tajana’a continuous awareness approach could be tricky. I think it’s easier to actually focus in on an object like the breath or body sensations to develop initial concentration. For experienced meditators who are not meditators, Tejaniya’s approach rightfully focuses on how to integrate meditation into all waking hours of your life, not just when you’re sitting on the cushion or bench. But for beginners: subtly tricky.

If you’re thinking about going on your first Vipassana retreat, I think Goenka is a fantastic starting point. Jump in the deep end of the pool. It will be very challenging, very intense, but very rewarding. The clarity of the instruction can actually make the meditation practice itself easier. And because it costs nothing, with an optional donation at the end, it’s great if you’re the type of person who’s easily put off by expensive spiritual excursions or sales pitches for donations. If you’re elderly, not physically fit, or don’t live near a Goenka center, try something else. If you feel like you need inspiration (“spiritual urgency”) to take up the practice, then live, in-person teachers who reflect on their real world experiences living in the West, like the teachers at Spirit Rock, can provide that in a way Goenka’s videotapes just can’t.

Other Odds and Ends:

  • Skill of the teacher matters a lot. Because the Goenka retreats are all taught by the late Goenka himself via video and audiotape, when signing up for this Spirit Rock retreat I didn’t focus on the teachers as much. Now I realize how important teachers because they are actually leading all the instruction and delivering the Dharma talks. I lucked out with Steve Armstrong and Carol Wilson — they were fantastic. There was a teacher-in-training on the teaching team who was decidedly less articulate and insightful. Had it just been him, I would have been immensely disappointed, I think. If you’re going on retreat: research the teachers.
  • Managing hunger is its own practice. Two vegetarian meals a day, with a snack in the evening, represented a huge drop-off in caloric intake for me. (I weigh 230 lbs.) I often went to bed hungry; sometimes I awoke in the night with my stomach growling audibly. I lost almost 10 pounds over the course of the 10 days. I must admit though that the lightness of my step did make it easier to concentrate. And I was glad to affirm one of my takeaways from four years ago which is that if I ever find myself low on food, I can survive. When I travel, it’s not uncommon to arrive at a hotel late at night, after the hotel restaurant has closed. I can go to bed hungry, and get to sleep. I can. I will. I must. 🙂
  • At least a sixth of the meditators on this retreat were quite elderly. In their 70’s, maybe 80’s. Some had walkers or wheelchairs. When I first saw them I wondered if this retreat was going to be too “soft” for me. After all, the young man who sat next to me at the Goenka retreat a few years ago wore an Iron Man hat most of the time. I was quickly disabused of this worry (all retreats are really hard) and, instead, the sight of the elderly became something of an inspiration: At 78 years old, still seeking a spiritual path? It’s a journey.
  • When I was a kid, I remember telling myself that whenever something bad happened to me, something good was probably right around the corner. And whenever something good happened, something bad was probably going to happen. I have no idea where I got this idea from. But looking back, it was probably one of the most important nuggets to be lodged into my adolescent brain. It’s the circle of life. Nature. Anicca.
  • On a silent retreat, you are alone, together with ~70 people. You’re utterly alone and yet you’re utterly together in tight quarters. One common social anxiety that you only recognize in a silent retreat environment because it’s absent is whether other people are gossiping about you. In silence, no cliques are being formed. No one is going up to someone else and talking about something I did. What a relief.
  • “Let it go” vs. “Let it be.” Sometimes “letting it go” involves a kind of effort that’s counterproductive.
  • With so much time and so little to do on retreat, your mind tends to produce a personal history reel of life experiences from way back. You go on a tour of your memory bank. In the process of stumbling upon long-forgotten memories, you realize how much of who you are today and what you think today is shaped by where you’ve been.
  • Can you uproot self-pity from your mind? Steve Armstrong told a story from when he was a monk in Burma, which he was for five years. It was a “job” that involved meditating from 3 AM to 11 PM every day. He said that in the early years of his practice he would feel a lot of self-pity. “It’s so noisy in Burma and it’s making it hard to concentrate” or “I’m so sleep deprived, how could I possibly meditate” or “I’m too white and western to really understand meditation.” He noticed that when these feelings of self-pity arose in the mind, his body would feel drained of energy. He spent years observing the seeds of self-pity: “I see you self-pity!” He did not invite the thought to tea; he kept it at the doorway to the mind but did not let it enter. He could “catch” the thought while it was still in formation. And he watched the feeling pass away. Today, he says his mind is rarely is visited by the feeling of self-pity. He’s uprooted that tendency altogether.
  • I always tell people who are thinking about going on a meditation retreat: even if you get nothing from the meditation itself, the silence and digital detox alone is quite an experience. Do a 10 day, and even if you never meditate again, it’ll be a heck of a life experience.
  • In Spirit Rock’s “Gratitude Hut” — a small hut that hosts photos and captions of the teachers who brought Buddhism to the west — there’s a relatively recent addition of Jack Kornfield’s remembrance of his late friend Stephen Levine, who died this year in his home in rural New Mexico. I read it several times — again, you don’t have much else to do when you’re not meditating — and found it touching. Excerpt: “I can hear Stephen Levine’s loving voice counseling healing awareness, soft belly, compassion, and mercy within mercy to all who came to see him and his beloved partner Ondrea. Their students brought everything — their spiritual longing and beauty, along with their trauma, loss, brokenness, and encounters with death…Wherever you are Stephen, O Nobly Born, as you let go into the clear light of your own true nature, your home, remember these words of the Buddha: ‘A star at dawn, a drop of dew, an echo, a rainbow, and a dream.'”
  • Question: What is the Buddhist take on free will, if everything around me is just empty phenomena rolling on?
  • Question: To what extent is effort involved in not inviting unhelpful thoughts to tea? Where’s the line between observing and pushing away?

The Way Out is the Way In

Just before the close of the retreat, silence was broken and everyone gathered their things. My work yogi colleague — we were assigned to 30 mins of day of pot cleaning in the kitchen after lunch, so it was the one person whose name I actually knew — handed me a postcard. On one side was the “The Way Out Is The Way In” image embedded to the right.FullSizeRender 3 On the flip side she wrote the following hand written note:

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.

She gave me a beaded bracelet and wished me well. I thanked her, put on the bracelet, held the postcard in one hand, and I walked back to the meditation hall for one final time. The hills shimmered golden with dry grass, the wild turkeys were wandering on the road, and I could see a couple birds swooping in the distance. It was one of those impossibly beautiful California days, and, as I walked to the hall, I was reminded of what the teacher Franz told us during the daily Qi Gong practice: “You are so lucky to be here on this planet earth. You have food in your stomachs. You have muscles in your body that work. We should have so much gratitude for being alive in this moment.”

From Anxiety Attacks to Mindfulness Startup

I recorded a 25 minute video chat with Dina Kaplan, founder & president of The Path, on MeaningofLife.tv. The Path is a company in NYC that offers meditation classes to the masses.

Here’s an excerpt on how Dina suffered anxiety attacks as a tech entrepreneur in New York, traveled to India and elsewhere, and returned to found a mindfulness startup.