I’ve spent several years practicing meditation and reading about Buddhism. Below, on one page, are my recaps of four residential meditation retreats along with some other blog posts I’ve written over the years on the topic. I’ve bolded the posts that are perhaps most informative.
February 2013: Meditation, Six Months Later
March 2013: The Skill Developed in Meditation
May 2013: 3 Day Silent Meditation Course
June 2016: 10 Day Awareness+Wisdom Meditation Retreat
July 2017: Samatha Meditation Practice
Summer, 2018: My Summary of the Buddha’s Argument
September 2018: 10 Day Samadhi (Concentration) Retreat at Spirit Rock
April, 2022: Notes from “The Mind Illuminated”
April, 2022: 10 Day Mindfulness of Consciousness Retreat
It was during the 8-9 PM meditation session on the 8th Day — by then I was 80 hours into the 10 day, 100 hour meditation course — when I experienced something remarkable. I was partially kneeling and partially sitting on a small bench in the meditation hall with about 45 other meditators, doing breathing techniques (anapana) and scanning my body for sensations (vipassana). Shortly after starting the session, my mind became as sharp as I’ve ever felt it in my life. I was in complete control of a lucid, concentrated mind.
I became meta aware of this mental clarity. It’s how I imagine it feels to “wake up” in the middle of your dreams and control them. I directed my attention away from my body to a random thought. And then brought it right back. Then away. Then back. All by choice. It was a striking difference from what often happened during my meditation sits (and during life in general): the mind inviting hundreds of random thoughts to derail a moment of concentration. To top it off, during the sit, I visualized a glass window in my mind and in my mind’s eye focused on it and it cracked the window, as if just thinking about the window produced the sort of cracks you see when a bullet strikes bulletproof glass. When the chanting began playing on the hall audio speakers to signal the end of the session, I felt sad. Now in most of the other sits I greeted the sound of the glorious final chanting with relief, signaling as it did the imminent end to 60 minutes in a frozen posture, knees throbbing, back aching. But that night, I was thriving, my mind was as sharp as freshly sharpened hunting spear, and I felt totally and completely relaxed.
With that as the highlight, let me back up and recap the experience from beginning, since it was considerably more challenging than one excellent meditation session. And I’ll add the proviso that I just got home a couple days ago, so I am still absorbing all that happened.
To start, there are many different types of meditation. There are also many types of courses / retreats. So when someone tells you they “meditate” or “attended a meditation retreat” that doesn’t tell you the full story. Myself, I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Northern California, organized by the Dhamma Manda center and taught via video and audio by S.N. Goenka (of India) and in-person by assistant teachers carrying out his vision of Vipassana. Some of the key characteristics of my course:
- In order to help achieve mental silence, the course is conducted in an atmosphere of silence. No talking, eye contact, or physical gestures are allowed between any of the students. You are to work in total silence 24/7. You are, however, allowed to speak with the management or teachers as necessary.
- No writing, reading, technology, extra food, or sexual activity allowed during the course.
- Complete, 100% gender segregation, including in the dining halls. Zero sexual tension or distractions.
- The whole day is scheduled and structured from 4 AM to 9 PM, including two vegetarian meals at 6:30 AM and 11 AM. About 10 hours per day is dedicated to sitting meditation.
- The course taught Vipassana meditation specifically, which seeks insight through observing reality as it is. Within Vipassana, there are variations. S.N. Goenka’s approach is considered, I found out while there, a comparatively pure conveyance of what the Buddha actually said–which makes it stricter and arguably harder for beginners to learns. Think of it like a Great Books model of education or an originalism interpretation of the Constitution. On the flip side, Goenka’s tradition is easier for secular people to pick up in that it wipes out any classically “religious” components (no incense or chants or statues or gods) and other potentially alienating, non-universal norms.
- The course was totally free — which includes 11 nights of lodging and meals. Only those who have completed a course can donate money to the Center. Every course and every center — there are dozens around the world — rely exclusively on donations from former students, which is pretty remarkable. (Other retreats usually start at $150/day and go up from there.) This economic dynamic affects the content and structure of the course itself: since you’re not paying anything, you can’t complain about lodging or food. You accept gratefully what’s given. It also means the teachers can be as strict as they want to — there’s no pressure to ease up on students who complain about pain, say, in the way they might feel they ought to if someone were dropping a thousand plus dollars on the adventure.
I had no formal background in meditation. I’ve been meditating sporadically and informally for about a decade, originally as an attempt to reduce stress. In 2006 I spent a day at the SF Zen Center. I’ve been talking about going on a silent retreat since 2009 to try to help make it a daily habit. So I really went into last week’s course knowing very little about what I was getting myself into but very motivated to learn more. As it turned out, most of the other “new students” may have been new to Vipassana, but had experience at other sorts of retreats. Most were deeply spiritual already. (Other than this uniting factor of previous experience, it was a very diverse mix of people age and race-wise.) So, as far as I was concerned, I was learning to swim in the deep end of the pool.
At the first night’s orientation, before silence became the law of the land, the manager made some general announcements. She concluded, “We hope you have a productive and successful time here.” This took me by surprise — the goal was to be “productive and successful”? The course content reinforced this theme repeatedly. Goenka, the main teacher via video/audiotape, said repeatedly, “Work diligently, work ardently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently, and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.” The assistant teachers would release us to meditate in our residences with the final words: “Keep working, continue to work.” Was this a meditation retreat or an ass-kicking business seminar? By the end it was clear: the philosophical belief of Goenka and Buddhism is that salvation comes from self-mastery; to do so requires extreme discipline and focus and training of the mind. Then, you have a shot at success, which is defined as liberation from suffering and living a life, as Goenka put it, of “true peace, true harmony, true happiness.” It’s a definition of success considerably loftier than the one that actually brought me to the Dhamma Manda; my aim was merely to concentrate my mind, kickstart a daily habit, and achieve a difficult goal I could fail at.
The next morning, after sleeping in a shared dormitory, the gong rang at 4 AM and the course officially began. What began for me, though, was less about meditation and Buddhism and more about struggling to position my body on a meditation cushion on the floor. The bigger you physically are the harder it is to sit on the floor for 10+ hours a day. There was essentially no instruction or discussion of the various cushions, benches, pads available to use–it was up to me to grab cushions and figure out how to lock in a position. The first day I tried crosslegged sitting all day. The second day I woke up with severe nerve pain up and down the entire right side of my body.
The “official” view on pain from the instructors was complicated. On the one hand, Goenka says explicitly that you’re not here to torture yourself, so do what you need to do (i.e. sit in a chair if absolutely necessary). On the other hand, managing pain — observing the pain sensations with equanimity — is part of the mental mastery process. Moreover, there’s the view that the pain represents some of the negative emotions in your life that are poisoning your unconscious — connect those thoughts to the physical sensations on your body, and observe them essentially leave your body.
To me, the physical pain in the early days overwhelmed the other things I was trying to focus on, like my breathing. It was like trying to observe subtle breath and subtle sensations while a bullhorn blasted in your ear. The nerve pain on the right side of my body was so sharp that at the end of Day 2 I began to seriously contemplate leaving the course. I crafted a narrative in my head to explain to people back home about the pain and how I would practice sitting on my own and return and finish the course later. Three male students had already dropped out by this point.
But in that evening’s discourse — at the end of each day and on the final morning Goenka delivered a 75 minute video lecture, which meant we watched almost 14 hours of lectures — Goenka specifically addressed the pain point and said you may want to leave because of it, telling yourself you’ll come back another time, but don’t listen to yourself — have a strong determination to continue with the course. He also said that you may think the other students are working swimmingly and only you are suffering, but think again — they’re in pain, too. It was true, I learned later — even though 70% of the other students seemed very athletic and in good shape (the guy meditating next to me did an Ironman last year), everyone was in pain. This convinced to stay through to Day 3.
By Day 4 and 5, I had finally figured out a physical position that was relatively comfortable to me — kneeling and semi-sitting on a bench. While I rarely made it the full 60 minutes without throbbing in my knees, I was able to go a good 45 minutes feeling like I was in a steady posture and able to focus on my respiration and bodily sensations.
The next challenge to face was mental and emotional: the overall isolation. If you asked me about my favorite things, I would answer, “Reading, writing, conversations with people, technology/internet.” It felt utterly strange and lonely to go cold turkey on all of the above — spending hours staring at trees or the ceiling above my bed or the wall in front of my face as I ate meals in the dining hall. There were a couple designated walking areas on the property and most students including me walked in circles around the paths, over and over. It occurred to me — and Goenka even mentioned it jokingly in a discourse — that it was my first roundabout with prison: strict rules and schedule, an exercise yard with marked areas, no tools allowed, no communication with the outside world. When I stared out at the highway beyond and saw cars, I thought to myself, “That’s freedom. Those cars have freedom. I do not have freedom.” Literally those words.
The Noble Silence though did make it easier to meditate. Now that I’m back connected to reality, I appreciate how recent emails or recent songs that get stuck in your head distract from the task of meditation. On the retreat itself, silence eliminated anxieties that people on the retreat were talking about you and judging you. Meals were silent affairs. No cliques and chortles over dinner.
Turning off the spigot of information and conversation meant my mind had to plunge through my personal past to generate thoughts as I walked or ate or rested or, yes, while I tried to meditate. Memories surfaced from every part of my life and from every period of time. It was certainly interesting to observe which memories came to mind, though I did not have any profound realizations about life in the process other than an important meta realization: our subconscious is informed by vast numbers of memories.
All that silence and lack of socializing meant no laughter, no humor, no smiling. On Day 5 or 6, I ended up having “humor day” and spent hours recounting in my mind various Seinfeld episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm bloopers. I played the Liam Neeson / Ricky Gervais skit in my head about three times. The Alec Baldwin Always Be Closing scene. Etc. I laughed to myself, lying in bed.
By the final third of the course, doubt and anxiety about leaving had passed (home stretch!), the physical pain had subsided (alternating between bench and chair), my growling stomach had come to terms with the dramatic drop in daily caloric intake, and I was able to focus more deeply in the actual meditation practice.
I was able to focus my attention on respiration. My in breath, my out breath. I was able to feel sensation in a focused area just above the upper lip and to the top of the nostril. I acquired tools and exercises that bring the mind to the present moment that I have taken home with me and already deployed in day to day life. Doing the actual Vipassana technique, however — observing the physical sensations on your body — was harder. I could feel itches and observe them rather than react (i.e. notice the itch without scratching it). I could feel blood pumping and pinpoint its precise location on my body. But I rarely felt anything subtler, and I certainly didn’t feel vibrations from head to toe–which masters of the craft supposedly feel.
I was of mixed minds about the broader Buddhist philosophy that Goenka taught in the course. On the one hand, there was much wisdom in the Buddha’s views he relayed to us: Misery is all around us. We get stuck on the hedonic treadmill. Material acquisition and money won’t make us happy (Goenka himself was a successful businessman before turning his focus to meditation, so he spoke credibly about how he and his rich friends were not happy.) I loved the emphasis on looking inward to liberate yourself rather than appealing to a god or guru — the absolutely secular, universal nature of the practice appealed to me. More love and compassion in yourself — observing anger within and not acting on it — it’s a good thing. And experiencing the present moment, finding peace and joy in the present, is something I can and should do more of (and the course helps with that).
But I wonder about how to square ambition with the idea of non-attachment. If you have a goal and want to achieve it, you have to be at least somewhat attached to the outcome. And reincarnation isn’t my jam, even if there’s fundamental truth (which I realized in the retreat) in the idea that your forefathers shaped your chances and you seriously shape the chances of your offspring.
To answer my prior post about trying something I could fail at, did I fail at this meditation course? No. I think I succeeded in two respects. First, I stayed the full 10 days, despite badly wanting to leave. Second, I do think I acquired skills that put me on the path to having a more disciplined mind and perhaps a more compassionate heart.
I don’t often say it and I frankly don’t often feel it, but: I’m proud of myself. I adapted. I survived 10 days of isolation and faced new physical and mental challenges. I’m occasionally reminded of the sheer resiliency of the human being. I’ve been to places where my first thought upon arrival is, “Get me out of here.” From the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador, to the poor Costa Rican family I stayed with for a week near the ocean who didn’t have hot water, to my first rickshaw ride India — in all I had a knee jerk reaction, airlift me out! Yet, by the time I was scheduled to leave, I adjusted just fine. I underestimated myself–which, as we write in the Risk chapter of The Start-Up of You, is a function of the negativity bias built into us by natural selection.
Going forward, the question I’m asking is, how can I develop meditation as a daily habit? The minutes of sheer mental clarity and control I experienced on Day 8 and recapped at the outset were amazing and I want to have that more regularly. I think being able to turn on focus and calm and discipline can contribute to a professional / career advantage. It will happen if I practice every day. Although Goenka advised two one hour sits a day, I’m going to start with one 45 minute sit a day. I think I can do that. In my calendar, I’m going to label the entry, “Train the mind” to make it seem less miss-able.
As I finish this post, the words of Goenka — who uttered the only words I heard orally for more than a week — are echoing in my head. Work diligently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently…and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.
There’s wisdom there.
February 2013: Meditation, Six Months Later
About six months ago, I completed a Goenka 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat.
With some distance, I can say that completing the 10 days of “Buddha bootcamp” has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. From my current vantage point, when I think about spending 10 days with no speaking, writing, or reading, and huge amounts of physical pain on a twice-daily vegetarian diet – it seems utterly incompatible with my day to day chaotic and stressful life, and therefore all the more special.
What’s more, most every important accomplishment in life involves allies. Life’s a team sport. I love that. Yet, while my network no doubt fortified me with a base of essential emotional sustenance, that retreat more than anything I’ve done depended on my own physical and mental resolve; as a result, the experience feels singularly personal and intimate. And it fills me with a unique feeling of pride.
Now, while completing a 10 day can be seen as an accomplishment in and of itself, the real point of the course is to train you and motivate you to begin a daily practice. As we were reminded of constantly during the course, it’s not the 10 day course that matters—it’s what you do when you finish the course. It’s only with daily practice over many years that you free yourself from suffering and achieve nirvanic bliss…or something like that.
Upon returning, my more skeptical friends have been asking me, “What’s been the lasting effect? And have you even been able to keep meditating when not in the pristine silence of a retreat?”
For about a decade prior to the 10 day I tried and failed to meditate regularly. But in the last six months, since returning from the course, I have meditated almost every day. I’ve missed about 15 days over six months. In all, I’ve sat for about 140 hours. That’s a lot of hours. Anytime someone tells me they’re started spending time on a new thing, I always ask where the time came from—what tradeoff they made with time. For me, these hours mostly came from physical exercise – my physical workouts have gotten shorter as a result of adding in mental workouts.
It’s not that all the hours have been “successful,” of course. I’ve had countless bad sits, where rather than be in control of the moment I feel like a pinball in a machine, thoughts bouncing against mental walls erratically. I’ve done a bunch of 5 minute sits, even though 45 minutes daily sits was my stated goal upon returning.
No matter. I’ve realized what’s most important at this stage is to simply to inculcate the habit. Since I expect to be meditating for the rest of my life — an expectation that could change, certainly, but for now feels right based on results to date — I have plenty of tries left to increase the quality. What I’m trying to do now is just to make sure I get in the habit of sitting. And to facilitate the daily habit, I’ve done things to reduce friction, increase sunk costs, and increase peer pressure – i.e., stuff I think will help me produce the behavior change I desire.
I purchased a custom made bench to sit on that better fits my athletic body. The bench is the most comfortable position for me, and its custom build doesn’t allow me to cite size as an excuse. Rather than use an office chair, which I sit in for other purposes, I only use the bench to meditate — so it helps me get in the right mental zone faster.
I downloaded the app Insight Timer to track all my sits and to chime pleasant bells when time’s up. Thanks to the “presets” feature, in two clicks I can be underway. Since I always have my phone, I’m always two clicks away from sitting—I can’t cite the excuse of not having a special alarm clock handy when on the road. Further, I encouraged a few fellow meditators I’m friends with to use Insight Timer and I see when they’ve done sessions and vice versa – it introduces light accountability.
Finally, because nothing re-charges the battery like a structured course, I did a one-day course at the South Bay Vipassana Center the other week. I plan to do a 3-day more official silent course in the next couple months.
As I’ve built up the meditation habit, I’ve relaxed my energy spent on other habits. For example, I’m no longer taking fish oil at every meal. I still believe in fish oil, but I’m preserving the willpower and decision making cycles for meditation right now.
Here and now benefit
Even though I’m playing the long game, and even though I know you’re doomed if you try to track your progress on a daily basis, if I hadn’t been feeling any immediate benefit over the past six months, I would have given up by now. But I have been feeling benefit in two respects.
Physically first. Just as in the retreat, no matter how active my mind may have been during the sit, when I open my eyes at the end, I feel physically calm. I’ve even found a way to discover this place of calm even when I’m not meditating. When I clasp my hands together in the position I have them in when meditating, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, I quickly feel calmer. The muscle memory associated with that hand position releases calm feelings. Finally, I am more aware – and thus more in control – of the physical sensations on my body because of the Vipassana practice. I possess a subtler understanding of my breath. I know the breaths I take when I’m falling asleep, versus the breaths I take when tired, versus the breaths I take when awake but anxious, versus the breaths I take when I’m feeling cool, calm, and collected.
Mentally/spiritually, I have not become a Buddhist. I don’t think my practice has yet made me more compassionate or alleviated fundamental existential anxieties. Nor has daily meditation made me materially more focused and clear thinking during business meetings or when working on projects. But what it has done is made me slightly less obsessive about my own micro-regrets and slightly more inclined to observe myself and the world around with me with greater equanimity.
Goenka’s voice echoes: Observe the reality as it is. As it is. Observe the reality as it is, not as you wish it to be. Perhaps your breath is deep. Perhaps your breath is shallow. Perhaps you breathed in through the left nostril. Perhaps you breathed in through the right nostril. It makes no difference.
To be sure, I do not want to live my whole life in an indifferent trance. I end my first book with this Joan Didion quote:
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
That (still) resonates deeply. But having a bit more of the countervailing Buddhist instinct of observation over judgment, observation over action, being more at peace with not always getting the picture–that would be good for me.
Where from here
I am going to stick with Goenka’s Vipassana for now. Give it at least a year of daily practice. And then try other forms of meditation. I did do a group Zen sit last weekend — there are some differences among the traditions, and exploring them each is a main goal over the next 6-18 months.
March 2013: The Skill Developed in Meditation
I enjoyed this clear description:
Meditation is basically a training method for your mind. When certain things happen to you, your mind generates a certain response whether it be happiness, frustration, anger ect. The way your mind has been inculcated is the path of least resistance and the path it wants to take, and will take unless you know how to mitigate it. Meditation teaches you how and makes it easier to override the process. Who is doing the overriding of this process? Well, that’s the million dollar question. But I digress.
So here’s what I’m getting at: if meditation is too easy, you’re doing something wrong. You might be getting yourself really relaxed, but is it possible that’s all you’re doing? Not saying it is. I don’t know, just throwing some ideas out there and it’s up to you to see if any seem to fit your situation.
But as you meditate, your mind wants to grab onto the thoughts and not your breath. The course of least resistance is away from your breath and back into whatever thoughts are vying for your attention. Every time you go back to the breath, you train or teach yourself even, to take the opposite of the path of least resistance. This is coupled with the fact that half the time when you meditate, your mind says, “I’m tired. Stop concentrating on the breath and just kick back and let a guided meditation do most of the work.” But every time this comes up you learn to drop it by returning to the breath and not listening to the thought no matter how loud and powerful it can get.
When you first start meditating you have this thought and then come back to the breath. But there’s still a trace of this thought floating around in your mind and eventually it pulls you in again. As soon as you realize your back in that thought again, you turn your awareness back to the breath and away from the thought. But then it pulls you in again. And then you drop it again. You do this over and over and over. But as you practice you get better and better and faster and faster at recognizing it. You start to figure out how to do it most efficiently and quickly, seeing and dropping thoughts before they even become thoughts at all.
After doing this hour after hour, you gain a skill. One day you realize that you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to use this skill. I can’t really explain how it’s done, but it’s just something you learn from continually focusing, coming back to, and holding your attention on the breath. It’s like if you ever do a lot of push-ups, eventually you will realize, “I can flex my pecs.” You couldn’t flex them before, and you don’t really know how you learned to do it, but now you can just do it.
(Hat tip to Andy McKenzie)
May 2013: 3 Day Silent Meditation Course
Over the weekend, I completed a 3 day Vipassana silent meditation course.
Having already written about meditation generally and Goenka courses specifically in my other posts, I’ll keep these thoughts limited to the most recent 3 day:
- Recharge. Think of a structured meditation course as a battery charge, and the charge weakens with every passing day you’re back in the chaotic day to day world. Returning to retreat every so often recharges the battery that keeps you on a daily practice.
- Old students, only. A 3 day Goenka retreat is only open to people who’ve done at least one 10 day course. Many people say they want to dip their toes in the water with a 3 day, but the Goenka tradition says that that’s not enough time to give a fair trial to the technique. You have to start in the deep end of the pool. Agreed.
- Still hard. Despite the 3 day being made up of experienced students only, it was still hard for everyone. Several people told me they thought about leaving mid-way. I certainly wondered what the heck I was doing with myself after the n-th hour of lying on my bed staring up at the blank ceiling, with nothing to read or write, no one to talk to. During the sits, the physical pain, while less than the first time, remained.
- Follow-on versus first time. A couple people have asked whether there are diminishing returns in terms of benefit with a follow-on course. As with everything, there’s nothing like the first time. That first 10 day will always stand apart. But in this follow on course, I actually got more out of every hour of meditating. I knew exactly what the setup was, I knew how I was going to physically sit (it took me 3-5 days last time to figure it out), I had the rules and regulations down. I could focus exclusively on the actual meditation instead of figuring out how to meditate. This is a mark in favor of doing a follow on course.
- Fasting. In addition to the silence and structured meditation, it’s basically a fasting exercise as well. Get up at 4 AM, meditate, eat at 6:30 AM, rest, meditate, eat at 11 AM, rest, meditate, rest, meditate, etc. until 9 PM. Then go to bed. Net: no food after 11:30 AM. Surviving this was a confidence boost: if I ever need to go a long time with no food, I can do it.
- Experts return to the basics. I really enjoyed spending a full day this time exclusively focused on breath (and not Vipassana body scans). I spent 15 hours trying to think only about the area below my nostril and above the upper lip, and how my respiration hits that area of my body. Breath is at the heart of any meditation practice. I walked away from the 3 day with a better command of my respiration.
- Organized religion. The audio discourses from Goenka in the 3 day were much more proactively secular. He said over and over again that Vipassana is not organized religion. That there are no dogma, no blind faith, no belief in higher power, no rites, no rituals. Simply observe what’s happening on the experiential level. Feel what’s happening in reality, and draw conclusions from that. I love this about the practice. And I think it explains this practice’s popularity and universality. For me, I’m so allergic to anything that smells conventionally religious (for myself — I’m pro organized religion in general as a force in the world), that even Zen meditation practices are hard to stomach — the bowing, chanting, the “priests.” At Goenka’s centers, you meditate in a “hall,” you wear whatever you want (sweatpants were common at the 3 day), there is no church hierarchy whatsoever. On top of that, the fact that it’s totally donation based removes the money aspect from the equation, which is a common corrupting force in organized religion.
- Big picture uncertainty: I’m not sure how I feel about the ultimate Vipassana goal of ridding your mind of impurities at the deepest level via the observation of impermanent physical sensations–on the grounds that, by observing the impermanence of the physical sensations, you come to realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative sensation, and therefore you realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative thought that causes the sensation. The logic tree breaks down a bit. I also have some continued qualms about the passionless, detached life this approach might lead to.
- Big picture positive: I may aim for the more “surface” goals of a clear mind, increased mindfulness, an intentionally detached stance to many emotions, a subtler understanding of my breath, a subtler understanding of physical sensations, and a stronger control of which thoughts I surface to conscious attention and when. Of course, those are not at all easy things to pick up, and are “surface” only in comparison to how Goenka describes his Vipassana objectives. Indeed, apart from any comparison, I believe these skills themselves can be transformative. I can already feel them transforming my life.
Overall: highly recommended.
Sam Harris has written an excellent new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion that I highly recommend to anyone interested in a hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation. This post contains highlights from the book combined with updates on my own evolving understanding Buddhism and meditation.
Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses. Arianna Huffington’s recent book Thrive articulated meditation’s many benefits with great mass market appeal. As a fan of meditation, I’m excited by how many new resources there are. There’s no doubt that folks who’ve turned away from organized religion still need a kind of purpose that’s hard to develop on your own, and meditation can be seen as a tactical tool in the quest for developing a higher understanding about life. But it feels inevitable that there’ll be a backlash, as people take up the practice expecting a cure-all. As Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Meditation said to improve everything!” Yup — that’s a recipe for disappointment. Eventually, we’ll end up somewhere in the happy medium in terms of meditation delivering on the realistic expectations of its practitioners.
I first learned about meditation a decade ago. I distinctly remember the moment. I was sitting in my bedroom and felt a twitch in the tiny muscle below my left eyebrow and above my eyeball. I walked into the bathroom, put my face close to the mirror, and waited. Sure enough, a minute later, the same muscle spasmed. Some quick research that night revealed that this is a classic sign of stress. It figured: I was exceptionally busy with entrepreneurship and school, and I was exceptionally unskilled at managing busyness. I hopped on Amazon.com and bought the first book I found on stress reduction. That book introduced to me to meditation.
For several years thereafter, I meditated sporadically, in search of stress relief. I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and focused on the inhale and exhale of my breath. After 10 or 15 minutes, I opened my eyes, and felt calmer. There’s a growing literature that suggests that what I felt was real: simple mindfulness meditation generates positive health benefits such as reduced blood pressure and etc.
Even though meditation is an essential component of a Buddhist practice, I’ve never known much about Buddhism. As a bit of personal history, I was baptized Catholic but was atheist by my teen years. I remained open to the idea of “spiritual” experiences, though. I’d had some experiences in nature that induced feelings of awe, which is the most concrete, secular type of spirituality I can think of. For example, staring up at the stars in a rural village outside Beijing or hiking in Kenai Peninsula in Alaska and stopping on a mountain of shale and looking out over the vast land. I’ve also experienced moments of extreme present-ness: I vividly remember hearing a teacher tell a story once of returning to his native war-torn Lebanon as a child on Christmas eve, driving through the rainy streets in his parents’ car on the way to his childhood home, and during that drive, looking out the window and seeing the reflection of Christmas ornaments in the puddles of water. It was the happiest moment of his life, he said. When I heard the story, I got goosebumps.
For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:
Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.
Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.
Buddhism: What Resonates, What Doesn’t
Yes: Happiness Must Come From Within
Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within. Here’s Harris:
our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment. …
The Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha, usually translated from the Pali, somewhat misleadingly, as “suffering.” A better translation would be “unsatisfactoriness.” Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is.
Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? Everything we want to accomplish—to paint the house, learn a new language, find a better job—is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope.
Agreed. Good things happen, bad things happen, everything arises and passes away. True harmony must be something steadier.
Yes: Self-Transendance (Or, Using a Window as a Window, Not a Mirror)
The more important idea of many Buddhist teachings — and the primary emphasis on Sam Harris’s book — is the illusion of a separate ego. Harris focuses on the quite secular project of “self-transcendance”:
The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.
I need to re-read these passages of the book and do quite a bit more practice to fully understand this idea. It’s not simple! But it feels potentially quite profound, and an area I’ll explore in the years ahead.
Yes: Understand via Experience. Observe Yourself. There is No Book with Answers.
Buddhism asks its students to observe themselves and come to their own answers. You learn by experience. As Larry Rosenberg wrote in Breath by Breath, another good book on the topic, Buddhism isn’t about beliefs — it’s about first hand knowledge. By observing the impermanent sensations on your body, for example, you learn about the impermanence of thought patterns. The historical Buddha was a man who woke up and offered thoughts on the illusion of ego and the path for true harmony. Contrast his life story to the Christian narrative of Jesus — who’s billed as the son of the creator of the entire freakin’ universe. There’s a humility to Buddhist teachings that’s attractive. 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. The unpaid “civilian” teachers wear sweatpants and t-shirts. There are no candles and no prayers. Only attention to your breath and your body.
Not So Much: Reincarnation and Other Claims About the Cosmos
The Buddha made several claims about the cosmos that are fanciful. E.g. Reincarnation, karma, and so on. Harris argues that you can ignore them and still profit (spiritually, that is!) from the other claims about self-mastery. I’m persuaded that’s the case.
Not So Much: Focus on Self to the Exclusion of Needy Others
Buddhism strikes me as self-absorbed. In a Christian church, there’s wonderful emphasis about how Jesus taught us to help those in need. You never hear that theme in talks about Buddhism. To be sure, there are teachings about compassion and a type of meditation called metta that promotes loving kindness, but it’s never felt as foundational to me as the idea of liberation of one’s self, transcendence of one’s ego, and achieving “perfect equanimity,” as S.N. Goenka says over and over again. Here’s Harris on this point:
The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems. But it is not a compelling one. The world is in desperate need of improvement—in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception—and yet this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing.Okay, but it’s hard to do both at once.
Not So Much: Apathy and Passiveness, Instead of Passion
Can you really change the world and still be Buddhist? Is making the world a better place even embedded in the idea set? Harris again:
There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves
We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.
I’m not so sure these two can be squared. The classic change-the-world entrepreneurial vision requires a huge amount of passion, often with extraordinary highs and extraordinary lows along the way. It requires commitment to goals.
Advanced Meditation: Beyond the Retreats
More serious meditative practice intrigued me because I was interested in achieving a higher degree of self-possession beyond simple relaxation — being able to better control what I think and when, to cut short unhelpful thought cycles, to be present in a new moment even if something lousy happened just prior, to quiet the monkey mind in bed so I could sleep better, and perhaps ultimately achieve some of the higher Buddhist ideals of harmony. Breathing for 5-10 minutes certainly calms you down, but doesn’t sculpt the mind. It doesn’t shift your “doggy mind” to the “lion’s mind” of deep steadiness. Occasional breathing exercises is like going on the occasional jog in the park: the result will be positive but very different than lifting weights in a gym under a trainer’s watchful eye.
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.” Exactly. I needed to train.
To more seriously train my mind and jumpstart a regular practice, a couple years ago I attended a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat, followed by a 3 day silent retreat. I wrote extensive blog posts about each retreat. As I wrote in my 10 day retreat reflection, the peak of the experience came around 80 hours in, when I began to understand the difference between being “lost in thought” and being hyper observant of what thoughts I was having. It wasn’t that I had no thoughts; I had thoughts because I was fully conscious, but I felt in control of my thoughts.
This is one of the most helpful analogies I’ve come across about what it means to be totally present in meditation, via Harris:
Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives.
The power of your mind:
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.
Since the retreats, I’ve maintained a regular practice, meditating for 4-5 days a week for on average 20 minutes each sit, totaling about 500 hours of meditating in my life. For the first year after the 10 day, I was obsessed with not skipping a day. “Daily practice” is an idea pounded into your head by meditation teachers, and most apps that track your sits (I use Insight Timer) display how many days you’ve consecutively logged time. I sought to do it daily — even if it was for a throwaway 3 minutes at 11:57 PM. My reasoning was that if I focused on daily practice eventually it would become so ingrained that even if I did miss a day, I’d be conscious of the skip, and pick it up the next day. Today, that is indeed the case: when I’m getting ready to sleep, if I haven’t meditated, I’ll think about it, and sometimes choose not to meditate. That, to me, is the habit formation I was looking for. Missing a day here or there isn’t a big deal and having that attitude relieves yourself of the practice feeling like a burden. If I’m traveling and exhausted, and I know sitting for 10 minutes won’t work very well, I’ll just skip.
Everyone should do a 10 day retreat at least once in their life, even if you never meditate again. A silent retreat will almost certainly be a mind bending experience. No using any technology, not reading, not writing, not speaking — that alone will be hugely impactful, even if you get nothing out of the meditation aspect. Being alone with your thoughts for such a length of time is an experience unlike any other.
My meditation practice has certainly promoted a greater degree of mindfulness (being intentional with my attention) in my day-to-day life when I’m not on the cushion. With a subtle attention to my breath and bodily sensations, I can return to the here and now more easily, and calm the monkey mind more than I could before. But has it made me happier? In this worthwhile, skeptical take on the meditation boom on NYTimes.com, Tony Schwartz, author of the excellent Power of Full Engagement, reflects on his years of meditating and says:
Building the capacity to quiet the mind has undeniable value at a time when our attention is under siege, and distraction has become our steady state. Meditation – in the right doses — is also valuable as a means to relax the body, quiet the emotions and refresh one’s energy. There is growing evidence that meditation has some health benefits. What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.
It’s a fair point.
All in all, I found Harris’s book super provocative and I highly recommend it. Below the fold are a couple other interesting paragraphs from Harris.
On theory of mind and why movies are so compelling:
One of the most important things we do with our minds is attribute mental states to other people, a faculty that has been variously described as “theory of mind,” “mentalizing,” “mindsight,” “mind reading,” and the “intentional stance.” The ability to recognize and interpret the mental activity of others is essential for normal cognitive and social development, and deficits in this area contribute to a variety of mental disorders, including autism.
The neurologist V. S. Ramachandran seems to have been thinking along these lines when he wrote, “It may not be coincidental that [you] use phrases like ‘self conscious’ when you really mean that you are conscious of others being conscious of you.”
This very likely explains why most of us find movies and television so compelling. The moment we turn our eyes to the screen, we are in a social situation that our hominid genes could not have foreseen: We can view the actions of others, along with the minutiae of their facial expressions—even to the point of making eye contact with them—without the slightest risk of being observed ourselves. Movies and television magically transform the primordial context of face-to-face encounters, in which human beings have always been subjected to harrowing social lessons, allowing us, for the first time, to devote ourselves wholly to the act of observing other people. This is voyeurism of a transcendental kind.
On differences in consciousness:
We’ve all had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly noticing our own reflection in the glass. At that moment we have a choice: to use the window as a window and see the world beyond, or to use it as a mirror. It is extraordinarily easy to shift back and forth between these two views but impossible to truly focus on both simultaneously. This shift offers a very good analogy both for what it is like to recognize the illusoriness of the self for the first time and for why it can take so long to do it.
June 2016: 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.”
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.
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. 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.”
July 2017: 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.
My Quick Summary of the Buddha’s Basic Argument
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.
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.
September 2018: 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.
The TL/DR on This Retreat Experience
- 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.
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. Receptive, Relaxed 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.
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.
April, 2022: 10 Day Mindfulness of Consciousness 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.