Few weeks ago, I attended a 5-day silent retreat organized by the Dharmata Foundation. Since coming back, I’ve done some thinking about how it went and what I experienced, and a number of people have asked me what it was like. As this story was already told, retold and reshaped a few times, I thought I’d share it here. I’m not going into the details of what a silent retreat actually is, but I wrote a separate post for those who are curious. This post is all about reflections on the last trip.
In short, it was great... I think... maybe.
The longer version... well, let’s see how that comes.
As the title not so subtly alludes to, this was my second silent retreat. Both of them were at the same place, same time of the year, for the same duration, led by Anam Thubten and organized by the foundation that he started. Last year, I walked out from the first retreat with what felt to be an incredible level of relaxation, rest, energy and possibilities. After coming back, I told my wife how incredible it was and that I wished to share that experience with as many humans as possible, starting with her. In discussing this, we decided to plan a kayaking trip the following summer, find a quiet spot in the middle of the woods and spend at least one full day not talking to each other (didn’t quite happen that way, but that’s a different story)
I cannot say that I walked out feeling the same way out of this second retreat. It was good. It was relaxing but it wasn’t mind-blowing like the first one was. Maybe it’s just that the element of novelty has worn off. But I also cannot say I walked out without any impact either.
But I did intentionally force a relatively major difference between last year and this year: my expected outcome, what I came and what I walked away with.
The first time around, I was motivated in a big part by Stephen Covey’s 7th Habit: Sharpen the Saw. During the opening ceremony when Anam, the teacher leading the retreat, asked us to take a few moments to think about why we are here and what we are hoping to accomplish, I already had a clear and ready response: I’m here to do Stephen Covey. I will reflect on the last 12 months and think about the next 12 months and I’ve got a specific list of questions in my journal I would like to think through and answer. For the following 5 days I spent most of the available time with my journal thinking and processing all kinds of things. I was done with those questions at 11 am on Sunday, just a few minutes before final closing ceremony. And while there I read an entire book (it was about joy and I'd highly recommend it). In other words, I was relaxed but also “productive” and not bored at any time of the retreat.
This go around, after reading a few books, especially Tara Brach's Radical Acceptance, and having listened to one of Sam Harris’ podcasts where he talked about his own experience in silent retreats, I decided to try a different approach. The way Harris describes retreats, many people would typically go through escalating levels of boredom up until about day 3 or 4, when boredom would almost become physically painful and then... "something snaps." The feeling of boredom is when a person is wishing to be engaged/entertained; it is the mind’s grasping/wanting for stimulation, for doing things and stuff. That snapping "something" that Harris mentioned is when your mind comes to terms with your situation and gives up on the grasping. At that point, Harris says, you would feel some kind of shift, that might be accompanied with a sense of freedom, peace and/or joy. In Brach’s book, she also talked about how when in a retreat you give your mind all the space and freedom for things to arise, things might arise. And possibly things that may not be easy to deal with. As I wasn’t bored at all last year, so this time I made a plan: no books, no journaling, no efforting of any kind toward anything, but rather just be there and see what pops up.
Having tried this "no anything" approach, what did I experience? Was there a “snap”? Did anything arise? I’m still not quite sure, but I felt... something... maybe?
I spent most of the first two days just attempting to stay awake during the meditation sessions. Not ideal. Typically in the past, even when I’m not fully rested, I’ve never had trouble staying awake when meditating but for whatever reason the first two days were especially bad this time. This was probably the most difficulty I’ve ever experienced staying awake since beginning meditation practice 3 years ago. I finally managed to take a 30-min nap after dinner on the second day before the last meditation session of the day, and that helped a bit.
At the end of the third day, after having done a total of seventeen 45-minute meditation sessions, I can’t say that I felt pain, but I could tell there was some physical and mental discomfort and fatigue coming up. It was after dinner, and I was sitting in just about empty dining hall, still having over an hour till the start of the evening session, there was absolutely nothing to be done. Looking back, that was the peak of the whole retreat where my mind and body really wanted to reach for a book or a journal but I made myself just sit. I was getting a bit moody and cranky but there was nothing to be done. I thought about going for a nap but I already took one at lunch so that felt silly. I thought about skipping the evening session and doing... well, there was nothing else to do. And it was getting dark outside and beginning to rain. So I just made myself sit.
That last session of the third day was the first time in the retreat when I experienced what I think is the feeling of resting in your own open awareness while meditating. Interestingly enough, this was also the same session the year before when I felt the same thing. I’ll come back to the whole open awareness a bit later.
The next morning was Saturday and it started off well-enough. We had a pre-breakfast meditation in which I sank right back into the open awareness. After that, while everyone else lined up for breakfast, I put on my rain jacket and went out for a very slow walk in less than perfect weather. I skipped breakfast because one of the newer habits I’ve recently formed is to observe an 18-hour fast once a week from Friday to Saturday. Not wanting to be around the smells of fresh toast and syrup, I went for a walk in the woods instead.
During that walk, I asked myself, "What is the state of your mind?" which is something Anam talked about in the opening ceremony and suggested we keep practicing. The answer was, “well... kinda crappy.” And I thought about it and couldn’t quite put a finger on the cause of that. I did notice sensing a bit of downward pressure on my head and shoulders, and a thought about how many different impending things/tasks/projects I will have to return to in less than 2 days came to mine. And then I thought for a bit about the "have to." Truth be told, there are very few things I have to do. Almost all of them are the things I want to do and it’s not like they all must get done instantly, or ever for that matter. I can’t say that train of thought made me feel better at that moment but it did pass through my mind. And then about 30 minutes later...
I find myself sitting yet again in the empty dining hall, everyone having finished breakfast and dispersed to do random things or the morning work duty. I’ve got a cup of coffee in my hands and I ask myself the same question, "what is the state of your mind?" I was actually a bit surprised to realize that at that moment I felt absolutely great. All those states of peace, joy and being content that they talk about... I was there. But why the difference? Why the shift? The impending "doom" of everyday life was still out there somewhere in the near future, that hasn’t changed. I was still 15 hours into the fast and haven’t had the first calorie of the day. But I was warmer and dryer compared to walking outside in the rain. And I did have a cup of coffee in my hands, which was warm and also happened to be the first cup of caffeine in 4 days. The contrast in that 30-minute timespan was so stark that it is still stuck in my head. It was so stark that it was the only time I broke my “no journal” rule and did write a few things down.
I ended up riding that post-walk, coffee-in-hand happy state for the rest of the Saturday, which was the last full day of the retreat. And just about every time I went into a meditation that day, I found myself returning right back to the open awareness.
This takes us to the end of the 4th day at the retreat. The dinner is done, and yet again, I am sitting in the dining hall, with maybe 2-3 other people at other tables. I felt very different in that moment than the 24 hours prior to that. Second stark contrast of the day. I still had nowhere to be and nothing to do and yet there was nothing wrong with that. I did not feel any fatigue or discomfort at all. Just happily sitting there doing absolutely nothing. I was still aware of things happening around, various noises inside and out, few people moving and shifting about, the cooks in the kitchen prepping and/or cleaning up. Some thoughts would arise but none of them seemed important or relevant to where I was so I would just let them go and they would. I can’t say that sitting there felt special, life-changing or mind-blowing... it was... nice. It kind of felt like I was still in the meditation even though I was just sitting in the dining hall not trying/doing anything.
The last day of the retreat, we woke up, did one silent meditation session and broke the silence at 7:15 in the morning. We got to finally say hi to our neighbors next to whom we’ve been sitting for the last 5 days. This was followed by breakfast, work period and packing and then one last meditation session of the retreat. It was interesting and amusing to notice how much new thought and turbulence entered my mind just from having a few conversations with people in the last hour and a half. I can’t say if the open awareness was still there somewhere or if it was completely gone, but having engaged with others definitely brought on a whole lot of brain swirling that was not nearly as easy to dismiss and let go.
After that we had lunch, cleaned up, I helped finish all dishes and headed for the car for the drive back into the real world.
Now some reflections and take-aways...
1) If you are so tired that you keep falling asleep, maybe it would be better to simply take a timeout, go lie down, take a nap and stop torturing yourself for two full days?
2) Then again, a thing I’m coming back to is that in meditation you generally allow whatever arises to just happen. The key is that you shouldn’t feed what’s arising, follow it or engage with it, but you don’t block and resist those things either. When you do that, things just tend to come back in more force. As I was sitting there in the beginning fighting my drowsiness, I would jerk myself back and instantly feel that same pull. What if I allowed that to happen? Maybe if you are meditating, you could deal with drowsiness same way as with other state? If you can’t get out of it, get into it and let it go through you? Or maybe if you do that with staying awake, you’ll just end up falling asleep and either planting your face into the floor or tipping over onto the person next to you. The verdict is still open on this one.
3) Being in a quiet environment for several days helps to clear and settle the mind. That camp on the lake is a gorgeous spot to spend few days at. But when that environment was combined with the practice, in that retreat I was able to experience much calmer and deeper state of meditation than I ever felt back home.
I’m still learning about meditation and still discovering aspects/nuances that I hadn't noticed before. So this is just my take on things at this present time. We all have an inner narrator voice that keeps thinking up and bringing up thoughts. It is this voice that we typically identify as “I’m being and thinking” When we keep the awareness at this level, it is impossible to have thoughts and be aware of them at the same time. Whatever arises, be it work, your spouse or your children, as soon as you notice it and think to yourself “hey, I’m thinking about ___” that thought is already long gone. It doesn’t flow through, it doesn’t complete, it gets interrupted, and like a groundhog on a sunny day, it instantly disappears. However, if we move awareness to a lower point where we simply observe all sensory input, then even thoughts become something we could notice and watch. We can see each thought arising, the sentence/statement fully playing out in the mind then completing itself and then it’s just gone. I could sit for an entire 45-minute meditation session, observe everything and yet never be lost in thought even for a minute but rather be present in that room the whole time.
My description here doesn’t do it justice and possibly I’ll make a longer post about this someday, but it is a rather incredible state of being. A state which I’ve never been in outside of that retreat.
4) I am still surprised how quickly the state of my mind went from “I feel crappy” to “I feel great.” With just a few changes in... still don’t know. Coffee? Indoors vs. outdoors? Ambient temperature? And maybe that’s the transition Sam Harris was talking about, but there was no "snap" and I completely missed the point when it actually happened.
Our mood at any given moment is not who we are and when we pay attention to the mood, we might be surprised how often it changes all on its own. And if we pay attention to what is making it change, maybe we can even decide which mood we want to be in? Which brings me to...
5) “What is the state of your mind right now?” - I still ask myself that question, whenever I remember to come back to it, which is probably not often enough. Good way to bring yourself back and take a quick inventory of the current state.
6) Having done two retreats and taken each one to the extremes of I have questions/goals/topics to write about vs. I will not think about a single thing and see what happens, I’m thinking the next one should be somewhere in the middle. One of the key principles that Buddhist practice emphasizes is “always learn, reflect and meditate.” In the retreat, learning takes the form as the two daily teaching sessions. And clearly, there’s plenty of meditation. But reflection is a different animal. Reflection is when you do engage with your thoughts but do so intentionally and a clearer mind. In theory all that “free” time between the sessions is the time to reflect and think about things. Journal is probably not the most terrible thing to have around. Still, not bringing a book next time.
7) Lastly, sitting for 45-minutes 8 times a day is hard. I forgot from last year how actually physically tiring it is to sit for that long. Not much of a take away. Does make you wonder though, why do we do these things to ourselves? And yet, I was glad for every second I was there and if I had an opportunity to stay another 5 days I wouldn’t hesitate in a heartbeat.