What I learned at a 10 day meditation retreat

Over the past few years, a few friends have raved about 10 day silent meditation retreats, describing it as one of their most life changing experiences. In Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull described how valuable it was to him. The Vipassana course my friend Dilan Dane recommended particularly caught my interest. It’s completely donation supported, but you’re not allowed to donate unless you complete the full 10 days. It’s almost entirely staffed by volunteers and you’re not allowed to volunteer unless you’ve sat a course. Either they’re really good at brainwashing people or there’s valuable experience to be gained.

For two years, I had been meditating for about 10 minutes a day. I started with Headspace and gradually transitioned to unguided sessions. My longest session was 90 minutes in a float tank. It helped me get more in touch with my emotions, disconnect from work, be more mindful, and think deeply about important life questions. I figured it’d be worth trying a more intensive practice. I signed up and chickened out in December 2016 due to fears about logistics and whether I’d get anything out of it. But when I heard that Ariel Liu and Diana Jung signed up, I did too. At least I’d get a road trip out of it!

We attended the 10 day course in early July. It was one of the most physically and psychologically painful things I’ve ever done. It also expanded my perspective in difficult to describe ways and continues to affect the way I experience the world weeks after the end of the retreat. This post attempts to put to words what the experience was like for me and some of the ways it changed me. My opinions have been fluctuating as I’ve continued to digest the experience, so I’ll try to focus on the things that are less likely to change.

Constraints & protocol

  • Summer camp style accommodations with roommates; tent camping optional
  • Strict schedule, almost identical every day from 4:30 am to 9:30 pm
  • 5–11 hours of meditation, 1.5 hours of pre-recorded video discourse per day
  • 2 vegetarian meals at 6 am and 11 am, fruit and tea at 5 pm
  • No electronics or reading or writing material
  • No communication of any kind, including gesturing or eye contact
  • Gender segregation
  • No exercise, drugs, or religious rituals or objects

Learning curve

We arrived and went through orientation on a Wednesday evening. We turned in our phones and wallets as if they were a discharged policeman’s gun and badge. After briefly meeting my roommate Larry and a few others, we gathered in the dining hall for our last dinner and orientation. Later, as we entered the meditation hall, I grabbed a floor chair from the overflowing shelves of sitting aids. We heard our first discourse from our teacher behind the television screen, took our vows of silence and adherence to the teaching, and learned the first meditation technique. We were to focus our attention on the area in and around the nose to sharpen our awareness. Our first sit was less than an hour. By the end my back and knees ached.

Returning to the dorms, it felt surreal and unnatural being surrounded by new faces and yet not introduce ourselves, not say thanks for holding a door open, and not talk with my roommate Larry about the experiences we’d just had. Knowing I had to awake at 4:30 the next morning, I slept quickly.

24 hours is a long time

For the first two days I tried to follow the schedule and the instructions to the letter. For the first few hours, we were instructed to focus on just our noses. When my mind inevitably wandered, I brought my attention back as soon as I realized. As the hours ground mercilessly on, I realized that my previous experience was not nearly enough. It was like someone who’s never run more than a mile trying to run a marathon. Eventually, I got frustrated and tired and allowed my mind to wander when it wished to.

When I first started, I reflexively labeled the sensations. I couldn’t observe and not label. Now breath feels hot, cold, dry, moist, forceful, faint, regular, irregular, ticklish, relaxed. The teacher told us

“Observe reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

By calling a sensation hot or cold, I was reducing a complex set of perceptions into a binary judgment. By just observing, I could feel how cold it was, and the moisture level, and so many other dimensions of the experience at the same time. From moment to moment, I watched how the vector of my experience changed. I thought about how I might avoid labeling in other parts of my life, and how that might allow me to better appreciate or process complexity. I thought about my first relationship, where many of my mistakes came from not acknowledging any reasoning that couldn’t be put into words.

Sometimes I’d think about a random memory, a startup idea, a book I’d read. More often I thought about how uncomfortable I was, how unnatural it was to sit so long, and questioning whether I should have come. With no external outlets for my thoughts, whether by conversation with others or simply writing things down, a heavy and oppressive sense of boredom set in.

I tried to focus on the exercises we were given, but after the first two days I started meditating only during the required sessions. I had gotten so bored of my nose. I thought I knew its every pore and every dynamic. At this point I’d been thinking about my nose for two days straight with no indication when we’d move on to something else. Any time we were asked to return to our rooms and meditate alone, I cheated and tried to sleep instead. I started thinking of sleep as a sort of time warp. I felt like I could learn the technique, but only if I could survive the 10 days, so survival became the name of the game.

I walked up and down the short trails on the campus over and over again. I suspected that the trails were deliberately short so as not to provide anything external to think about or observe.

Pain and the engineering mindset

Sitting with my legs crossed for an hour at a time was increasingly painful. My knees and back no longer fully recovered between sessions, and by the end of the day they silently screamed for my attention. I began to think of the meditation hall as a torture chamber. I forced myself to stop looking at my watch. The pain level told me how much time had passed.

Each time I entered the meditation hall, I tried a different experimental cushion configuration. I looked at others’ setups and tried to take lessons. This person used a zen bench, this person propped up his knees, this person covered himself in a blanket. I took what worked, stopped what didn’t. Sometimes I’d spend half the session on my butt and half sitting on a zen bench.

On day four, we learned to extend our awareness to the rest of our bodies, scanning from the top of the head down to the toes in a deliberate sequence. Along with this, we began “Sitting of Strong Determination” in which we were instructed not to move at all for each hour long session. They emphasized that the purpose of this exercise was not physical torture — if we were truly in pain, we should move. But if it’s an itch, don’t scratch it. If your foot is a little chilled, don’t move it under the blanket. Just observe. I interpreted this to mean that I could no longer completely change my setup half way through the session. The meditation hall before had always been filled with the susurrus of rearranging cushions. Now it was almost entirely silent save for an occasional cough, sneeze, or sniffle.

On day five, I made a mental note to myself over and over:

No matter how good you feel when this is over, never do this again. This is too awful now, and it’s too easy to forget in hindsight. Don’t forget!!

Sitting outside after a particularly painful session, I noticed the chair I sat in had big armrests. I felt comfortable. In a flash of insight, I realized I could build armrests for myself out of meditation cushions, distributing my weight over a larger surface area. Over the next three sessions, I perfected the idea. The pain was still there, but I no longer worried about doing lasting damage.

My meditation throne, as I came to think of it, was now complete, but my mental pain became only more intense without the physical pain to distract me. I scanned my body over and over and over. I didn’t think I’d see anything new. I had become increasingly adept at being able to perceive any part of my body, including places that had initially felt numb, like the top of my head, the insides of my ears, or my lower back. Each time I finished a scan, I would think, Should I scan again? But I just did that 50 times! I just want to be done, go back to my room, and sleep.

I was sleeping 12 hours a day. During group meditations I thought of all sorts of random things. In the preceding months I had tried multiple times to understand backpropagation and failed to really get it every time. Now I had the time to think deeply about it and finally understood it! The joy of that understanding was soon eclipsed by the return of my overriding boredom. During another session I spent the time estimating how long it would take for everyone in the meditation hall to suffocate if it were suddenly sealed off from the outdoors: about a day. On another day I spent three hours thinking about a cryptocurrency-backed human genome analysis marketplace.

I had every reason to be happy. I was being fed delicious food. I was in a beautiful environment with the freshest air, excellent weather, and good walking paths. I was no longer in physical pain. I had a routine. I had time to think. I had no deadlines or homework hanging over me. If I had a good book to read or a journal to write in, would that make me happy?

When all other options were exhausted, and I could think of nothing but my pain, I finally understood the teaching. The misery came from me. The meditation was the technique to break out of the misery. If I could observe the pain objectively, arising, and passing away, then it would no longer be a part of my identity. I would get outside it and just exist.

On the eighth day, I scanned my body more slowly than ever before. If I wasn’t 100% sure I was feeling something in a given part of the body, I’d wait patiently until I did. For body parts where I did feel something quickly, I dove deeper. What was I feeling there? Don’t label it. Feel all the different dimensions of the sensation. Spend time with every little part, even one segment of one finger. The teacher had been telling us this all along, but I hadn’t interpreted it correctly. By the time I had completed one scan from head to feet and back to head again, the hour had ended. Without a decision point of whether I should scan again, all the agony of the previous sessions fell away, and I felt overjoyed. I had gotten through an hour of meditation with no psychological pain. My mind had wandered occasionally, but I no longer felt that I was being tortured.

Soon we were asked to continue practicing awareness every waking moment. Every group session I did the same slow scan, and every session I felt increasingly at ease. But as I carried this awareness through to walking, eating, brushing my teeth, etc, I began to feel almost mechanical. I just existed. As I walked through the forest for the hundredth time, I didn’t notice the trees and the path anymore. Instead, a collection of colors and lines entered my eyes as my feet followed the path. I felt the varying pressure of the earth under my feet with each step. My attention was on these unlabeled perceptions, and it was only with effort that that perception turned into a label like “tree”.

Taking LSD is like taking a helicopter ride to the edge of the Grand Canyon. You can experience the wonder and appreciate the beauty, but you’re dependent on someone else to get you there. Meditation is the equivalent of walking. You always know how to get back.
 — Peter Coyote, Haight Detour

I could break out of that mechanical feeling at will, but I couldn’t stay embedded in sensation at the same time. The conflict came to a head when I stopped to look at a distant tree-covered peak in the distance bathed in the last rays of afternoon sunlight. Embedded in my sensations, I couldn’t appreciate the vista. When I focused on the vista, I couldn’t feel my body. During office hours the next day I asked the teacher about this. He told me it’s about balance and choice. I’m not focusing on the vista out of impulse. I’m choosing it.

On the last day, we learned loving-kindness meditation, in which we wish happiness and well-being for ourselves and others. During these sessions, I often felt an intense sense of pleasure, in some cases stronger than an intense alcohol or marijuana buzz. But I could turn it off at any moment if I so chose. That seems to suggest it wasn’t due to my general relief about going home soon.

Outside the last three mandatory meditation sessions, we were finally allowed to talk to ease our transition back to society and normal life. Almost everyone I talked to felt the retreat had a profound impact on them. I said to one guy “I noticed you always sat very straight with only a butt cushion. How did you take the pain? Are you a gymnast or otherwise very flexible for some reason?” He told me that he had been depressed for years, and for the last six months, he hadn’t been able to sleep for more than two hours a night. On the seventh night of the retreat, he had a full night’s sleep. Compared to the psychological pain of his depression, the physical pain of sitting was nothing. Someone else told me that similarly, he had had cluster headaches for months, and they went away for the first time after the fourth day and hadn’t come back. Both were committed to maintaining their practice an hour in the morning and hour in the evening. At least one guy said he had a terrible time, got nothing out of it, and was just glad to be leaving.

Knowledge vs wisdom

The teacher made a distinction between three types of wisdom

  1. heard or read about
  2. gained by thinking, analyzing, pondering
  3. experienced

A real-world example is any material from a class. In class you hear about some concept like backpropagation (type 1). Later, you think about why it makes sense, and you think you understand it (type 2). Finally, it comes time to do the homework where you have to actually make use of your knowledge. Suddenly you realize you don’t understand it at all. For hours you fight with your code until it works. Now you have experienced it, you know its nuances, and you have gained true wisdom (type 3).

I often think I understand some complicated concept, but when I’ve actually had to use it myself, the real learning happens. It’s obvious how this applies to course material, but for life lessons, it’s even harder. I’ve had to learn some lessons, like not taking what others say at face value and not hoping for others to change, over and over.

While much of Buddhism sounds like Stoicism, Buddhism comes with an instruction manual on how you actually achieve what Stoicism asks. That’s meditation.

What meditation really is — conditioning, and implications for free will

Buddhism asks us to abandon attachments, craving, and aversion. In meditation, I practiced controlling my attention in a systematic way. But I also practiced my reactions to pleasure and pain. I was able to dissociate myself from the pain in my butt. If someone insults me in normal life, will I be trained to dissociate myself from the pain in my chest?

The process of living is the process of learning some kind of value function. What action can I take that will maximize my expected value over some time horizon? The simplest possible reward function is to equate pleasure with positive value and pain with negative value. But most humans have a much more complicated and implicit system. We learn to construct our values from our perceived environments.

To me, meditation is an exercise that allows us to unlearn our implicitly learned value functions, and instead learn that our identity need not have anything to do with our day-to-day physical sensations. If we can gain mastery over our minds and bodies, only then can we achieve true freedom, and expect not to be upset by events we can’t control.

A taste of real focus

When I got back home, I opened my laptop and Chrome. I had an immediate and obvious awareness of my urge to open Facebook or some news site. Instead I decided to go on doing what I had intended to. This sense of control was massively different from the week before I left, where I felt like I was at the whim of my impulses whenever I opened my browser. For the next few days I continued to feel a strong sense of control. As it began to fade, I decided to meditate an hour a day to try to keep it. In the months since, I have fallen back into many of my old habits, but with conscious effort I can decide to do something hard, and it really works. This is a new skill I developed at the retreat during the “Sitting of Strong Determination.”

The law of impermanence — how my opinions changed over time

A constant emphasis in the teachings was that although you may feel pain or pleasure now, these sensations are temporary. Moreover, there’s nothing permanent in life. Why should one attach importance to something fleeting? If my scalp itches and I scratch it, it may itch again in another minute. If I ignore it, maybe it will go away. The main point here is not that I should ignore all sensation, but instead that I should have the ability to choose whether I want to do something, rather than being at the mercy of my environment.

Ariel and I took this to heart and decided to start writing the Pali word for impermanence on our hands every day as a reminder.

Over the last few weeks I’ve tried to meditate for at least an hour a day, but I often don’t get to do any. Sometimes I think it’s a waste of time, and sometimes I feel like I really need it and feel relieved afterwards. I’m comfortable with this almost daily shift of opinion. Over time, I’ll live the answer I’m looking for.

Robobuddhism — kheer & cardamom story

The teacher told us a story of a mother preparing a delicious dessert for her son. When she presented it to him, he rejected it before even trying it, saying, “It’s not on my plate. I can’t eat it.” Loving her son and wishing him to experience the joy of the dessert, she scooped it out of the dish it was in onto her son’s special plate and tried again. “It has black stones in it! I can’t eat it.” She tried to explain that the stones were actually cardamom and contributed to the flavor of the dish. Finally she agreed to pick out all the cardamom for him and he was able to enjoy the dish.

The plate is the language of a set of beliefs. The cardamom are pieces you don’t yet understand. Sometimes, in order to appreciate an ideological framework, you have to translate it into a language native to the listener, and perhaps omit certain parts. But as a listener, perhaps we can do this for the speaker and be open to much more wisdom.

There were many parts of the course I found hard to swallow. The parts about eternal rebirth, that all matter is made up of earth, water, fire, and air elements, and that it was prophesied 2500 years ago that Buddhism’s time would come again. But these are merely the cardamom pods. There is much wisdom in the teachings, and I think the world would be a better place if it were spread. I recently read a modern interpretation of Buddhist values called Tranquilism. It puts the kheer on my plate!

If I were to spread the practices, I would have to strip out the pieces I disagree with and make the language much more precise. I’d call it robobuddhism. But perhaps the existing thing is good enough for most people.

Tranquilism vs Foodie-ism

My favorite part of the Tranquilism essay is its discussion of pizza vs potatoes. When presented with a choice of either pizza or potatoes, most people would probably choose pizza. If afterwards, you gave that person potatoes, they might not enjoy it much because they’d be primed for wanting pizza instead. But the exercises in meditation teach us to practice presence. I’m eating a potato now, and it tastes good! I don’t care about the pizza. Zoomed in on this experience, the pizza doesn’t exist.

I often find myself over-optimizing my food experiences when I’d be happy eating pretty much anything. The key is to be present after making a decision.

Should you do it?

If you

  • have a high tolerance for protracted pain eg., endurance athletes
  • are depressed or otherwise experiencing a type of pain that doesn’t respond to medication
  • feel out of control
  • are open-minded
  • read this post
  • want an inflection point in your life

then you might want to consider trying the retreat. For the preceding six months, I had been developing an existential fear that poorly programmed AI might ruin my life. During the retreat, I gradually and deeply released this fear. A mix of logical and emotional reasoning went into the process, but the important thing is that I had the time and space to face my fear, why I felt it, and what it meant to me. I still think it’s worth trying to attack the problem of AI risk, but I am no longer bound by it. The full explanation merits a separate post.

Ariel Liu says it changed her in a deeper way than she feels capable of summing up in a sentence. For both of us, it was one of the highest “life changing per time spent” things we’ve done.

Please don’t do it because you want something specific to come out of it or because I’m glad I did it and you like me. You have to do it because you want the experience. You have to be ready to take the pain, both physically and mentally. I had no idea it would be so hard, and I often thought of how much I’d hate someone if they had told me I should go.

Remember on day 5 when I made a mental note never to do it again? On the one hand, I’m trying to be true to my past self and remember how I felt then. On the other hand, I think I not only learned how to deal with the pain I was experiencing, but also had time to reflect deeply about what is important in my life and how I want to live. It’s easy to imagine wanting such an experience again in a year or two. I’m open to the possibility, but it’s an extreme tool I’d use sparingly. I plan to explore alternative ways to think and feel deeply.

In the last few weeks since the retreat, I’ve often thought back to

  • how I felt suffering in a controlled environment, and how I was eventually able to overcome it
  • conclusions I came to about my life and my values that were only possible from extended, uninterrupted reflection
  • a sense that I didn’t and by extension don’t know myself as well as I thought, eg., my ability to quiet my mind
  • a new-to-me but 2500 year old model of how one should experience pleasure and pain, extending even to choosing what to eat on a daily basis
  • what it feels like to have strong focus and resulting sense of free will

I’m glad I went. If you’ve had similar experiences elsewhere, I’d love to hear how your experience compares to mine. If you’re interested in going, let’s chat about it!