What I learned from a 7-day silent meditation retreat

A few weeks ago, I returned from a 7-day silent retreat in Southern Utah. We ate our meals in silence, spoke only for functional reasons (rarely at all), and meditated for eight hours spread throughout the day.

Before I did it, I had mixed feelings about the prospect. I hadn’t ever meditated for that length of time before (not even close), and although my introverted tendencies lead me to feel comfortable with solitude, I also crave one-on-one conversations. So the prospect of complete silence made me nervous.

And yet I’d read that Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, participates in such retreats every year, and I’d heard that Yuval Harari, author of the books Sapiens and Homo Deus, spends two months of every year in meditation. If Harari can do two months, what’s one week?

Now that it’s over, I can say the experience was transformative — a week that shifted me for the better in many ways.

I’d like to share why that is, with two caveats.

First, what I gained that week had far more to do with the lived experience than with discovering a list of tips for better living. Because of this, there’s a lot I can’t convey here about what I learned at the retreat. Second, in some sense this list is mostly about remembering the obvious, which is a surprisingly difficult task. (In writing this piece, I realized how much I had forgotten to remember.)

With that said, here are insights I gained.

1. Strong determination works, even beyond the act of meditation.

During our meditation sessions, we were encouraged to practice what’s called strong determination. This means that after we found a comfortable yet alert position, we tried not to move at all. We pushed through the pain that inevitably comes with sitting for long periods and observed the moments when we had an itch rather than scratching it.

At first I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to break this rule — to shift my leg or to scratch an itch. But I quickly noticed that by committing to strong determination, I was able to reach deeper states of meditation.

This has lessons far beyond sitting still. We might think that small interruptions to our daily work don’t matter much. But just as strong determination leads to deeper meditative states, we reach deeper states when we commit to total focus in all of our daily activities. An unexpected conversation, a text, or a ding from social media can derail our efforts to get to a state of deep work. These are tiny distractions, seemingly insignificant, but they spell the difference between deep work and shallow work.

Through strong determination, I also noticed that pain was separate from suffering. Pain would arise in my legs, and I would bring awareness to it. Then, a few moments later, my awareness would shift elsewhere and the suffering would stop. At times, simply by bringing full awareness to the pain in my leg I could convince myself that the sensation was actually pleasurable instead of painful, and the perceived sensation would shift accordingly. I believe this, too, has implications for all of life. Pain is real, but suffering is optional.

2. Even in stillness, the world is a busy place.

After 72 hours of silence, I started to tune in to what was happening inside my body. The lungs were breathing, the heart was pumping, the intestines were processing, the mind was churning mental images, and more. I realized that when I multi-task — when I immediately respond to every text, every Slack notification, every notification from social media — I’m doing those things on top of all the busyness in my body. So it’s no surprise that I feel frazzled after a day without deep work, without extended concentration on a single task.

In other words, the baseline of life isn’t stillness. The baseline of life is busyness. When we stack layer after layer of activity on top of it all the busyness, scrambling from this to that, we push into the territory of exhaustion, possibly even depression. Deliberate focus on a single task at a time may help us counteract the baseline of busyness.

3. We experience the same sense of awareness, you and I.

Even though we didn’t speak through the week, I felt a connection to the people there at the level of being. That is, I began to intuit that at my core I am aware in the exact same way another human being is aware. Beneath all the trivialities, there is just awareness.

Because of this, it didn’t matter what someone’s personality was like. I sensed that every human being deserves respect, and I sensed love for whole of humanity without all the trivial things I typically care about getting in the way. The silence made this sense of awareness louder than it typically is in my day-to-day life.

4. Set the fork down.

As I mentioned, we ate our meals in silence.

It’s a strange situation, eating at a table with a bunch of other people and not saying a word. But it ended up being a useful exercise, to focus all my attention on the act of eating.

What I noticed is that there’s a moment, maybe 2–3 seconds into each bite, where the sensory experience of eating is at its highest and I fully sense the bite on my tastebuds as well as the echo of the flavor along the roof of my mouth. In that moment, I’m prone to mindlessly scoop up more food so I can get through my meal and on to my next task.

To counteract this mindless impulse, we set our forks down between each bite and focused on the full experience of eating each bite — exploring the way flavors change, noticing how a bite of one type of food might complement a previous bite, paying attention to the way the rest of the body reacts to the activity of eating. It turns out that even though I’d eaten thousands of meals in my life, there was plenty of territory I had never explored. By not fully experiencing the simple activity of eating I was letting those moments slip away, and since mundane moments like eating a meal make up most of life, in a sense I was letting life itself slip away. Since the retreat I’ve had a greater resolve to put the fork down and experience each bite.

5. Restriction is an enabler.

When I’m meditating on my own, I’m bombarded with thoughts to get up and move to the next task. But in a group with 15 other people practicing total silence, that’s not an option — and I’m grateful it wasn’t. I would have never been able to meditate for eight hours a day otherwise.

For me, this means that I need to find situations that deliberately restrict my choices more often. There is power in less. In this vein, I started using the Insight Timer app, which enables me to connect with other people who are meditating in my area, including people from the retreat. Although it’s no substitute for an in-person community, this digital container has contributed to my ability to consistently meditate by seeing that other people are doing it.

6. Meditation is one way to peak experience.

At the start of the week my intention was to have what the psychologist Abraham Maslow calls a peak experience — an experience of deep euphoria that transforms human beings for the better. I’d read several books about such experiences including 10% Happier, Stealing Fire, and more, and I wanted to experience something like that for myself during the week.

I quickly realized that I needed to start with smaller intentions such sitting still for a full session or actually setting my fork down between bites. I couldn’t just will a peak experience into existence. However, there were several moments throughout the week where I moved into a space of tranquility and felt a deeper love for humanity. These glimpses of a peak experience were proof enough for now that meditation is one way to access deeper peace. I don’t expect that a peak experience will fix all my flaws, but I do believe, in the words of Dan Harris, that these types of experiences might make me 10% happier. And that is sufficient.

7. There are many ways to meditate.

Throughout the week we experienced several ways to practice. I won’t recount everything here, but I think it’s worth mentioning one idea from The Science of Meditation by Shinzen Young, whose teachings were part of the retreat.

Young divides the practice of mindfulness into three parts:

  • Concentration Power — The ability to focus something (such as the breath) for an extended time.
  • Sensory Clarity — The ability to note what arises in awareness from moment to moment.
  • Equanimity — The ability to fully experience what arises without identifying with it

When it comes to noting, Young breaks the senses down in three ways: See, feel, and hear. This happens with the eyes, the body (taste, smell, touch), and the ears. But it also happens internally as well. We see mental images, feel emotions, and hear thoughts in the mind. In other words, we all generally experience external and internal seeing, feeling, and hearing.

The practice of noting therefore consists of being still and observing where awareness focuses moment to moment in these six areas (inner seeing, feeling, and hearing + outer seeing, feeling, and hearing).

As with everything related to meditation, this practice seems insignificant at first glance. But as you develop greater sensory clarity, you become conscious of the psychological garbage you’re carrying around. More importantly, you open the way to be at peace with what arises without identifying with it (i.e., experiencing equanimity).

And why does this matter? As Young writes, “Meditation gives us the ability to be less bothered when we experience physical or emotional pain and more fulfilled when we experience physical or emotional pleasure.” And he adds, “Meditation allows us to experience pain without suffering and pleasure without neediness.” In this way, we improve our ability to experience every moment of life more fully.

I believe this is why people like Ed Catmull and Yuval Harari participate in meditation retreats. They know that by slowing life down they open the way to experience the rest of life more fully moment to moment. This helps them keep focused on what matters most so they don’t live without having fully lived.

***

If you live in Utah and are interested in meditation, I recommend Lower Lights, the group I did the retreat with. Above all, I decided to participate in the retreat despite my many reservations because I trust Thomas McConkie, the founder of Lower Lights. I’d taken several shorter workshops and courses from him, and since they were each fantastic, I had a good sense that the retreat would be amazing. And it was. I really hope I have the luxury of doing it again.

If you don’t live in Utah, you can download a Mindfulness Essentials workshop from Thomas and listen to his Mindfulness+ podcast. They’re both excellent.

I look forward to growing this community and hope to see you at Lower Lights.

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