On my first ten day meditation retreat I had experiences that were sublime, blissful, and bordering on psychedelic, giving me a glimpse of what might be possible with dedicated practise.
“That would be my worst nightmare” was a response I often heard when I told friends, family and colleagues that I’d signed up for a ten day silent meditation retreat. For many people the idea of sitting alone with your thoughts seems either incredibly boring or fraught with danger. It’s certainly a world away from our hyper-engaged daily life where we fill even small pockets of time with podcasts, social media and a million other micro-distractions. But I was up for it. I wanted to know what would happen if I starved my mind of all the stimulation and distraction that it craved. I wanted to go inward and confront whatever needed to be confronted. I wanted to see what eighty hours of meditation felt like. I had meditated on and off for the last few years — usually 30 minute sessions four times a week — and it had changed my life for the better. But what would the effects of such a high dose be? Would it weaken the tendencies towards doom-scrolling and self-meditation that I had developed during lockdown? Would reality feel different?
I took the retreat seriously as an experiment, and while I had previously attended a four day retreat in the mountains of Northern Thailand, it had nowhere near this level of intensity. I had doubts, too. It wasn’t so much a question of whether I wanted to sign up but whether now was the right time. Not only was this the year of the pandemic and state-wide lockdowns, but my grandfather had passed away rather suddenly a few weeks before. I noticed my drinking had spiked. I figured that I was avoiding feeling the loss. If things went wrong, I might be forced to sit with grief in silence, alone. The thought had me a little worried.
I discussed the idea of pulling out of the retreat with friends and family, but they encouraged me to continue, and so in late November, at the start of a particularly wet summer, I made my way up to the NSW International Meditation Centre on Australia’s east coast. There wasn’t a lot of information about the retreat online, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they be highly religious? Stern and conservative? I’d read about people being forced to sit through pain in some retreat centres, and I’d long had problems with my back. That didn’t sound fun — or particularly conducive to meditation.
Smiling faces greeted me when I pulled up to the centre. I handed over my mobile phone and laptop for safe keeping, and was taken on a tour of the grounds. The property was beautiful — nine acres of bush and manicured gardens sitting on a small headland by Lake Macquarie. At the centre’s highest point stood a temple with the distinctive golden-gilded dome that marks all Burmese pagodas. As we passed by the dome gave off an otherworldly glow in the afternoon sun.
When we made it to the meditation hall I was relieved to see it had air conditioning — this being the height of the Australian summer, with temperatures predicted to hit 40 degrees celsius. Even better, it appeared that I had my own room. The idea of sharing a dorm was not very appealing. I figured that if I was going to be sitting through some difficult psychological experiences, having my own quiet space to retreat to would be important.
The next morning the deeply resonant sound of a Burmese temple bell woke me from a light and unsettled sleep. It was 4am. I lay there for a while, listening to the pre-dawn chorus of frogs, beetles and birds before eventually dragging myself out of bed. Before I made my way to the meditation hall, I tried to familiarise myself with the timetable for the next nine days:
4:00am: Wake up
4:30am — 5:30am: Meditation
6:00am: Morning discourse
6:30am: Breakfast then rest
8:00am — 9:00am: Group meditation
9:30–11:00am: Meditation and individual instruction
11:00am — 1:00am: Lunch then rest
1:00pm — 1:45am: Meditation
2:00pm — 3:00pm: Group meditation
3:30pm — 5:00pm: Meditation and interviews for new students
5:00pm — 6:00pm: Tea then rest
6:00pm: Evening discourse
7:30pm — 8:30pm: Group meditation
Practising Ānāpāna (mindfulness of breathing)
We spent the first half of the retreat practicing breath meditation. Our teacher called it ‘Ānāpāna’, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, and it involved focusing on the sensation of the breath as it hits your upper lip. This is more difficult than you might expect. Just as soon as you get your mind to focus, a thought will bubble up and carry your attention away. You’ll be sitting calmly, believing yourself to be meditating, and then you’ll suddenly realise that you’ve been engrossed in some inner monologue about all your favourite types of food for the last few minutes.
This experience is completely natural. Having a wandering mind doesn’t mean you are ‘bad’ at meditation: it means you have a mind. Wandering is what minds do. It’s best if we try to approach meditation like we would any other skill. The first time we pick up a guitar we don’t expect to play like Jimi Hendrix — so why should we assume that we will have perfect concentration the first time we meditate? Skill development requires training, and in meditating it is helpful to recognise that we are developing a particular set of skills. Take this diagram from neuroscientist Dr Peter Malinowski:
When Dr Malinowski designed an experiment to measure the effect of meditation on brain function, he had to break it down into different stages. Each stage represents a ‘mental operation’ which activates a specific brain network. You’ll notice that ‘sustaining focus on (the) object’ is just the first stage here. That is because meditation is not just about developing concentration — we also need to train our ability to notice that our mind has wandered, to disengage from a thought, and to return our attention back to our breath. All of these are useful skills.
On the first day of the retreat my concentration was pretty rusty. While I usually have a regular meditation practise I lost the habit when Sydney went into lockdown. On top of this, many months of life and work stress had made my mind a tangled mess. For the first few sessions I tried to notice when my mind had wandered as soon as possible, and then to calmly direct my attention back to my breath without judgement.
On the second day my mind began to ‘stick’ to my breath a little more easily, and the disruptions became less frequent. But the mind doesn’t like to be still, and so it looked for opportunities to distract me, using a little reflection on the length of the breath, or the appearance of lights and colours, or even a little self-congratulatory talk as an opportunity to launch into a monologue; “Gee you’re really good at this! I always suspected that you would be. If you think back over the last few years I think you’ll find that…” Sometimes I can’t help but chuckle at how sneaky the mind can be. There is nothing to be done but to take a deeper breath and start again.
Over the first few days I slowly became more and more absorbed in my breath. At first, the space on my upper lip seemed like a small and hazy figure in the distance — difficult to perceive and even more difficult to keep ‘in sight’. But as my mind gradually settled, my attention ‘zoomed in’ on the sensation of my breath until it filled all of my mental vision, and maintaining focus became much easier. In parallel, the volume and power of my thoughts seemed to decrease until they eventually became silent.
When I start to meditate I notice I can detect my breath, the arising thoughts, and a sort of observing consciousness that surveys what is going on. When I focus on the breath, I am directing that observing consciousness. When I get tangled up in thought, it is because that consciousness has been distracted. But something interesting happens when your mind becomes quiet: the sense of separation between an ‘observing self’ and sensation collapses. There is no longer any detached observer. Your consciousness becomes unified with your breath.
It was on the third day that I reached this point, and something quite interesting began to happen. I began to see blue smoke and white lights in my visual field (which, our teacher told us, we should ignore) and my body started to pulse with a warm, blissful feeling that gradually relaxed every muscle in my body. It was wonderful. As I adjusted the levels of focus and effort, the sense of bliss grew more and more intense.
When the meditation ended, I realised that I had spent the full hour focused on my breath without distraction. As I walked outside the meditation hall my mind felt calm, clear and illuminated. Looking around, everything seemed more beautiful than when I walked in — the bush seemed crisper, the colours more vibrant.
Feeling content and more than a little blissed out, I took a seat on the balcony outside my room and looked across at a row of gumtrees that were being buffeted by strong winds. The trees seemed to be dancing like flames — their branches moving in a series of infinitely complex and graceful movements. I sat and watched them, deeply moved by the beauty of the world around me.
Meditation allows you to investigate how your mind actually works. As you sit and observe you will find that you are often lost in the past, or projecting yourself into the future. I’ve often found myself daydreaming about my desires, revisiting difficult experiences, or just mindlessly flipping through inconsequential images and impressions. But all of this mind wandering has a more sinister side: it cuts us off from the present. It’s a sort of haze that stands between us and the people we love. Clearing away that haze can have a profound impact on your quality of life.
I’ve come to think of concentration meditation like this: every day we walk around wearing glasses cake with dust and grit. Our vision has been so poor for so long that we do not suspect that it could be any better. This lack of colour and clarity can have quite a deadening effect on the senses, which in turn deeply affects how we feel about existence. When we practise concentration meditation, we gradually clean our perceptual lenses, and we find that the world is returned to us more radiant and beautiful than ever.
My first taste of Vipassanā (insight meditation)
For the second half of the retreat we practised Vipassanā, or ‘insight meditation’ — a technique I had never attempted before. While Ānāpāna is said to remove impurities present in the mind, Vipassanā meditation helps us develop wisdom, and so permanently uproot the causes of Duḥkha (unsatisfactoriness and suffering).
The instructions went like this: begin by building up a good level of concentration through Ānāpāna. Once your concentration is firmly established it is time to start Vipassanā. This involves placing your attention at the crown of the head, and observing any sensations that may be present — heat, coolness, tightness, pain, pins and needles — whatever it may be. Next, you observe the sensations present in your face. Then the back of the head, followed by the head as a whole.
The idea (at least in this tradition) is to move systematically through the body with stable attention, observing sensations and noticing whether they are changing, or whether they stay the same. The sequence ends with a focus on the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands, and then the top of your head. Finally, we observe ‘the entire mind-body entity’ for a while before starting all over again.
This practise is explained as the observation and experience of Anicca, impermanence — the fact that all things are subject to change. In Buddhist philosophy Anicca is one of the three ‘basic characteristics of all phenomenal existence’ alongside Anattā, non-self; the lack of any unchanging, permanent self or soul, and Duḥkha; the unsatisfactoriness and suffering of existence — aging, illness, craving, and death.
If we pay close attention to our experience we find that sensory impressions like touch, taste, smell, sound, and thoughts are all transitory — they arise, and they pass away. This is also true of everything in the world around us. While we experience a table as a solid object, we know that on a more precise level the table is made up of innumerable atoms in a constant state of movement and change. Given enough time, that table will gradually break down and lose its form. This same dynamic plays out with much larger structures, too. Mankind’s grandest monuments will eventually collapse and sink into the sand; mountains will erode; and in nine billion years or so our sun will die out. All things have a beginning and an end. Everything is impermanent.
I don’t want to spend too much time on Buddhist philosophy and the technical aspects of practise because I recognise that this sort of talk might be strange or isolating. What is important to note is that you don’t have to buy into any of these ideas to practise meditation. On the retreat it was made clear that we are not expected to believe in Buddhist doctrine: we are only asked to try the techniques and come to our own conclusions about our experience. Buddhism is perhaps unique among world religions in its utter disinterest in the idea of conversion.
When some people practise Vipassanā for the first time, they can feel an occasional sensation of pins-and-needles, or tightness somewhere in the body. Some find it difficult to detect much sensation at all. My experience was a little different. The first time I turned my attention to the top of my head I became aware of tens of thousands of sensations all throughout my body, constantly flashing in and out of existence, pulsing, shimmering, vibrating, sometimes rising and falling like waves. When I inspected the feeling of pain, I found the sensations pulsed at a different frequency to the feeling of heat. It was like I was able to see what our everyday experiences are really made of, and it was completely overwhelming. The sheer amount of information was too much for me, and these strange sensations had a particularly raw and visceral feeling to them. It was all rather unpleasant.
After we finished our session I struggled to come to understand what I had just experienced. I’d heard people like Daniel Ingram speak openly about the strange, esoteric experiences that can come with a huge number of hours in meditation, but I had no idea that something like this was anywhere within reach. I quickly returned to my room and tried to process what had happened. I tried to calm down, but I slowly realised that I was experiencing fairly severe anxiety. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get my heart-rate down.
After half an hour of this I became concerned. I wasn’t sure that it was wise to continue the retreat. My grandfather had passed away just a few weeks earlier and I was worried this might cause some difficult psychological experiences. I went and spoke to the teacher and explained everything that had happened. I told him that I would make a decision on whether I continued within the next 24 hours. He was understanding and empathetic, and gave me a few strategies to calm myself. I followed them, practising my concentration meditation for several hours before the next session. It took a while, but the anxiety finally died down and was replaced by the familiar sense of ease and calm. Thank goodness.
That night a severe electrical storm blew over the retreat centre, and I stayed up late watching the lightning flash over the surrounding bushland as the wind howled through the trees. The next morning I emerged to find that the storm had passed. The full moon hung above the pagoda, illuminating the rose gardens surrounding it. I was sure I was going to see out the rest of the retreat.
In our first session I experienced sensations in the form of a disparate, chaotic energy that reminded me of television static. When I reported this to the teacher, he was not in the least bit fazed. His only advice was not to get hung up on any specific experience, and to keep going. The student next to me said that it felt like his whole body was vibrating. Our teacher calmly replied that “your body is vibrating, you just don’t notice it most of the time.” Things were certainly starting to get interesting.
Later that day I discovered that by adjusting my level of concentration, calm and effort I was able to bring this chaotic energy into focus, first as chains of lightning shooting through my body, and then as a semi-solid flux that pulsed through my body. I won’t dwell on describing these experiences, but I will say that they were beautiful and blissful.
I began to wonder if harnessing this energy was the goal of meditation, and so fell into a common trap — striving to replicate previous experiences, and craving particular sensations. After a few fruitless sessions I found that I was tense, frustrated and utterly exhausted. Slowly but surely, and following the teacher’s advice, I began to let go, starting each meditation with openness and without expectation. The change was dramatic, and I was rewarded with a deep experience of peace. It felt unspeakably beautiful — a gift.
When the session ended I took a slow walk around the grounds to soak up the beauty of the property. I crossed the lawns surrounding the pagoda and made my way to the fire trail at the edge of the property. The cicadas seemed to be screaming with particular intensity. I stopped to listen, and found that they were holding a wavering drone across three octaves, like a string section marking a moment of fragile beauty. I looked back to the golden dome of the pagoda, framed by gum trees and shimmering in the sun. I stood there for a while trying to make sense of what I was experiencing. Had I entered a different reality? Or was I simply experiencing this one with greater clarity?
On the final morning of the retreat we gathered together to share the merit that we had gained over the past ten days. Our teacher played a recording of the centre’s founder, Mother Sayamagyi, who led the session with a slow and soulful chant. I found myself fighting back tears. I was inexpressibly grateful. The last thing I wanted to do was to leave the centre, but I knew that I had to. The purpose of meditation is not to blissfully escape the world: it is to strive to see more clearly so that we can help others free themselves from suffering.
A story from the Pali Canon illustrates this well. We find the Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi tree after achieving enlightenment, wondering whether he should return to the world to teach what he has learned. He reflects that mankind delights in craving and attachment, and, given that realising the true nature of existence is very difficult, decides to dwell in bliss and ease rather than to teach.
Brahmā, the king of the gods, hears this and falls into despair. He appears before the Buddha, pays his respect, and says:
“Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the One-Well-Gone teach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.”
The Buddha, moved by compassion for humankind, decides that he will teach. And so he leaves the peaceful grove and returns to the world in search of his first student.
Leaving the meditation hall I took one last walk around the grounds, then said goodbye to the retreat staff and our teacher, promising to be diligent in my practise and to return for another retreat next year. The drive home felt like a return to another world.
It has been two months since the retreat ended, and while the blissful glow dissipated after a few days, some changes seem to be permanent. My concentration is stronger than it has ever been, and the volume of my thoughts have been permanently lowered. This has allowed me to reconnect with the people and places around me, and to be more present in my daily life. It’s certainly no panacea for all of life’s problems — I still experience stress and anxiety, craving and sadness — but it has changed my daily experience for the better.
Many people have asked me what the retreat was like, and what I learned from eighty-plus hours of meditation. If I was forced to summarise, I would say I learnt:
- how desperately the mind works to distract and occupy us
- that the mind can be completely silenced through concentration meditation (and that this is very pleasant)
- that you can cultivate states of concentration, equanimity, serenity and bliss that are very, very deep
- that the brain can tune into unusual states of consciousness that are very far from our everyday experience
- that if you look closely at sensations in your body, you will find that tens of thousands (millions? billions?) of micro processes and sensations are happening every second — flashing in and out of existence, pulsing, vibrating, and moving like waves
- that it was easy for me to give up speaking, reading, drinking, music, phones and computers, etc
- that meditation is incredibly rewarding, and can significantly improve your quality of life, your relationships with those you care about, and your relationship with the universe
- that oddly enough, while the experience was blissful, I would not call it restful. I returned home fairly exhausted, and spent a week catching up on sleep.
I am very happy to answer any questions you might have in the comments, while acknowledging that I am still an absolute beginner in the realm of meditation. If you are interested in doing a retreat yourself, I would not hesitate to recommend the International Meditation Centre, which has branches in Europe, North America and Asia.
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