What I Learned on a 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat
On November 24th I embarked on my first ever 10-day silent meditation retreat at a remote location in Colorado. I have been meditating daily for about two and a half years and have seen great benefits in my daily life. I finally had the rare opportunity to drop off the face of the Earth for ten days to explore the workings of the mind in-depth, and I gratefully accepted it.
Vipassana means “to observe” or “to see things as they really are”. That has been the main objective of my meditation practice from the start, so this seemed like the perfect technique for me. This technique not only claims to offer the classic benefits of meditation like increased focus, attention, and wellbeing but also a more interesting benefit: the uprooting of defilements of the mind (like greed, hatred, and ignorance) and the end of suffering.
Ultimately, when taken on fully through years of dedicated practice, this is also the technique to reach the state of total Enlightenment.
I was not shooting for Enlightenment on my first 10-day but I was very interested to see what would happen. What followed was extremely difficult, surreal, and undeniably transformative and positive. I had immense frustrations and incredible peak experiences. I experienced peace in a way I didn’t think was possible. It was one hell of a ride.
The course was put on by the Rocky Mountain Vipassana Association, a branch of the global Dhamma organization that offers free retreats to spread Vipassana meditation practice. The organization is entirely volunteer and donation supported, and they refuse donations from anyone except students who have completed a 10-day course. The practice is supported only by those who have received benefits from the tradition and want to help pay for other’s experience in the future, not their own.
I arrived at the campgrounds the night before the retreat began and had a few hours to meet some fellow meditators before we began observing Noble Silence. This was also where we gave up our phones to be kept safely away from temptation. We were also not to use any reading or writing material, instruments, games, etc. for the duration of the course. Giving up the phone felt quite good actually, but that was when it really sunk in that I was stepping into a different world for the next ten days.
There were about 30 men and 35 women. There was a wide age range (the youngest person I met was 21, the oldest around 70) and people from many ethnicities and backgrounds. Men and women were soon segregated and were to be kept segregated until day 10 of the course to prevent “distraction”. Separate dorms, separate walking and dining areas, bathrooms, etc. The only time men and women saw each other was in the meditation hall: men sitting on one side, women on the other.
After a light meal, we soon entered the meditation hall and took on Noble Silence: no speech, touch, or any form of communication. The silence was to remain absolute for ten days except for a few times each day if you wanted to talk to the teachers about your instruction, or if you needed to talk to the course manager about logistics.
We had a short introductory lecture and met our teacher: the late S.N. Goenka.
Goenka was a Burmese-Indian meditation instructor who was pivotal in spreading Vipassana across the globe. He died in 2013, but he remained the primary course instructor through a series of recorded video lectures and audio instructions. Two assistant teachers sat at the front of the hall, running the course.
If you’ve ever met a very experienced meditator, someone who has spent years on retreat, you might know what I mean when I say Goenka and the assistant teachers had a shocking presence about them. They exuded a sense of focus, calm, ease, and compassion that was nearly tangible. Goenka somehow managed to get this across even without his physical presence, but the assistant teachers were absolutely radiant with the fruits of their practice.
In addition to the silence, students formally agree to five precepts to be followed at all times:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
We would be provided breakfast and lunch each day. Old students (anyone who has already completed at least one 10-day course) fasted after lunch until the next morning. New students received a small meal of tea and fruit at 5 pm. Nothing except for water outside of mealtimes. We were advised to only eat until we were about 3/4 full at each meal to aid in our meditation practice. My stomach nearly growled in anger at the advice, but I resolved to do my best.
We then had our first one-hour meditation and retired for the night.
We were housed in dormitory cabins spread around the campgrounds surrounding the central meditation and dining hall. Living with seven strangers, I soon realized not being able to talk made for a peaceful but slightly dysfunctional cabin. I never found out who insisted on keeping the thermostat set to 85 every night, but thankfully I was in the perfect environment to practice acceptance and equanimity in the face of extreme suffering.
From then on, each day was about the same. We awoke at 4am with the aid of a gong being rung around the campgrounds. We meditated for two hours in the hall. Then breakfast. Three hours of meditation and instruction before lunch. A short break after lunch, and an opportunity to sign up to meet with the assistant teacher for questions. Four hours of meditation and sometimes new instruction from Goenka. Tea and fruit at 5pm. An hour of meditation, then a 1.5-hour video discourse from Goenka. A final meditation and then bed.
All meals were vegetarian, prepared by volunteer old students who have come to serve for all or part of the 10-day course. Though simple, they were normally quite good and nutritious. I definitely did not stop eating at 3/4 full the first few days, but soon I was able to at least not overeat as my body adjusted to the schedule.
The highlight of mealtimes came from a surprising source: the quotes on the ends of Celestial Seasonings tea bags. My only reading material for ten days, I looked forward to those quotes more than I care to admit. And I was always so disappointed when I had a repeat. “No man is an island entire of itself” — Thanks John Donne, just the reminder I needed seven times while I talk to no one for ten days. (My favorite: “How strange that nature does not knock, and yet does not intrude!” — Emily Dickinson)
During breaks, we were asked to refrain from exercise or any activities that would be distracting to others. I mainly spent my time stretching, walking when the weather permitted, or laying in bed.
It was later explained more explicitly that in many ways the course was an opportunity for us to live as monks for ten days. Our needs were taken care of by the generosity of others, we practiced complete silence, and we took on a simple and structured life. We were allowed the opportunity to dive as deeply into the practice as possible.
I was surprised to find out we would not be learning the Vipassana technique until day 4.
I had intentionally not looked up much about the course so I could come in without expectation. I soon found out that before we learned Vipassana we had an important prerequisite: Anapana.
Anapana meditation focuses on respiration, specifically just the sensations felt on the inside and outside of the nostrils, and on the area above the upper lip. For the first two days, we focused on nothing except sensations on that area for the entire 11 hours of meditation each day. Then the area became even smaller: just the area above the upper lip.
The purpose of this practice is to sharpen the mind and hone attention. The idea is that the smaller the area you are concentrating on, the sharper the mind becomes. We were informed this was necessary to even begin the real practice.
The fourth day (which happened to be Thanksgiving) was a big day, and we finally received our Vipassana instructions. After about 35 hours of meditation, I was eager to attend to something more than a few square inches of skin, and I was not disappointed. The Vipassana technique is still focused entirely on one thing: sensation. But now we were to experience that sense throughout our entire body. Beginning at the head, we were to carefully pass our attention over every surface of our body down to our toes. We were to move a few inches at a time, simply noticing whatever sensations were there. This was the practice.
At first, the technique was quite difficult. There were many areas where I did not feel any particular sensation, and the main things I could feel were the pains of sitting for more time than the human body was ever intended. But with continued practice and the concentration developed by 35 hours of Anapana and very few distractions, I soon began to feel sensations in most areas.
I was mainly feeling what the teachers called “gross” sensations: things like pain, intense vibration, deep pressure, itching, etc. Mostly unpleasant sensations, or obvious ones. But with continued practice, my awareness opened to “subtle” sensations: a soft tingling, a slight coolness, a feeling of lightness. These sensations were often described as pleasant.
It was surprising to me that there are always perceptible sensations on every part of the human body. Goenka would sometimes describe the sensations as the vibrations of the subatomic particle components of the body, which seems a little out there to me. But for whatever the reason, due to subatomic vibration, larger-scale biochemical processes, or anything else, there really is a whole world of sensation that is normally tuned out.
The keys to the practice were attention and equanimity. We were to maintain awareness of the sensations during the entirety of every session and to practice indifference to whatever the sensation was. If it’s a good sensation, do not crave or value it. If it’s an unpleasant sensation, do not feel aversion or discomfort. Just experience. Just observe. Remain unattached, as if you were a scientist exploring the sensation in a laboratory.
We were also instructed to notice the most crucial part: the constant changing of the sensations. Anicca (impermanence) was nearly a mantra in our instructions. For gross sensations, that meant noticing that over time any itch or pain would eventually go away or change. An itch here would get stronger, or move over there, or disappear. Constant change.
For subtle sensations, the changing was even more apparent in each second. These pleasant or neutral tingling sensations were perfect representations of impermanence, as each vibration was basically one moment of arising and passing. A fluctuation. Here and then not here, here and then not here. Impermanent, changing.
Soon after these new instructions were given, things turned up to 11: at three one-hour group sittings each day, we were to practice Adhiṭṭhāna, which means Strong Determination. We were to take a posture and not move for the entire hour. Technically, guidelines were no movement of the arms, the legs, or opening of the eyes.
As you can imagine, this primarily meant one thing: Pain.
I had pretty severe upper back pain from about day 3 onward, and this new constraint on movement added terrible hip pain to the mix about 15 minutes into each sitting. My first sitting of Strong Determination went horribly. I must have moved at least a dozen times, and the one hour felt like five. The next sitting was better, and I made it through the whole hour unmoved. It was an empowering practice of will, and it was an effective way of testing and developing equanimity.
Day five was better, but still extremely difficult. I was having to bat away thoughts of quitting, along with the natural thoughts of “what the hell am I doing here” and of the people in my life that I missed. But I was energized by the new practice and to finally be observing more than a few inches of skin. Practicing Strong Determination was sometimes wonderful when I was able to stay peacefully detached from the discomfort, and sometimes horrible as I gritted my teeth and waited for the pain to end.
The technique remained mostly unchanged for the rest of the course, but we were given slightly different instructions each day to help hone the practice. Head to feet. Then feet to head. Sometimes we would feel sensations bilaterally and simultaneously. We would try to feel the sensations flow through the entire body continuously from head to feet, like pouring a bucket of water over your head and feeling it run down. More advanced instructions were given for those at the appropriate level, including expanding awareness to internal sensations as well as surface ones. But no matter the new practice, in every session we would always return to going through the body part by part, piece by piece, so we maintained awareness of sensation globally.
The only significant addition to the practice was that on day 10 we added on about 15 minutes of Metta (loving-kindness) meditation to our regular sittings. Metta is a practice of wishing well to others, as I’ve written about on the blog before. After a normal meditation session, the teacher guided us with short phrases like “may all beings be at peace” as we used our attention to connect with feelings of compassion and kindness.
If you plan on doing a retreat, especially doing one soon, I might suggest skipping this section. I came in with a few stories of “peak” experiences that can happen on retreat, and I did my best not to let them color my expectations. However, the mind is prone to craving. So of course, a part of me was wishing for something out of the norm to happen, some psychedelic or interesting experience to emerge from this intense practice. I was not disappointed.
I should first say that, in general, the entire process of the 10-day retreat was an interesting and psychedelic experience. Your normal mode of being, the condition of your consciousness, is just different when you meditate for 11 hours a day and do not talk to anyone. Living in a more constant state of focus and presence was abnormal and quite pleasant, sometimes serene. Yet the mind accommodates to change so quickly, and so each day it was not as if I could put my finger on exactly how different my interaction with the world was. But in retrospect, the entire process feels like an extended, surreal dream.
Each of my meditations was usually much deeper and more focused than my practice at home. But again, I adjusted and my baseline kept resetting to the increased state of focus, so I was not able to appreciate just how different those sessions were until returning home.
On top of this new baseline of concentration, I had a few very interesting experiences during the Adhiṭṭhāna (Strong Determination) sittings without movement.
During one such sitting, we were halfway through the one-hour session and I was moving my awareness toward an area of intense stabbing hip pain, about 8/10 in severity, that had been plaguing me since shortly after we began. As always, I tried to simply experience it with equanimity, with no aversion or desire for it to change. And for once, I seemed to accomplish that perfectly. I simply did not care about it. I experienced it as if it did not even belong to me, just a complex of sensations. And miraculously, as soon as I did that, the pain 99% disappeared.
I still felt the physical sensation of the spasmed muscle, yet the sensations I normally would construe as pain were gone. I went through the rest of the sitting in a blissful state of equanimity, and afterward, I asked our teacher about the experience. His explanation was that the mental component of the pain can disappear with acceptance. It is our resistance to the sensation that creates much of the suffering.
Working in medicine, I know that pain is a complex phenomenon, and our mental interaction with it is often the most salient component. However, to have the direct experience of this myself was incredible and empowering.
It also helped me to better wrap my head around a phenomenon that has always been morbidly interesting to me since I began meditating: self-immolating monks. To be able to set oneself on fire and peacefully sit through the process… it is shocking and terrible, but it leads to the conclusion that pain can be entirely overcome with sufficient concentration. I have no idea how long it takes to get to that level, but to have the smallest hint of that experience with just one body part was an incredible look into that possibility.
On day 7 I had incredible energy and creativity. During breaks, I was composing poems and even songs in my head effortlessly. I thought of an idea for a problem I had been brainstorming for months. It was fascinating, and a testament to what I’ve read in creativity research about the need for “unstructured time” for the brain’s creativity to take off.
Later that day, the most extraordinary event of the retreat happened. During the evening Strong Determination sitting, I was in the zone. My mind was effortlessly tracing through my bodily sensations in the gridlike pattern I had executed dozens of times by this point. I felt deeply concentrated and totally equanimous to each sensation. I just accepted, observed. As per our instructions, I noticed how each sensation was continually changing.
My concentration deepened and my mind continued scanning the body on auto-pilot. I soon felt an unbelievable, overwhelming sense of happiness arise. It then turned to euphoria. Part of my mind was still thinking: “this is one of those peak experiences!”, “don’t get attached to it, they warned you about this”, “just keep scanning”… and so I just kept scanning. The less I cared about what was happening, the deeper and more blissful it became. I could effortlessly feel every sensation in my body. It did not feel like I was sitting in a meditation hall, it was like I was on my own planet.
I would also call it a self-less experience, or an ego-loss/ego-death experience. I lost a sense of ownership for the sensations, or the emotions, or the thoughts for that matter. No attachment to them. They just were.
I was soon having to restrain the urge to burst into laughter and break the perfect silence in the meditation hall. Tears of joy began silently streaming down my face. After what felt like hours, but was likely about 30 minutes, the gong rang and I slowly opened my eyes and came back to reality.
I left the hall with the biggest smile on my face in days.
When I came in for the next sitting after a 10-minute break, I was quite eager to see what would happen. As I closed my eyes, I felt like the entire hall was spinning furiously around me, yet I did not get dizzy. I continued my body scanning and the spinning soon diminished, and I felt the euphoria slowly recede throughout the following session.
Despite all the warnings I had heard about what happens after these blissful experiences, I could not prevent my mind from craving a return to that state. And of course, since the goal of the practice is equanimity and non-attachment, craving made returning to that peak experience entirely impossible. I was frustrated, but it was hard to put too much of a damper on my mood.
On day 8, I had several similar experiences, but instead of euphoric, they were more characterized by profound peace and contentment.
I should also say that from day 7 onward it was not uncommon to hear sobbing in the meditation hall. Sometimes people had to leave the room, other times they kept on meditating. Without talking, it was difficult to know what was going on, but my impression from talking to people afterward was that these were mostly from powerful and cathartic experiences, and likely not tears of boredom.
So, you might be wondering, how does experiencing sensations on your body lead to these interesting experiences, uprooting defilements, the end of suffering, and reaching an enlightened state of inner peace? Great question. Luckily, this was addressed in our evening discourses. The theory is simple, elegant, and fascinating.
As regular readers of this blog will know, diving deeply into theory is one of my favorite activities. And I had A LOT of time to think this over. I can only speculate as to just how many paragraphs of this post I wrote in my head during the retreat only to have them erased by time. Oh well, everything is impermanent… but blog posts live forever, so this section will be a long one.
Let’s start with that euphoric day 7 experience. When I asked our teacher about it, he said this can happen when an especially deep Saṅkhāra, or pattern of reactivity, is broken. This relates to the interesting promise of the practice that I mentioned earlier: uprooting defilements of the mind.
When you practice not reacting in each moment, you experience the peace that comes with that equanimity. With not be driven forward by some craving or aversion.
Normally, you experience and react, and that reaction in one moment colors your next moment of awareness.
If you are angry, and you react to the anger, your next moment is populated with more anger. But what happens when you don’t react?
The Buddhists believe that if you don’t react, the next moment is then filled by one of the many patterns of reactivity that you have already developed in your life, called Saṅkhāras. Often these patterns are rooted in craving or aversion.
If you then experience one of these patterns but do not react to it — do not crave one outcome, or avoid another — you can break that pattern. As you practice longer and with more focus, you can break down deeper and deeper patterns of behavior that you were likely never even aware of consciously.
The theory is very similar to that of exposure therapy in psychology. If you have a phobia of spiders, one way to address that issue is by exposing yourself to spiders in a controlled and calm setting. Maybe first you just see a picture of one, and you do it somewhere where you are safe and calm. Then perhaps a video. Then a live spider. By exposing yourself to the stimulus and remaining calm, you break the previous pattern you had of reacting with fear.
In the same way, if you expose yourself to Saṅkhāra, mental patterns of behavior, without reinforcing or reacting to them, they can disappear. At the extreme, Enlightenment would be complete freedom from all Saṅkhāra, a completely free and non-reactive mind.
I don’t know if that is the correct explanation for this incredible Day 7 experience, but it seems possible that breaking of a deeply entrenched pattern of behavior could come along with an emotional release and some interesting side effects.
Now let’s dive into the theory behind the Vipassana technique in general. The concept of impermanence is key. As I’ve written about previously, suffering arises when we cannot accept things the way they are. When something unpleasant is happening and we want it to end. When something pleasant is happening and we want it to persist.
One of the most important insights in Vipassana, the practice of observing things how they really are, is observing that everything is impermanent. The problem then becomes: How do you get the mind to truly accept impermanence?
The Buddhist answer is: By developing wisdom. The practice of Vipassana has just three components, necessary requirements on the path toward enlightenment:
The first two are pretty self-explanatory, but let’s break down wisdom. Goenka talked about three types of wisdom: Believing, Understanding, and Experiencing.
Believing something that is valuable, like the fact that everything is impermanent, can be beneficial and influence your choices and actions to some degree. Beliefs are the precursors of ideas. However, there are many deeply ingrained patterns of reaction in your mind, and a simple belief will only lead to so much change.
Understanding something fully at the intellectual level is also very useful. Ideas are the precursors to actions. However, again, they can only do so much to alter the way we will interact with the world.
Goenka gave a wonderful example to highlight the point. Let’s say you are sick, and you go to the doctor. You get a prescription for a medication that will eradicate your problem. You fully believe that the prescription in your hand will cure your ailment. You might psychologically feel relieved from your worry by that belief. However, you believing in that prescription does not lead to you getting better. You are still sick.
But let’s say you understand the medication. The doctor clearly explained the mechanism by which it will heal you. That understanding still does not address the problem that is going on. You are still sick despite understanding how the medication will make you better.
So you take your medicine. You experience the medication. You get better.
That is the third and most important type of wisdom: Experience. Practicing meditation is like taking the medication. It is in the doing, the experiencing, that your mind begins to change in meaningful ways.
That is the beauty and simplicity of the practice. I have long believed in impermanence. I have understood it intellectually. Yet something happens when you follow a practice, such as meditative body scanning, that allows you to experience impermanence over and over again.
Your brain changes. This is the uprooting of Saṅkhāra, of defilements of the mind. Those deeply ingrained patterns of behavior change based on your experience, your actions and consequences in the world.
Actions speak louder than words, right?
When you experience a sensation like pain and see it arise and pass away, your intuition begins to change to one of impermanence. Aversion to pain only makes sense when it is based on the illusion of permanence. When you not only believe and understand that the pain is impermanent, but have experienced that impermanence over and over, your brain is much more apt to accept the pain instead of avoiding it.
This process deals with changing the deep, unconscious relationship that your brain has with experience.
Now, as we dive deeper, this is where I gain some uncertainty with the Buddhist teachings. While 99.9% of the course and theory are secular and entirely rational, there were a few points that seemed to not be supported by our current scientific knowledge. One was a belief in reincarnation. One was about elements and the composition of matter. And the one I am most interested in is about this process of reactivity.
According to Buddha’s teachings, experience happens like this:
Stimulus -> Mental Judgement (e.g. positive, negative, neutral)-> Bodily Sensation Arises -> Reaction to the Bodily Sensation
Let’s start at the beginning. The stimulus is anything that can come to your awareness through your senses: sound, sight, touch, taste, smell, or thought.
For example 1. You hear a sound. 2. The sound is processed on some spectrum of pleasant, unpleasant, dangerous, etc. Then 3. A sensation arises somewhere in the body because of that sound. Then 4. the mind reacts to the sensation, not to the sound itself. We might dislike the sensation and react with aversion, or enjoy the sensation and react with a craving, or be neutral to the sensation and unchanged. This interaction with sensation is normally happening unconsciously, as we are unaware consciously of these sensations most of the time.
Therefore, with this Buddhist theory, by bringing the sensations to the level of conscious awareness through the Vipassana technique, you can practice remaining neutral, indifferent, and equanimous to bodily sensations. Since bodily sensations are the products of every other stimulus (likes sounds, thoughts, etc.) you are practicing non-reactivity to all stimuli. You notice that sensations are always changing, so you stop reacting. You stop craving or avoiding. You end the cycle of suffering. You find peace, freedom from reactivity. You just experience.
Now, while this is a fascinating theory, I have not learned of a mechanism by which any stimulus is automatically converted to sensation. Some stimuli certainly will be converted: A harsh sound makes your cringe, nails on the chalkboard makes your skin tingle, a stressful thought makes you tense up, etc. There are of course many ways in which our mind and body are innately connected. There are many interesting psychosomatic disorders that highlight this relationship. And as my experience with pain exemplified, there is probably much more to be understood about the mental component of physical processes than we know now.
But will every stimulus lead to a sensation? I do not know, but it seems unlikely to me.
So I think a more intuitive theory is:
Stimulus -> Mental Judgement (positive, negative, neutral)-> Reaction to the Mental Judgement
— — — — — — — — — -While at the Same Time — — — — — — — — — — — —
-> -> ->Continuous bodily sensations arising and disappearing -> -> ->
So that leads to a slightly different conclusion than the Buddhist theory: Focusing on arising and disappearing sensations changes your intuition, the way your mind unconsciously interprets the world, to accept impermanence across any sensory experience. That acceptance of impermanence is now running in the brain as it processes all stimuli, not just sensations. So that acceptance is then added into our model of experience, and you are less likely to react:
Stimulus -> Mental Judgement (positive, negative, neutral) -> Acceptance/Reaction to the Mental Judgement
Now you are more prone to simply accept whatever the stimulus is instead of react to it. By practicing acceptance at the level of sensation, you were at the same time practicing the skill of accepting all stimuli. And over time, as you practice not reacting to stimuli, you stop making judgments about them.
Stimulus -> Acceptance/Mental Judgement
There is no reinforcement (no reaction) that will sustain the mental pattern of classifying a stimulus as positive, negative, or neutral. Why waste energy judging something if it will not change the way you react to it? So step two is diminished. So what is left?
->->->Accepted Stimulus ->->->
Just the stimulus. Just experiencing the sensation, smell, sound, sight, thought, or taste.
What is that state of mind when you don’t react or judge? No thoughts of changing things away from how they are? Presence. Peace. Freedom.
Again, the main idea here is that the only way to transform your mind is through experience, doing, practice. Believing or understanding is not enough. Action is all-important.
Whether or not every stimulus is converted into a sensation on the body does not really matter. Focusing on sensations and experiencing them as impermanent is an effective way to change how you react to all stimuli. To allow you to accept all stimuli.
An example that really highlights the importance of action rests in a surprising piece of advice: when meeting a new person, you should ask for a small favor. Intuitively, my reaction to that advice is “no, that will make me seem like a burden to them, and they won’t like me”. But a more nuanced analysis leads to a different conclusion.
By asking for a favor, you are acting out the idea that “we are in a relationship where we can help each other”. That also embodies the ideas of trust, goodwill, and friendship. But all of this is communicated via your action, this act of requesting a favor.
It’s a nice gesture to tell someone “let me know if you need anything”. But does that really make the other person feel like they can rely on you for help? Or are they, like me, going to feel like they would rather not be a burden on you?
How do you actually create that bond, that type of relationship where two people can trust and help each other?
Ask for a small favor. By asking for a favor you are acting out (so you both experience) the concept that you are in the type of relationship where you can ask for favors. Where you can rely on each other.
The importance of action, of experience, is likely the reason we still have so many rituals and ceremonies in society. Belief and understanding are powerful and important, but there really is something vital to action for changing behavior.
I’ve often viewed my meditation practice, and many other endeavors in my life, as methods for trying to change my intuition to match reality. We all have an intuition, some understanding of the way the world works even if we don’t explicitly have each part of that model supported. A young child will have an intuition that if they let go of an apple it will fall to the ground. It doesn’t need to believe anything or understand the science of gravity to form that intuition. It has direct experience of the process, it has dropped things and they have fallen, which formed a correct intuition.
We have intuitions in many other areas as well, and that intuition is often the invisible hand in our mind guiding our actions, our words, and our decisions. Intuition can often be hard to fact-check, as it can be about our own personal motivation, about relationships with others, about abstract ideas like fairness and justice, etc.
We can quite easily fool ourselves without ever catching on. Our intuitions can be off, and that affects how we see and act in the world. Meditation is the practice of seeing things how they really are. The outside world, and the inside world of our mind. The method of Vipassana is brilliant because it puts direct experience on a pedestal as the best way to change intuition. The most important type of wisdom.
In this case, the primary illusion running in the background of all of our minds is that of permanence. Even though most of us would express that we understand that nothing is permanent, our actions reflect the opposite. We crave direly for something to persist even though we understand that it will go away. We try to avoid pain even though we know it will pass.
I think this framework is wonderful and insightful, but it did lead me to one criticism: Sure, I get that it’s impermanent, but I can still want to avoid pain for the duration that it will last. One minute of pain is better than 30 minutes, even if both are impermanent, right?
So, one final concept to round out the discussion: Anatta, which means non-self. Selflessness, or the Illusion of the Self. I have written extensively about this previously, but let’s keep it simple. If everything is impermanent and constantly changing, so are you. You are nothing but a bundle of thoughts, sensations, emotions, and patterns of reaction that change every second.
There is no stable self. No you, no I, no me or mine. And with that knowledge, there can be no attachment.
Why the desire for pain to end if it is not your pain? If it doesn’t belong to anybody. If there is no self experiencing it. If it just is.
It is this conclusion, Anatta (non-self), that comes from the experience of Anicca (Impermanence) that might be an even better explanation for the release from patterns of reactivity, defilements, and suffering. With no attachment and no self, there is only experience. Only freedom.
I had a wonderful retreat. As difficult as it was at times, it was undeniably positive and transformative. Once we broke silence on Day 10, many of my fellow meditators asked the same question: Will you recommend this to other people?
Of all the people I talked to on Day 10, every one of them was glad they did it. That being said, at least four men left the course before the end. I do not know how many women did.
It is difficult, and certainly not for everyone. Those with serious mental or physical disorders have the risk of a very negative experience, though the potential for a very beneficial one.
I think most people, regardless of where they are at in life, in meditation, in mental health, etc. would find some benefit from this experience.
At the end of the day, it is an experience of practicing non-reactivity. Acceptance. Wisdom. It is a practice of developing the art of living.
If you are interested, here is the site for more information or for signing up for a retreat: Dhamma.org
If you have any questions, thoughts, or comments, please feel free to respond to this post or send me an email.
Finally, it seems fitting to end the post the way our teacher ended every meditation session: “May All Beings Be Happy”
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