10 things I learned on a 10 day silent meditation retreat

This Sunday1 I returned from a 10 day silent vipassina retreat done at one of S. N. Goenka's center's in central Washington state. Goenka's courses are free, and happen regularly at centers outside most major cities. If you find yourself interested it's worth reading more about, and trying out.

I have a bit of meditation experience, typically meditating a little ever day for the last several years, trying a variety of different techniques. I have also been something of a spiritual dilettante, with interest in a number of different schools of thought and ways of trying to "eff the ineffable". 10 days of silent meditation, on a schedule that called for nearly 14 hours a day2 was a far greater push than anything I had ever tried before. It was a powerful experience, tremendously challenging, and extremely well supported. I learned a lot both directly from what I was taught, from my own insight, and indirectly by observing how the instructors had shaped the course and environment.

The thoughts below are ones that I think will be interesting to anyone who might be reading this, I'll have a separate post which includes more personal insights into my life that I don't think are worth hearing about unless you know me. Without further preamble:

1) The Significance of Silence

The entire course is conducted in "noble silence", no speech, no music, no reading material, no gesture or glance based communication. Noble silence is even, to the extent possible, supposed to extend to the narrative voice in your head. This has the expected result of clearing up a lot of time and energy, and keeping the environmentdistraction free. It kept things from descending into status games between students or really any sort of social construct between people. It also had a less obvious effect: a tremendous up-regulation in the sensation of “meaning” in small events. Without words the world begins to sparkle and pop, after days of silence, a wandering deer seems a message from heavens, a bird pecking is a poem, and the light playing through the trees a painting with a secret message one can almost grasp.

The general quite also leads you to listen more carefully. Though people try to be silent, some noise is inevitable. In a room full of mediators, a fart goes off loud as a shotgun shell, but with no consequences, since there can be no discussion of it, no real embarrassment or status plays, the fart startles for a moment, and then is forgotten.

2) The High Cost of Food in our Lives

The meals served in the center are simple, vegetarian, and flavorful. There is always brown rice, salad, and some flavorful dish served with it usually a curry, soup, or something in sauce. It's minimalist, but doesn't make a show of being spartan. As much as you want to eat is available at meals, but there is no snacking to be had. The dining area is simply closed when it's not mealtime, and your asked not to bring food out. You have no input into what is served.

I found this amazingly liberating. I have always known that I think about food a often, but in the absence of control it was incredible to see how much. The cycles that my brain devotes to thoughts like “should I snack now or put it off?”, “what should my carb to protein ratio be given my workout this morning?”, and “what should I have for lunch” is totally absurd. I swear that having this concern removed from my mind cleared up at least 2 hours of good attention in a day.

I love food, and enjoy eating without much in the way of emotional baggage, but I found that all that thinking about my food hadn't made it any better. I was just as happy with the food having no control or personal thoughts about it as I was in my normal life. Other things may have been part of this as effect, with silence up-regulating the meaningfulness of eating, and our specific meditations bringing me into more connection with my senses. Still, I would love to find a way to abandon control over my diet in my normal life.

3) The Dividends of Monomaniacal Focus

Most of us have a huge number of competing demands in our lives, and constantly trade between them... playing tetris with our calendars, and making constant trades and compromises. In contrast life in the center is very focused: you are there to mediate. Everything in the schedule and the environment is geared towards bringing you back to the core focus of being “on the cushion”. This concentrated drive works very well.

There was no question about what you were supposed to be doing at a given time. You never lost your place, or had to worry about time. It was a non-stop relentless grind of meditation. After a day or three your mind sort of gave up on trying to escape to any other practical thing, and just settles down to the business of meditation. All the extra jostling that used to go into scheduling and finding ideal compromises gets freed up, and diverted to more meditation.

My experience with a typical societal work day is that one is lucky to get in 3 hours of actual uninterrupted work in an “8 hour day”. At the meditation center I was logging something that looked a lot more like 12 hours of uninterrupted work every day. No context switching, no overheard gossip, no taking breaks for snacks. It honestly felt like I was getting about a week of work done in a single day.

I wish there were resources like the center available for tasks other than meditation. It could be one of the more powerful tools I can imagine for writing, programming, studying, or anything else that requires deep, uninterrupted, and communication free concentration.

4) The Power of Community

Even with no distractions, well fed and well rested, and with a firm intent on meditation… sooner or later my will began to fail me on any given day. This is where community made a significant difference. Even with no speech, perhaps because there was no speech, one finds that a huge part of their mind, the wolf brain of my previous metaphor, wants to pull in the same direction as everyone else. If the community is going back to the meditation hall to meditate, then it wants to do the same.

When the social instinct is in line with your intent it's a very powerful ally. I found that it provided strength when I thought I had none. I have spent most of my life at odds with this particular instinct, aiming for Paul Grahm's second meaning of "normal":
One sense of "normal" is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best. These two senses are already quite far apart ... You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don't think you're weird, you're living badly.

Being in line with "what everyone else does" was a huge relief. When you start to think you will explode if you sit for another 20 minutes, the glimpse of 60 other people sitting calmly, holding in their meditation brings both inspiration and encouragement with it. When you wonder if what you are doing is stupid, or worth it, or just total madness the others doing it with you help allay your fears. Being able to trust these instincts was a novel experience for me.

Daily Schedule

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out

5) Discipline can be a Habit

In a previous post I said: Many people use the word "Discipline" to describe any good habit they have, such as going to they gym regularly. This is particularly true of habits that were created intentionally through discipline. I think, however, that there is real value for this model in carefully separating the ideas of habit and discipline.
I still think this is true, but find that on can make a habit of choosing discipline to set their course of action, instead of letting the winds reaction blow where they may, or other habits carry them forward. The Habit simply becomes "check in with my logical plans" before every action, or change in action. Want to bail out on this meditation session because the knees are starting to hurt too much? New habit: check in with your long term goals about that. Want to hit snooze on the alarm: check in with your long term goals about that.

It's is exhausting, but powerful. Like most habits, I imagine that it will become gradually less exhausting.

6) It's really hard to see your own rituals

Goenka, the instructor who presents in a series of video and audio recordings, is very insistent that there are no “rights or rituals” involved at any point in this process. He insists that it's an entirely non-sectarian, observation based approach. Often not ten minutes later they play recordings of him chanting an a language unknown to the students. He claims that everything here can be seen with simple observation almost in the same breath as he says the system is directly inherited from the Buddha. He claims to be entirely non-sectarian while also saying that this system has been passed down completely unaltered for the last 2,500 years and that other versions of vipassina meditation are corrupted. You are asked not to point your feet towards the recorded image as it would be disrespectful.

Initially, I was tremendously irritated by these small hypocrisies, but gradually I began to feel more and more forgiving of them. I don't think human institutions can exist free from "rights or rituals" 3. Western science has more than it's fare share of rights and rituals, of little hypocrisies, like this as well, and would also often insist otherwise. Trying to hunt them all down seems a waste of time and effort, particularly as many of them may be intertwined in poorly understood ways with useful traits.

Rather, I think, a good standard to hold Goenka too is “does he feel like he's in competition with other other rituals”?

Here I think we have a resounding no. Even to a greater extent than most of what I have seen in western science, Goenka says “take what you like, what you can see clearly makes sense”. He points out that if you leave bits behind it may not work as well, or at all. But also that you should go ahead discard what you must. Feel free to keep doing whatever else it is you believe in as well, other practices will not harm this one.

This reminds me very much of the position of science, It doesn't feel it's efficacy is threatened by other systems. You can solve a physics equation just as well regardless of if you worship Ganesha, Jesus, or No one at all. To his credit Goenka holds the same position regarding vipassina meditation, so I can forgive him if he doesn't realize that asking people to not point their feet at his image is ritual.

7) How to do (Goenka Style) Vipassina Meditation

There are only two meditations4 taught in the course: Anapana and Vipassina.

Anapana: Breath Meditation
A very simple meditation. One try's to feel the spot at the base of their nose as they breath. Trying to feel the smallest possible patch, and eventually to feel not only the breath, but also other subtle sensation. One doesn't control the breath, and simply try's to feel things as they are, searching for the most subtle possible sensations, and keeping their mind focused continuously.5

The idea of this meditation. Is that it increases critical faculties… the sharpness of your minds ability to feel physical sensations consciously, and the durability of your focus. It does both of these things wonderfully. After about 30 hours of this an amazing world of sensation started to open up for me.

Vipassina: Retraining Reaction
In this technique one takes their now “sharpened” ability to feel sensation and start at the top of the head working their way down “part by part, piece by piece” through the face, neck, one arm, and then the other, and then down through their trunk, and their legs again one at a time, carefully feeling sensation in every place.

Every part of the body is capable of feeling sensation at all times, but it might take a little while to get to the point where one is able to be consciously aware of them. the aim is not to imagine sensations if they are not there, but simply to accept what one finds, subtle or gross,6 without reacting.

Having noted sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, one is then to accept it with equanimity. The equanimity, and retaining responses to it, is the key to the practice. If one hopes for a sensation, or for a sensation to go away or if they set goals for progress it undermines the practice. If there is anything desired during the sitting, the practitioner is wandering off the path.

As one gets better at this, they start to be able to scan the body faster and faster, until it becomes, at times, a very rapid flow of head to toe sensation. This also develops to following sensation inside the body, and apparently when this is happening quite rapidly one starts to feel their body and mind dissolve, which is a pleasant experience.7

8) The Sensation Driven Chain Reaction Model of Behavior

The theory is that every sensation that you have is a possible trigger for an emotional, and then physical/verbal reaction. This actually makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary standpoint. We had tactile sensations long before any other sense, and they were originally wired directly to simple physical responses. By teaching your conscious mind to intercept the sensations, you can then have your exectuive functions manage emotional and behavioral reactions.

To the extent that this works it means essentially unlimited willpower. You can always choose to be your best self, there is no more struggle with your emotions, you simple choose them based on what would be helpful at the time. If you think your rational mind has a better guess at this than evolution, at least for your goals, then this is the jackpot.

There is a further idea that by having few or no emotional reactions for a time, your memory will start to dredge up old ideas and kick off the physical sensations. This would normal cause new reactions, but if you remain in equanimity you can choose what to do with the sensation. The idea here is that you will simply wait those old sensations out of hiding, and retrain their mind's response to them to be equanimity as well.

When you always, by default, respond to sensations with equanimity, and when your mind has cleared out it's whole stock of old responses, then you are “liberated”, free from being emotionally pushed around by life. To me this idea has a huge overlap with the TV trope of "The Unfettered".

9) I'm an Anti-Buddhist, but Still Like the Buddhists

Something I found interesting, when really delving into the nature of Buddhism, is that while I accept almost every tenant, my basic goal is totally different. I do think that desire is the root of suffering, and that removing it will remove suffering. But I also think that there is more, that desire is also entangled with joy and with narrative. That, if there is reincarnation, it is a blessing. That I will and would gladly trade the pain of suffering for the wonder of life. In this sense I am something of an anti-buddhist, my ideal is infinite play and exploration even knowing that I will suffer as a result.

That said, I find the road I walk largely the same until near the very end. The tools of the Buddhists are good, useful, and powerful. Their company is pleasant, and who knows, I may even see something as I walk with them that changes my mind. We both seek liberation, but have strongly different intents as to what to do with it. It's as if two soldiers both seek discharge, one (the Buddhist) hopes only to go home and die quietly with an end to the suffering, while the second (me) hopes to wander the world and see more strange and wonderful sights.

10) Community Forms Without Communication

On the 10th day, when the group of strangers who had been working so hard on the same thing in each others presence could begin talking, the friendships were already largely formed. Everyone had developed love and respect for each-other, in the absence of all communication. Our time together had been free of status games, and differences of opinion. We had simply been joined in hard work.

The seeds of friendship were planted in silence, but bloomed marvelously. I will likely not follow through with any of these friendships myself because the center I attended is far from where I live, and though they are healthy plants, traveling to water them seems unlikely. It struck me how my assumption was that sharing hopes, dreams, and opinions is what makes friendship blossom, when in fact these things are entirely unnecessary, and may even get in the way. Now I think that cooperation, unified hardship, lack of hostility, peaceful proximity, and observation is what makes friendship blossom.

  • 1. March 22nd, 2015
  • 2. I wasn't able to hold to the schedule, which also only offered about 6 hours of sleep a night, but I did manage something like 12 hours of meditation a day
  • 3. In a way similar to Doctorow's thought that “All Complex Ecosystems Have Parasites”
  • 4. For those who haven't been exposed to much meditation… it's the practice of focusing your mind relentlessly on a thought in order to either induce a state of consciousness or retrain the brain in a specific way. There are many different thoughts you might meditate on for different effect. A good comparison would be as if the practice of meditation is a smartphone, and the particular meditation subject is an app
  • 5. Yes, I did this for 12+ hours a day for about three and a half days. Yes, it was boring. I also see why it was critical
  • 6. Gross sensations are big ones, like blinding pain, serious itches, or as you start to get sharper, like the feel of cloth against your skin, subtle ones are things like the faintest sensation of vibration
  • 7. This is apparently a trap, you need to retain equanimity even in the face of pleasant sensations. Many people fall of the path by craving the sensation of dissolution