I recently did my third 10-day silent meditation retreat.
This is a piece about my learnings. I’ll give a personal account of my first two retreats as background, and then talk about my recent stay at Spirit Rock. I’ll then share my experiences with mindfulness, meditation as a subjective science, and what Buddhism considers to be the three characteristics of existence, namely impermanence, suffering, and not-self.
The first two retreats
“Think of your mind as an unknown territory where no one else has been, and no one but you can go. You alone are responsible for how you proceed.” - The Mind Illuminated
I did my first 10-day silent retreat in India in 2014. It was at the tail end of a 6 month solo backpacking trip around Asia. I was somewhat familiar with meditation at this point and occasionally did 10-minute sits in the morning. Reading Waking Up by Sam Harris piqued my interest. I went to the retreat without knowing what to expect. It felt like an adventure to be alone with my mind for that long.
The retreat was taught in the tradition of S. N. Goenka, a Burmese Vipassana teacher who has played a big part in the popularization of meditation. Indian retreats have a reputation for being strict, and the retreat managers lived up to it. They woke us up at 4:30am and made sure we went to every sit until 9pm. I sat on a thin mat on the floor, with no cushions to soften the seat. Chairs were prohibited. Sitting cross-legged for 10 hours a day, I developed an unbearable pain in my knees and back that permeated my entire being.
And then I had my first sublime experience.
In one sit, I committed to not moving for the entire hour. Guided by Goenka’s instructions, I probed the burning pain in my knees. It felt like a throbbing ball of fire. As I continued watching, something remarkable happened.
I stopped feeling the pain.
A shift had occurred in my perspective. I was able to sit still for long periods of time; an incomprehensible change from a day earlier when I moved every 5 minutes to alleviate the pain. I watched the sensations in my knees with curiosity, even took pleasure in them.
I learned how in perceiving the world, we create our own reality.
Watching the breath and the body for hours, my mind became concentrated. Memories I hadn’t thought of in years resurfaced. I walked around my elementary school; went to a Karate class as an 8 year old; spent time with my grandmother. It was as if I had penetrated into deeper territory in my mind.
I also became familiar with my internal monologue. I seemed to repeat the same things over and over, like a madman who never quiets down. As Jack Kornfield says “my mind is a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone.”
4 years later, I did my second 10-day retreat in Canada in 2018, prompted by my friend Robbie. We had left our previous company together, and a retreat seemed like a good way to start a new chapter.
I noticed my mind become noticeably sharper as the days of silence progressed. I directed it to a new project, the design of a crypto-economic protocol. I noticed how in stillness, I came up with creative associations, thread multiple strands of logic together effortlessly, and called on facts that I’d ordinarily not be able to remember.
I also experienced altered states of mind.
Scanning my body, I felt subtle sensations all over from head to toe. Gradually, the edges of my body blurred. I dissolved into waves of energy. An hour of meditation passed in what felt like minutes.
I remember walking out of the meditation hall after these sessions, onto the Alberta prairie, blown away with what I had just experienced. Sitting with my eyes closed, completely sober, I had experienced what was equivalent to a high dose psychedelic experience.
After the retreat, I maintained a consistent meditation practice.
Inspired by the change in my relationship with pain, I wanted to cultivate an ability to pause and investigate reality, instead of automatically reacting to it.
I wanted to deepen my concentration, think more clearly, be aware of my biases, and make better decisions. I wanted to be calm in the midst of everyday chaos.
Lastly, I wanted to continue the journey inwards and explore the mystery of the human mind. I’d seen enough to know that I was just scratching the surface.
So I signed up for the New Year's Vipassana Retreat at Spirit Rock.
The Spirit Rock retreat
I went into the retreat with a simple intention. This time, I wasn’t going to revisit memories or explore a creative problem. Instead, I was going to focus purely on the techniques of meditation, and try to maintain present-moment awareness from the beginning to the end.
We began the retreat by taking on the ethical code of Buddhism. This involves 5 precepts: not harming other beings, not stealing, abstaining from harmful sexual conduct, abstaining from false speech, and abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind.
This is seen as an important counterpart to meditation practice. An unethical mind is not at ease. One can clearly see this with lying, for instance. Not only does one mislead others, but one’s also forced to be on guard when the topic comes about, unable to relax at any time.
The retreat followed the four foundations of mindfulness as laid out in the Satipatṭhāna Sutta. We practiced mindfulness meditation, in the tradition of Ajahn Chah from the Thai Forest Theravāda lineage.
At first, we focused on the body and the breath.
We scanned the body for sensations, and then gradually shifted to feeling sensations created by the breath.
The breath is an ideal object for meditation. It is always with us. It allows us to be passive observers, as it’s an automatic behavior of the body. Lastly, it’s an anchor to the present moment, as it is always happening right now.
During the first few days of retreat, my mind settled. Walking on one of the beautiful trails around Spirit Rock, I noticed tension in my body from day to day life. I let out a few sighs, and relaxed.
We then opened up our field of awareness to emotions.
“The body and mind are not distinct, but rather make up a complex, interconnected whole that can be called the “body-mind” says Culadasa, in The Mind Illuminated. “We often become aware of our own emotions through unpleasant sensations in our stomach, chest, or throat; or tension in our shoulders, forehead, or around the eyes; or from clenching our jaw.”
Tuned into my emotions, I noticed something as a person sitting close to me coughed with a cold. I instinctively reacted by feeling annoyed, nervous that I was going to catch a cold as well. I realized that I could instead feel compassion for this person, who is in discomfort and probably can’t concentrate on meditation as they’d like to. This was a lesson in mindfulness of emotions, and in cultivating compassion instead of judgement.
Pam Weiss, one of our teachers on retreat, said “allow yourself to be surprised”. This was a good reminder to not compare this retreat to previous ones, but is also relevant in life. If we’re always pattern matching against what we’ve experienced before, we miss new experiences as they arise.
We then opened up our field of awareness to thoughts.
Watching closely, I noticed that thoughts arise spontaneously, on their own, without my prompting. Some related to my recent experiences in the day, some to old memories, and some seemed completely random. I noticed how one thought led to the next, which led to the next, like a series of falling dominoes. I also saw how if I observed a thought without following its call, it simply disappeared.
This gave me insight into creativity and problem solving. One can sit relaxed and receptive, and listen as threads of interest appear. This leverages the subconscious mind and its ability for free association and parallel processing.
As the days progressed, we gradually opened our sphere of meditation to include the full human experience. We used the breath as an anchor, and explored sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they emerged.
Mindfulness is a quality of wakefulness, of being in the present moment, and of being aware of the body, emotions, and thoughts.
At Spirit Rock, periods of sitting meditation were interspersed with periods of walking meditation.
We would take steps slowly, and be aware of minute shifts in balance, and sensations in the feet and the legs.
At first, these periods felt like a break. I wanted to push myself, so I tried to sit more and walk less. But I gradually learned how walking meditation is a powerful tool in bringing the practice to daily life. The challenge became to remain continuously mindful through the transitions; as I finished a sit, walked, and then sat again for the next period.
The lines between formal meditation and other times began to blur.
When standing, I’d try to be mindful of the weight of my body distributed on my legs. When brushing my teeth, I’d try to be aware of each tooth. When falling asleep, I’d try to be aware of my breath slowing down. I remembered this quote from Alan Wallace “Normally after going to bed we allow the mind to just dither all over the place for a while, and then fall asleep in a state of semiconscious inner chitchat.”
I began eating with a new sense of presence. I would take a bite, close my eyes, and lose myself in a dizzying array of flavors.
In the dining hall, I sat in growing awe of my awareness. It held so much at once: the taste and texture of the food, the smells, the sensations of my body resting on the chair, the warmth of the sun on my face. I’d hear the clang of cutlery and dishes around me. I’d open my eyes, and unbelievingly verify my conjecture that someone three tables down was in fact stirring honey in their tea. I was blown away by the level of detail I was perceiving. It was as if my ordinary mind threw away all this data, but it was always available.
I had similar moments of heightened awareness dispersed through the retreat. I’d look at my water bottle, and notice the meniscus and its vibrations, the play of sunlight and shadow on its surface. I’d look over a field of weeds waving in the wind, and begin approximating the wind force as a balance between gravity, the normal force, and acceleration at various points on the weed. I thought to myself, this must have been how Da Vinci saw the world.
“The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust.
Meditation as a subjective science
Sitting in meditation, I carefully probed this awareness.
I noticed the difference between the contents of our awareness, the awareness itself, and the relationship between the two.
“True, there may have been some external stimulus that caused your unconscious sub-minds to project a particular object into consciousness, but all we can ever observe is the mental object, a product of the mind itself—not the source of the original stimulus.” – the Mind Illuminated.
This gave me insight into my experiences of pain disappearing.
Pain is a physical fact. Suffering, on the other hand, is the mind’s interpretation of the pain. It is optional.
I learned that you can only investigate awareness through direct experience. Trying to reason about the experience is self-defeating; the thread of logic is itself a thought, which arises as an object in awareness and disrupts the experiment. It’s kind of like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. You need to be experiential, rather than discursive.
Meditation is a form of subjective science. You don’t have to trust what is being said by others. Instead, you experiment with your own experience.
Eugene Cash, one of our teachers on retreat, helped me understand this. I was grappling with one of the core concepts in Buddhism, the claim that all sensations, feelings, and thoughts are impermanent. I had observed this, but was unsure of its character. Eugene said “Why don’t you try holding onto a sensation, try to make it last, and see what happens”. The teachers all used this socratic method. They didn’t say what was meant to happen; instead they encouraged us to investigate on our own.
Through these experiments, I began to understand what Buddhism posits as the three characteristics of existence: impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and not-self (anattā).
Things happen, and then they’re gone.
Time passes. In fact, it never stops.
This is one of the most perplexing aspects of reality.
In a poignant talk, Eugene looked back on 2018 and prompted us “Do you remember what you were doing on July 12th? How about on the previous year? What about in 1997?” I obviously couldn’t. He continued “The weird thing is that all these days were real. They happened. You and I experienced them. But now they’re gone. And we don’t even remember them.”
We experience impermanence in how the years pass and we get older; how we change careers and workplaces; how relationships come and go. I watched each day of the 10-day retreat pass away, each morning and afternoon, like clockwork.
We also experience impermanence directly when we sit to meditate. Sensations in the body arise and pass away. Feelings arise and pass away. Thoughts arise and pass away.
Every moment is unique. It happens, and then is gone forever, never to repeat again.
Experiencing this truth directly in our body and mind helps us internalize it. It then impacts how we live.
First, we strive to live in the present. We realize how moments slip by as we’re thinking about the past or planning for the future. Ironically, we miss the future planned-for moments as they arrive, since we’re again lost in thought. Our eyes are open, but we’re sleeping through our lives.
It’s worth noting that being present does not equate to not thinking. It simply means to be aware that we are thinking; to not be on autopilot.
Second, we embrace change. We see our relationships, our careers, and our day to days as always evolving. Instead of trying to hold on to what’s here now, we let go and appreciate the next moment as it arises. “Be like water, my friend” Bruce Lee said.
The second characteristic of existence is suffering.
As we pay close attention, we notice that we are rarely at ease.
We want some things to end, and are mentally reacting against them. There are the obvious examples like sickness, old age, a close friend or family member dying, getting fired, losing a relationship. But there are also pedestrian examples. A conversation not going well. Someone chewing loudly next to you. It raining when you don’t have an umbrella.
We want other things to happen, and are mentally craving for them. We are looking forward to a trip. We are looking forward to the next career move or a project. Or we want the waiter to hurry up and bring our meal.
Buddhism considers this suffering (or unsatisfactoriness of our current experience) to be a fact of life.
In meditation, we observe these habits of the mind.
Realizing how we are simply holding impermanent objects in awareness, we loosen up. We learn to be with whatever is, as it is. Instead of instinctively reacting, we learn to pause, observe, and then respond
I’ve questioned this philosophy since my first exposure to it. How does it mesh with a productive life? Does one need to not make peace with the world as it is, so that one can change it for the better?
I think I’ve found an answer. It’s not desire that causes suffering. It’s an unhealthy attachment to the outcome that does. Instead of wrapping our identity into our quest, we can look at the situation with wisdom. Realizing the impermanence of all things and our ability to be with whatever arises, we relax. Instead of working from a place of tension, we work from a place of curiosity and play.
We also realize how we are complicit in our suffering. By reacting to negative situations, we imbue them with more power. “It’s like two arrows, the Buddha said. The first arrow is the initial event itself, the painful experience. It has happened; we cannot avoid it. The second arrow is the one we shoot into ourselves. This arrow is optional. We can add to the initial pain a contracted, angry, rigid, frightened state of mind. Or we can learn to experience the same painful event with less identification and aversion, with a more relaxed and compassionate heart.” - Jack Kornfield, in the Wise Heart.
The third characteristic of existence is not-self.
As I understand, anattā refers to the insight that there is no separate, permanent self. The “self” is an idea, a conventional construct built on-top of impersonal phenomena that are always changing moment to moment.
Thinking about this, I remembered one of my favorite quotes from Carl Sagan: “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
I hope to explore this more, perhaps through non-dualistic techniques of meditation like Dzogchen.
I’ve noticed a change in my relationship with my body, emotions, and thought. I am aware of them, yet don’t identify with them as much.
I try to pause and respond, instead of instinctively react.
I appreciate the truth of impermanence. Time continues to march on, and all things arise and pass away. This has inspired to me be present for the ephemeral beauty of each moment, and to lean into change.
I’m exploring the parameters of the human mind. I hope to learn more about our capacity for concentration, awareness, and creativity.
The journey inward continues.
Thanks to Melisa Smith, Faraaz Nishtar, Holly Chang, and Robbie Bent for feedback on this post.