Reflections from my first 10-day meditation retreat
On the 15th of September 2022 I embarked on a journey to the Arizona desert to sit in silence for ten days with forty other people. Below are a list of things I obtained from this experience. I’ve divided the takeaways into more “embodied” learnings and more “conceptual” learnings.
We weren’t allowed to read or write on the retreat, so these are all things I wrote down after the fact.
First of all, if you’re thinking about doing a retreat, or are about to go on your own retreat soon, I don’t think you would get much value from reading this. The only thing I have to say to you is: you should definitely go on that retreat (yes, even if it’s your first one, yes, even if you feel kind of anxious about it), and then take some time to process the retreat, and then you can come back and read my notes and we can talk about it.
The second caveat I’ll say here is that the most important aspect of the retreat is the experience itself, not the words you put to the experience afterwards. I don’t expect that much of what I say here will come off as insightful; the main goal here, if any, is mild entertainment for you and for my future self.
Without further ado…
The learnings below are expressed in words but their real value is in internalizing them into the nonverbal parts of your brain. The main way this happens is through meditation practice.
1. The one thing you have control over is your action/attention in this moment.
That is the only thing you actually have control over. I use “control” here in a narrow sense, but I think defining it this way is very useful. There is a larger set of things you have influence over—and that kinda stretches out to the entire universe in the long run—but control is very different from influence. Control is a direct freedom of will, while influence is indirect, becoming increasingly nebulous and hard to predict over distances of time and space.
Why does this matter? Recognizing this helps you break free from constant rumination about the future and past, because much of this mental activity is a futile attempt to control things that you can’t directly control. My meditation teacher translates the Buddhist concept of tanha (which is traditionally translated into “craving”) as “stupid-control”. The source of suffering is our intent to control the world based on a delusional understand of cause and effect. It’s agonizing over what the US government will do with your immigration application when your agony has no causal effect on that process. And so on.
1(b). While you can’t control the actions of your future self, you can set intentions for them.
Imagine this. You’re doomscrolling on twitter in the morning and you think, I’m going to start working in half an hour. The seed of a thought turns into a concrete plan: I will definitely start working at 10:30am, I really need to do that. The trouble is, you (in this moment) don’t actually have control over the actions of you (half an hour from now). Maybe in half an hour you’ll want to keep doomscrolling or you’ll decide you should really go for a walk instead.
So what is actually happening when we say things like “I’m gonna start work at 10:30am” or “I’m gonna take out the trash later tonight”? We’re setting intentions for the behavior of our future self. And usually, if we have sufficient internal alignment, and the universe doesn’t get in the way, these intentions are executed at the appropriate time. But it’s important to recognize that control (which applies to this moment) is different from, and far far weaker than, intention.
I used to say things to myself like “I gotta start planning for my birthday party tomorrow” whereas now I lean more towards “may I start planning for my birthday party tomorrow”: I see it clearly as an intention and I recognize that my future self will be the person in charge.
There are lots of interesting questions here, like, if we can’t actually control our future self’s actions how does planning for the future happen, how do we tackle complex long-term endeavors? That is something I will talk about in a future post.
3. The mind has a schizophrenic quality to it, and recognizing this is very freeing.
We like to believe that our inner dialogue is the output of a fixed, ongoing self inside our experience. This is wrong on many levels, and our attempts to believe that there is one self narrating our inner life only adds to our suffering.
How many thoughts have crossed your mind in the past week that are completely incompatible with each other, and that no sane, coherent, single person could possibly believe both of? One version of you really did believe I hate my job and another version of you really did believe I love my job. Did they really come from the same “self”, or did they come from slightly different manifestations of you, each of whom had their own set of needs and interests and inclinations of the moment?
How does this insistence on one self create suffering? Because it forces us to take every thought that enters our mind seriously. “You fucked it all up you idiot” carries a lot of weight if you believe it’s coming from you, the one “you” that has existed from the beginning of your consciousness and will continue to do so until you die. But once you realize it’s just one stream of words from a cacophony of different internal mental processes which are constantly created and annihilated in each moment, it’s much easier to let such thoughts pass.
Once you recognize this you can treat all thoughts with a mild, loving suspicion, and act from a place of greater wisdom and agency.
4. It’s interesting to watch thoughts converted into language after they’ve already been formed.
I’m not sure that this always happens, but it clearly happens some of the time. Before this retreat I always imagined that my thoughts were being formed as I verbalize the words in my head, but I realized that with sufficient concentration you can see the complete content of the thought, and then watch as that content gets converted from a non-verbal form into words (which, it turns out, really slows everything down!).
Having written that down now, it feels even more obvious: of course you would have fully formed a thought by the time you’ve started saying the thought internally—otherwise you wouldn’t know the next word to say. But this process is usually too subtle to notice subjectively.
I imagine that for those of us who don’t have an internal monologue, the non-verbal form of the thought is all you have. This seems nice, maybe?
5. Verbalized thoughts are a lossy projection of the non-verbal mental process that generated them.
Imagine you’re two days into a vacation with your partner in London and you think: “it’s grey and muggy as shit here, this was a dumb idea”. What’s actually going on there? Well, you’re feeling a number of emotions and body sensations: discomfort, sweatiness, stress, pain in your knee, all suffused with a cloud of mental resistance.
In such situations, the thinking mind can mistranslate sensory experiences into internal chatter. It will translate physical discomfort into “this was a bad idea”, when a number of other translations would also do, like “I’m tired so why don’t we stay in and watch a movie tonight” or “wow I’m grateful we didn’t get any rain on this trip”. Basically, there are a bajillion different ways that something as complex your field of conscious experience can be converted into a stream of words, so there’s no reason to trust the very first one your brain arrives at.
I often hesitate to mentally say things like “ah shit this was a terrible decision” or “ah shit I actually don’t like this friend anymore”. I consider doubts like this a kind of defeat, a failure of resolve. But again, given the schizophrenic quality of the mind, simply having a thought is not an indication that that thought is true. Only when some set of experiences repeatedly results in the same thought pattern (e.g. “I should break up with my partner” comes up for the 48th time) is it appropriate to actually begin taking that thought seriously. If it’s just the first time or the second time, or even the sixth time, allow the thought and its associated sensory experience to just move through you, don’t fight it.
6. You can actually feel your emotions in your body and this is very helpful for processing them.
Fear, anger, anxiety, everything. You can pay very close attention to it, allow it to expand and run through your whole body. There is literally so much wild shit going on in your chest and your neck and your forehead and your guts as you’re feeling any given emotion, and becoming more intimate with all these sensations is incredibly powerful.
What I would usually do before retreat is think about my emotions, analyze them and try to find their cause. And this can be helpful, but a lot of the time this can get in the way of actually processing the emotion.
Relatedly: your phone is an emotion-suppression machine. Compulsively engaging with it is a very easy way to not process your emotions.
You really don’t need to do anything as you feel emotions, you don’t need to consciously verbally figure anything out, you can just feel them. They usually pass much more quickly when you do this. (Of course, some conceptual processing and labelling is helpful; just be careful about doing it every single time you feel any negative emotion ever.)
7. Physical pain is Not That Bad, Actually.
I’ve noticed for a while that I’m very pain-averse (and averse to any kind of discomfort, really). I learned on this retreat that you can experience fairly excruciating pain and be completely equanimous with it. If you sit still for long enough your body will start to hurt, but there’s generally no actual injury: two minutes after you’ve finished your sit you will feel completely fine again. This makes for a fantastic opportunity to deal with pain safely.
If you’re sufficiently concentrated, the pain loses its grip over you, you start being able to smile and enjoy yourself and think about math problems while the pain is ongoing. And then perhaps the pain increases and your awareness collapses around it again, and you feel resistance, but then, once again, you pay attention to it and you find equanimity.
Sasha Chapin wrote a post called ‘when safe, let it hurt’, and while I haven’t read the post (it’s paywalled) I’m just going to assume he makes the same point, and that title sums it up: when safe, you can actually let it hurt, and you can feel ok with it. This is mind-blowingly powerful.
(Extremely obvious caveat: I am not claiming that pain is Good, Actually. Pain is still bad, even if you’re equanimous with it, and it’s something we should collectively try to minimize for ourselves and each other. But unfortunately we’re a long way away from eradicating pain entirely, so in the meantime it would help for each of us to have a more friendly relationship with it when necessary.)
8. And more…
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There were a number of other more personal learnings as well as some flat-out trippy experiences, which you can ask me about irl.
1. Your anxiety can be completely wrong.
You know when you’re about to do something scary and you feel this rush of anxiety coming on, and you get this nagging feeling that this is a terrible idea, I should turn away and just go back to my comfortable little life? This retreat was another reminder that this feeling can be completely, utterly wrong. I was anxious about a number of things going into the retreat, the major one being the length, but none of my anxieties turned out to be material once I arrived, or really at any point during the experience. It was challenging but incredibly valuable, and also a ton of fun. (The food was delicious and the scenery was beautiful!)
2. The importance of sangha and a teacher.
For the longest time I’ve meditated in a vacuum, and this retreat showed me how valuable it is to meditate with others, to have a teacher to whom who can actually ask questions and get advice from.
3. Deeply renewed intellectual excitement about Buddhism and the whole project of human flourishing
We had a 1.5 hour dharma talk every day, and boy did these talks tickle my brain. One of the first things I did when I got back is google the Buddha so I could get a better understanding of who this man was and how he seemed to discover basic truths about the human condition in such astonishing detail that we’re still talking about him thousands of years later.
4. There does seem to be such a thing as too much writing / journaling / reflecting.
It hurts a little to say this, but it feels true right now. I’m now leaning towards being more spare with my journaling, to primarily write when I have legitimate insights (or just to document memories), rather than writing as a constant way to vent or to vomit my internal chatter onto my notebook.
5. It’s possible to meditate while you’re sick!
Surprise! This goes along with the pain point (lol) above. On the second day of the retreat I started having a sore throat and my mind plunged immediately into “noooo my retreat is ruined and my life is ruined” (notice the mistranslation of experience into words!). It turned out to be a mild cold, and I still had fantastically fruitful sessions even when I had a runny nose and an annoying sore throat! Wow.
6. Anxiety and fear are wildly different emotions.
I tended to conflate the two prior to retreat, which was probably a result of almost never feeling actual fear. But when you see two giant beetles crawling around in your living room, you suddenly realize that fear is much more energizing and animating than anxiety, and you feel it in your limbs rather than just your chest. And again, like pain and all other negative-valence experiences, fear is not actually that bad, there are things you can appreciate about it once you stop resisting it!
It’s been just over a week, so it’s too early to tell what the long-lasting effects of retreat will be. In the short-term: most of life is the same, but there’s a subtle sense of acceptance that kinda undergirds everything. I still fall into petty or anxious mind states, but they’re not as scary or overwhelming as they used to be.
Over the course of the day, I’m more and more aware of the thought that goes like: “this is it, THIS is the thing that will ruin my life, I REFUSE to live in a world that has such a thing.” (Examples: someone getting mad at me at a bar; a friend doesn’t reply to my text; and so on.) And post-retreat, I still have such thoughts, but I’m more often able to immediately see their falsehood. This thing is not the thing that will destroy me / ruin everything / be the singular reason why I’m not happy forever. I see how this kind of thinking is always false, has always been false.
It is actually mind-blowing to see how this mental stance, in more or less subtle ways, has always permeated my day to day experience. The inverse of it, which is always equally false, goes like: “this is it, THIS is the thing that will solve my problems, the thing I’ve been waiting for, after which I will never have problems again.” (Examples: your crush liking you back; the ice cream you can’t wait to have till you get home; and so on.)
These “this is it” thoughts are sometimes expressed in explicit words like the above, but much of the time they’re an implicit attitude towards life. And it really appears that you learn and relearn the falsehood of this attitude again and again a bajillion times. Awakening, in the non-vaunted sense of the word, is the process of breaking this stance more often and more clearly, and suffering much less as a result of it. Everything is the same: happiness is still great, sadness still sucks, you are still moved to make the world better. And yet everything feels…manageable.