Just a few weeks ago, I inadvertently found myself skeptically walking into a 10 day silent meditation retreat in the center of the poorest region of India. It turned out to be what I can only describe as voluntary solitary confinement. While I was surrounded by nature, it immediately struck me that I was voluntarily enlisting myself in a yogi internment camp, most closely resembling the perimeter of Alcatraz. With 20 foot stone walls embellished with barbed wire, and being 30 miles from the nearest town, it was clear we were not leaving once this program began. The energy felt like an odd marriage of of summer camp for adults, and a refuge for the mentally deranged – 2 acres of space shared between 80 detainees, all of whom showed up to registration with equally terrified expressions plastered across their faces. Why did I voluntarily sign up for this again?
To that point, I have a tendency to make questionable decisions at my own expense. In this case, that idiosyncrasy manifested in my ill-preparedness for this experience; I had not performed even a minute of research on the subject, walking in totally blind. Perhaps it was fortuitous because I imagine I would have balked at the opportunity had I read the innumerable anecdotes online beforehand. I didn’t solicit the opinions of any friends going into it, perhaps serendipitously, because my best friend whose opinion I deeply respect, chuckled after I completed it whilst I recounted the horror that was the experience, claiming she her prescience that my lack of preparedness was akin to doing an Iron Man being unable to swim. So maybe it was fate.
Despite having no clue what I was getting into, I had sought out this experience with good intent. I was in a mental traffic jam, and I needed a proper reset before I could embark on anything else with any sense of clarification going forward. I was burning bridges at an impressive rate, feeling very much alone in my own skin, and like I was treading water en route to drowning.
Against all odds, I made it through without completely losing my sanity - I fought through the mental demons, endured the torturous solitary confinement, and came out stronger than ever. I left with a sense of clarity and purpose unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Now, after some time to really let the lessons sink in, I want to share some of my key takeaways from this life-shaking experience. 10 lessons for each of the 10 days…
“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences.”
Stop judging people. You know nothing about their struggles or their strengths. Ask questions and learn instead.
This lesson was more of a coincidental byproduct of the experience rather than among the core teachings of the practice. My cohort was comprised almost exclusively of locals from the region - of the 80 odd students, I was one of 5 white people. This meant I was the outsider, I was constantly aware of a sensation of being watched. My mind immediately concocted a story about these people as a defense mechanism, an us vs. them sort of role play. I knew nothing of their backgrounds, but I created personas for them in my mind; I project my fears and insecurities on them, that I was the loner, and they, a tribe. This wasn’t shocking cognitive behaviour, but what what did surprise me, was that unlike normal life when I would have normally replayed that narrative, fixated on strengthening my own perceptions, I felt that the walls I had initially devised gradually dissipated. I felt a connection to these women, despite having absolutely no physical or verbal contact whatsoever. Perhaps it was because we were all going through this struggle together. We were equally suffering the same emotional anxiety for the 12 hours per day of meditation, the same aches and pains while we sat silently in the excruciating humidity, enduring the endless attack of mosquitoes, the exhaustion, and worst of all the mental torment. Or perhaps as I worked through my own demons, and I started to understand myself better, I was able to open up and understand others as well. Regardless, following the end of Noble Silence, I felt so deeply inspired by my fellow students for all surviving the battle. I felt viscerally connected to them, and surprised at how much I learnt from my peers. I definitely haven’t reached Buddha-level enlightenment, but I definitely felt an internal shift.
So much of what complicates our lives comes from our assumptions.
During the 10 days of strangled silence, I began to observe how my mind was distorting reality. My type A personality was wrenching in confusion recognizing how out of control I was of my current situation, and how unable I was to affect the external world I left behind. These 10 days felt like a super-pressure therapy session, forcing me to confront all my unconscious benighted affectations as I addressed my deepest fears. One of them being, my affinity towards introspective creative storytelling in the form of narcissistic assumptions. Now this is probably not abnormal; I believe most of us try our best to avoid uncertainties, we like to control how we experience the world. We perceive ourselves as the center of the universe, so naturally everyone’s actions are merely reactions to our own. In attempts to pacify the ego, we attempt to gain control where we have none by prescribing meaning to ambiguous actions taken by others. We choose to make objective sensory input subjective, placing ourselves in the center of all activity. We do this mindlessly, without appreciating the myriad of moving pieces that affect actions and events. Consequently we make rash assumptions, marred by the subconscious grudges we hold. We build up narratives in our minds, placing emphasis on subsequent information only as it confirms our assumptions. The problem with this behaviour - almost all assumptions are wrong.
We must stop ourselves from falling down the rabbit hole of acting on assumptions, and taking other’s people’s behaviour so personally. Every statement, action and reaction of another human being is the sum result of their total life experience to date. The majority of people say and act as they do as a result of their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. Most of it, even when aimed directly at us, has nothing to do with us. So stop being so easily offended.
3. EXPECTATIONS & BELIEFS
“I have strong beliefs, loosely held”.
My entire reason for embarking on this solitary soul-searching journey was because I felt like my life had diverged from the path it was meant to be on. I was not where I planned to be, and didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know what I believed in, and what I really cared about. As the product of two overachievers, I’ve always felt the need to have everything figured out. But going into this week, I had nothing figured out. I was paralyzed with fear.
A lot of pain and turbulence in our lives comes from holding onto paradigms, beliefs, relationships, customs, jobs and people that no longer serve us. Learning to observe the symptoms of these scenarios and developing the courage to let go will enable us to move on and grow into the butterflies we’re meant to be. Saturn Returns is all about exploration, learning and deep inner reflection. Learning to embrace change. Vipassana is all about learning to let go of the “when it happens, I will be happy,” or saying to yourself that “I should be farther along in life than I am now.”
It’s also important to realize that certain elements of your life are intentionally transient. People and beliefs come and go, and there’s no reason to feel guilt for the fluidity of friends or the reevaluation of beliefs. It’s okay to outgrow friends, and it’s okay to change your beliefs. You chose certain people in your life based on who you were at that moment, but both of you have changed, and maybe you’ve outgrown them. For beliefs, they’re like science, what you’ve believed is often a product of what you’ve been told, especially if it comes from a trusted source. As you amass new knowledge, those beliefs may be challenged because that person or institution has a different perspective of the world than you do. Thy’ve experienced different things, and therefore what is true to them, may not hold true for you. If you feel uneasy about an old belief, dig deep into why, and formulate a new opinion with new information.
“Anxiety needs the future, depression needs the past”.
I suffered deeply from both of these ailments. Fear and lack of control over all that lay ahead, and regret and remorse over things I couldn’t change. It was an unhealthy relationship with time that I believe plagues many. I realize now that most of the time I’ve felt alone, unsafe, in fear, uneasy, anxious and a plethora of other unwanted emotions, I was often living in a world of hypothetical situations. I would envision a series of “what ifs” and behave as if those were actually happening. I placed so much energy into the unknown that I wasn’t even participating in my own reality.
Most people you meet are only a fraction present: they are regretting something they did yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. It’s an ingrained habit of the ego, forcing the mind to escape from reality into a past or future that is unattainable. This vortex of longing for the past or fearing for the future perpetuates a feeling of misery, agitation and restlessness. We need to train ourselves to remain aware of whatever reality manifests at the present moment. We cannot choose what sensation to feel or what experience we’re currently having because we cannot create sensations. What is important is to be aware of how we’re feeling without reacting to it. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus on one’s attention on emotions, thoughts and feelings as they occur in the present moment. Meditation teaches you to just observe.
Observing and not reacting can be an oasis from the discomfort that is the now. No matter how out-of-control you feel, or how much pressure you are under, bringing yourself back to the present will help alleviate the pain you identify with. Sometimes you actually find your own present misfortune to be amusing as you realize how un-present you once were, and how you may have previously been unconsciously enraged, antagonizing and personalizing your current experiences. You will quit worrying over that which hasn’t yet occurred, and you can release yourself from the agony of dwelling on mistakes you can’t fix. Focus on the things you can control, which is how you perceive this temporary state, knowing it won’t last forever.
Unpleasant experiences arise and fall, come and go. The flip side: the pleasant ones do, too.
It is a tenet of the Vipassana wisdom that your “life” as it seems right now, is not really your life, rather your “life situation”. This is the state the ego confuses as the essence of your life, it needs you to cling to the drama of everyday life as problems arise and pass away. Your life situation may be unpleasant at times, temporarily challenging, physically or emotionally. But events are neither good nor bad until you prescribe a label to them. You mentally decide how sever your situation is. Whether your time is being wasted by standing in line, or the inconvenience of the rain is going to ruin your new hair do, or if the ceaseless traffic is making you miss your next appointment. We are conditioned to react to those sensational feelings of frustration, anger, demise and unhappiness when things don’t go our way and when our cravings aren’t satisfied. But those are our own demons. And consider how much you torture yourself when you aren’t able to achieve the grandiose things you desire, the partner to cuddle, the new car or promotion, the trip that seems longingly far away.
Our ego has conditioned us to identify suffering with unpleasant sensory experiences. Conversely, we also experience misery when we attach ourselves to ephemeral experiences, no matter how positive. Every sensation, feeling, or experience, whether gross or subtle, has the same characteristic of impermanence. Our strength lies in our ability to identify either pain or pleasure without developing feelings of discontent or pleasure. By observing without reacting to these temporary experiences, we develop equanimity at the depths of the mind, which will enable us to remain balanced amid all the vicissitudes of daily life.
“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes — most of which never happened”.
Meditation is fucking hard. There’s a reason those Buddhist monks get so much esteem. Turning your mind off, sitting still for extended periods of time, and facing our deepest fears is not done with the faint of heart. I knew this. But one thing I wasn’t prepared for, was the physical pain. I didn’t even contemplate how my body would feel sitting for 12 hours a day in a cross-legged position. But the instructor constantly reminded us that this pain, no matter how severe, like everything in life, will subside. Our bodies will get used to it, and adjust. It’s how we work.
The reason they teach you to sit through the pain is to encourage the mind to cease reactivity. To encourage our willpower to resist reaction, and to control our urges. These involuntary, semi-subconscious reactions are like feeding a cancer with sugar because we’re too lazy to eat greens. When we are ignorant and mindless, sensation of significant enjoyment or discomfort are a means to multiply our misery, because we react to them with craving or aversion. By becoming objectively aware of sensations without reacting, we interrupt our habits of blind reaction and can liberate ourselves from the perpetual pain of desires. Vipassana trains us to remove ourselves from the autopilot responses, to become aware of the impermanence of all feelings, and to strengthen our willpower to accept rather than react. Through this technique, the entire mass of the mind becomes conscious, aware; the ignorance is removed.
“What you resist persists”.
Psychologically speaking, resistance and resolution are at opposite poles. Vipassana teaches us that we store our deepest fears, insecurities, and chips on our shoulders in our psyche when we are not ready to deal with them. It’s like we cache them to affect us at a later date. It makes sense then, that as they accumulate over the years, those fears and insecurities only strengthen. We do not deny them through avoidance, we unwittingly advance them by holding onto these patterns of hurt, anxiety or anger. Without much self-realization, we can even get “attached” to feelings we haven’t resolved. Sub-consciously we concentrate on not moving beyond what opposes us, not coming to terms with it. And our impulses towards resistance tends to be about avoiding the more hurtful, or disturbing aspects of the experience. In order to heal these parts of our mind poisoned by holding onto stress, they need to be confronted and released. The sub-conscious energy devoted to keeping them locked up has only sapped our vitality and instigated unexpected trigger points for later in life; it’s really only a matter of postponing the inevitable. But, “like ignoring a mortgage payment and then being slapped with a stiff penalty, what you fail to confront leads to a much larger bill to be paid later.”
“Technology is a violent assault on our ability to think and feel”.
Resistance’s ugly little brother is distraction. And it’s even easier to accomplish, especially today. We have all kinds of mediums offering us distraction from our pain, avoidance from our problems, masking our suffering with instant gratification and pleasure. We have highly developed defense mechanisms to enable our mind to put our problems in the “later” bin. And all these technological “advancements” we’re experiencing now are just furthering that agenda; perpetuating the monkey mind. Technology offers us a constant interruption into our capacity to think and feel clearly, obstructing our ability to acknowledge our inner monologue through the thousand different attention-seeking voices radiating out of our devices. The constant sensory overload, the multitasking, the inability to focus and the constant notifications reminding us of our “priorities” help us avoid our subconscious thoughts, and enable our further distraction.
That is what vipassana is; a strict intense lesson in living without—the friends, the family, the partnership, the conversation, the dinner, the stimulation. Vipassana forces a kind of focus that modern man is vaguely aware can exist. It makes us think. Then think about thinking. We can no longer maintain a false sense of control, because we have nothing left to focus our wandering minds on but what’s deep within. We cannot throw our minds into autopilot and pull the blanket over our eyes through consumption.
Technology is empty-caloried brain candy.
One of the reasons we are required to hand in all our devices, rid ourselves of our technology, our possessions, our materials, is to purge ourselves of the distractions. Technology has afforded us a great deal of growth, but simultaneously has caused us a great deal of pain. It has encouraged an epidemic of multitasking. It has established this 21st century concept of being busy; where to sit without something to read or watch or play with is practically unimaginable. Our smartphones have become appliances that can act as any tool you might need; a calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, voice recorder, news broadcaster, star gazer, romance guru, weather forecaster, bank, personal driver, GPS, texter, tweeter, and flashlight. They’re more powerful than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them perpetually, we’re addicted.
Multitasking is a powerful and diabolical illusion. It has been found to "increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking”. Multitasking also creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, quite literally rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. The human eye is genetically hard-wire to look at bright, moving and flashing objects; it’s an evolutionary feature that protects us from potential threats. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. There is a direct cognitive cost to technology, not to mention the social stress the demand for constant updates, attention and replies puts on us. It’s a direct crutch to our happiness.
10. BREAKDOWN OF THE EGO
Sometimes you need to have a breakdown to have a breakthrough.
The middle of Day 3 I collapsed on the floor in tears, suffering from excruciating physical pain and completely exasperated psychologically. Then around Day 5, when I thought for sure I was going to need to be committed to a psych ward for my dark thoughts, I had my first panic attack. I ran out of the meditation hall screaming bloody murder like I was being chased by an axe murder in a bad horror movie. By the time I calmed down, I was packing my bag ready to march out the front door. There was no way this is safe. I couldn’t possibly face so many internal demons at once.
But once I settled down and talked myself into sticking it out, I realized that experiencing the torture of solitude led to the revelations I had on Day 8. It was then that I started to feel a sense of clarity, purpose and understanding. It was then that I was flooded with gratitude. I realized I couldn’t have broken through, to feel this type of deep calm, without letting out all the anxiety and pressure I’d be hoarding for years.
Going on a retreat really feels like fasting, except you stop feeding your ego, not your body. Your ego will fight you on this. It’s a skillful, insidious fighter. It’s hard to understand sometimes that a lot of the battles we fight are against ourselves. Fighting against yourself is the longest and hardest battle for a very simple reason: it’s a level playing fight. Your ego will spin lies in the back of your mind, telling you that you can’t accept the unknown, that you can’t get used to the pain, that you cannot keep going. But I’ll tell you, we get used to almost anything.