I recently came back from a 6 week meditation retreat. I've done long silent retreats before, but 6 weeks was still a challenge for me. Many friends have asked how my experience was, so I thought I'd share some of my notes here.
What is a meditation retreat like?
The retreat center I went to follows a Burmese Buddhist tradition which emphasizes doing a lot of continuous meditation. Food and lodging were taken care of, with around 80 of us in the cohort. During the retreat, there was no talking, no phones, no reading, no internet, and little to no eye contact (in a meditative state, it can be distracting).
Every 45 minutes or 1 hour, we alternate between sitting meditation in the meditation hall, or walking meditation indoors or on the beautiful grounds - a sprawling few hundred acres - see header photo.
We had a dharma talk every day, and every few days we'd have 1-1 time with our meditation teachers, who have extensive meditation experience and are sometimes ordained monks or nuns.
Every day the schedule was identical, there were no weekends or off days, and after a while things like dates along the rest of the outside world fades away.
How does your mind change after 45 days of meditation?
Meditation is like spring cleaning for your brain. All the stuff you've been stowing in the corners get to see the light of day. This includes beautiful memories of childhood joy, deep gratitude, but also negative patterns like aversion, "I dislike this other person, I wish my meditation was easier", or worry and anxiety, "Maybe this a a huge waste of time, if I don't get to a peaceful state then I've failed".
In the beginning, these thoughts and feelings are recognized and let go, and as you gain momentum, things just fall away on their own. What's left is peace and happiness. Happiness in meditation feels like a sweet contentment, an urge to smile.
From these moments of peace and happiness, perspective naturally develops. What previously felt like threatening and urgent issues, just don't feel that urgent or important anymore, and often a solution that wasn't previously obvious arises.
Most people experience deepening states of peace, calm, a deeper appreciation of beauty, a sense that they are more "alive", a feeling of warmth and brightness emanating from within, more love and compassion for everyone, and insights regarding their own life and what life is about in general.
These insights are whole body experiences, where you "know" the truth of something. It's a lived experience that has the potency to change one's values.
The feeling that every sight, sound, and experience is fresh and new and sparkly does go away eventually when you're back in the real world. But the insights stay and work their way into your life, albeit gradually. Often one will see changes in their decision making around 2-3 months after a retreat, without needing any additional work or conscious action. Some insights are jotted down at the end of this note.
What about changes in the body? What was it like to be attuned with a natural circadian rhythm?
I'm a natural late riser, so the 5:00am wake time coupled with the jetlag was brutal for me. It took a good 2 weeks for me to acclimate, and even then not fully.
But waking up before the sun rises and seeing the sun rise and fall each day does improve one's mood and outlook. There's more hopefulness and optimism, and a connectedness to nature. The smell of fresh morning air with light dew on everything, how the sunlight breaks the darkness each morning. You'll see how light hit the forest differently each day, and notice how the seasons change with the path of the sun.
Sleep usually improves. I don't usually have sleep issues, but I tend to sleep even more deeply here, falling asleep more easily and waking up naturally with no need for alarms. Digestion improves. If you weren't regular, you will be. Complexion improves. I don't know if it's the vegetarian diet, the sleep, or the meditation, but skin texture usually improves and there's a brightness to the complexion.
The downside here is that unless you bring extra nutrition and add in your own exercise routine, you'll likely lose weight and muscle mass. Sitting and walking slowly daily doesn't help, especially if you had a rigorous program going in. I try to bulk up a bit before going, and also do daily body weight exercises, but some say rigorous exercising can break the meditative state. I lost weight and muscle mass even with daily exercises, but I also followed the 8 precepts and did not eat after lunch.
What was the most difficult part? What did I miss the most?
The most difficult part was deciding to go in the first place. The common ill of our time is the curse of opportunity cost aka fomo. "I could be spending time with family and friends, or traveling in Europe, or making progress in my business, etc". The psychological stress of weighing options was the hardest part. Once the decision was made, everything was pretty easy. If you've been to 10 day silent retreats, a 45 day is not that different. Once you're in a meditate state, time flows differently anyways. When you're in it, it's like time doesn't exist. When you're out and reflect back, it seems like only a few days have passed by.
I did find myself missing some surprising things. Outside of missing my people, the top thing I missed was reading. The fact that we can pick up a book to learn about any topic any time seems like magic when you can't do so. Everyone has individual rooms on the retreat, which was great, but I sorely missed having space and my creature comforts. I also missed the nature in the Bay Area. We really have some of the most majestic nature here, and I felt that I hadn't taken advantage of it enough while I was home.
What was the most difficult part in coming back to the "real world"?
Meditation sensitizes you to your thoughts and feelings, including suffering / stress. So after feeling so much peace and love, going back to the news and social media where there's so much cynicism and hate felt a bit overwhelming. The evident striving of social media influencers can also trigger a feeling of suffering and compassion. Other people's emotions register with you more deeply, sometimes at a level where the other person might not know what they're feeling yet.
Beautiful things will also hit you harder. Something nice that someone does for you, or a magnificent sunset can send one to tears much more easily than before.
These changes also don't necessarily go away over time.
Tell more technical stuff about the retreat?
For those who already have a practice and want to know more details, the retreat loosely follows the Mahasi Sayadaw lineage of insight meditation with noting, in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. For the first few weeks, every day we work on a different meditation object, loosely following the Satipatthana (Four Establishment of Mindfulness), starting with the sounds, breath, moving to the body posture etc etc. We end at open awareness, where awareness follows where the attention is at.
There are also instructions for Samadhi (concentration) practice, and yogis are free to choose their meditation focus and object.
The teachings hew close to the Pali Canon, and Suttas are often quoted.
There's also a weekly optional Metta / Four Brahma Viharas meditation led by one of the teachers. Some opts out because in a deepened meditative state, it might not be helpful, but I found them to be useful and beautiful and help deepen samadhi.
What are some of the insights you arrived at during these 45 days?
Insights are made from the stuff in each individual's psyche, so it's highly personal. If the following doesn't make sense, just skip this section.
Love & wholeness
- If you believe in your innate goodness, it gives you the capacity to unconditionally love others.
- Radically love every part of yourself, your body, your mind, your emotions, your sensations, send unconditional love to everything. Because your thoughts, feelings, and sensations are yourself too.
- We are beings of pure love. Our capacity to love is infinite and love turns everything else into love.
- Intention matters. If your intention for practice is to improve yourself, at some point it will stop leading you forward, because inside there is a message that there is a self that needs to change / improve. The truth is everything is complete.
- Dualistic view, as long as we think this this way we highlight our separateness. When we meditate, embrace unicity - the universality of consciousness. There's no start, no end, and no boundaries. When you let go of the discriminating identities, we merge into universal consciousness.
- Any aversion poisons oneself. In some parts of our ancient brain, we can't differentiate us and others, every time we hate something or someone, we hate ourselves, we ruin our mood, put into motion unwholesome habit patterns to surface later. To guard the heart as a pure space, for your own good, keep love and compassion alive.
- Feelings of separateness lead to fear. Feelings of unicity lead to happiness and peace. Anger, hate, judgement are are emotions of separateness, of pushing away. Love, gratitude, compassion are emotions of wholeness, of pulling towards.
- We think we have a glimpse into our whole potential, but we don't even have the imagination required to understand our true capacity. We underestimate it by too far.
- In meditation, one is absorbing wounds and scars, merging into the infinite and into the source. One is reparenting themselves, reliving their lives, changing the past, changing the future. Becoming one with the infinite.
- Are you busy “doing” or trying to control what just needs to be deeply accepted? How can one “do” less?
- Every single person is already whole and complete, nothing is missing. But we’re used to obfuscating the truth with conditioned patterns of thought, feelings, and behavior. In the quietest of moments, when we can let go of more, the truth becomes apparent.
- We get stuck on what we refuse to accept. Seems obvious but it is a deep truth. If you feel stuck, see what you cannot fully accept. Accept fully into your heart and into your bones. Once you do you world will open further, and you move on to the next level.
- Meditation is not “doing”. You're doing nothing at all, any effort is just suffering, craving. You let go and let experience happen to you and deeply accept everything. Every single thing, accept into your bones with unconditional love. This is truly being alive.
- Can you, totally and wholeheartedly accept that you don’t have any control over things, even for just a moment? You will experience freedom and peace in that moment.
- If you knew with 100% certainty you were going to die in the next moment, would you still cling on to what you’re clinging to right now? Being able to let go freely is the path to freedom.
- In meditation, it becomes clear how little control there is over what comes up in the mind, thoughts and memories spontaneously arise, whether we want them to or not. Without control of thoughts and feelings, how much control do we have over our behavior? How much control do we have over our life? How much of life is a reaction to whatever that happens to come through the mind at that time?
- letting go = completely merging into
Suffering / Stress
- One can have discernment without carrying the emotional load along for the ride. One can choose to not like something without feeling the burning coal of aversion.
- Notice both the positive and negative thoughts. Often the positive thoughts are suffering repackaged. Be wary of the need to self compliment, "I’m such a good yogi, or hard worker". Implied is a wanting for approval, and fear. Just let go.
- The feeling of striving is the ultimate invisible suffering. Every moment we spend striving is a moment we’re reinforcing the message that we are not enough. Achievement is separate from the feeling of striving.
- Having feelings, hard feelings, sad feelings, angry feelings, is normal, it’s a part of being alive. Notice if there’s a slight dislike of feeling these feelings, what does it feel like if you welcomed the feeling, including the dislike of it?
- To feel happy, let go of more. Let go of the worries, let go of the doubt, let go of the thoughts. The act of letting go is to surrender, instead of pushing things away, you accept things completely and let the full experience wash over you.
- Happiness comes before success. Happiness enables one to see all possibilities, see reality clearly, choose the best routes, be your own friend and supporter, so success become easier.
- Invite delight into your life every day. A new experience, an interesting conversation, new sights and learnings. Delight ultimately leads to the mind being able to see more clearly.
- All thoughts about what you want, your opinions, your fears, they are old patterns echoing through time. Upon close inspection of these thoughts and feelings, they are often just jumbled images and sensations, and yet we take them to be sacred and defended at all costs. To live an entire life in this delusion is a waste of this precious life.
- We are a bundle of habit patterns. Our thoughts and emotions are habits. Your relationship with yourself and with others are habits. Like a tape being played on repeated at intervals, without inspection, these habits cycle in and out without us being conscious of them, whether they’re good or bad. What’s important to know is that you are not the tape that gets played, try watching the tape closely without assuming it’s true or false or that it is you. This is the start of free will.
- Every feeling is here to tell us something, about our worldview about our assumptions. The only issue is if we're ready to listen or not. The message is just repeating.
- This story of who you are is a constructed entity to simulate a solid sense of self. For every story that comes up, inspect it closely, how solid is this? When did this particular movie start its run? Do these thoughts and feelings come and go? What does it feel like to buy into the story and take the protagonist as yourself? What does it feel like if you didn’t identify completely with the protagonist of the story as yourself and instead as a movie that's being played?
- Actions (karma) include thoughts and feelings, all actions lead to their consequences in this lifetime and future lifetimes. The totality of one’s habits, thought patterns, tendencies give rise to the remainder of this current life and future lives. Ask yourself if the thought patterns and tendencies you have right now are the ones you want to carry into the future.
- As much as possible, do things because you feel it’s truly the right thing to do. Don’t do things because you feel you need to. A non-obvious example, if you want to donate money, but the suggested default is higher than what you feel comfortable with. You serve yourself and your karmic path better if you choose what feels right to you, which might be a smaller donation.