Meditation Retreat

The Longest Ten Days of My Life, and Why That’s Not a Bad Thing

Recently Erik and I spent ten days at a Vipassana Meditation course at the Dhamma Vaddhana Meditation Center in Twentynine Palms, CA.  If you haven’t read the post where we outlined the generalities of the 10-day retreat, you can read it here.

I know that there are some questions about the experience and exactly what was involved, so I’d like to give my take on the course, what I took from it, and my thoughts on meditation in general.  I am not going to teach the technique with this essay, just explain the basic ideas.  With regard to our background: we had taken an Introduction to Meditation course together previously in Saint Paul, and Erik had had additional previous meditation experience.   As for me, after the class in Saint Paul I tried to maintain a regular meditation schedule on my own but with limited success, and I haven’t meditated since about April.

Let’s get a few basics out of the way before I go on.

What is meditation?  I am far from an expert, but this is my understanding:  there are many schools of meditation and they all have their differences, but there are some very basic interrelated concepts.  First is the idea of clearing one’s mind from extraneous thought.  Often this is done by consciously focusing on the inhalation and exhalation of one’s breath, but there are other methods.  The clearing of the mind is intended to allow one to further permeate the subconscious and then start controlling aspects of the physiology that are not automatically controllable, such as emotions, reflexes, even in some cases organ functions.  The clearing of the mind is also used to help one focus on the sensations of the present moment, which is almost never recognized by people.  Typically, if there is any thought whatsoever given to a present moment, it is a mere fraction of all the other moments during which one is awake and conscious.

Have you noticed that?  It is sad that we almost never appreciate much less experience the present moment; we are either reliving a past experience, rewriting a past experience, anticipating a future moment, or inventing a future fantasy.  As an example, take a quick moment and think about your five senses and all the events that are impacting them right this moment.  What can you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch?  All these and countless more immediate occurrences are happening in the present moment, but we don’t usually observe any them.  Instead, left to our own devices, we are thinking about the past or the future.  And this is one teeny, tiny example of one split-second moment of our day.  What about the rest of the conscious day?

Is meditation a religious practice?  Yes and no.  It can be taught as such but it absolutely does not need to be.  Vipassana, the technique I learned at the retreat, is strictly and adamantly nonsectarian.

It is necessary to chant some monosyllabic word, sit cross-legged on the floor, wear loose robing, burn incense, hang crystals, and play New Age-y type music?  No, no, no, no, maybe but only because they’re pretty, and definitely no.

That’s about it.  Now let’s get to my experience at the Vipassana Center because I can’t wait to share my experience.

The technique of Vipassana meditation was rediscovered and then taught by Gautama the Buddha about 2500 years ago.  But Buddha believed that the maladies of the people of the world – anger, misery, sadness, general negativity – were universal regardless of anyone’s religion, age, race, nationality, class, or any other categorization and therefore believed that this technique should be taught to as many people as possible.

Obviously something taught by Buddha should have Buddhist overtones, right?  Not here.  Not only is there zero religious aspect to the Vipassana technique (I’ll explain why in a second), but the course requires that no religious item or action be brought or performed by any student during the course.  In other words, leave your crucifix necklace at home and skip your nightly prayers for 10 days.  If you have a problem with that, then this isn’t for you.  But really, it’s only 10 days.  Everything will be waiting for you back home in 10 days.  Your god or goddess isn’t going anywhere.  There are two reasons for this regulation:  first, it is to give the technique a fair, unadulterated trial without the distraction of outside rites or rituals; second, it is to protect the other students from the distraction of someone else trying to mix religious with Vipassana.  The technique is compatible with any religion, so there is nothing to worry about.  And if someone is that insecure in their religion that they can’t politely set it aside for 10 days, knowing that they will come back to it, then there are other issues at play there.  (That is totally my own personal opinion.)

There is no room for religion in the technique because Vispassana is based on science.  It explores the relationship between mind and matter, touching on quantum physics.  It uses the mind to observe matter, specifically the energy that is created in and around the cells of our own bodies.  (Don’t forget that all our cells – actually, all cells of everything that is matter – have microscopic moving parts and those parts create energy.)  Our subconscious already observes this to a certain extent, but it then processes the information on its own without our conscious help.  If we can start consciously observing the physical and biochemical sensations that our body automatically creates, we can consciously choose how or if to act/react to them.

That sounds like a lot of brainy stuff, but this epitomizes why this technique is helpful:  when we get angry, two things happen inside our bodies: our breathing changes and there is a biochemical reaction inside our bodies that we cannot control.  If you are aware that you are angry, you can do something about it – namely, control your anger.  However, controlling anger most often means suppressing anger that has already been created.  One of the ideas behind Vipassana is that one can sharpen one’s mind to the extent that it can perceive the signs before it is turned into anger.  Even further, it is possible to be so in control of one’s senses that the signs themselves do not even develop, therefore no anger can arise.

What does it matter?  It matters a lot.  It is becoming more and more understood in the world that negative energy from one person generates negative energy around him/her and helps proliferate negative energy around the world.  A simple, surface example: has someone else’s crabbiness ever made you crabby?  Conversely, has someone’s good mood ever brightened your spirits?  This isn’t metaphysical mumbo jumbo.  It’s real.  Authors such as Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama and many, many more are making us realize just how damaging personal negativity is.  If you understand that, then why in the universe would you want to continue that cycle?

There were many key terms used in the teaching of this technique, but the two that really stand out for me were “equanimity” and “experiential.”  Let’s start with equanimity.  If you could process every thought and every physical sensation with complete equanimity – calmly, rationally, and objectively – you could increase your conscious control your reaction to these situations.  How many itches on your body do you scratch in one day without even being aware of them?  There is very little conscious awareness at play there.  But if there were, you could: alter your “feelings” about the itch and change it from something that needed to be remedied into something that is neither good nor bad, and then you could choose to ignore it because it will go away on its own.  (And they really do.)  This is obviously just a superficial example.  But it parallels our negative emotions; they rise up only so that can pass.  In other words, if they will go away eventually anyway, then why give any power, even temporarily, to the negativity?  Getting angry and feeling sad are not fun experiences.  It is far more satisfying to remain in a positive state of mind and handle situations rationally.

Let’s say someone offends you intentionally, maybe calls you a name.  That person, through that action, has created negative energy.  If you choose to get angry about it, then you have created negative energy.  Let’s say you decide to call him a name in retaliation.  More negative energy created.  Maybe this person isn’t so thick-skinned and gets sad about it.  Now even more negative energy.  Do see how one simple action and one unconscious reaction has exponentially compounded the negative energy in the situation?  Now let’s change it up: someone calls you a name.  You comprehend the negativity for what it is and refuse to let it affect you – it’s just a word, after all.  Your mind says, “I will not accept his gift of negative energy; therefore it will stay with him and cause me no further thought.”  You have stopped the spread of negative energy in its tracks.  End of story.

The experiential part of the process has many uses.  First, as this course was taught, students were consistently reminded to make up their own minds about the usefulness of the method but to do know equanimously after experiencing it for themselves, not to simply rely on what the teachers or other students had to say.  Second, in order to consciously control the signals your body is sending you, you must experience them consciously, not simply rely on your subconscious to make decisions for you about how to act/react.  The teacher gave a great example that really simplified the concept:

  1. A man goes into a restaurant and reads on the menu that the food is good, and so he thinks the food must be good.  In this situation, the man is blindly relying on the word of those who have a vested interest in his liking the food.  The want him to like it so that they can make money.  He is going on nothing other than their word.
  2. The man sees other diners in the restaurant enjoying the food, and so he deduces that the food must be good.  Here, the man is now doing some research, viewing other people, people who do not have a vested interest in whether or not he enjoys the food, eating and liking the food.  Since he does not know them and they do not know him, it must be a somewhat objective conclusion that the food must be good.
  3. The man eats the food and knows it to be good.  Finally, the man has experienced the food for himself and has found it to be good.  He can now choose to continue eating it or not based on his experiential reasoning.

Does that help make sense of it?  It did for me.

One thing to remember: meditation doesn’t end when the timer rings; the techniques practiced and concepts explored are intended to carry through into your daily life.  The end game then is that hopefully I can become aware enough in my waking moments to truly experience all the sensations and emotions and thoughts and feelings in my life with equanimity before they have a chance to usurp my conscious thought process.  If one is truly doing that, one is living in the present moment, not thinking of the past or the future.

But there are other benefits to practicing meditation and living in the present moment.  This is the big one – the one that always has people perking up their ears: focusing and sharpening your mind has the added result of making your mind more efficient.  Practical translation: it is very common for those who study meditation to be able to complete a task or set of tasks in less time than it used to.  In other words, a workload that used to take you 8 hours could maybe be done in 7 or 6.  Why?  Because your brain has been alleviated of the chatter and clutter that infiltrates it regularly and you can focus more intently on the task at hand and complete it sooner.  (Think about what the implication is – how much time we really waste every single day in our brains.)  This is also a great argument for those who claim they don’t have time every day to meditate.  By meditating you make your brain work quicker and more efficiently, thereby actually creating extra time in your day, some of which you can use to meditate.

Another argument against the “I don’t have time” theory: you can also take time away from your sleep time to meditate.  I know that everyone thinks that they don’t get enough sleep as it is so there is no way they would intentionally reduce their sleep, but think about it.  You sleep because 1) your physical body needs rest, and 2) your brain needs rest.  By meditating, you are in a stationary position which obviously is giving rest to your body.  But also, you are calming and refreshing your mind, which is also very restful – maybe more so than regular sleep if your sleep is frequently interrupted with thoughts and worries and concerns.  I’m not making this stuff up.  It’s real.

Now finally, getting back to the title of this essay…  If you are able to appreciate and remain in the present moment, as well as be in tune with the sensations and feelings that you are experiencing at all times, time will not fly by – even if you are having fun.  Each minute of the 10 days of meditation retreat for which I was working to be focused on the present, were wonderfully luxurious in perceived time lapsed.  Like many people, I have been noticing that as I get older time seems to be getting quicker.  If I am halfway through my life, I certainly DO NOT want it to start speeding up as I approach the finish line.  I want as much time as I can have.  And if I cannot increase the number of minutes I am alive, at least I can work to increase the perceived length of each of those minutes.

It sounds pretty good doesn’t it?  But you shouldn’t take my word for it.  Be the person who goes into the restaurant and eats the food – find out with your own experience.  And just so we’re all clear: there is no magic pill.  Meditation is a lifelong practice.  You may feel calmer and more in control of your emotions after a few days or weeks, but for real, long-lasting results meditation needs to be done regularly.  But the good news, as I said, is after a while you won’t need to build in time for meditation; it builds it in itself.  And just like other activities that make you feel good (and feel good about yourself) you will enjoy the results so much that you will want to meditate and it will become a priority in your day.  When you don’t meditate, you’ll notice the change in your mind and you’ll realize that you prefer the Meditation You to the Nonmeditation You.

So… a simple, personal, do-it-anytime technique that makes you feel calmer, happier, and more rational and in control of your emotions, decreases the negativity and misery inside of you and that which you put out into the world, and increases your awareness of the present moment and can “lengthen” time…  Don’t you think if more people in the world did this – even just a little – our planet would be a much nicer place to live?  I do.  But this type of change must happen at the personal level before it can happen at the global level, and each person has the control to decide whether of not to make this change.  I would like to humbly recommend that everyone who read this article to give it a try – even just 10 or 15 minutes a day for a month.  And don’t wait until New Year’s Resolution time.  New Year’s is in the future.  The present moment is now.  You are worth it NOW.

Don’t forget to check out our Quotes page.  There is a Thanksgiving-sized helping of quotes and the selection of sentiments is based on ideas presented at the meditation retreat we attended.

Also, if you’d like more information on the retreat we attended, visit their website.  Some workshops are only for the weekend, and some are even just one day.  But if you can do a longer one, go for it.  It’s free!  And, really, what can it hurt?

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3 Responses to Meditation Retreat

  1. Diane Benjamin says:

    Hi, Joe. I was delighted to see this post a few days back. I have been practicing mindfulness and meditation for many years. You did a great job of explaining it! I have also been privileged to have the opportunity to participate in many meditation retreats over the years. I’m glad you got to have that experience.

    Best wishes for a wonderful next stage of your journey.

  2. Amy Oriani says:

    I read this while onsite in NYC, running a show for a bunch of doctors … while checking my email and thinking about what show I might see tonight if I had a chance. That’s pretty much what you had in mind, right? I think I’ve got this down. ;)

  3. Chuck says:

    “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”- Ludwig Wittgenstein

    Joe – your thoughts on the meditation retreat are easier for me to understand than Wittgenstein, clarifying the simplicity and importance of centering on the moment and overseeing the gunk in and around us. It reminded me too, that life is a verb not a noun.

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