Meditation Retreat Recap

2018-Jan-06

A month ago, I took an early morning Greyhound bus from Vancouver to Merritt to attend a 10-day meditation programme. I think when I look back, I will see this as one of the most profound experiences of my life. It was hard and gruelling, and I was apprehensive leading up to it, but I’m so glad that I went for it. Here, I will try to provide an overview/summary of the experience.

Caveat: It's impossible for me for convey the experience of meditation through a blog post and I'm not going to try. In this post, I've written about some of my takeaways from the experience. It's important to remember that ALL of the takeaways discussed here are besides the central point of the retreat, which is the practice of meditation. In other words, what I've discussed here were the byproducts for me at the time I took the course. Most important takeway of all is that the practice of meditation can lead to many such insights (and probably much more profound ones).

Background

Why meditate?

I initially got into meditation as a stress management technique. One night when I was 28, I found myself in the office, alone, at 8 PM. I had just released a buggy version of our app, and it was causing issues on our customers’ phones. I had no idea what had gone wrong. As I was pouring over pages and pages of log data to detect the issue, I suddenly became cognizant of the sharp pains I was experiencing in my chest. My next thought was that since the office building is now empty, if I have a heart attack, nobody will find me until the next morning.

I had heard many guests on The Tim Ferriss Podcast talk about their meditation practice, so in 2017, I made it a new years’ resolution to establish a regular meditation practice, to be able to gain better control over my stress response. I stuck to a routine of doing 5-minutes/day, but I knew I did not understand what meditation really was, so I signed up for the retreat.

Now, I know that the promise of meditation is much loftier than simple “stress management”. Meditation is the practice by which one can end one’s suffering. I’ve written before about my philosophy of handling setbacks and unhappiness. This philosophy revolves around the acceptance of what is and being content with all things — desirable or undesirable — that are outside of one’s control. Even the subtitle of this blog (“making the map match the territory”) is about my quest to see the world as it is, not as I want it to be. I’ve learned these lessons from stoic writings from Ancient Rome, and I’ve heard them echoed by Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching. As I’ve learned now, Buddhist thinking follows a similar theme.

However, while Lao Tzu and the Roman stoics were very clear about the end goal (building a strong mind), they were less clear about the path to get there. Vipassana meditation is, according to its practitioners, the Buddha’s method. And by training the mind, it promises to end all suffering.

So tell me about the retreat!

The meditation centre I attended is called Dhamma Surabhi, a 20-minute drive outside of Merritt. The main building is a square structure with a courtyard in the middle. On one end of the square is a large meditation hall, on the other end, there is a dining hall. The corridors connecting the two contain the rooms and bathrooms for the students, one side for men, the other for women. There is complete gender segregation for the duration of the course.

At the start, the students are asked to commit to the following moral code for the duration of the course:

  • I will abstain from killing
  • I will abstain from stealing
  • I will abstain from all sexual activity
  • I will abstain from wrong speech
  • I will abstain from all intoxicants

These precepts are interpreted rather broadly. The food at the retreat is all vegetarian because eating meat would violate the first precept — you’re supporting killing. And since it’s impossible for people to communicate with pure truth, students must observe “Noble Silence” for the duration of the course. This means no talking, no gestures, and no eye contact. There is a designated manager for men and women and students can raise any concerns with them if necessary.

When you check-in, you're asked to hand over your phone and any other electronic devices, plus any reading or writing material. Journalling, note-taking, and reading are all forbidden. More on that later.

Every day of the course follows a timetable that you're given on Day 0:

  • 4:00 AM: Wake up bell.
  • 4:30 AM - 6:30 AM: Meditation in your room or in the hall.
  • 6:30 AM - 8:00 AM: Breakfast break (but breakfast is only served in the first 45 minutes).
  • 8:00 AM - 9:00 AM: Group meditation in the hall.
  • 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM: Meditate in the hall or in your room, according to the teacher's instructions.
  • 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM: Lunch break (but lunch is only served in the first 45 minutes).
  • 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM: Meditate in the hall or in your room.
  • 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM: Group meditation in the hall.
  • 3:00 PM - 5:00 PM: Meditate in the hall or in your room, according to the teacher's instructions.
  • 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM: Tea break.
  • 6:00 PM - 7:00 PM: Group meditation in the hall.
  • 7:00 PM - 8:15 PM: The day's discourse.
  • 8:15 PM - 9:00 PM: Group meditation in the hall.
  • 9:00 PM - 9:30 PM: Students can stay in the hall and ask questions from the assistant teacher.
  • 10:00 PM: Lights out.

There are several things you might notice from the above schedule:

  1. There are 11 hours and 45 minutes of meditation time everyday. That doesn't leave time for much else, which is just fine, because there isn't much else you could do.
  2. There's no dinner. During the tea break, new students (those who are doing their first 10-day course) get fruits in addition to tea. Old students get nothing.
  3. Food is served in short windows. Part of the reason for this is that the whole operation is run by few volunteers (at a time), and running the kitchen is difficult. In fact, this was one of the most impressive things I learned about the organization that runs these courses: they have approx. 170 centres in over 90 countries and it's all run by volunteers using donations.
  4. The break times are the only times you have for doing personal things you need to do, such as showering. And physical activity? You can go outside for a walk but the course boundary is a pretty limited area. You can't run, as that might disturb the peace.

Ok, what did you learn?

The 10-day course is almost exclusively focused on learning a technique of meditation called Vipassana. I was very impressed by how laser-focused every aspect of the programme was on the technique and how hard they tried to avoid having it polluted by anything else. As you can see from the timetable, the daily discourses were the only time we were not either practicing meditation or taking time for some manner of bodily function (sleep, eating, or cleaning). The daily discourses did delve into philosophy and psychology – essentially covering the why of the technique – but even they repeatedly put the utmost importance on the practice and shunned "playing intellectual games". The discourse was given only as it was necessary to frame what the technique is and how it helps.

In short, Vipassana is a meditation that teaches you:

  • The ability to focus your mind.
  • The ability to feel, at an experiential level, that all things are changing.
  • The ability to be equanimous to things one does not have control over, thus putting an end to craving and aversion - the two sources of unhappiness.

By constantly training the mind on the impermanence of things, one begins to break the uncontrollable cycles of craving and aversion and learns to accept reality as it is, not as one wants it to be. This is the meaning of "Vipassana" – seeing reality.

That's a very brief summary of the technique. As I mentioned, the technique was the most important thing and the thing we spent 11 hours on every day. It's hard to do it justice in a blog post. If you want to learn how to meditate, I suggest you do the 10-day course. If you don't want to do that, download an app, like 10% Happier and get started with a few minutes per day.

What I will talk about now are my takeaways outside of the technique (but facilitated by the heightened powers of observation/awareness that the technique cultivates).

The Silence

When I told people I was going to be silent for 10 days, they were shocked. Most thought of not being able to talk as some kind of unbearable torture. I can emphatically say that the silence is the easiest part of the experience. Two days into the programme, I realized that I had not noticed any silence at all – there was plenty of chatter in my head to keep me busy.

On the third night, my mind was starting to slow down and break out of its normal patterns of constantly generating thoughts. I went outside for a walk one evening, and sky was clear. I got to see the stars and I could see the clouds of the Milky Way. There aren't too many things I get excited about. That was the most excited I've been in a long time.

I recalled a story I'd heard recently about a couple who met while each one was living in a remote cabin in the woods in northern BC, and they raised a family there for some time – far from the nearest town. After I'd heard this story, I found myself thinking about it repeatedly. It sounds insane. And yet so appealing. The constant barage of stimulii we live with – and are often unaware of – are constantly giving us fuel for worry and stress. Silence gives us space and peace. To experience this kind of living is something I've talked about with my friends for a long time, but over the last several years, I have increasingly deprived myself of it, for various invalid excuses. This is something I'll be thinking about for some time and changing.

Elimination of all distractions

By Day 5 of the course, I was seeing some real improvements in my ability to focus. I was getting acquainted with the silence and had starting untying some metaphorical knots I had recently created in my own mind. I was gaining clarity on where some of my recent struggles had originated and how I had contributed to them. I felt like I was having new epiphanies and insights every day.

At the same time, I was learning this cool new technique, and I was learning about its origin: the story of the Buddha, Buddhist philosophy, and a little bit about the history of India – all topics I knew nothing about previously. As I said above, the utmost importance was placed on the techniques, and all of these topics were broached only as necessary to frame the technique. But they whet my apetite to learn more.

When I'm having epiphanies and ideas, I typically like to write them down so I don't forget. I like to discuss them with others. One way or another, I want to dwell on them. I could not do that during the retreat, and this was hard and irritating. Similarly, when I get curious about any topic, I love the power of pulling out my phone and instantly learning more about it. I could not do this during the retreat. This was also irritating.

I spent some time living with these frustrations. Then I had a new realization about how dumb these frustrations were. Everything about the format of this course is meant to be laser-focused on teaching these methods of meditation. The ban on journaling and internet access is meant precisely to keep the monkey minds of people like me from wandering off the goal. I had committed to 10 days of intense meditation practice. Now, instead of doing the practice, I wanted to look up the history of India 3000 years ago or write down my thoughts about the last thing I was upset about.

This was madness, and it took me a while to realize because these behaviours seem so innocuous and are so ingrained. I realized that there are countless distractions that pop up in my mind that I'm totally aloof to. How much are these hurting the things I really want to accomplish? How much would we gain if we could eliminate these distractions that are being hurled at us more often?

Since returning from the retreat, I've often caught myself in total distraction. I love the impact that our modern electronics have had on our lives, but there's a serious downside that we need to learn to manage as well. Almost every time I take my phone out of my pocket, it is out of some unconscious habit that distracts me from what's happening here and now. I love the fact that I can do so much with my phone – that so much knowledge is immediately available to me. But I realized that I have my mouth on a fire hose, trying to drink. This behaviour needs to be tamed. Since this technology is available to us now, we need a cultural shift in learning how to manage it.

Unfortunately, as I spent more time in "real life" after the retreat, my ability to block out these distractions and focus my mind has dwindled rapidly. Only regular practice can make this a lasting gain.

Side note: I wrote a part of this blog post on a flight from Vancouver to Paris. I realized that flights are one area where I had already discovered the beauty of eliminating these distractions. On a flight, there is nothing to do. You can sit, sleep, work (if you work on a computer), read, or watch movies. This year when I was flying a lot, I started resisting the temptation of the in-flight entertainment system. Now, being on planes is some of my most productive time!

Compassion

The Persian religion of Zarathushthrianism has a maxim: Good thoughts, good words, good deeds. They're put in that specific order, presumably because each depends on the one before. Similarly, in Vipassana great importance is placed on purity of thought. If the thoughts are not good, the actions can't be, and if the actions are not good, according to Buddhist beliefs, one cannot progress on the path to "enlightenment".

Cultivating compassion is an important aspect of ridding one's mind of "impurities". The reason for this can start from a selfish place – the uncompassionate thoughts cause misery for oneself before they affect anyone else. It is also the end goal. Once you "reach enlightenment" and see the world as it is, your sense of self – as a separate thing from other beings – melts away, and you're compelled to try to quell suffering whereever you find it.

This is the theory, and whether it's true or not is not that important. The part that I bought into completely is the notion that being more compassionate makes one happier. It's a win-win that I find hard to argue with.

Over the duration of the course, I observed my inner talk shifting toward being more and more compassionate. Maybe this was the result of having bought into the above idea or maybe it was a product of meditating a lot. I'm not sure.

Typically, I like to be judgemental of people if for no other reason than self-amusement. When I started the course, even though it was impossible to communicate with the other students, I found myself having judgemental thoughts toward them. For exampe, I would watch people struggle with sitting on the floor. They were building elaborate monuments out of pillows and foams to make themselves more comfortable and they'd still not be able to sit still without constant shuffling. One of my roommates, who had clearly smoked a few too many joints in his day, slept through the first 5 days of the programme. This was annoying because it meant I could never meditate in the room because he'd be snoring in it. I found myself thinking: "Why don't they kick him out if he's just sleeping all the time!?". There was a woman who was constantly coughing in the meditation hall. The cough was clearly psychosomatic. In fact, I had split a taxi with her on our way to the centre. During the 20 minute taxi ride (and during the social time at the end of the course) she never coughed once. Her incessant fake-coughing in the meditation hall also made me think: "Why don't they kick her out!?"

Over the next 9 days, through no direct effort, I observed my inner-dialogue shift to a more compassionate version: I would feel bad about the people who were constantly shuffling pillows – clearly they were very uncomfortable with this style of sitting; I would think the fact that my pothead roommate was actually sticking around for the whole gruelling 10 days was pretty impressive; and I would feel bad for the fake-cougher – clearly she was living with a lack of self-awareness that surely must hurt her in her life.

By Day 8, the transformation of my inner-dialogue was very noticeable and I started worrying that this progress would be undone the minute I left the sanguine confines of the retreat. This has, indeed, occurred, but less than I was fearing. Like the ability to focus the mind, regular practice is required.

Priya's Misery

The fake-cougher was an Indian woman, named Priya. At the end of Day 9, just when I was being concerned about losing my progress in awareness and compassionate thought after the retreat, she gave me the perfect opportunity to see how what I learned applies in "real world" scenarios.

During the question period, she approached the assistant teacher and (with a distressed voice) started asking an ambiguous question involving past lives and future lives. If you know me, you know that I have a very sensitive Bullshit-o-meter, and any serious talk of reincarnation triggers it, and here we had reincarnation being discussed seriously. I was annoyed.

The assistant teacher tried to get clarification. Priya finally said: "In my country, they say that you live 840,000 lives before being born as a human - because they counted the species."

My inner dialogue: "Excuse me? The year is 2017, we've put men on the moon but we still can't find all the species on Earth, and you think some asshole in India from 5000 years ago counted all the species to know how long it takes to be reincarnated as a human!? And it’s 840,000 round, huh? Not 845,238, just 840,000 - how fucking convenient!" Bullshit-o-meter was really going off now.

Priya continued (and I'm paraphrasing): "I've done this course two times now, and I just wanna know what happens to the work I've done here, because you know, I'm so tired of this cycle – I just want it to end."

Inner dialogue: "YOU ARE WHAT? BITCH, DO YOU REMEMBER HAVING DONE THE WORK FOR ALL THOSE 840,000 PAST LIVES? HOW INSANE ARE YOU!? WHY IS EVERYONE LOOKING AT THIS LIKE IT'S A SERIOUS DISCUSSION?"

The assistant teacher, at a loss, said: "You know, I can't tell you what will happen in a future life, but I can tell you that this practice makes me happier today. Can you take that? Just be happy with that."

Priya: "Yes. Thank you. You know, I didn't actually want you to answer this question. But it's such a big problem for me that I had to put the question out there, so maybe the universe will give me the answer."

My bullshit-o-meter was off the charts. Firstly, this woman believes in reincarnation with an absurd specificity about its mechanism; secondly, her insanity is so deep that she feels tired of having been reincarnated so many times, making her desperate to end the cycle; and third, she hopes to be saved by the law of attraction, which is one of the most despicable and idiotic pseudo-religious quackery to have gained traction in my lifetime.

At this point, I was fuming. As I left the hall, I knew two things: any sense of compassion had gone out the window, and that this was my perfect opportunity to practice what I had learned.

I tried to find a more compassionate framing. Who was I angry at? I didn't know. I couldn't possibly have been angry at Priya. She hadn't done anything. If anything, I should feel bad for her – she's clearly suffering and in emotional distress.

As I laid in bed, I tried to meditate. It didn't do anything to remove the anger and agitation but it did give me an opportunity to step outside of the normal thought loops that one gets stuck in during anger. I noticed that I was so agitated that I had gotten chest pains. Then I remembered a Buddhist parable I had heard a few days earlier:

One day an angry young man lashed out at the Buddha. "When the man had finished his abuse, the Buddha asked him, saying: 'Son, if a man declined to accept a present made to him, to whom would it belong?' And he answered: 'In that case it would belong to the man who offered it.'

"'My son,' said the Buddha, 'thou hast railed at me, but I decline to accept thy abuse, and request thee to keep it thyself. Will it not be a source of misery to thee? As the echo belongs to the sound, and the shadow to the substance, so misery will overtake the evil-doer without fail.'" (source)

I realized that Priya had not tried to give me a gift of misery – I had forcibly yanked it away from her.

Meditation didn't eliminate my anger, but it did open the opportunity for me to learn from it, and to observe how helpless I was as thoughts I had no control over emerged and overwhelmed my rational faculties. When I discussed this episode with the assistant teacher, he said I had the correct approach, and as I do this again and again, I will learn to notice and step outside of the anger earlier and earlier, until eventually, it simply ceases to emerge.

Views on Religion

You may be shocked to hear that I have't been the biggest fan of religion. Over the years, when I would criticize various religions, people would try to defend them with really bad and weak arguments. Over the last 1-2 years, however, I feel like I've been "deriving" religion for myself from first principles – finding rationale for various religious practices that make sense to me. This meditation retreat certainly accelerated that project.

Much of what was discussed during the course was about concepts I already knew and bought into. I realized, however, that these concepts were not of much use when I would hit real obstacles in life. I would always get overwhelmed by an emotional response and I would forget the principles by which I believed I should handle obstacles. I realized that there is a lot of value in having a group of people who all share a mental model of the world to get together periodically and have a "sermon" on the same concepts they already believe. There is value in this repetition/reinforcement because it's so difficult to remember the big picture when the going gets tough. I realized this is basically the practice of going to church every Sunday or doing Friday prayers.

Of course, this reinforcement practice is predicated on the underlying philosophy being sound/helpful, which I would argue is not the case with most sects. However, the practice is useful and we should not discard it due to its common application to poor ideologies.

Throughout the course, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the ways my thought patterns had created misery for me, and the ways in which awareness of these thought-patterns could help remedy the situation. As if suddenly struck by lightening, I understood Jordan Peterson's view on religion and "truth". This was a stance of his that I could never understand or support before (you can listen to a gruelling conversation between him and Sam Harris on "What is truth" here). My rephrasing (or perhaps, misinterpretation) of his stance makes much more sense to me than any articulation I've heard from him, and it is this:

Religion is true and science is true. They are both "true" at the same time. So how do we explain the contradictions between them? Jordan Peterson would say there mustn't be a contradiction if we understand what these truths are, which he claims neither the religious nor science-oriented do. Religion is true in the domain of human psychology, science is true in the domain of objective reality. In other words, a "truth" belongs to a domain, and what is true in one domain may not necessarily "map" to another domain. So when Jordan Peterson talks about the bible, he has a very specific interpretation of, say, the story of genesis that pertains to certain facts of human experience and behaviour (with themes around jealousy, greed, etc). His interpretations of the bible always sounded good to me, but the question in my mind has always been: "But why that interpretation and not another one?" Well, I feel like I understand this now. If you view religion as a set of truths in the domain of human behaviour, then you must interpret it in a way that makes sense in that domain.

This, to me, sounds like a way to have our cake and eat it too. We can take the benefits of religious belief and practice and leave its harms by the door, if we understand the domain in which religion operates. I don't see this being a very scalable or realisitic path, but at an individual level, it is helpful.

Conclusion

The meditation retreat was an arduous experience. By Day 5, the static routine and 2-meal-per-day regimen was starting to wear me out. While I never thought about quitting, I did start thinking: "Ok, I've already learned some things. Ten days is really too long." Throughout Days 6 and 7, I felt like I was still learning new things, but I was counting the hours and waiting for Day 10 to arrive. By Day 8, however, things changed, and I started realizing that the 10-day format was really just right and that everyday I was learning more and more. I started worrying that ten days were not enough, and that I wouldn't be able to retain everything I'd learned. They claim that this 10-day format was exactly how the Buddha taught Vipassana to "householders" (ie. laymen, not monks). Whether or not that's true, it's certainly been around for long enough that, in my opinion, it is perfect. I could not think of one way in which the course could be improved.

Surprisingly enough, I found starting the course much easier than ending it. When Noble Silence ended, the sudden rush of noise all around me was overwhelming and unpleasant. And when I entered the city, with my hightened awareness and increased sensitivity to stimuli, my body felt like that of a scared animal. The first night, when I tried to meditate at home, I could feel subtle trembling all over my body. It was uncomfortable (and I tried to remember that it's impermanent).

Of course, the only measure of whether this experience was worthwhile or not is in its long term impact, and it can only have this impact with regular practice. They recommend that practitioners should do at least one hour of meditation in the morning and one hour in the evening. I thought that was an excessive prescription, but having done only one hour for a few weeks now, I see that the two hours is actually a minimum. I will now need to re-evaluate some priorities to ensure I get sufficient practice, and I hope I can do one retreat every year.