I recently spent ten days in silence at a meditation retreat. Within a few days there, my thoughts regarding research hiccups and interpersonal interactions that typically occupy my mind had mostly faded out of attention. I was able to sit for long stretches without thinking about any events that had occurred within the past two years. I did not willfully ignore these thoughts but as I gradually realized that worrying about them was pointless, they no longer showed up.
Midway through the course, the meditation became intense. One session in particular was so emotional that I spent the next hour cowering in a corner. Difficult memories and thoughts had arisen and I was unable to deal with them in the moment. Like all other thoughts, they eventually passed. During the final days of the retreat, I experienced boredom and fatigue. I eagerly anticipated the end of every meditation session and ultimately the course. Was this boredom a symptom of my mind refusing to face the possibility that all of my ambitions were pointless and that their fulfillment would not even make me happy? Or was the more mundane explanation correct — that sitting all day is not a very interesting way to live one’s life.
The course I took was a Vipassana meditation retreat. It involved over 10 hours per day of meditation. This meditation was hard work, not the relaxing breathing exercises people often associate with meditation. A meditation session in the Vipassana tradition consists of spending an entire hour in complete stillness, while focusing on the sensations of your own body. Merely getting through the 10 days without quitting is an accomplishment (at least 4 people out of 20 beginners in my group quit during the retreat).
Why did I do this seemingly extreme experiment? My life for the past few years has involved irreconcilable time commitments and massive uncertainty about the future due to the academic job search. I frequently experience nagging feeling that I should be working and this takes me away from whatever I am doing in the moment. When I do sit down to work, I am often swept away by anxiety or I distract myself to dull the pressure. At the end of many days, I feel like a failure for not doing enough. This anxiety also spills over detrimentally into my social and professional interactions. It makes me irritable, slower to think, and less interesting to talk to. Dealing with these mental states has been a major challenge for me.
A naive solution to address these problems would be to simply “gain perspective” and to convince myself to stop having anxiety. After all, my situation is objectively good. I have benefited from living in a prosperous time in a prosperous country. I am associated with some of the most prestigious institutions in the world (Stanford, Airbnb and MIT) and I have highly valued skills.1 I also have great friends and a supportive family. Unfortunately, using logic to convince my mind to stop worrying has not worked.
Meditation had been in my mind as a potential solution to these problems for a long time. I was swayed by both clinical evidence2 and sound logical reasoning that meditation is useful. In particular, Sam Harris’s book, Waking Up, has an especially lucid discussion of the benefits of meditation. However, other than sporadic and half-hearted meditation sessions, I had not really given it a try. A 10 day retreat seemed like the correct way to develop a consistent meditation practice. I was encouraged by two friends who had positive experience with Vipassana retreats and a thought provoking blog post by Ben Casnocha.
The fundamental philosophy behind the Vipassana school of meditation is that what makes us happy or miserable is a function of our internal mental state. By meditating, we can change the way in which we react to our sensations and therefore slowly learn to control our cravings and aversions. However, meditation is not easy. Like any other skill, it requires practice, commitment, and discipline.
The actual retreat is organized as follows. All phones, books, and writing utensils are confiscated at the start of meditation. Each day begins at 4:30am and ends at 9pm. Approximately 11 hours per day are devoted to meditation. During three mandatory group sittings, the meditation is guided by recordings of S.N. Goenka, a now deceased Buddhist teacher. The remaining meditation time is unguided. I suspect that, like me, most people spent at least part of that time simply sitting alone without trying to meditate. At the end of each day, there was a one hour video discourse by Goenka on the topics of meditation, Buddhism, and the right way to live life. The discourses do not push the mystical or religious on listeners, but they do advocate a particular Buddhist philosophy — that meditation, and Vipassana meditation in particular, is the only way to truly rid life of misery.
The process of learning to meditate proceeds gradually over the course. First, students are instructed to observe their breath without changing it. Next, students are instructed to attend to sensations underneath their nose and above their upper lip. Lastly, students are instructed in Vipassana meditation. A Vipassana meditator focuses on sensations in the body, sweeping from the top of the head to the toes and back. The meditator is not supposed to move or open the eyes for the entire meditation session. Not moving for an hour is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. The mind comes up with all sorts of excuses for why moving would be appropriate. For example, at various times, I was worried that a sensation was a bug or that my hands were going to lose circulation if I did not move them. My ability to not react to these sensations varied greatly from session to session. During many sessions I craved to hear Goenka’s Pali chants, which signified that the session was almost over.
The process of meditation highlights the values of the course and of Buddhism more generally. One value that was repeated by the recordings was that everything eventually changes. This manifested itself for me with regards to back pain, which was a consequence of sitting in an unusual position for long periods at a time. My pain would arise and fall in different parts of the back and I could observe this process during meditation. Sometimes there would be no pain at all.
Another important value of the course was equanimity. Meditators are instructed to observe rather than react to sensations. This has an analogy to life more broadly. We frequently cannot control the ups and downs that occur in life, but we can choose how to react to them. Although this is a teaching in many philosophical traditions and is considered a general virtue, meditation truly forces you to face this teaching directly. Even now, several weeks after the course, I find it easier to control my reactions to external stimuli.
I returned from the retreat sleep deprived and tired. Since then, I’ve meditated sporadically in 20 to 30 minute sessions. In my daily life, I have greater awareness of my mental state in the moment. However, I am not sure whether this meta-awareness has actually changed my actions. My meditation did prompt me to do one thing in particular. It became clear to me during the retreat that I had not treated my parents well. When I talked to them, I only told them of my worries and struggles, even when I could have kept quiet or focused on the more positive aspects of my life. I am sure that seeing such a negative view of my life caused them much pain. After the retreat, I felt that I was able to have a more balanced and positive interaction with my parents. So two days after returning from the retreat, I went to New Jersey to visit my parents for the first time in half a year.
Summing up, the retreat was useful and productive for me. However, unlike many participants, I have not bought into the Buddhist philosophy espoused in this course. I have no desire to repeat the meditation retreat and I worry about something more pernicious. That the logical limit of this philosophy is a total withdrawal from ordinary human affairs. Even if this was the way to eliminate misery from one’s life, I am not sure I would do it. Perhaps leading an interesting life full of striving and misery is better than leading a more peaceful and equanimous life. I suspect I will be struggling with this dilemma for the rest of my life.