Meditation begins, as it always does, with eyes closed and a swirl of thoughts. They come rushing in, no matter how hard I try to focus on my breath or my bodily sensations. I give up multiple times. My body slouches. Frequently. Sometimes I even take a peek at the meditators sitting around me. This is just hour one. How can I tolerate another 30 hours?
On the other side, things seem great. My spirits are lifted. The world is both calmer and more vibrant. I am not in a rush, although the same things need to be done as before. The mind is pliable in this weird way. How could three days of meditating produce such changes? How long will this feeling last? I do want it to last.
The possibility of doing another silent meditation retreat came upon me suddenly but the choice was clear once I considered it. The summer had been exciting but hectic. With endless conference travel, a long to-do list, and unresolved uncertainties about the future, it was hard to be in the moment. A silent meditation retreat is, among other things, a hard-reset button on the pace of life. It’s also hard work and not the vacation some of my friends perceive it be. The Vipassana meditation schedule is brutal — wake up at 4am with the gong and finish at 9pm.
During this trip, I came to realizations, which, although seemingly hackneyed, were important for me. I share these below, mostly for myself, but also in the hope that others may find them helpful.
My mind tends to spend a lot of time justifying things to itself. While meditating, I noticed a cascade of thoughts that looped over, in excruciating detail, why I made the decisions that I did. It was as if I was telling myself, “you can’t blame me, I acted reasonably.” The topics that I was justifying ranged from major life decisions to trivialities, such as my decision to buy a particular chair on Craigslist. I’ve been told many times by others that I am too critical of myself. But until this trip, I had never been able to take the detached perspective and observe this for myself. I hope that the awareness of these thoughts will allow me to acknowledge them and let them pass.
I noticed that I was keeping my identity or ego tied up to achievements. It is one thing to have a goal. It is another thing to judge one’s self-worth by the achievement of that goal. Why was my mind traversing the convoluted tree of the potential academic journals I would submit to and get rejected from? Some strategy and thought regarding this topic is important for academic researchers. But going over the topic for the 10th time, and experiencing emotions regarding unrealized and unpredictable outcomes was pointless and even tragic. My meditating self felt compassion for my thinking self in the moments when it observed this process. A conversation with a fellow meditator after silence was broken helped me in seeing a potential way out. It is possible to work towards something without equating it to one’s identity. I am not my paper, my social status, my impact on the world, or my physical ability.
Old memories often surface during serious meditation. We’ve all lived through an uncountable number of moments that have receded from memory and are seemingly forgotten. But they are still somewhere, and arise unexpectedly. This time, I vividly remembered some of my undergraduate days. My perceptions of this period changed throughout the meditation. Was I happy then? There were a lot of great moments but I also made many misguided choices. In hindsight, many of these choices were due to ignorance, which is ironic given how confident I was. I hope that my future self has learned some of this wisdom. But most of all, I feel compassion for my old self, he knew nothing.
Lastly, this meditation retreat reminded me of the connection between body and thought. In the process of meditating it becomes apparent that thoughts often come at exactly the time when the body is feeling discomfort and is reacting to correct it. I noticed that I simultaneously caught a thought and a bodily sensation, such as a dull sensation or a straightening of my back. This connection matters in practice. Negative thoughts often occur simply because of bodily discomfort. For example, studies of judges’ sentencing choices suggest that factors such as hunger or a favorite sports team losing can lead to harsher penalties.1 But what if these judges had recognized their emotions for what they were, temporary and inconsequential? This is the utopian dream of mindfulness advocates worldwide.