About a year ago, I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I was interested in meditating before that, but like most people, found it pretty frustrating and didn’t do it regularly.
If there’s one benefit of doing a 10-day retreat is that you quickly get over the mild feeling of discomfort in meditating. Instead it gets replaced by an extreme, almost torturous feeling as you contemplate spending the next ten days sitting motionless, cross-legged on the floor.
After the initial unpleasantness though, I felt like I left the retreat with two big things I didn’t have before.
The first was simply the ability to meditate. Rather than get frustrated and give up after fifteen minutes, now it was possible to sit for an hour or two.
The second thing feels harder to describe. Some combination of the no-speaking, heavily restricted lifestyle and non-stop meditation caused a shift in my cognitive processes. For awhile after, I found it impossible to get bored or frustrated. Life felt completely fresh.
This second thing is hard to understate, but it came with a pretty large disadvantage, which was that it faded away almost immediately. Two weeks after I had come back, and despite my commitment to realizing a new way of seeing things, everything settled back down to normal.
My First Meditation Habit Failed
For awhile, I kept up the initially recommended dose of two hours of meditation per day. This wasn’t easy. I was in the midst of an intense book writing schedule, and so an extra two hours of sitting were hard to pry from my schedule.
However, I had hoped that keeping up the meditation might help the new perspective I had gained on the retreat prove more durable.
I can’t say whether the continued meditation helped prolong that perspective, but I can say that it faded much more quickly than my meditation habit. I kept up the habit for another six-to-eight weeks, after things felt like normal. Eventually, with the excessive schedule weighing me down, I dropped the habit.
I briefly tried taking a different course—ten minutes a day of meditation. Just as a placeholder, while I figured things out. But that also didn’t last. I didn’t take it seriously enough, and my practice was getting too sloppy to have any chance of a benefit.
What was the Magic Behind Meditation?
At this point, for most things in life, I would probably just chalk up my experience as a fluke. It was a weird moment of consciousness due to an extreme environment I’ll be unable to replicate. Leave it as a good memory and move on with life.
However, there really was something dramatic about my experience during, and in the week or two after, my first meditation retreat. It really had felt like I had gained a perspective that could be “flipped-on” the way you might learn to cross your eyes to see the 3-D pictures in magic eye drawings.
That perspective had a lot less anxiety, more focus and was free of many of the pathologies that I felt were present in my everyday thinking. Even if that perspective feels distant now, I think it’s worth spending more time trying to understand it.
Putting on my scientist’s hat for a moment, I can imagine a few things that might have been different (or a combination of them) in the retreat and the immediate post-retreat environment that allowed this perspective shift even if I can’t sustain it now:
- Retreats are cut off from outside worries and anxieties. They are a mental vacation from real life, even if they replace that with something arduous.
- No talking. Perhaps verbal silence fosters mental silence, given enough of it?
- Quasi-religious atmosphere. Maybe the semi-cultlike nature of the Vipassana retreats itself creates a kind of spiritual placebo effect that one later attributes to the meditation?
- Extreme lifestyle restriction. No screens, no meals after noon, no sex, no reading, no talking, no nothing. The extreme constraints might have forced a perspective shift the same way being in a dark room long enough can create hallucinations.
- Intense experiences create afterglow. The experience was incredibly difficult in the beginning, and I had my share of negative experiences as well. Perhaps the ramped intensity of those negative experiences created the positive experiences in the rebound.
It’s impossible to know which of these was the principle cause of my subjective shift, or whether it’s something that could be replicated. But I’m still curious enough that I’d like to keep searching to find out more.
How I’m Restarting a Meditation Habit
The first thing I’m doing now, is trying to avoid the mistakes of my first two attempts:
- The first habit was too hard. Two hours per day was too difficult. I ended up dropping it when I felt it was making me more anxious than before (because I couldn’t find time for it).
- The second habit was too easy. I didn’t discipline myself to sit up straight and commit to proper technique, so many times I was just doing some informal meditation lying in bed before going to sleep.
Given these two failures, I wanted to try something down the middle. Thirty minutes, first thing in the morning.
First thing in the morning, to cement the routine and avoid procrastination.
Thirty minutes, in a seated posture, to give myself enough time to actually meditate.
I can’t say whether this habit will fare better than the previous two, but I’m committed to giving it a shot.
In addition to the new habit, I’m also attempting a new approach. During my Vipassana retreat, we were advised to treat the practice very seriously. Treat it like work.
When I returned from the trip, I was reading more accounts from different traditions of meditation that emphasized a no-effort kind of “do nothing” approach to meditation. While I can see how this advice can make sense, I think without a really strong foundation of disciplined meditation to start, it’s probably just going to end up failing to meditate.
I’d like to reshift my focus now back onto that original approach I learned, to see if it makes a difference. Take the meditation seriously, and try my best to sustain focus on the technique I’m going to use during that time.
I’m not sure whether this habit will be enough to recapture the kind of perspective shift I experienced my first time around. It may be that the perspective shift is inherently transient, a short-term effect of an intense shift to my life. However, as always, the only way to find out will be to experiment carefully and keep track of the results.