“It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing.”
This is what I overheard one of my fellow retreatants say to someone on the phone when we were about to depart at the end of a seven-day silent vipassana meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.
She summed it up perfectly.
The retreat wasn’t as I’d convinced myself it would be after reading someone else’s account online. But I think I knew all along that my results would vary. A week after returning, I feel very different than I did before going on retreat and am immensely grateful for the experience. I’m sharing my experience to provide a taste of what this kind of meditation retreat is like for anyone who may be interested or curious. Just keep in mind that your results would vary, too!
I went into it expecting a “mindfulness bootcamp” experience because of the full schedule that began with a 5:15AM bell and ended close to 10PM. And because I wouldn’t be able to read, write, use my camera, or even check the weather forecast on my phone. There would be no contact whatsoever with the outside world so we could observe our minds free from distraction. My impression was that it would be strict and Zen-like, and I dreaded the intensity, although I believed it would be beneficial in ways I couldn’t yet understand and therefore was worth doing.
When I arrived at the retreat center and was trying to find my dorm room in what seemed like a maze of corridors, a young man asked me if it was my first time there and kindly pointed me in the right direction. I asked him if he’d been on retreat there before. He said yes, and I responded, “And you came back?!” He assured me that by the end of the retreat, you don’t want to leave. Before we went into silence that first evening, I heard numerous repeat retreatants talking and started to suspect the experience would be quite different than I’d anticipated.
It wasn’t bootcamp after all. It was more like a weeklong mindfulness learning laboratory. There were nearly 100 of us, and we were well supported by comfortable accommodations, easy access to nature, skillful teachers and staff, and deeply satisfying vegetarian meals. The retreat center has been operating since Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein founded it in 1975. With more than 40 years of experience, they know what they’re doing and do it well.
At the beginning of the retreat, we took five Buddhist precepts:
- To refrain from killing living beings (including insects)
- To refrain from taking what is not given (stealing)
- To refrain from all sexual activity
- To refrain from false speech (not an issue when you’re in silence)
- To refrain from taking intoxicants which cloud the mind and cause heedlessness.
In addition, we were to observe noble silence and avoid eye contact with other retreatants for the duration of the retreat – even when we ate next to each other in the dining hall and held doors open for one another.
The daily schedule was:
5:15 Wakeup bell
5:45 Sitting meditation in the meditation hall
7:00 Yogi job (I was a pot washer in the kitchen)
9:15-12:00 Self-scheduled practice (alternate periods of walking meditation and sitting meditation)
12:00 Lunch (the big meal of the day)
3:00 Optional mindful movement (I did yoga on my own during this time)
4:00 Self-scheduled practice (sit/walk)
5:00 Light dinner (soup, fruit, and bread or crackers)
7:30 Dharma talk
9:00 Lovingkindness dharma reflection/sitting meditation
For the most part, the day alternated between periods of sitting meditation and walking meditation. Walking meditation basically consisted of choosing a space indoors or outdoors where you could walk back and forth about 20 paces with full attention. Imagine what it looked like with so many people walking slowly back and forth all over the grounds! (I laughed to myself, “The zombies are walking!” because that’s what it looked like.) I was glad to learn of a three-mile loop on surrounding country roads for walking as vigorously as we wanted to while maintaining awareness. I did that every day, and it was a highlight of my day.
Every other day, we’d meet for small group interviews with one of the three teachers for an hour during self-scheduled practice time to talk about how our practice was going, ask questions, and receive personal guidance regarding our practice. We weren’t allowed to talk with each other, only with the teacher.
In my first interview, when I commented on the demanding schedule, the teacher explained that nobody was forcing us to attend every session in the meditation hall. However, they hoped we’d at least attend the morning instructions and the evening dharma talk. In other words, there was some flexibility. We just had to be honest with ourselves about whether we were truly tired and needed to rest or were avoiding practice. I felt relieved to learn that sitting meditation could be done either in the meditation hall, an alternative sitting room, or elsewhere. Sometimes when I didn’t feel like meditating with everyone else, I’d sit alone on the balcony of my dorm adjacent to the woods and listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees.
So that’s the basic container of the retreat, within which the inner exploration took place.
The Inner Process
I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation more or less regularly for 25 years. However, meditating for 20-30 minutes a day or in the course of everyday life is one thing. Witnessing what was going on in my mind constantly for a full week in silence is another thing. Throughout the week, practice continued to build, presence deepened, and some issues arose. I’ll describe some of the highlights.
Thoughts inevitably would arise, and the instruction was to notice where my attention was. What am I experiencing right now? The point was to develop the witnessing presence, not to be free from thought (because thinking is what minds do) but to be free from attachment to thought – so as not to be thrown off-balance by craving, aversion, delusion, etc. Most of the thoughts that arose for me during the week could be labeled planning, problem-solving, or counting. (I’d count how many days I’d been on retreat and how many more to go, how many hours I’d been practicing so far that day and how many more to go, the number of meditators in the meditation hall during the dharma talk, etc.).
I experienced the glorious spaciousness of noticing but not processing thoughts. For the first half of the retreat, thoughts would come, but they weren’t too interesting. When I “brushed them lightly with awareness”, they tended to dissolve swiftly. By day five, I noticed thoughts with more of an emotional charge starting to arise – perhaps in anticipation of returning home. When they did, it was not time to analyze or react to them. It was time to become aware of the emotion, allow it, and notice what it feels like in the body.
For example, one afternoon I was sitting on my bed and noticed the towel hanging on the rack next to my sink. My mom had bought the towel. It reminded me of her, and I remembered what a sweet person she was. Then I felt a wave of grief arise, and tears welled up in my eyes. However, instead of feeding the grief with more sad thoughts, I simply noted, “This is grief,” and noticed where the physical sensations were in my body. Then I watched the grief recede like a wave after it’s crashed on the shore. All things, including grief, are impermanent. They arise and fall away naturally if we don’t feed them.
Early on, I realized how self-conscious I tend to be around other people, even when there’s no interaction. I noticed that awareness of others took me out of presence. When thoughts arose (sometimes after the fact) about how self-consciousness limits me, I practiced noticing them and noting simply and without judgment, “This is how self-consciousness feels. It’s OK.” Then I noticed the sensations in my body and watched “self-consciousness” pass, without forcing or resisting it in any way. It was a welcome alternative to getting carried away by critical self-talk and feeling bad!
By midweek, it took me a half hour to eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. All week, my definition of multitasking was chewing one bite of food while arranging the next one on my plate…and even that felt like too much. So I’d put down my spoon or fork between bites to be more fully present. It felt so spacious.
I tuned in to how my body felt and what it truly wanted in terms of food (quantity and quality) and movement. During dinner one day, the soup and freshly baked bread were so delicious, and I lingered even more than usual, one mindful bite after another. When my bowl was empty, I became aware of a tension between satisfaction and desire. My body was content and satisfied, but my mind craved more, wanting to prolong the pleasure. As I drank a mug of cinnamon rose tea, I was more aware of the tension than the taste of the tea. However, every slow swallow and the spaces in between sips took me further out of habit/craving/future and back into presence and contentment. I experienced the difference between craving and true hunger.
How lovely not to feed the habit of craving, by becoming aware of it! After meals, I’d linger at the table to experience the physical sensation of satisfaction – enoughness – and become more acquainted with it. Just sit with it instead of getting up right away to attend to the next thing.
Transitions were opportunities for mindfulness, too – such as walking to the dining hall, meditation hall, or back to my room. I played a little game with myself: How far down the hallway will I get before I realize I’m walking?
I began to recognize the first hint of recurring thoughts – like the very first notes of a familiar song.
I acknowledged that my body is my tool for evolution in this lifetime and provides useful information, such as: This is what yes feels like, and no. This is what hungry feels like, and satisfied. This is what garden variety craving feels like, and deeper aspiration. This is what the tug of habit feels like, and freedom.
I had a lot of dreams during the retreat. Normally, I work with my dreams as a source of inner guidance. However, doing that conflicted with the instructions for vipassana meditation. I asked the guiding teacher during an interview how much attention to give to dreams during the retreat, and she said, “Not much.” When you wake up, you can note that you had a dream and where you feel it in your body, and then keep meditating. So for the duration of the retreat, I let my dreams go and suspended my usual spiritual practices, realizing I could return to them when the retreat was over.
There was a dharma talk every evening addressing various aspects of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been drawn to Buddhism and its practical, rational approach to spiritual development and liberation from suffering. Through the dharma talks, I understood the root of my “abundance blocks” and “poverty mentality” and how deeply ingrained Buddhist ideals of simplicity and modest living are in me.
I also acknowledged the contrast between vipassana practice and pursuing goals, including the use of tools like vision boards. While immersed in vipassana practice, it felt like Law of Attraction mindset and vision boards reinforce craving and desire, which is accepted in Buddhism to be the cause of suffering. I didn’t let myself think about it much during the week, but it was something I could contemplate after the retreat was over.
At the end of the retreat, after we broke silence, lunch was offered in the dining hall, and I realized the stories and personalities I’d attributed to fellow retreatants were wildly inaccurate! I sat with other 50-somethings and noticed a table of much younger retreatants who seemed to know each other, engaged in lively conversation. There were even couples. I felt a combination of envy and regret arise and wished I could have connected with others who were dedicated to a spiritual path when I was younger.
In my twenties, when I went to meetings of spiritual groups, I was always the youngest, and others would comment on my age, which made me feel uncomfortable and like I didn’t quite fit in. I had a wonderful teacher, who is still my teacher today, but I didn’t have any companions my age “on the path”. Sitting at the middle-aged table, I couldn’t help but wonder how my life might have been different and how much further I’d have come by now if I’d had more spiritually supportive relationships. Certainly, it’s easier now with the internet. But oh, if only… When I noticed the “if only” thoughts arising, I remembered the words of one of the retreat teachers describing the process of spiritual development: It takes as long as it takes. That’s a gem I’ll hold onto. I can’t be reminded of that enough!
Re-Entry to Everyday Life
After doing some photography, I drove home on country roads through small towns, which was perfect. Although I’d considered going grocery shopping on the way home, it felt like that should wait. At the end of the retreat, one of the teachers explained that we were more tender and sensitive than we might realize. It never occurred to me to turn on the radio as I drove for nearly three hours. Doing anything more than driving felt like too much. When I walked into the house, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her house and into Oz for the first time. Everything was so colorful! It was as if I was seeing my home for the first time, through fresh eyes.
I also was technologically challenged. Using my mobile phone felt strange and confusing. It took a couple days before I was at all interested in using my phone or computer or even loading the pictures I’d taken onto my computer. A week later, my relationship with technology still feels much more spacious and less compulsive. I only check my phone a few times a day, and when I receive a notification alert, I might not even look at my phone, but the sound serves as a meditation bell that cues me to tune in and take a mindful moment. I’m loving this new relationship with my phone!
I went grocery shopping the next day but kept it as simple as possible because it felt like sensory overload. I was glad to have a few days before returning to work.
For a few days, I also felt like I didn’t have any kind of protective shell around me. Maybe that’s part of what the teachers meant by being more “sensitive”.
Perhaps the most wonderful shift I’ve experienced is that I haven’t been multitasking, even while driving, eating, or cooking. I’ve tried, for example, to listen to a podcast while preparing a meal, to listen to the radio while driving, and to read an article while brushing my teeth, but I haven’t been able to. It’s still too much! As a result, I’ve been doing less, but what’s fallen off my plate are the more compulsively driven and ultimately unnecessary activities. They don’t seem as important as they did before, so I’m not making myself frazzled by trying to fit them in and over-delivering. This includes activities like posting daily on social media. Less is more. I’m focusing on what’s most important rather than trying to do it all.
I also haven’t been getting ahead of myself. My mind hasn’t been arriving at destinations before my body does. I’ve been noticing that I’m walking instead of focusing on the destination and what I’ll do when I get there. This morning, I noticed a lovely patch of flowers next to a pond and went to my car to get my camera. As I walked to my car and back to the flowers, I was aware of walking and of the other beautiful flowers and sounds along the way, rather than focusing on how excited I was to photograph and later share a beautiful sight. I didn’t even feel excited. I felt alive and present, connected. Similarly, I tend to notice that I’m walking from room to room instead of being caught up in I have to do this, this, and this. That’s very different for me.
I feel much calmer and more peaceful.
I still don’t feel as ambitious or passionate as I did prior to the retreat. The idea of having ambitious goals and marketing/promoting my services in any way feels strange. However, one thing I know from observing my mind for an entire week is that this will pass. I’m still re-acclimating to normal life. And perhaps the stillness from the retreat continues to strip away the more compulsive needs to achieve something I’m passionate about so I can be guided by deeper aspiration and more spacious awareness. Less tunnel vision.
However, I’m used to generating motivation from a state of passion, which I have not experienced since I left for retreat. I wonder: Can I still be motivated and productive if I’m not in that high energy state? When I contemplate that question, I see an image of me as a young woman writing poetry at the bottom of an Ithaca waterfall. In my early and mid-20s, I thought I had to be near a waterfall to write poetry. When I moved out of Ithaca the first time, I was worried about not being able to write poetry anymore. However, in time I discovered I could write almost anywhere.
It wasn’t the waterfall. And perhaps it’s not a particular state of mind. Perhaps my work will be of better quality if it’s not coming from such an intense and driven state of mind.
With regard to goals, I’ve been considering: What are my heart’s innermost desires? What motivations do my aspirations spring from? Are my goals fueled by altruistic or selfish intentions? Selfish motivations will strengthen craving, which causes suffering, whereas wishing that my success will benefit others brings deeper satisfaction. I’ve been considering my vision board through this lens. I haven’t removed anything from it but am trying to be more aware of the underlying intentions. My sense is that as awareness deepens, false values fall away, and vision boards reflect that.
I bought a statue of a serene Buddha in seated meditation that I placed outside the window of my workspace. It elevates the energy of the space and serves as a reminder to take mindful pauses or embody mindfulness in my work.
I have new appreciation for how mindfulness practice balances my personality patterns and the benefits of daily practice. Mindfulness practice helps me to cultivate a more skillful relationship with my thoughts and emotions. It also keeps me in the here-and-now rather than focusing on my to-do list, regrets, mistakes, what’s missing from my life, etc. It generates equanimity and a stillness from which deeper wisdom arises.
Since returning from retreat, I’ve been doing sitting meditation every morning for 30 minutes, followed by walking meditation, and I look forward to it because I realize how it benefits the well-being of myself and others. I consider it a valuable opportunity to become aware of what my mind is up to. It’s absolutely worth getting up earlier to practice sitting, walking, and yoga. I also have been embodying the practice in daily life, for example, by not doing anything else while eating or driving and pausing before selecting/preparing food to consider if it’s habitual craving or what my body really wants.
I touched base with my long-time guide to discuss the issues that have arisen since being on retreat, and she put my mind at ease and told me that I must have misunderstood something about Buddhism earlier in life that made me think of voluntary poverty as a spiritual ideal. She reminded me that the teachings come from cultures in which spiritual teachers were supported by the community, which is not the case for us. That was something I needed to be reminded of. She also told me she often doesn’t realize what she got from being on retreat until months later. Integration can take time.
In the closing talk, one of the teachers cautioned us not to get attached to our practice always going smoothly. She said there inevitably will be times when we will experience two steps forward and one step back…and that’s OK. A week after returning from retreat, I’m still riding the wave and appreciating the steps forward that have shifted me into greater presence, clarity, spaciousness, and calm. But if I find myself clinging to that, I know what to do. It’s a matter of becoming aware of it and allowing, “This is what I’m experiencing right now.” And then noticing what happens.
Again and again and again.
© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.