what it's like to go on a meditation retreat
I wanted to leave.
I didn't think I would want to leave. When we applied for the ten day meditation course, they asked, will you stay all ten days? I checked yes. When we got there and signed in, they asked again, will you stay all ten days. I checked yes again. On Day 1, the teacher on the recorded discourse joked about how despite these check-ins, we try to leave on Day 2 and Day 6. I laughed along.
I've meditated a lot these past months. I can't have much to worry about.
I ended up struggling for the first five days. Was it waking up at 4am every day, when I regularly couldn't fall asleep till 1? Was it the no eating after noon? Was it the stored trauma and emotional episodes the meditation unearthed? Was it the solitude and lack of access to coping mechanisms? No talking, no phone, no media? Was it the physical pain of sitting cross legged ten hours a day, with moving, even fidgeting discouraged?
It was all that, but especially the sheer mental agony of meditating so long. When you meditate for long enough (e.g. four hours), you start groping for the end. You have to experience it yourself to understand. Fundamentally we lack patience to sit with ourselves for that long. I started getting angry at the teacher.
But I'm stubborn. If I take on more than I can chew, I'll chew it out of masochism. And on Day 6, I was rewarded for that.
On Day 6, I reached a deep meditative state, where my body was awash with energy. My body must have been glowing.
I felt incredible.
But the point of Vipassana meditation isn't to get into these states, but to cultivate equanimity - a kind of inner peace despite positive or negative states.
I definitely felt this equanimity while in deep meditative states.
But I more usefully felt this equanimity on a dinner break — really a fruit break — on day 7. I finished an apple, and realized I wasn't scarfing down my food as usual. Was I not hungry? I checked in with my stomach. It felt very far away - I had disconnected from the sensation. Yeah, I was actually incredibly hungry. But I wasn't reacting to it. I didn't form a craving or an aversion. Then I started eating an unripe, tart banana. I could tell this was not the ideal tasting banana. But my mind didn't react to it at all. No aversion.
Woah. I gotta bring this to my daily life. It would be incredible to interact with people and pursue my goals with this level of equanimity.
Vipassana, as the Buddha taught it, goes deeper in purifying the mind than other meditation techniques—or so the teacher said. Experientially I agree with this. I didn't generate the feeling above from the previous concentration meditations I was doing. I would generate calm and quiet, sometimes even deep bliss, but not equanimity.
I'm sold. I want to work hard, meditate a lot, and see if I can bring some of this equanimity to the rest of my life.
There was so much more to the meditation retreat I'm leaving out. I'm leaving out the details of my emotional arc. I'm leaving out the absolutely incredible characters I met. I'm leaving out the experience of retreat life, which is a fascinating counterpoint to modern life - the timetable, the solitude, and the diet are all fascinating. I'm leaving out the deep attachments I discovered I had.
These will have to come in later blog posts.