The Silent Meditation Retreat: What to Expect


Meditation and Silence

If several days of meditation and silence sounds appealing to you, you're probably an odd person - or perhaps a very wise one - hard to tell.

In any case, it's difficult to know exactly what to expect from several days of silence unless you've done it before. So how do we prepare for that first plunge?

First, we should make sure that we already have a regular meditation practice. "Silence" in the sense of getting away from the noise of daily life might sound appealing - but if you have a practice already, you know that what results is a new kind of noise - an inner noise. It's not exactly that we'll be tapping in to our "inner child" (though that sort of thing does happen), but we'll be learning to listen to our inner world. If you have done meditation for a while, you know just how hard it is. This is not a spa weekend of pampering and relaxation. It will be physically and mentally demanding. 

Let's repeat that:  This is not a spa weekend of pampering and relaxation. It will be physically and mentally demanding. 

Your body will hurt from long periods of sitting. Your mind will scream at you more loudly than you have ever heard before. Every pet peeve and irritation possible will arise, along with every fantasy and daydream, desire and aversion. And, quite likely, the moment you start to feel like you're getting a handle on things, the retreat will be over and you'll have to go home.

Let's look at what some writers have said about their retreat experiences

Tim Wu writes in Slate of his motivation to embark on his first retreat:

Robert Wright, the New York Times online columnist and author of The Evolution of God, is pretty much what you'd call a cynic. That's why I was surprised when he spoke with such reverence of the period he spent meditating at a silent Buddhist retreat. "When I came out, I was quite different," he told me. "It was one of the best things I'd ever done."

Wu's account of his own retreat, in agonizing day-by-day detail, is quite typical. We go in with high hopes and expectations, only to be cruelly confronted by our chaotic mind. He writes, "By Day 1, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. After my initial curiosity wore through, I began (in the parlance) to "notice" something: I was miserable. Sitting silently on a cushion for hours at a time turns out to be intensely boring. Worse, it was also physically painful."  In what he calls "Phase 2," Wu swings to a pleasant inner world of joyful memories, then ditches the retreat to wander in the woods, fantasizes about sex, and eventually winds his way back into the meditation. In "Phase 3" he settles in to the work, following his teacher's instructions.

And the master was right—something did happen. As predicted, the pain came. But I didn't move. Into the second hour, the pain was sometimes excruciating: I could have sworn that live coals were being held to my ankles. But at some level I had decided to sit, and that was it. Yes, I was aching, but it was bearable, and even, in a weird way, sort of lovable. For somewhere within it I was beginning to feel a surrender that was deeply and profoundly relaxing.

After that session, I changed my approach and began to surrender further, relinquishing control bit by bit. I gave up trying to do anything special or different than anyone else. Basically, I became one more zombie. When the teachers said, "Sit," I sat, and when it was time to walk, I walked. Somehow it didn't feel boring any more. It was almost as if I'd forgotten what boring was.

At about the same time, a few other strange things began to happen. Once, while eating, my eyes became fixated on a patch of moss, and without warning, time stopped for who knows how long. At other times, colors seemed to be wrong, as if I was wearing tinted glasses. At one point I realized that I had forgotten my own name, the way you might forget the capital of Serbia. And I had begun to find even the smallest thing fascinating. Watching an ant crossing a rock was, for me, like Avatar in 3-D.

This sort of shift in awareness doesn't happen to everyone, and it often takes a good 3-4 days to get there even for those with a regular meditation practice. It is thus not to be expected. All one can hope for is that by doing the work, the right conditions will arise for this. 

Wu writes well of the return home too. Everything is alive with vibrance, color, and depth never before experienced. But the opposite is true of our "return experience" of society: "Real life seemed like a big joke—it was far too dramatic, exaggerated, and, above all, comic to be real."

Another writer, Jodi Ettenberg, describes her own experience for the Guardian:

Studies have shown that people who are blind or deaf have heightened ability in other bodily senses. When the brain is deprived of one input source, it is capable of reorganizing itself to support and augment other senses, a phenomenon known as “cross-modal neuroplasticity”.

Her take-aways:

I emerged from the course a calmer, temporarily less anxious version of myself. I started to sleep again. The relief of rest was palpable.

I wrote down the following takeaways once I was reunited with my pen and paper:

1. Our collective obsession with finding happiness is not a reason to meditate.

Logic and neuroscience might ground the modern rationale for meditation, but to meditate in order to be happy is counterintuitive. The practice is a counterweight to the jagged peaks and valleys of the human experience. To remain stable when life goes awry is a happier result than grasping for whatever society tells you will make you happy.

2. So much of what complicates our lives comes from assumptions we make and our reactions to them.

In the quiet of those 10 days, you see how much your mind distorts the reality you perceive. You don’t know the background of the people taking the course with you, but you create lives for them in your mind. You project your fears on to their perception of you.

For me, this meant creating inaccurate stories about the other participants, as well as their reactions to me.

I kept falling asleep during morning session, keeling over into the person next to me. I heard the snickers of the group as I righted myself again, and vowed to apologize to that woman as soon as the course was over.

When I did say sorry, the woman looked at me askance. “What? Don’t apologize – it was the only thing that made me smile during the last 10 days!”

In the strangled silence, my brain had lost perspective.

Often, anger or fears are reactions to a reality we have created in our own minds. A reflection of the stories that we tell ourselves. We take sensory input as objective, but what we see, hear and feel is not objective. It is colored by what we have known, and the grudges we hold without even realizing them.

3. You have to do the work.

Shortcuts exist in life, but to train your brain you need put in a significant amount of effort. The first few days are devastating because the work is both mindless and extremely taxing. But you can see a change in a mere 10 days, with disciplined practice.

4. Perfectionism can be dangerous.

Believing that doing your best isn’t good enough is dangerous. There is no perfect, and there is no objective measure of what “right” can be. The course reminded me that if you have a value system that thrives on making decisions with integrity, for the right reasons, doing your best is good enough.

5. Training yourself to stop reacting can help in tolerating pain.

As someone with chronic pain, this lesson was important. I would not have come to this conclusion without the course either, because I’m far too stubborn. I can see with hindsight that by obsessing over the pain, I exacerbated it tremendously.

Sometimes we hold on to what we fear and hate. While I still ache, that ache has less power over me. The distinction sounds slight but it has been liberating.

And one more:

And, because it’s only been a few days since I left, I’m certain I’ll continue to process the experience. As of now, though, here are a few lessons I gained (or was reminded of) during it all that I’d like to share with you:

  • Get out of your comfort zone, sit in the discomfort, but remain in your safety zone: Get out of the comfort zone, but use your wise mind while doing so. Your uncomfortable zone should be uncomfortable, but not unsafe. You don’t have to become a stuntman to find that zone. And this goes not just for physical safety, but emotional safety as well. I would NEVER recommend that a person struggling with PTSD, fresh grief, or clinical depression attend a course like this. Challenge yourself, but do so in a context that you can be pretty confident you’ll survive–and not risk being retraumatized by should that be a concern.
  • Be compassionate to yourself; adjust your internal expectations: Part way through the course, I realized I didn’t have to be holding myself to the same standards the theravadan buddhists do. I took more breaks, and responded with humor rather than frustration when I encountered yet another ridiculous (in my opinion, of course) aspect of the course. When I felt like my brain had done enough meditating, I thought about fun past experiences and all the things I had to look forward to upon my return. Yeah I know, that’s not very mindful or present-focused, but by permitting myself to do so, I didn’t feel badly about it. I knew I was still getting something out of the experience.
  • Don’t get caught up in the logisitcs and prevent yourself from reaping benefits: I tend to think. Then I think about me thinking. Then think about me thinking about thinking. I analyze myself, my neuroses, my thoughts, my feelings. I pick apart my patterns and theorize about the roots of their development. I question the credibility of the source of the information given to me, then question my questioning. I couldn’t wait to get home to EBSCO for Vipassana-related peer-reviewed, empirically-supported articles. I’m all up in my head. This can be a good thing, but it also can be a great way to avoid what I’m feeling, maintain a false sense of control, and to prevent myself from just experiencing. Get out of your mind and into your body.
  • That being said, don’t take everything a person in a position of authority tells you: We tend to do one of two things: We see people in positions of power and/or authority as knowing all, agree with one thing and therefore agree with everything, and refrain from questioning what we’re being taught; or, we disagree with one or tho things that person says and discredit them (and everything else they’ve said) entirely. We take all or nothing, and this can be limiting or dangerous (or both). In this experience, I found a good part of the material patriarchal, draconian, and outdated, and even found myself infuriated upon hearing some of the dialogue (“Tolerance, Megan. Tolerance…”). But I also found a good part of it progressive, practical, and brilliant. Take what serves you and leave the rest. You can always change your mind about what you choose to accept and reject later.
  • Dont’ finish something just to finish; quitting is just fine: A few people left during the course, and truly admire their egolessness. A lot of people have said to me since I got back, “Good for you for sticking through it” or “Good for you for finishing it.” As kind as the comments are, I feel conflicted about them, because I don’t propone suffering through something “just to finish it” or to avoid being “a quitter.” We grow up in a world with a whole bunch of “quitter”-related sayings and rules, which leads people to do things they don’t want to do out of pride. If you’re not getting anything out of what you’ve “committed” to (e.g. program, job, relationship), don’t let the “don’t quit” voice keep you miserable. We have freedom for a reason. If something isn’t serving you any more or doesn’t appear to be worth the investment, quitting is the wiser choice.
  • The world doesn’t fall apart while you’re not paying attention to it: I was convinced the next 9/11 had taken place in my absence. I was expecting to come back to the aftermath of the apocalypse, and I was certain all of my friends would have forgotten me. In actuality, when I asked my mom what I missed, the first thing she said was “James Gandolfini died.” That’s it? I mean don’t get me wrong, that’s really sad. I was a huge Sopranos fan, too, and I didn’t know the guy but if he was anything like “Tony,” he was pretty great. But in comparison to my preconceived post-apocalyptic vision, this news was totally manageable.  But I was reminded that the whole illusion of control that runs our lives is just that–an illusion. Being “out of control” of current events for 11 days had no impact whatsoever on the happenings of the world. FYI: Being “in control”/aware has the same lack of impact.