Recently I attended a long (very long) silent meditation retreat. When I told people I was going to meditate for 10 days, I got one of two reactions.
1: “Wow! That sounds amazing and relaxing!”
2: “That sounds like torture.”
Funny how the same thing can create such opposite reactions. Both perspectives turned out to be true, and not true.
Things I learned by shutting up:
Meditation sometimes sucks
It wasn’t relaxing, at least not very often. Being able to focus your mind intently on something and keep re-placing it there all day long is hard. It’s boring. Sometimes your body starts to hurt and you have a whole conversation with yourself about pain. Sometimes your mind brings up painful content. (Sobs were heard at times).
But sometimes it’s really great
If you’ve ever gotten really into an activity and entered what some call the “flow” state, you’ll understand this. There sometimes comes a point in a long period of meditation where the mind slows down, the chatter quiets a bit, and you’re just doing what it is you’re doing without really thinking about it. This is the feeling I think most people are trying to get from meditation.
Which brings me to:
Hope is not your friend (i.e., drop all expectations)
You cannot try to achieve the flow. You might as well try to catch smoke. The effort has to be entirely in maintaining focus on your meditation object, not in generating a certain feeling or experience. One of the real purposes of meditation is to achieve equanimity (calm non-reactivity to good as well as bad experiences). If you’re moving away from or toward any thought or feeling, you are not equanimous. (I promise that’s really a word.)
Balance is dynamic, not static
If we drop our favorite illusion, that we can achieve happiness and keep it forever, we learn that staying calm is a journey, not a destination. True balance requires constant monitoring and adjustment. Try standing on one leg and you’ll see what I mean. Many small movements are required to maintain the balance.
Most of what runs through your mind is useless
Seriously, all the stories that your mind generates aren’t helping you. The belief that your life is full of problems that you have to manage is false. Unless someone is bleeding out, urgency is a mind creation. Most things can solve themselves. You don’t have to listen to every urge or emotion. You don’t have to scratch every itch.
We all talk too much about too little
On the last full day of the retreat, we were allowed to talk again before venturing back out into the loud, loud world. We didn’t talk about our favorite TV shows or the president. After 10 days of silence, we talked about real things in our lives. With complete strangers who felt like friends. It was weird, but refreshing.
A calm mind is a happy mind
One thing the teacher said which struck me is that in order to harm anyone else through speech or action, we first harm ourselves. Anger is actually really painful if you examine it closely. The pain starts with you, and what you really are trying to do when you “lose” your temper is to give away your anger so you can be free of it.
But if you never let anger ramp all the way up, you never yell at the driver who cuts you off, or at your spouse or your child. You have to be really present with your feelings and take responsibility for them all — ALL — in order to maintain internal balance. If you stay balanced, lashing out becomes impossible because there’s no need to give your anger to someone else. Make sense?
Wayne Dyer gave this example in a talk once. What do you get when you squeeze an orange? (Orange juice, obviously). Why? (Because that’s what’s inside). So if I squeeze you, and out comes anger, why did that happen? Because that’s what’s inside you. It has never come from anywhere else.
Take good care of your mind. Take good care of your heart. May you all be well.