The following reflection originally appeared in the twice-a-month newsletter I sent out on July 18th, 2023. And, just for fun, the above picture, taken the day after the retreat, is what happens when I don’t trim my beard for three months!
*** For easy reading, feel free to just read the bold points and skip the rest ***
From March to June of this year, I did a highly intensive, three-month silent Vipassana retreat. Since returning a month ago, the two primary questions people have asked me have been, “what was it like?” and “what did you learn?”
In turn, today’s reflection will offer a bit more of a look into those questions.
What Was It Like?
My short, playful answer to this question has been, “well, we basically practiced the old adage, eat little, sleep little, meditate a lot.” However, to give a longer, more thorough answer, it was like this:
The retreat was held on 25 acres of land on a remote island off the coast of Washington State. Apart from the teacher, I was the only one who actually did the entire three months; however, there were seven other people who stayed from between a week and two months.
We slept in tents scattered along the ocean-side forest, and heard more sounds of eagles and wind rustling through trees than we did anything man-made, like the occasional boat or helicopter cruising by.
When the 3am wake-up bell rang, I would immediately direct my attention to the body and linger in my sub-zero sleeping bag for a few minutes before popping on my headlamp and walking to the cabin to start the day of formal meditation.
The cabin was where it all happened — about 500 square feet, where half of it was devoted to the meditation area, and the other devoted to the kitchen & dining area. It was heated with a wood stove and had solar & generator-powered electricity.
We only ate two meals — breakfast and lunch. The teacher cooked lunch, and since each participant had a “yogi job,” my job was to be the breakfast maker. As a funny aside, the teacher instructed me to once a week, serve only plain oats for breakfast. The other meditators didn’t know I received this instruction, and after the retreat, one of them told me he thought that I was just trying to mess with everyone on plain oats day!
Anyhow, once morning meditation started at 3:30am, the entire day was pretty much just more meditation until I retired to my tent sometime between 9:30 and 11pm.
Of course, it wasn’t just sitting on a cushion for 19 hours a day. There were alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, short breaks after breakfast and lunch, 30-minute evening tea w/ globs of honey, and most days, an evening dharma talk and a brief morning talk.
However, this style of meditation is such that all of that is also meditation time. The instruction is to be mindfully aware from the moment one wakes up until the moment one goes to sleep. There may have been short breaks from formal practice, but there were no breaks, at least officially, from mindfulness!
To summarize the above, I might say the retreat was intensive, rustic, immersed in nature, and just comfortable enough. These conditions are perhaps my favorite to meditate in — they really force us to hop out of our preferences and never-ending quest for comfort and feeling good. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, but if you look closely, you’ll likely notice that they basically run your life (unless, of course, you are enlightened!).
In turn, these sorts of conditions offer the opportunity to find a more robust, stable, and deep-hitting form of peace, contentment, and ease. This naturally leads us to:
What Did I Learn?
Rather than pour through a long list of all the various learnings, I’m just going to focus on what feels like the most important one.
In brief, the biggest learning was deepening a fundamental okayness of being.
To give some more color to this learning, I’ll start by describing some of the challenges and delights from the retreat.
The Part About Challenges
There were periods of extreme fatigue, like feeling as if my brain was broken, incapable of applying effort towards a technique, and needing a rest after as little as 10 minutes of slow walking.
There were days we sat for meditation at 3:45am & my body uncontrollably shivered with cold for an hour — a product of 45-degree temperatures outside, thrashing ocean winds, and a wood stove supposed to heat the room but dying out a few minutes into the meditation. This is not to mention taking an outdoor shower in that same weather with a temperamental water heater!
There were waves of anger, doubt, anxiety, sadness, shame, and one stretch of what I can only describe as profound despair. Some of these waves were minor and fleeting. Others were like being stuck in a small room with a TV on full blast and the remote broken — noise upon noise upon noise.
There was a bit of a personality mismatch between myself and the teacher; and, even though he was certainly a skilled & compassionate instructor, our ways of communicating didn’t always click so well, which paired with him being the only one I could talk to for three months, created periodic bouts of inner tension.
There was a stream of one enticing thought after the next — sometimes seen as little bubbles of nothingness & not clung to, but other times, as the most interesting, intoxicating, and alluring things on the planet, sucking me into mindless thought chains for painfully long stretches of time.
The Part About Delights
And, of course, there were also the meditative delights.
There were moments of deep ease and peace, where the mind settled and reality became spacious, tranquil, and profoundly welcoming.
There were periods I could abide in unbroken natural awareness for hours on end, the meditation happening all by itself, without any effort whatsoever.
There were waves of meditative pleasure and bliss, vibratory tingles coursing throughout the body and mind.
There was the worldly pleasure of taking my post-breakfast tea down to the sandy beach and gazing into the gently undulating ocean waves which were shimmering with morning sun rays.
There were little insights around many corners — like bursting through bouts of clinging/stress with a simple glimpse of their emptiness, catching the exact moment a mindstate shifted, or having intuitive understandings of what conditions led to something arising or ceasing.
The Part Where It All Comes Together
To put it another way, this retreat featured all the changing winds of human life — the full spectrum of challenges and delights, one crashing into the next, and oftentimes both happening simultaneously.
There are certainly powerful meditative practices that focus mostly on cultivating bliss and pleasure, but that’s not what I did on this retreat.
Rather, the core practice I put some 1,500+ hours into was to greet each moment with non-clinging awareness. This means neither pushing away the challenges nor grabbing hold of the delights.
It’s to just see with awareness, over and over, “right now, it’s like this — fatigue is here, peace is here, whatever is here.” And if the mind did start resisting or grasping, the practice was to just observe that with non-clinging awareness. “Okay, right now, resistance is happening — not a problem. In seeing it, I can take refuge in awareness, rather than in feeding and growing bigger the reaction.”
Importantly, this non-clinging awareness isn’t pointing to a begrudging acceptance of something yucky, like, “I hope this fatigue will go away soon, so I’ll just patiently be aware and accept it until it passes.”
Instead, it’s as if we put on “goggles of wisdom,” where we endeavor to see that all happenings, internally and externally, are at the core neither yucky nor wonderful — they are all just happenings, truly incapable of touching our fundamental okayness. In other words, this is taking the insight into not-self or emptiness as the practice. Of course, this needs to be paired with a healthy dose of actual present-moment awareness; otherwise, it’s just a wishful thought.
The net effect of doing this for some 1,500 hours over three months is a significant deepening of my capacity to feel profoundly okay in myself. Not that I perfectly executed this practice in every moment, but making the effort over and over allowed me to touch into some pretty big “challenges” and feel deeply at ease in my own skin the whole way through.
The Part About Returning Back Home
Of course, my circumstances are radically different now than a month ago.
Rather than meditating in silence for 19ish hours a day, I’m filling my days with a lot of the same things I was doing before the retreat — morning sitting meditation, working, socializing, laundry, taking the dog for walks, reflecting on my life, and on and on.
The depth of stillness & awareness has definitely dropped off a bit; however, the fundamental okayness of being feels just as strong now as it did then.
As if the universe were testing me, life has sent me all sorts of challenges and delights. To just share the extreme ends of high and low, I was essentially laid off from my part-time work with the 10% Happier App, who is closing the program I’ve taught with for the past couple of years; and, on the other side, I got engaged to the wonderful woman that continues to make my heart melt!!
As a very real product of this retreat specifically, as well as the greater momentum of 15 years of sincere dharma practice, I know deep in my heart that happiness isn’t going to be found in holding onto a good situation, making a future situation even better, or getting rid of a bad or uncertain situation.
Sure, there are plenty of things to do and figure out — but, I have an intimate understanding that my true well-being has nothing to do with any of that.
Instead, through non-clinging awareness, a fundamental okayness is always right here, right now.