Winter Retreat Report + Mindfulness of Impulses (3/1/22)

This reflection appeared in the newsletter from March 1st, 2022.

I just wrapped up a five-week retreat, experimenting with something I’ve never done before.  I began with three weeks by myself in a remote forest cabin, where my sole focus was meditation.  Then I pivoted back to my home, where I live with four friends, and spent the last two weeks turning my home into a monastery.

My overarching intention was to use the momentum of intensive solitary practice to see if I could re-program some of the habit-energy I have around my home space, lessening mindlessness and increasing mindfulness.  To put it another way, I wanted to learn deeper levels of how to stay in the meditative mindset all day long, all year long.

In that spirit, the first week back home, I was quite reclusive, mostly just had the screens turned off in a drawer, did about 4 to 6 hours a day of formal meditation, and then brought in easy-to-be-aware activities, like cleaning, organizing, sewing, exercise, baking, light/brief socializing, and one trip to a local spa.  The second week, I dropped down to more like 3 to 4 hours of formal meditation a day, and challenged myself with harder-to-be-aware activities, like two hours a day of writing/interneting, a bit of reading, hosting the morning meditations, and a little more socializing.

What did I learn from this retreat?

The forest cabin portion and the at-home portion had fairly different learnings and it feels difficult to capture a cohesive narrative, but here’s one potent experience that I vividly observed, many times over.

  1. Something happens, such as an enticing thought popping into my mind, or hearing/smelling/seeing/feeling something that catches my attention.
  2. There’s an impulse/urge to act  (or there’s an emotional reaction)
  3. My body mobilizes  (or my mind grasps onto the reaction / spins in thought)

As an example of the bolded text, I’m eating lunch and I notice a book on the floor.  Then there’s an impulse to leave my lunch, pick up the book, and put it where it belongs.  My body leaps into action.

Or, I’m writing this newsletter on my computer and a thought pops in to check my email — “maybe so-and-so has replied to my inquiry.”  Then there’s an impulse to click the email button.  My hand moves the mouse in that direction.

Another way to describe this chain reaction is “autopilot.”

However, on retreat, doing that much meditation every day, I could see every step of this process in very clear, almost slow-motion detail.  In the forest cabin, my entire environment was set up to remove enticing distractions and thrust me into being with myself.  But back in my home, there are many distractable stimuli, along with a certain habit-energy that I’ve carried for years, or perhaps decades, of how I inhabit my home space.

In turn, I found the process of re-programming my habit-energy was a lot about seeing this process and simply not feeding it — more specifically, noticing the happening and the impulse, but not allowing my body to mobilize, at least not immediately.  Of course, if it was actually a necessary and wise thing to do, I would do it; but, what we learn is it’s the voice of craving that says we need to act immediately.  Wisdom can typically wait a little bit.

A few other interesting observations on this theme:

  • I was really tuning into how the underlying mood or feeling-state of the mind had a big impact on this cycle.  For example, when I was feeling peaceful, the impulses/urges/reactions were much more subdued and easier to equanimously observe.  However, when I was feeling groggy, irritable or apathetic, the impulses/urges/reactions were much more intense and harder to not get entangled with.
  • I spent a fair bit of time investigating the grasping/identification process, particularly around thoughts, feelings and sensations.  It was often possible to stay on that first level — just noticing the happening before it even becomes an impulse, reaction, or behavior.  For example, I might observe in real-time, “how does the mind grasp onto thoughts?”  Or, when there were stronger bodily sensations or feelings, looking at them with “bare attention,” without the sense of good/bad or pleasant/unpleasant, and seeing how/when the mind would try to hijack the experience with an interpretation and reaction.
  • It would of course be great to always have supreme mindfulness and never be on autopilot or get sucked into an intense impulse or reaction.  However, as that’s not really the reality for most of us, we can exert environmental controls.  For example, the three weeks in the cabin when I didn’t have my phone or computer there, I basically never thought of them.  Even that first week back home when they were turned off in the drawer, I likewise rarely thought of them.  But then when I started lightly using them and had them sitting out, the urges came back, randomly and regularly.  The environmental control here is to recognize where we have a harder time, and, as with the screens, may look something like literally turning off the devices and putting them away when we’re not actively using them.


By turning my home into a monastery and noticing the chain reaction of various habits, internal and behavioral, I currently feel a greater capacity to align my actions with my deeper intentions, as opposed to surface-level urges.  And yet, one thing I’ve learned over the years is to be somewhat skeptical of short-term changes.  If this retreat really had a potent impact, it will still be evident a few months or years down the line.  And yet, either way, like how every penny in the bank counts, it certainly is helping to build long-term habits and momentum.  Every minute or month of practice counts!

Challenge to You

Can you observe this chain reaction play out in your life:  happening —> impulse/reaction —> behavior?  Specifically, I think the low-hanging fruit is bringing more mindfulness to the impulses/reactions we experience throughout the day.  If you can develop a heightened presence right there, it goes a long way to lessening autopilot, re-programming mental-emotional habits, and stepping into a life of mindfulness.

If you’re interested, here’s an 11-minute meditation I recorded for the Untangling Anxiety course that takes us right into the heart of mindfulness of impulses practice.  I recommend giving it a go!