When Humpty suggested we stay for 10 days at a silent meditation retreat, I chuckled to myself. For those of you who know Humpty, you would understand why. Humpty, silent for 10 days? Humpty, meditating? Humpty, staying in a jungle in Thailand with bugs all around? Humpty, eating only two meals a day, with the last being at 11:30am? Then I thought about myself – and for those that know me, each of the above questions is equally applicable. Perhaps I should have thought this through before I agreed.
I will start from the end and talk about all the things I learned about meditation and then return to the details of the experience itself. I have become a big, big fan of meditation. My life in front of a computer, responding to or trying to digest nearly 300 emails a day, constantly being bombarded by office visits or phone calls, and 3-4 meetings a day ranging from 10-15 minutes up to an hour, all of this results in a total and complete inability to concentrate on a task when things settle down. In fact, in 2009, I realized I was unable to concentrate on reading a book – my mind would wander after 3 minutes and after 10 minutes, I had no idea what I had read because I was thinking about half a dozen topics simultaneously. I was lamenting this fact with a colleague and we started up a book club in part to combat this self inflicted (and self diagnosed) attention deficit disorder. And while it helped me read for longer stretches, the book club did not help much with my inability to concentrate while at work.
Meditation definitely has helped in this regard. Sitting for 5-6 hours a day, concentrating on my breathing and being observant and mindful of my thoughts but not indulging in them, has brought new calm and perspective to my life. It is not about eliminating distractions but about managing and dealing with what we consider “distractions.” How might I go through my daily chaos and then sit down, gather myself, and apply myself to deep concentrated work? I believe meditation can and will help with that.
But more so than just presenting me with a tool to deal with a chaotic work situation, I also began to see meditation as helping me come to terms with the speed bumps life presents. Understanding the difference between events and my interpretation of events was a benefit I had not anticipated. My favorite analogue was when the teacher said, “If you lose money, then one bad thing has happened to you. If you become stressed about the loss of money, then you have added a second bad thing, doubling the negative impact.” Or in other words, by not creating a negative emotional reaction to an event, you can at a minimum cut in half the impact from an event and more often than not, by reframing the event, significantly reduce or even reverse the negative event into a positive event.
Having said that, learning to meditate turned out to be hard work, much harder than I would have thought. Before arriving, I thought sitting around all day, focused on breathing would be a breeze. Seriously, how hard could it be? Well, extremely difficult. On the first day, I would be two breaths into my meditation and already my mind began wandering. If I tried to meditate for a five minute stretch, I would only be aware of my breathing for 10-15 seconds. The rest of the time, I was thinking of all sorts of random things. So I tried to focus on small, incremental improvements. Could I stay focused on breathing for three breaths? Then four? By the end of the day, could I make it to ten? And when I would wander off in thought, how long before I brought myself back? Two minutes? One minute? Thirty seconds? These were my goals for the first 2-3 days. Soon, though, I was doing a good job of holding my meditation for a couple of minutes and staying in a meditation session for 15-20 minutes with minimal mind wanders. I noticed that when this happened, I felt different. I saw myself differently. It was not about all the events that happen to us in life, understanding why, or if we deserve these things. Instead, I could see things more objectively and plan a course of action accordingly. I also began to see more clearly what brought happiness to my life and what didn’t. I began to understand myself better. I would never have guessed a 10 day retreat would provide such significant benefits.
Pictures of the temple during the evening ceremony
Like I said though, it did require some hard work. And to be honest, Humpty and I were not exactly the most diligent students either. Technically, we were not allowed to talk, to read, to write, etc while there. All these things give your mind something to think about and since we are trying to move beyond that at the meditation retreat, we should avoid these things. But, we admittedly cheated. Every day, we took a little walk around mid day to talk about our experiences – a one hour break to share our experience, trade notes. I also spent time reading and writing in a notebook each day. I tried to focus on meditation from early morning until after lunch, when I had the most energy to concentrate on meditation. With our morning wake up at 5am and excluding the morning lecture and meals, I found myself getting a solid 5-6 hours of meditation in before 1-2pm. Then, around 1-2pm, I would indulge in my reading and writing. I also would listen to lectures on various topics. I did not, however, allow myself to watch videos on my laptop or iPad – somehow, I created my own hierarchy of acceptable cheating and unacceptable cheating. Acceptable cheating included anything I might read, listen to, or write about that further improved by meditation. Unacceptable cheating was mindless reading, listening to music, or (gasp) watching downloaded TV shows. My “Sons of Anarchy” series would have to wait.
As for the other elements of the retreat, like the big bugs, the less than savory meals and thus significant weight loss, the blanket which I very quickly discovered I was allergic to, the lack of mirrors resulting in my “Grizzly Adams”-like beard, and total lack of any internet connectivity, I was actually OK with it. I would probably not want to do it again anytime soon, but perhaps in time, I could see myself wanting to return to the simplicity of life at the retreat. In fact, it can be difficult incorporating a daily meditation into your life – something I am already experiencing in my post retreat life. But like those wandering thoughts, I must remember to bring myself back to center again and keep meditation a part of my life..