insights and transformations
6 minute read - what i learned from attending a ten-day silent meditation retreat
as i pack my bag for a ten-day silent meditation retreat, nervousness gives way to grandiose fantasies of returning enlightened, or the very least experiencing altered states of consciousness and earth-shattering breakthroughs akin to ones gleaned from psychedelic trips. is this too much to ask in return for ten days of no talking, no entertainment, no reading or writing, no exercise, not leaving the grounds and meditating 11 hours a day?
turns out meditation gods don’t care for negotiation. you get what you get. there is a lot more clarity during retreat, allowing a much needed reshuffling of my mental and emotional inventory. but in terms of wisdom, the fruits i receive are like dragon fruit, flamboyant exterior revealing a subtle flavor once bitten into. humbled sooner than later, i accept my status as a novice despite a year of hourly meditation, recognizing the path is much longer. once there, the view of the path changes, and writing my observations now may be more useful to you. what i share here is personal but maps onto wider and more universal questions.
all of my memories have been here all along
due to years of pot use, i believed that my memory function had permanently deteriorated. even worse, that certain memories had been lost forever. i was wrong.
with the lens of my focus sharpened after three days of observing sensations exclusively at the entrance of my nostrils like a diligent bouncer, i give myself a mental hall-pass to indulge in some contents of my mind. soon memories surface, and play out with increasing vividness. all the pieces are laid out on a glass table in front of me. having gained access to the entire archive, i sort and sift through as i please. more and more details appear.
memories are organic matter that slightly transform per recounting, so i do wonder how much of this process is supplemented by imagination to fill in the gaps. nonetheless it’s exhilarating to recall the events of my life with high-fidelity. imagine finding a box full of old photo albums you thought you had lost. this felt 100 times better, because it also means gaining future memories. going forward i can rely on having a faithful record.
fearing trauma, i get the opposite. whatchamacallit, triumph?
during retreat, it’s common to be confronted by trauma. protected from outside stimuli, one’s own thoughts and emotions get louder, threatening any false equilibrium fabricated over the years. i fear unpleasant memories, like zombies coming back to life.
to my surprise, on this third day, what keeps arising are long forgotten memories of peace, bliss, and love. delighted to relive my childhood, i become an infant in my dad’s arms. my body remembers the feeling of him massaging me. he carries me around the house giving me the gift of language. he whispers “this is what we call a vase. and these we call flowers”. growing closer together, our hearts bound eternally. i see this through teary eyes, and viscerally feel the strings between our hearts. even if we’re apart, our belonging to others is perhaps the most important fact of life. our life is indebted to others.
i’m moved to tears. no matter what future holds, my childhood is worth having come into this world. without knowing it, i had been living in slight fear of my life being a waste, but now that fear entirely dissipates. seeing the foundation of my life has been set in love, i can come back to this place anytime.
grateful, i cry and cry. i want to hug everyone in the meditation hall. seeing that they’re in a trance of their own, i let this love swell up inside and build a deep reservoir. still, i can’t wait to express my love. can this retreat be over now? i want to be with my people.
oh no i’m an extrovert
my self-reflective tendencies have always nudged me towards identifying more as introverted, despite every personality quiz landing me in the middle of the extrovert-introvert spectrum. these ten days are a rude awakening for me.
all self-reflection and no self-expression make sahand a dull boy. i yearn for extroversion with intensity i have never had for introversion. being non-verbal part is fine. i crave eye contact, the most rudimentary form of feeling seen.
usually, for every hour spent with friends, i need three to recharge. but to endlessly recharge in solitude is actually depleting. it turns out that retreat and recharge are means to a social end, means of becoming more present, more receptive, and fully integrated with others. it’s in total self-containment that i grasp the full extent of being a social animal.
dreams have a longer shelf-life
i meditate to become more present, but somehow become obsessed with memory?
most of us have experienced dream amnesia: waking up remembering every detail of the dream, only to completely forget it minutes later. there must be a liminal consciousness that lasts a few minutes with one foot in the dream world and one in waking reality. a study done by Matthew Walker and his colleagues confirms this:
The dramatic alterations in brain activity during NREM and REM sleep, and their tidal shifts in neurochemical concentrations, do not reverse instantaneously when you awaken. Instead, the properties of that particular sleep stage will linger, creating the inertia period that separates true wakefulness from sleep, and last some minutes.
is it possible that these properties can last longer than minutes? because as i spend the entirety of the day meditating, the details of my dreams linger through dusk to dawn, only to be overwritten by the following night’s dreams. in continued immersion in the atmosphere of the prior night's dreams, i learn more from my unconscious.
there's probably another contributing factor. dreams seem dramatic, yet our nervous systems don't perceive them that way. our stress levels remain low during REM and the effects of the drama are mild and subtle. the more mundane concerns of waking life actually stress us more, and thus require a lot more resources. so it makes sense that once those come online, the mind totally drops the dream content.
the incessant flood of worries immediately greeting us upon waking, and the information blast from our smartphones give no chance of survival to our dream memories. since returning home with this realization, i keep my phone out of the bedroom and try to sleep in a good mood as it tends to set the tone for how i wake up.
no more great dictators
this isn’t a spiritual declaration. more of an observation on technology and media.
the retreat is led through audio recordings of the late S. N. Goenka. at 7 pm every night we get a bonus 1.5-hour video of Goenka shot statically, in vhs quality, explaining the technique using analogies and buddhist tales. if this doesn’t sound like riveting entertainment to you, that’s because you haven’t been deprived of media. laughing at his jokes, leaning in to catch every word, my love for him grows stronger with each viewing.
when i try to rewatch these videos at home, Goenka isn’t half as charming, funny, or genius. i can’t listen to him for more than 5 minutes without being distracted. he’s still an amazing teacher. my point is that in the absence of other figures looming large on the screen, he was an order of magnitude more captivating. this makes me think about earlier days of mass media where dictators like Hitler dominated the distribution channels.
say what you want about censorship – sadly it is on the rise – but the genie’s out of the bottle now. with the decentralization of media and the explosion of influencers, any dictator today has a much harder job capturing the attention, and the hearts of their people. i hope i'm not proven wrong anytime soon. and i hope more charismatic leaders carry a similar message to that of S. N. Goenka's "may all beings be happy".