Retreat of the mind-monkeys, protests from Catholic peacocks: My first meditation retreat

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My first week-long meditation retreat just ended. I’m trying not to be sad about this (though I certainly have techniques to work with if I do just start to bum out or, worse, have re-entry aftershocks), and I’m also thinking about what I’ll tell people who have never been to a meditation retreat who will curiously ask, “So, how was it?”

I’ll want to use words like “inspiring, invigorating, deeply restful, transformative.” It was a game-changer on the same order as going to a six-day-a-week ashtanga practice was. Or I could instead say that it felt like summer camp for my spirit. Rather go horseback riding or kayaking, I had seven glorious days to get closer to nature by letting the mind settle, and then settle some more.

Researchers are demonstrating again and again that that our minds love to be still. Consider the 2010 study “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” which was published in Science. The authors of the study say: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Using a smartphone app they developed for this study, they found:

Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.

They also found that on average, “respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except” — you guessed it — during sex.  

More on this later (the research, not the sex).

Perhaps I could talk about interesting specifics from the retreat: How, for instance, on the fourth night, my husband and I made it through an all-night sit with a group of nearly a dozen other folks. I might add some surprising elements about this yaza:

  • It wasn’t that bad! (It helped that we had a great group and a fantastic group leader.)
  • Time had a different flavor that night.
  • The meditation felt restful.
  • By 7 a.m. the following morning, I did my ashtanga practice and it felt rather breezy.

(Here’s more on meditation duration training, by the way.)

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I could talk about how I think using one of the meditation techniques focused on during the retreat helped me to, for the first time perhaps, truly eat mindfully. (Yes, for faithful blog readers: even Ayurveda has not been able to help me achieve this particular piece of what happened this week on the mindful eating front. More on that later too.)

I could also mention that this was my husband’s third time in Southern California, and this Michigan native finally experienced an earthquake — well, OK, it felt more like a tremor than a quake. But it was his first shaking, and it happened during one of the dharma talks Shinzen held – right on cue, too. Of course.

Catholic peacocks and secular Buddhism

peacockPerhaps I would need to take a step back and tell people who ask about the retreat that it was held in Rancho Palos Verdes, California on a gorgeous Catholic retreat center campus. The Mary & Joseph Center features thoughtfully designed gardens and meeting spaces, very sweet staffers, comfortable accommodations and sweeping views of Los Angeles. Another supremely wonderful benefit of this location was that I was able to spend last weekend (was it only last weekend?) with my parents and sisters, who all live in my former home state. (Fun fact: The retreat center is also home to some peacocks. I’ve never spent time with peacocks before, and friends who have have told me about about how loud they are. Now I know why. I think their calls sound like what would come out of an offspring of a cat and a bat. I personally found the peacocks and all their diva-ness endearing, though.)

The retreat was led by Shinzen Young, an American who has spent a significant part of his life studying in hardcore Asian monasteries. He has created a straightforward meditation system called Basic Mindfulness that is completely secular, but absolutely compatible with vipassana techniques.

shinzenShinzen is brilliant to the max and tremendously generous with his knowledge, time and energy. He is also totally accessible, humble and hilarious. (I love that he sometimes wears a hat that he is the first to say might be mistaken to be a Heisenberg hat from “Breaking Bad,” but is actually a hat a student got him from a Blues Brothers movie.) I can’t fully convey to you how inspiring it is to spend time with him, because he leaves you feeling jazzed not only about your practice and your potential, but about all of human existence, really. That’s not always an easy feat, depending on which part of human existence you’re contemplating.

If you’re at all interested, here are some links:

The ins and the outs of mindfulness

Maybe for this post I should simply talk about what mindfulness is – the concrete, down-and-dirty details — in case anyone who asks me about the retreat asks me about mindfulness in general. MIndfulness seems to be the talk of the town of late, with Time featuring it on its cover earlier in the year — using the attention-grabbing word “revolution” in the headline, no less — and with prominent  stories in Wired, NPR, etc.

Shinzen covers it comprehensively in this free download called What is Mindfulness?. One crux of the piece is this part (from page 51, if you’re looking for it) in which he talks about how you can group the effects of mindfulness into five broad headings:

  • Reduction of physical or emotional suffering
  • Elevation of physical or emotional fulfillment
  • Achieving deep self knowledge
  • Making positive changes in objective behavior
  • Developing a spirit of love and service towards others

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Then again, so does yoga.

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If you skip to page 69, you get a taste of how this works:

So how do concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity work together to reduce suffering?

Any experience of discomfort, whether mild or intense, will involve one or a combination of four sensory elements:

• Uncomfortable physical sensations in your body.

• Uncomfortable emotional sensations in your body.

• Negative talk in your mind.

• Negative images in your mind.

For simplicity, let’s say that the maximum intensity of any of these elements is level 10. Now, let’s assume the worst case scenario: all four elements are at level 10, the maximum body-mind distress that the human nervous system is capable of generating. How much suffering will this cause? The rather surprising answer is—it depends.

What usually happens is that the physical body sensations, emotional body sensations, mental images and mental talk get tangled and therefore mutually reinforce each other. In other words, they multiply together, giving you the impression that you are suffering at level 10 × 10 × 10 × 10. That equals 10,000…and suffering at that level is utterly unbearable. People will do anything to escape from that level of body-mind distress. If distress at that level without escape continues, their thoughts may move toward suicide.

The first step in getting out of this hell involves sensory clarity. You learn to untangle the elements. First, separate the body part from the mind part. Then in the body, separate the physical from the emotional. And in the mind, separate the visual from the auditory.

If your sensory clarity skills are really good, this will dramatically reduce your suffering because the elements are no longer multiplying with each other. You’re experiencing only what is going on, not what seems to be going on. So the elements just add together: 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 equals 40. What a difference between having to carry 10,000 pounds versus only having to carry 40 pounds. The relief is dramatic. But we can do even better.

Concentration Power is defined as the ability to focus on what you want, when you want, for as long as you want. If you have really good concentration power, you can focus on just your emotional body sensations, or just your mental talk, or just your mental images, or just the physical sensations of the pain. That way, at any given instant, you would only have to experience a single “10.” So you can go from a 10,000 to a 10 by Concentration Power and Sensory Clarity alone. This represents a 1,000-fold reduction in distress. The body-mind events have not changed at all. What has changed is your relationship to those sensory events. You’ve gone from a tangled, scattered experience of the sensory challenge to a clear and concentrated experience of it.
A 1,000-fold reduction in suffering without any actual change in the content of experience is pretty miraculous,
but we can do even better!

Let’s say that you’re focusing on just the physical discomfort and your concentration is so great that your mind and emotions have faded into the background for awhile, and there’s just the physical sensation of the pain itself. But it’s still at level 10, which represents the maximum, so that’s still significant suffering.

Now you bring equanimity to that physical discomfort sensation. That means you ask your body to open to its own creations, to stop fighting with the physical discomfort it’s producing. You try to greet each wave of body sensation with a gentle matter-of-factness. At some point you fall into a deep altered state where your body

stops fighting with itself, time slows down and everything gets very still. It then becomes evident that the “10” itself is made up of 2 × 5: 2 units of actual physical discomfort multiplied by 5 units of resistance to that physical discomfort. As the equanimity goes up, the resistance goes down until you are left with nothing but level 2 sensation, which is all that was ever actually there!

And because there’s no resistance, that level 2 sensation flows as a kind of wavy energy and no longer causes any real suffering at all.

That’s how a “Turn Toward It” strategy works to bring relief from suffering. If your level of concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity has been permanently elevated through practice, then the associated relief is also permanent. When treatment or medications can’t eliminate the pain, there’s still something you can do—develop sensory clarity to separate the elements, develop concentration power to focus on just one element at a time, and develop enough equanimity to melt the internal resistance. At that point, what’s left of the sensory challenge will flow like a river.

As with any experience like this, I have at least 10 blog posts in my head already, but given that I’m heading straight back to work – I literally arrive back in Michigan 2.5 hours before I have to start the work day on Monday morning — I don’t think 10 posts will happen. I will get to the topics of eating mindfully and the emerging science of mindfulness in future posts.

In the meantime, I am excited to see my sister and soon-to-be-brother-in-law, who will pick us up so that we can enjoy dinner together (eaten more mindfully than ever!) before catching the redeye to DTW. I’m pretty sure the flight it won’t be nearly as restful as the meditation all-nighter, although I have a few more refined tricks up my sleeve now to expand and contract with the experience and not resist the discomfort. 😉

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moment-to-moment practices

I take it as a good sign for our meditation practices that in packing for a brief getaway to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, my husband and I packed our meditation cushions.

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Last month, without leaving mid-Michigan, we both had the happy coincidence of getting time with two extremely clear, direct, accessible and accomplished meditation teachers: Shinzen Young and Sister Sayalay Susila. I’ve written about Shinzen and why I’m drawn to his scientifically inclined outlook.

Sister Susila is a Buddhist nun from Malaysia, and she was delightful. (More recently, I also had the chance to attend a one-day session with Ajahn Sucitto, whose teachings I found beautifully poetic and refined. I will be seeking out more of his teachings as well. Here is Ajahn Sucitto’s blog. )

Despite being introduced to meditation by my father at a very young age, I think it has taken years of practicing yoga to get me to be able to accept a meditation practice. Some people are naturally drawn to turning inward, but I always experienced my mind as too restles and my body as too stiff to want to regularly return to long sits; yoga was my meditation.

But these days, when Sister Susila says something like, “You must contemplate impermanence until cravings drop away” (which I took as, “force won’t rid you of your cravings”) or “The body is not solid the way you think. With concentration and wisdom, you see the body and mind as they really are . . . so you can accept your body being old with equanimity” — well, I believe it deeply, because I’ve spent years returning again and again to the mat, which is nothing if not a constant reminder of the ever-changing nature of the body and the mind. I think I needed these years of a yoga practice to get here, though. Simply contemplate impermanence? Not concrete enough.


In case anyone who happens on this post is interested in Buddhist concentration and insight meditation practice, I thought I would share Sister Susila’s handy one-pager on the mental factors of mindfulness and wisdom needed in vipassana (opens as a PDF).


The Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor Facebook page frequently posts about meditation, and this little gem was posted a while back:

Real meditation is the highest form of intelligence. It is not a matter of sitting cross-legged in a corner with your eyes shut or standing on your head or whatever it is you do. To meditate is to be completely aware as you are walking, as you are riding in the bus, as you are working in your office or in your kitchen—completely aware of the words you use, the gestures you make, the manner of your talk, the way you eat, and how you push people around. To be choicelessly aware of everything about you and within yourself, is meditation. If you are thus aware of the political and religious propaganda that goes on ceaselessly, aware of the many influences about you, you will see how quickly you understand and are free of every influence as you come into contact with it. (Jiddu Krishnamurti, Collected Works, Vol. XIII, Individual and Society, p. 323)

I haven’t blogged since April because my work demands have been relentless again. There were periods that I felt a saturation — experienced as a lowered tolerance for external stimulation. And I wondered whether meditation could eventually help shield me from feeling drained during times like these. I want to achieve an unstickiness with my job — to be “free of every influence as you come into contact with it.”

In the meantime, though, I’m simply looking forward to putting down my meditation seat in a different setting.

P.S. — About the meditation seats above. The cushion on the left is the ubiquitous kapok zafu cushion. The meditation seat on the right is the very light — two pounds — and portable Salubrion Meditation and Yoga Seat that I got from DharmaCrafts.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content