Revelations from my second 10-day silent meditation retreat

Suffering

I was suffering and I knew it. It’s impossible to not know when you feel that sharp pain in your chest and nothing could stop the tears. At first, I was distressed about my situation. Soon, I was distressed about being distressed. The crying felt nonsense at some point and I knew I’d gone close to the point of spiraling.

Here I am again, crying on the floor, as if that was the only place I could feel a sense of reality. Everywhere else felt too tall, too removed, too unreal. I felt worse. I scrolled through the friends with “green dot” on in messenger and closed it. I pinched my hand. It hurt but not as much as it hurt inside.

I didn’t know how I got through that day, just like I didn’t know how I got through it exactly a week ago when the first panic attack happened.

I had been nomadic for 9 months, mostly living in Hawaii. In April, I was asked to return to the office and was given a two months extension to decide where I was going to live. My then partner and I didn’t align on where we wanted to live, which meant we either stay together in Hawaii, do long distance or part ways. The relationship was too nascent for that decision to be easy. Besides, I wasn’t sure if it was the right relationship for me, even though it was fine at the moment.

Just three weeks ago, I got my promotion. Months ago, when I thought of going for the promotion, I thought that if I could get it this time, I would feel content to leave the ladder for a while to pursue my calling in the climate field. Around that time, an opportunity opened up to do pro bono work for the State of California on wildfire and forest resilience and I managed to get it. That Friday, I announced to my manager that I was going to be on leave for the next 6 months. I was extremely nervous, even though to a hyper-rational mind, that decision would have been a no-brainer. After all, everything was going as planned, almost too perfectly. But deep down I knew the implication of this decision, which was I would need to relocate back to California, which would also trigger a reconsideration of the relationship. My world would be turning upside down shortly.

If I was a fortune teller in my past life, I must have been a good one. That “reconsideration of the relationship” immediately followed suit, two days later. We, quite peacefully, broke up that Sunday morning. We came to the conclusion at the same time. We wanted to go down different paths that diverged. I felt a huge weight lifted, now that we were honest with each other.

I might have been so disillusioned by how loving we kept being with each other that I had the confidence to stay for the rest of the month with him. After all, I love Hawaii, and most importantly, I had no clue where I would go next.

Perhaps people like me, who have no family home to return to in the US, shouldn’t have been nomadic. That cluelessness of where to go next was what really got me. With remote work, I found myself holding a pin, trying to put it somewhere on the map to call “home”. I simply didn’t know how. I sincerely disliked the Bay Area after one and a half year living in South Bay, or rather, living in the office, and half a year in a problematic part of San Francisco during the pandemic where I’ve lied flat on the floor once after two gun fires. I also struggled cultivating friendships who could make me feel at ease. I did know a lot of people but felt I had no friends to “return home” to. There was, unfortunately, nothing that was keeping me in Hawaii either, and the ridiculous rent and a 25% salary cut for doing the same work made no sense. I felt backed into a corner, not knowing where to go and how to even take the first step. The worst part was I was going to take that courageous leap of faith alone. This person, whom I felt the closest to at the moment, would soon exit my life.

Every time I let my mind remotely go to the place of figuring out what’s next, I would get overtaken by an anxiety attack. As days drew closer to the end of the Airbnb, anxiety came up more and more frequently and stronger. A college best friend offered for me to visit for a week in Seattle. I had justified the trip as “visiting your new place” and concealed what it was really about — I had no clue what was next and I just needed a place to sober up and figure it out.

A week before I left Hawaii, by sheer serendipity, I met up with a fellow classmate whom I didn’t know before. I wasn’t sure how much we had in common and why we were meeting up, but I went anyway. Looking back, I felt she was an angel sent by God to give me a message. Inadvertently, she mentioned registering for a Vipassana retreat in the past only to cancel last minute, and asked about my experience. That question rang a bell. My first retreat was 4.5 years ago when I was still a junior in college. The last one I signed up for was during the pandemic and was rightfully canceled. Now it was the perfect time. I put myself on the waitlist for the next course as soon as I arrived home.

It turned out I was waitlisted #15. The course was 2 weeks away and I had no accommodations lined up after the course. I was still determined to go, out of blind faith that this course was going to get me out of misery.

I anxiously waited until two days before the course when I got off the waitlist and booked my flight. I’d like to believe it was all “meant to be”, since things worked out exactly how I desired even when the chances were so low that it really shouldn’t have.

Meditation

There were 50 of us, 25 men and 25 women, all voluntarily signed up for this strange experience where we were supposed to wake up at 4am, meditate for 11 hours a day, and stay silent at all times for 10 days. My “old student” status prohibited me from having dinner, which meant the last meal would be at 11am, after a 6:30am breakfast. There was more than one time during the retreat that I was in disbelief that I willingly put myself in such an experience for the second time, and even so desperately wanted it. Yet I also knew, almost immediately when the course began, that it was exactly where I needed to be.

Ānāpāna

For the first three days, we did Ānāpāna, breathing meditation. For at least an hour at a time, I was instructed to focus on an area below the nostrils and above the upper lips the size of my fingertips and observe “the subtle flow of breath”. The exercise was so boring that my mind wanted to do everything else but focusing on that tiny area.

I knew I wasn’t going to be focused for the full hour. What surprised me was, after meditating every day for the past 2 years, I was not able to focus for even 10 seconds at a time. Thoughts surfaced one after another and often minutes would pass before I noticed I was caught in a story.

On the first day, I was bombarded with flashbacks of the breakup. Sometimes these flashbacks were in the form of an event and sometimes just a scene of the street or a corner of the house we inhabited. I would automatically react with a stress response, often so violent that I’d open my eyes. It’s only then that I realized I wasn’t in that scene anymore; it was too vivid that I believed it was actually happening.

As the memories of the most recent “traumatic” events subsided after the first day, deeper layers of memories started to come up — difficult times in the past, relationships that went sour, and childhood memories. Since I was a child, I’ve internalized “bad events” as if they were my fault. As a result, the feeling of shame came up so uninvited each time in the form of a tightened throat, deep breath, the murmur of “I am sorry” that slipped out of my mouth, and that calling for a “mama” that I wished I had who could have comforted me in the moment. I had no clue how I was able to function in the past when I was automatically responding to every single thought. How tiring.

I went to the teacher to ask what I should do with these memories that come up. She told me to “not give any importance to them; just see them as memories, images of the past, and let them go”. I followed the instructions as best as I could. As memories that usually triggered shame came up, I just said “I am aware of this and I am working on it.” My body grew lighter each time. As I made peace with the difficult memories by seeing them as they are — pieces of mental images, and not reacting to them, they eventually loosened their grip on me and went away.

As days went by, the tides of memories subsided. My mind grew emptier, until it became a peaceful lake with few wrinkles.

Photo by Claudia Chiavazza on Unsplash

Vipassanā

Three and a half days later after we’ve sharpened our mind through Ānāpāna, we were introduced to the technique of Vipassanā, a method of self purification through self observation. For the next six and a half days, we were supposed to observe every inch of the surface of the body, top to bottom, bottom to top with an equanimous mind. This meant, whatever the bodily sensation we were experiencing, we would observe and not react, with the knowledge of “anicca” — impermanence. All sensation has the same nature of rising and passing away, so there is no need to respond to them.

Since I was an old student and had been meditating daily, I grasped the technique rather quickly. By the fifth day, I was able to feel a sense of flow when I scanned my body. I could feel a “subtle vibration” everywhere without blockages. Despite the repeated warning to not be attached to the pleasant sensation of “subtle vibration”, I had to acknowledge it was pretty nice. I was secretly wishing for it every time I scanned and was satisfied when I was able to experience it most of the time.

When the teacher summoned all the old students and checked in on our progress, I was the only student who was able to experience flow throughout the body. I felt so accomplished. A “straight A” student right here, even in a meditation course. I could not deny the fact that I was gifted even at “mindfulness”.

As I’ve accomplished one important milestone, I started to expect that moment of epiphany that I experienced in my last retreat where I connected with the universe, which consequently changed everything. I wonder how the epiphany was going to show up this time.

Suffering, again

Soon I realized the method of vipassanā was routinely and mundane and did not give much room for epiphany. Consequently, I started to forge an experience of “connectedness” by directing my attention outwards to the trees. I felt the sensation of “merging” for a glimpse of a second but it went away in no time. I was disappointed.

As I was cooking up what to do next, I remembered that towards the end of the last course, the teacher said we could start penetrating our attention inside the body to feel the “subtle vibration” within instead of staying at the surface. Bingo. This felt where epiphany might lie. I got excited to chase my next goal.

There were not many instructions to do this other than “observe the body with a sharp and penetrating mind”, which meant nothing to me. I started imagining needles going from front to back and side to side. As it penetrated into the body, I could feel the surfaces that it touched. As I carefully did that, taking as much time as possible, expecting the sensation of “flow” to stay when I went back, only to be greeted by a gross sensation. I had the patience the first few times accepting that I just got started. After the first day or so, my impatience grew. Instead of a soft needle threading through, I started imaging knives cutting into my body. The sensation was still unreliable. I was frustrated.

The medicine

“The point of this meditation is not to achieve a certain type of sensation. Everyone inevitably gets there sooner or later. The point is to cultivate an equanimous mind through the exercise of observing the body and that’s the secret to a good life. No matter what life throws at us, we can face it with more tranquility than before.”

The teacher told me when I shared my struggle.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this but this is the time it truly clicked for me as I caught myself chasing sensation there and then. Indeed for the past two years as I’ve deepened my spiritual journey through a variety of means, including meditation, psychedelics, visiting “high energy” sites, singing, dancing, I was looking for that blissful feeling in each experience. It turned out that chasing the next “spiritual bliss” was a source of suffering because these experiences are also part of the change with the nature of arising and passing away. They are unreliable. Chasing bliss is going to keep me away from real peace and liberation. This explains why I felt “stuck” on my spiritual growth and my recent spiritual experience has not helped me face life with more wisdom. The grounded form of spirituality does not chase the high and instead focuses on the daily practice of presence. It is as mundane and boring as that.

The days had passed and, unsurprisingly, there was no epiphany. However, I knew I got exactly what I needed out of it. A peaceful life requires a mind that is both aware and equanimous. Getting to this or that sensation is not the point; the point is how we get there, because, with enough dedication, eventually we all get there.

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Mojia Shen

Mojia Shen

Serving mother earth and her children