What I Learned From A 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Article originally published on Linkedin in Jan 2018.

I first encountered meditation when I was running a startup in Mexico. It was a time when everyone looked at me for answers. Facing the daily up and downs and the occasional breakdowns, I turned to meditation for help with regulating my mood. I didn’t quite stick with it though. When I got back to school and became a student again, life got a lot simpler, though I was still occasionally bothered by stress.

Thanks to quite a few friends’ recommendations, I decided to try out the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. I had 10 days of utter peace before throwing myself into the Beijing entrepreneurship scene.

Demystify

Our schedule was exactly the same as the monks. We woke up at 4am, and meditated all day besides breakfast and lunch, which was vegan. There was no dinner, only fruits, and lemonade. The teacher gave lessons at night and we went to sleep at 9pm.

There was no phone. No talking. Not even eye contact. 100 people meditated together, though acted as if each other doesn’t exist. I had 10 days all to myself, a modern-day miracle.

We spent the first three days observing breathing, the next seven days mentally scanning ourselves from head to toe, toe to head. The last day, when we finally broke the silence, the participants acted as if we had been friends the whole time, even though we had never talked. Shared experience is a more powerful bond than words.

Three Types of Thoughts That Pain Us

In the first three days, all I did was closely observe the sensations brought about by breathing. I was taught to sharpen my mind and pay more attention to what’s happening at the moment.

It’s true that we hardly live at all. Our thoughts always bring us to the past or the future, or things outside our control. Our education had always prepared us for the future and never taught us how to live today.

Since there was nothing to do with my free time, I got a chance to closely observe my thoughts — the №1 distraction. I realized that there were three types of thoughts that constantly brought unpleasant feelings:

  1. Thoughts about things that happened in the past. Rumination is one of our favorite activities. We love editing scenes in the play: what “I” should have done differently.
  2. Worries for the future. We love planning, then we worry about the unlikely events.
  3. Guessing what’s in other people’s mind. How they might think of me.

If we take a closer look, we discover that none of the things we spend 99% of our time worrying about are real. The past has happened. There is no way to modify it. The future hasn’t happened. There is no point worrying about it. Probability-wise, most of the things we worry about won’t happen anyways. We can’t control others. It doesn’t quite matter what they think of me because those are just opinions unless I internalize them and choose to allow those opinions to define me.

It’s quite magical how evolution gave us a mind that can create a world in our heads. But at the same time, we need to recognize how lopsided it can be. The world in our head is never the full reality, there is no point obsessing about it.

A good way to overcome such delusion is to train your mind to pay attention to the present. Here is a good example. I have always been trained to save time. So meal time is always used for socializing, if not audiobooking. I had never paid attention to what I was eating. At Vipassana, since there was no socializing, I ended up paying attention to every bite: the flavor, the texture, the sensation of food touching my lips. I felt like a child eating food for the first time. It felt fresh. It felt real. This is mindfulness.

Similarly, I would recommend focusing on the sensation of your feet when you walk. Focusing on the feeling of the body before you fall asleep. Focusing on your breath when you had a minute between things. It’s those little things that can bring you a peace of mind.

Three Cries And The Three Sources Of Unhappiness

I cried three times during the retreat, each time because of a different reason that fundamentally contributes to our unhappiness.

1) Wanting a pleasant sensation to continue and an unpleasant sensation to stop

The first time I cried was because we were asked to not move for an entire hour. I clearly knew at that time I couldn’t yet do it. But being the Mojia I am, I forced myself not to move. I could feel thousands of needles stabbing through my legs. Then the physical pain invoked the psychological pain. I felt sorry that I had to do that, or blamed myself for my inflexible body. I didn’t cry for my physical pain, but for my psychological pain that was the habitual reaction to my physical pain. The physical pain might not actually have been so painful.

The more I meditated, the more I realized why I was doing this “boring” head-to-toe scanning. I was practicing an equanimous mind: a mind that doesn’t want pleasant sensation to continue and unpleasant sensation to stop. All sensations are temporary. They come and go. So there is no point holding on to a sensation. Consider more of the things we encounter in our daily lives. We don’t want to fail because it feels bad. We don’t want uncertainty because it makes us feel insecure. So we try everything we can to stop those unpleasant sensations. We become risk-averse. We try to be the perfect-A student and never fail.

What I learned from meditation was that when I looked at the physical pain objectively, as if it wasn’t pain on my body, and without invoking habitual psychological reactions, pain wasn’t so painful. Similarly, when we are able to view a situation objectively without feeling sorry for ourselves, things aren’t so bad after all.

2) Wanting something you cannot get

The second time I cried was the second-last day of the retreat. The teachers said that by then, many students would have felt a flow sensation throughout the body. I didn’t. I felt flow in most of my body but no sensation on my chest. It hurt me that I wasn’t one of the “many students”. I have worked really hard throughout, how come I wasn’t rewarded? It felt unfair. It felt all my efforts went to waste.

You can clearly see I was bringing unnecessary pain to myself. I set an arbitrary goal of “feeling the flow”, but couldn’t reach it in due date. I felt defeated, but never questioned whether this was even the right goal. Furthermore, I made the mistake of wanting to control what I can’t control. I can’t force sensations on my body. It feels what it feels.

We often set too many of these arbitrary goals in our lives, such as “I need to be the best”. Was this the right goal at all? Why should being better than others be the goal? When I was focusing on “feeling the flow”, I was exactly focusing on the wrong goal. The point of scanning the body wasn’t to “feel the flow”, rather to practice keeping the mind equanimous: not wanting pleasant sensation to continue and unpleasant sensation to stop. When I wanted a sensation but couldn’t have it, I brought pain to myself.

Another point comes from stoicism. We should detect what we can and cannot control, and focus only on those we can. I couldn’t have controlled my bodily sensation. When it doesn’t feel anything, I can’t force it to. Just like when someone doesn’t like me — I can’t force them to.

3) The separation of “You” and “I”

Since birth, the concept of “I” was forced upon us. We learned what was “mine” and obsessed over it. We continue wanting to possess more, not only material goods, but also achievements, relationships. The last time I cried was because I was deeply moved by the beauty of selflessness, the act of going beyond personal pursuit. Before the end of the retreat, we were taught a loving-kindness meditation. We started with “May I be free from pain, sufferings, anxiety, and unhappiness”, and ended with “May all beings be happy, calm, peaceful, and harmonious”. I had a grande feeling that there was no separation of “I” and “You”. We are all one inseparable body, interdependent of each other. To hold onto the self is to artificially separate the self from the entire system.

The course intended to teach us just this. There is no fee to join the retreat. Even food and board are free. It aimed to teach us what selflessness is. When the course used to charge for food and board, many participants complained. This was because when we pay for things, we formed an expectation for them. When the reality didn’t meet our expectation, we feel unpleasant so we complain. When we live like a monk — when everything is given to us — we stop forming any expectations. We become so grateful that the past students have donated money so we can come for free, and the chefs have volunteered to cook for us. The food tasted really good.

The U.S. founding fathers established “life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” to be the “unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence. After the meditation, I would suggest some modification. Happiness cannot be pursued, it can only be ensued. And in fact, it shouldn’t be happiness that we ensure, because happiness is temporary. It should be peace: peace within and peace everywhere.