I spent ten days at a silent meditation retreat near Kanpur, Northern India. It was my second such retreat. The term ‘retreat’ is a woeful and inaccurate description of this exhausting and arduous experience. A ‘Ten-Day Silent Torture Prison’ would be more accurate. Indeed, the accommodation resembled a prison; the only ‘luxury’ came in the form of our very own meditation ‘cells’.
When you tell someone you meditate or that you’re going on a silent retreat, you wait for the inevitable raised eyebrows. Eyebrows that say “meditation is a sort of hippie cult, isn’t it? Where everyone floats around in yoga pants talking about their ‘chakras’ and burning incense sticks?” I would love to say that this is the case, but the reality of a silent retreat could not be more different.
Both retreats have been the hardest physical and mental challenges of my life. I wrongly presumed my second would be much easier. There is no talking (obviously). No reading, writing, listening to music, mobile phones, or exercise. And no food after 11am. For three of the hour-long meditation sessions per day (out of around ten hours of total meditation daily), you’re instructed not to move a muscle for the duration, demonstrating “strong determination”. With beads of sweat dripping down your back (the teacher turned off the fans during each session) and legs in agony after days of sitting, the desire to change your posture and alleviate your suffering becomes unbearable.
The Daily Routine
4am – Morning gong: Two hours of meditation in the Dhamma hall await. For the first three days, this means focusing on the sensation of your breath exhaling onto a tiny area just above your top lip. Once this sharpens your awareness, you spend the next seven days scanning the most subtle sensations you feel in your body.
6.30am – Breakfast: Feeling quite chipper and refreshed at this stage most days. Despite having just four to five hours’ sleep a night, I rarely feel tired. But then again, I spend the bulk of each day barely moving a muscle. The relatively basic vegan food tastes incredible. You savour every bite, given that eating is one of the few sensory pleasures you are allowed to enjoy on the retreat.
8am to 11am – Meditation: These early sessions are usually quite pleasant and often enjoyable, as you still feel fresh.
11am – Lunch: Last meal of the day. Despite this, teachers are at pains to tell you not to “overeat”, as it makes it harder to focus in the hall.
1pm to 5pm – Meditation: This is when the pain really begins. Very soon after starting, your body and mind make it clear that they are both fed up with meditating. Hours of aching limbs and an agitated mind follow, with each minute seemingly taking a lifetime to pass by.
5pm – Tea: By tea, I mean there is no tea. Nor is there food. Water with lemon has to suffice for returning students like myself. Despite this, I rarely feel hungry; probably because I spend all day sitting still.
6pm to 9pm – Meditation, then the teacher’s discourse. You are physically and emotionally drained by this stage. The discourse is a welcome relief. S.N. Goenka teaches you from beyond the grave (via video recording, and not through a medium. Again, this is not a hippie free for all). Goenka is not only incredibly clear and logical in his instructions – he’s also very amusing.
9pm – Bed: Despite being exhausted, your body clearly has not done enough to justify sleep. So you spend several hours just lying there, bolt awake, with only your racing mind to keep you company.
Repeat every day for ten days.
So Why Would Any Notionally Sane Person Choose To Do This?
A valid question. To start with, it’s best to describe what meditation is and is not. There’s often a common misconception that it’s a highly spiritual practice, where proponents chant mantras at a mystical deity. I accept that this reputation is not helped by the way many meditators dress. But while there are many forms of meditation, most follow a logical and secular format. You learn to better control and understand your mind.
You focus your attention on something like your breathing or sensations in the body. And after a shockingly small amount of time has passed, you forget you were even supposed to be meditating. You get lost in thought. You then bring your attention back to the breathing. And again, almost instantly, your mind wanders. You bring your attention back. You repeat this task, endlessly. Eventually, your mind wanders less and you get better at bringing your attention back. The goal of meditation is to gain control over the wandering mind.
Sounds easy, right? Absolutely not, at least not without training your mind. In case you hadn’t realised, you have a quite staggering lack of control over your thoughts. If you haven’t, close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing. On the in-breath count “one” mentally, and then “one” again on the out-breath. Then move to “two”. If you get to 20 (you won’t), you might be the second coming of Buddha. For most people, five is a challenge. Try it.
Unfortunately, most of our species will remain distracted, without realising they are, for most of their lives. You see someone walking down the street talking to themselves. They’re flitting erratically from one train of thought to another. The natural reaction to this would be to think that this person is insane. This, however, is exactly what we are all doing. Just in our heads. Walking down the street, showering, driving, and even during conversations, rarely is there a time when your own personal life-narrator has not dragged your attention away from the present moment.
The Benefits Of Meditation. Science Joins The Party.
I have meditated for around four years, for around 45 minutes each morning. It has helped to make me more content, productive, focused, compassionate, and less stressed. Put simply, life is more enjoyable when you’re in the present, and not rolling in pointless thoughts about the past or future. But don’t just trust me. Science is now taking a much bigger role in breaking down the less than scientific reputation of meditation, given its skyrocketing popularity in recent years. Technology is also helping. Increasingly, research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This not only takes pictures of the brain, as regular MRI scans do, but also records brain activity which takes place during the scanning of meditators.
In 2008, there were 82 academic publications on mindfulness and meditation. In 2018, this had increased tenfold to 842. Generally speaking, the journals point to long-term sustained meditation practice improving sleep, attention span, focus, and academic performance, while lowering blood pressure, stress and slowing age-related memory loss. The fMRI scans detected lasting changes in the subjects’ brain activation patterns in a part of the brain called the amygdala (key for processing emotions), implying that sustained meditation changes your brain structure. These benefits are just the tip of the iceberg (the Daniel Goleman book I list at the end of the article has a much more extensive summary). While these benefits were recorded in longer-term practitioners, just ten minutes of daily practice allows you to enjoy at least a taster of some of these benefits.
Method Behind The Madness
French mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said in 1654 that all “of humanity’s problems stem from a man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. We can’t aimlessly numb ourselves from the problems of our emotions without distraction. With this knowledge, you realise that there are good reasons for the austere conditions you endure on silent retreats. First, the courses are free, funded by donations which you have the option of making at the end. But mainly, the simple conditions mean there is literally nothing to distract you. Even between sessions, there was no escape. You could have a sit on your bed (thin mattress) or go for a short stroll. But that was it. There’s nothing to distract you from how busy your mind is. And with this realisation, you’re able to become more aware of your thought patterns and, ultimately, to become better at mastering the constant chatter of the mind.
This is almost impossible to do in the outside world and not on retreat, when we always have something to distract us. It’s no wonder that the things we enjoy – drinking, television, the internet – are all very good at doing just this. Any trip on public transport exposes this fact. Waiting two minutes for a train is often too long, with people scrabbling to grab their phones, lest they be left alone with their mind for just a moment.
Your Reaction To The World Is The Cause Of Your Problems, Not The Problems Themselves
It’s true that after hours of meditating you can have some extremely ‘pleasant’, even blissful, experiences. However, the ‘unpleasant’ ones substantially outnumber these. The retreat teaches you that both pleasant and unpleasant experiences are all impermanent. Your knee hurts. The teacher says to focus intensely on the pain, rather than changing your posture. Upon closer inspection, you realise that the pain in the knee is just a strong sensation. It’s not an issue in itself. The real problem is your mind’s reaction to the pain. “When will this pain stop? This is horrible! I want to go home!” Once you resolve not to move, the chatter subsides, and the pain becomes much more manageable. At times, it disappears completely.
The lesson from here is that it is your reaction to the outside world, and not the outside world itself, that determines the quality of your life. If you’re OK with difficult or painful situations, you’re bound to live a more enjoyable life. Some celebrities with all the wealth, fame and luxury anyone could hope for are still miserable. And yet by comparison, many people with challenging life situations are seemingly happier. It’s a question of disposition. A silent retreat (and meditation more generally) trains you to have a more positive attitude towards life. At a simple level, you have two choices:
- Make sure that everything in the world happens exactly as you want it, making sure that only things you like happen. Forever.
- Accept that difficult situations and things you don’t like will happen constantly throughout your life, and be OK with this. If you pay attention, you’ll realise on almost a minute-by-minute basis your mind complains about something.
Controlling every outcome in the world is obviously impossible. Yet option one is the default position for almost everyone. You expend supreme amounts of energy to make your life ‘perfect’. When you inevitably fail in this task, unpleasant sensations of anger arise in the body. “I’ve been working so hard, my unhappiness can’t be my fault!” You adopt an attitude that leads to even more personal misery. “I would be so happy, if only it wasn’t for the behaviour of this other person”. The word ‘person’ could be replaced by spouse/colleague/family member/political party/nation/etc. As long as something other than you is to blame.
Option two is more simple. Accept that the world will not change; you’re the one that’s 100% responsible for your happiness. While I’d love to say that these previous paragraphs mean I’m living just like this, of course I’m not. I’m nowhere near mastering the practice. A meditation retreat at least nudges you gently in the right direction. But it is really hard. At least by trying, you notice a subtle change in your perspective on events that unfold, most of which you have no control over in the first place.
A Lifetime Of Knowledge In Ten Days
I learnt a huge amount on the retreat, improved my meditation technique, and will gain immensely from it in the future. I also felt incredible by the time it finished. Even if this perhaps simply shows how I would normally feel if coffee did not make up the majority of fluid I put in my body each day. So I will be back again in the future, when my practice needs rebooting. Despite how hard it is, I would highly recommend that everyone give it a go at least once. Even if you’re a beginner meditating for ten minutes daily, you gain around two years’ worth of meditation practice in just ten days on retreat. So you gain lots of experience quickly.
Just see for yourself. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and the current owner of perhaps the greatest mind on the planet, attended a ten-day Vipassana course in England with S.N. Goenka when he was at Oxford University. He inspired me to go to the same retreat in 2017. He had this to say:
“The meditation retreat lasted for 10 days. It was the most difficult thing I did in my life. Trying to stay focused on reality was incredibly difficult, because the mind constantly tries to avoid confronting unpleasant realities. I think I learned more about myself and about humans in general during these 10 days than I learned in my whole life before. And to do so I didn’t have to accept any myth. I just had to observe reality as it is. The most important thing I realised was that the deep source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind.”
Harari meditates for two hours daily and attends a 45-day silent retreat each year. I definitely won’t be copying him here, however. Had he not started meditating, Harari said he would still be focusing narrowly on medieval military history at Oxford, rather than being able to write and spellbindingly explain the past, present, and future of humanity with awe-inspiring insight and clarity. He, along with other great thinkers such as Sam Harris, Steve Jobs, and Ray Dalio have also credited much of their success to the clarity given to them by meditation. So if it’s good enough for them, I figured, it’s surely good enough for me. It might be for you too.
Suggested Meditation Apps:
Headspace – Best for beginners, beautifully simple.
Calm – More content and extra meditation styles available.
Suggested Meditation Books:
Sam Harris – Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion – A committed atheist and one of the most logical minds of the planet, Harris explores what meditation can offer to those with a secular disposition.
Robert Wright – Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment – Meditation’s usefulness in the context of how natural selection has left us with neurotic minds. The title is ironic, he posits that the Buddhist practice of meditation, and not the worship of the man himself, is true.
Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson – Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain And Body – A summary of the vast quantity of scientific evidence which backs up the potential of meditation to change your brain and improve your health.
Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens – This is not technically a book on meditation. However, his key view – that the history of humanity has been determined by our ability to believe myths and individuals reacting to sensations in their bodies – is inspired by the insight he has gained from meditation and attending retreats. In my view, the best book ever written.
David Eagleman – The Brain: The Story Of You – Awe-inspiring book about how your mind works. Although meditation only features intermittently, this is a must for any meditator. Or for anyone who wants stunning insights into the stranger-than-science-fiction reality of how the brain works.