I Sat in Silence for 10 Days Straight and This is What I Learned

QuackRabbit, March 31, 2017 http://quackrabbit.c ... experience

If you're like most people, you try to avoid inactivity. The thought of sitting still with nothing to entertain you sounds unpleasant at best: you experience anything from a vague sense of unease to full-on boredom or anxiety in the absence of something to distract you, calm you, or stimulate your mind.

If this sounds accurate, than the thought of a meditation retreat – ten days without phones, music, movies, books, computers, beer, conversation, or any other distraction – probably sounds unthinkable. In recent months though, I learned more about Vipassana, or insight meditation, and felt intrigued by the chance to test my limits at such a retreat. The mental challenges and rewards offered by the experience sparked a curiosity that grew like a wildfire within me. So during a stay in northern Thailand I signed up before I could talk myself out of it.

Before we get into lessons from the experience however, let's make sure you know what you're getting yourself into.

Some Quick Context

The word meditation, much like yoga, carries a negative connotation for some people. They associate it with a certain lifestyle they don't wish to be a part of, one that might involve healing crystals, vegan diets, and frequent trips to Whole Foods for organic “non-GMO” soybeans. Generally speaking, I've found one of the most difficult parts of practicing meditation is trying to communicate the experience to others in a language they understand. That is to say, if you meditate and try to explain it to someone who doesn't, you're often one poorly chosen word away from being written off as as a babbling hippie who took one too many hits from the bong.

It's important to draw the distinction that meditation is an exercise, independent of religion or spirituality. You don't need to become a Hindu or Buddhist to meditate, in the same way you don't need to join a soccer team if you want to go for a run. Sure, running helps your progress on a team, but it's a healthy practice regardless of your affiliation.

I steer away from methods that use terms like “chakras,” “channeling energy,” or “vibrations.” For similar reasons I don't like using words like karma or reincarnation, particularly because their common definitions are simplified to make them sound supernatural, when the concepts they refer to are anything but.

All of these concepts are tools – metaphors and placebos of sorts – and are useful to many people in the same way that a literal Heaven and Hell are useful to many Christians. People are different, and some people need a threat of punishment or chance for reward in order to behave well, at least until they have the internal motivation to do so. In theory, whether or not these concepts (as commonly defined) are real is irrelevant to their purpose. I'll avoid delving further into this tangent for now, but I'm happy to elaborate if there is enough interest.

Now that we have that cleared up, here are 8 lessons from my Vipassana experience I want to share with you.

1. Laughing at Frustration

Even with some previous practice meditating, the first few days were tricky. My mind was still noisy from the week before, and the sudden lack of stimulation left me somewhat restless. As I mentioned, we had no music, no phone use, no media whatsoever. No books, reading, talking, drinking, surfing the web – nothing. Just you and your mind. This is an extreme we don't often deal with head on, and it became an increasingly surreal experience.

Outside of the retreat, I listen to music every day. By day 3 without it though, my mind felt like a radio, switching tunes as the hours rolled by. After songs from recent memory had faded away, others started rising up from the deepest depths of my mind. First, the “Theodore the Tugboat” theme song from the 90s. Initially, it was kind of nostalgic.

 

Then I learned what hell sounds like. For six straight hours, I had the jingle from the K9 Advantix commercial stuck in my head. You know the tune: “Hello mother. Hello father, Fleas, ticks, mosquitos… really bother.”

I can assure you, this is infinitely more annoying when you have nothing but your own willpower to pull your attention away from it. The frustration built until I took a mental step back and thought about how ridiculous the situation was. And then all I could do was laugh. Well, not literally laugh – other people were trying to focus. But I grinned really loudly.

It's just so absurd: you're sitting here trying to concentrate, moving toward this blissful state of mind, when suddenly you have a singing puppy pop into your head that won't go away. There is nothing else to distract you but your own mind, and it's doing a spectacular job at it. If you can't laugh at that, to appreciate the absurdity of the frustrations you have with your own brain, you're going to drive yourself insane. And that brings me to lesson number one from this experience:

Learn to appreciate the absurdity of everyday life. When you find a reason to laugh in the face of stress and frustration, it removes the power they have on you. You can't always eliminate negative emotions, but you can refuse to let them control you. A slight change in perspective goes a long way.

2. Self-Image and Subjectivity

You might see our logo as a duck, or you might see it as a rabbit. Neither perspective is wrong, but neither is entirely correct either. Point being, truth is relative – we each live in our own subjective reality (passes blunt). This is probably not a new concept to you because you see it enough on a daily basis – the political or religious actions of one group or figure can seem saintly to some, while monstrous to others. Or consider your senses – you've probably wondered at some point if the “blue” you see is the same blue everyone else sees.

This topic could go in a thousand different directions, so to keep it specific (and useful), think about yourself. Yes, I'm aware you spend most of your time doing that anyway. Welcome to being a human. But for this point, think about the last time someone gave you a compliment or praise. Then think about the last time someone insulted you or blamed you. How did you take it in either situation? Did you mull it over in your head for the rest of the day or week? Did it affect the way you see yourself in some way?

If you internalize people's compliments and take them as fact, you set yourself up to give equal weight to insults. Without some concept of what is “bad,” you can't have an idea of what is “good.” Each relies on the other, and each person has a different idea on where to draw the line between the two. This means no person's compliments or insults come from a full understanding of the situation, nor of the thought process behind your actions, which are themselves full of biases and misinterpretations. So then, when you realize that your view of yourself is just as subjective and baseless as anyone else's view of you, it becomes rather pointless to waste time managing your identity.

When you hear praise or blame, compliments or criticisms, veneration or contempt, remember that each interpretation is only partly right. It may have some basis, but only within the view of those who make the judgment. Both praise and blame may account for your efforts or lack thereof, but they ignore the countless uncontrollable factors that contribute to success or failure. You can use them to improve your efforts in ways you agree with, but it doesn't serve you to internalize them or let them affect your self image.

Every judgment, good or bad, comes from an incomplete or flimsy interpretation of reality. There is no authority to decide what is and isn't true, so you will find no benefit blindly accepting someone else's version of things. When you stop trying to create and manage your sense of self, you slowly gain a more objective understanding, rather than one distorted by vanity. You then avoid both arrogance and insecurity, which would otherwise reduce the impact of your efforts.

3. The Broccoli Epiphany

Every lunch at the retreat included broccoli. Normally, I hate broccoli. Never been a fan, it just tastes bland and boring to me. But when you only get two (rather tasteless) meals a day, one of which is more of a snack, and then you don't get to eat again for another 20 hours, you start to understand hunger a little more. And the hungrier you feel, the better food tastes. Soon, I not only enjoyed broccoli, I was craving it. Like really, sincerely, looking forward to it. And I reached a point of mindfulness during my meals that I was paying attention to every chomp of my teeth into that broccoli, every crunch, every bit of the weird bumpy textures against my tongue. There are foods I love that I've never given this much attention to.

This prompted a thought: humans will adjust to change, for better or worse. You adapt to a diet high in salt or sugar or fat, for starters. At first these flavor enhancers make food more exciting, but if they become a central requirement in your diet, they don't provide as much pleasure anymore. Food without them starts to seem tasteless.

 

Now, instead of food flavors, think of your morning with and without coffee. Or if you drink frequently, consider your leisure time without alcohol. If you're a heavy phone user, think about how you respond to silence without your phone to occupy you. When you seek out the pleasant experiences these things gave you in the past, you require more and more to reach the same enjoyment with them. And because that joy is fleeting, this is where dependence starts.

After a while, you rely on these excesses just to reach “normal,” and when the feeling fades, you return to what was once your neutral state, but now feels like a low point. Like waking up in the morning and feeling more tired than usual because you haven't had coffee yet. Or getting bored and restless when you socialize sober for a change. The greater highs you get, the deeper your lows become. In turn, the larger the disparity between your highs and lows, the more you crave the highs, and the more you struggle to find happiness in the lows.

Soon enough, when a desire arises like the urge to have some coffee or booze or sweets, you don't pause to question it. You subconsciously assume these impulses are commands from your brain, rather than mere suggestions. And when you indulge your desires, you give them strength, like feeding a starving wolf to make it go away. You make them stronger when they come back next time.

Consider the last time you had “nothing to do,” or felt bored or lonely. What habits did you turn to? What distractions did you reflexively reach for? You can't make time pass any faster, and relying on external pleasures to distract you is a recipe for unhappiness. Loneliness and boredom don't come from a lack of stimulation, they come from your resistance against your present experience. A desire to be elsewhere, a sense that you currently lack something you need to be happy. Boredom and loneliness are the emotional equivalent of eating broccoli while thinking about pizza.

The goal isn't to sit in silence forever and do nothing, but to keep your habits from controlling your reactions to negative feelings (more on that next). By training yourself in mindfulness, you can recognize these desires and see they are as temporary as emotions. You can learn to choose which ones you listen to. You can find contentment without excess.

When you rely on external things to be happy, your happiness fluctuates more over time, and you train your mind to rely on these things. Remind yourself to appreciate the mundane moments instead of seeking distraction. Pull your attention back to the present: watch your senses and emotional state. Watch as your happiness starts to come from within, no longer dependent on other things or people.

4. The Power (and Danger) of Habit

I'm a big nonfiction reader, and one of my favorites in recent years was the Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg breaks down habits and shows how they work, how they affect our brains, and how we can change them to our advantage. Since reading the book, I've employed some of these methods to build better habits and live a healthier, happier, more productive life. However, the retreat made me look at it a little differently.

Early on, the monk instructing me said to slow everything down and note the movements. So every action I took, I made a mental note of it. On day 1, something as simple as taking a drink from my water bottle might mentally look like this: “reaching, grabbing bottle, unscrewing cap, drinking.” At first, even this was difficult. Distraction happened fast and often. As the days went by though, I realized just how mindless this small habit was in my life. By day 4, the mental process looked more like this: “extending right arm, wrapping fingers, engaging arm, lifting bottle, pulling bottle to me, placing left hand on cap, engaging finger muscles, twisting cap…” You get the idea.

Now imagine applying this process to your entire life. You begin to realize just how much of your day you aren't even mentally there for. When you're lost in thought while brushing your teeth, you're going to do a shit job brushing your teeth and a shit job reasoning. When you really start to focus, you notice your more subtle thinking habits, and you realize just how much you waste your mental capacity on useless thoughts. Do you really need to imagine how weird it would be if this whole room was underwater? Do you really need to remember how embarrassed you were at ten years old when you called the teacher “mom?” Probably not.

The basic way habits work is we have a cue (some kind of trigger, like feeling tired), an action (in anticipation of either pleasure or removal of pain, like drinking coffee), followed by a reward (no longer feeling as tired). The research Duhigg presents shows an interesting side effect of an ingrained habit though: a significant drop in brain activity while in the midst of it. This means we aren't consciously making decisions during the behavior, we're merely on autopilot until the habit loop finishes. The urge to drink coffee in this instance dictates our behavior.

In essence, habits are models of behavior you use to respond to life with minimal effort. They work a lot like a software program's “if this, then that” statements: if given a certain input, then you produce a certain output or behavior. Maybe you have a mental habit which causes you to become angry or aggressive when frustrated, or to give up in the face of difficulties. When you practice noticing these impulses before you act though, it becomes easier to adjust your behavior.

Some models of thought and action may work in most situations, but it's naive to think any one model or method can be correct all the time. If the situation changes and the initial cue or trigger stays the same, you can find yourself mindlessly performing a habit against your interests. Do you always eat when you feel hungry? How do you know you're not just dehydrated? Dehydration causes similar sensations as hunger, so if you don't pay attention, you might find yourself overeating when you confuse thirst for hunger. The ambiguity of these cues or triggers creates the problem. You misinterpret your senses and feelings when you act mindlessly.

Habits can be helpful, but also destructive. They allow your brain to save energy, but falling into a habit lets your attention shift elsewhere. Whether these are daily routines, responses to information, or social tendencies, you sometimes rely on a helpful habit so blindly you fail to realize when it becomes damaging. No model for handling the world is correct in all scenarios, so you must be conscious of when you use them. This brings us to the importance of attention.

5. Own Your Attention

Some people say time is our most valuable resource – the time we dedicate to a project, to ourselves, to our friends and family. After all, there are only so many ways to divide it up. But time by itself is not inherently valuable. The value comes from your attention. You can put hours of effort into something and not see real progress because your attention is pulled in so many directions. You can spend all the time you want with your family and friends, but if your attention is on your phone or computer or TV, or you're lost in thought, are you really nurturing those relationships? When something is so valuable, why would you want to carelessly divide it among trivial things?

Most people have the idea that meditation is about stopping all thinking and feeling. This is part of the practice at first, but the basic goal is to be more aware – mindful of your thoughts and actions, for instance. After some time, you find your thoughts are less scattered. Instead of dividing your attention between 20 topics for an hour and making no real progress understanding them better, you can focus on one thing at a time. Maybe you cover fewer subjects, but you have a much better understanding of them. Mindfulness teaches you how to be more effective and efficient with your thinking. Additionally, when you don't waste so much effort refocusing from wandering thoughts and distractions, you will have more energy throughout the day.

If you only remember one lesson from this piece, let it be this one. When you train yourself to control your attention, you can focus on the things that matter to you. You can better discern which things contribute to your happiness and fulfillment (and that of those you care about), and which things do not. You can work more productively, waste less energy on unimportant things, and find greater joy in small pleasures.

6. Emptiness Part I: Happiness

Buddhism deals with a concept called Emptiness, which is much less depressing than it might sound at first. In fact, understanding it can be a major source of happiness.

Most simply, it's the idea that everything and everyone, as we understand them, are creations of our own mind. I repeat myself here because this ties into the whole part about subjectivity. The mind recognizes patterns and consistencies that we assign meaning to, and we deem them as real.

As zen philosopher Alan Watts described it, when we look at a candle flame, which is a stream of hot gas, we refer to it as “the flame of the candle,” as though it's a singular object. The stream of gas creates a recognizably constant pattern, but the molecules composing the flame are different with each passing second. It's an entirely different thing than it was a moment ago, but we still call it a flame. So because we agree this pattern is a flame, our consensus creates the appearance of objective reality. But it falls apart at the slightest analysis.

Of course this makes for an interesting conversation, but what use is this to understand? Look at it this way: imagine you're having a dream and you suddenly become lucid; aware that you're dreaming. You can still enjoy everything that happens in the dream, but you also don't feel crushed by the negative emotions, because you know it's a projection of your own mind and only real to you. You can have a sense of playfulness, free from the burden of disappointment when things don't work out. This is how it feels to grasp Emptiness. The burdens of negative feelings only mean as much as you allow them to.

So is all life an illusion? Not exactly. But do we get too wrapped up in everything that happens? Definitely. It's important to understand that just because life is relative, doesn't mean it's not real. Emptiness is not nihilism, and it's not a license to inflict pain on others. That is to say, the candle flame may not exist in any objective sense, but you will still feel pain if you touch it.

Without an understanding of Emptiness, we remain attached to the familiar things in life. We cling to them because they're more comfortable than the unknown, even if they're unpleasant, even if the unknown offers a more fulfilling existence. We find it difficult to be adventurous because we think we have too much to lose.

When you understand life as a kind of game or dreamlike state, you develop a better humor about things. You have more compassion for those who get too invested in trivial things. You recognize the absurdity and humor of it all, and this helps free you from negativity. It frees you to live a more fulfilling life.

7. Emptiness Part II: Better Communication

Let's continue with the candle flame analogy. Sure, the candle flame isn't really a singular thing, but we use these words and labels because it makes communication easier. The words are representations of the object; symbols that give us an idea of what the speaker wishes to address. Obviously the word “flame” is not a flame, it merely refers to one. As the word is not the object, it can only ever be an incomplete representation. This means we always sacrifice precision in order to convey our message, and this depends on how similar our definitions are.

This is something you implicitly accept in conversation. If you had to pause and correct every little definition to allow room for nuance, you would never get anything done. But you may find it difficult to figure out where to draw the line – what's worth clarifying? I find the key distinction is deciding how relevant the word is to the overall purpose of the conversation.

Imagine you're an American talking to a Brit, and you're telling a story from college. When you say “college,” in the UK it means something different than “university,” and this difference in definitions might affect their understanding of the story. If the only purpose of saying “back in college” is to establish about how old you were when the story took place, it likely doesn't matter much that you both have slightly different ages in mind. However if you're talking about your studies, it would be better to clarify you mean “university,” because this is a different level of education in the UK, rather than just another word for college like it is in the US.

Your words and labels are only useful when you share a common definition of a word with whoever is listening. If a word is central to your underlying message, make sure you both understand it the same way. Remain aware of language and its subjective nature, but don't distract from the discussion by pausing to define words that are only relevant to you personally, rather than the conversation at hand.

Conclusion

This article has a lot to take in, and hits on some particularly abstract concepts. If you made it this far, I hope you found it helpful and gave you some things to consider. If you're new to meditation, you should understand now it's not just for mystics and yogis. It's something anyone can practice, while living any lifestyle they choose. It's simple, it's free, you can do it anywhere, and it has clear benefits that carry over to every aspect of your life. Whether you want to increase your focus, have better control over stress or anxiety, develop self-awareness, or merely increase your life satisfaction, it's a great place to start.

But even if meditation doesn't seem right for you, don't discount the advantages of mindful living. By maintaining awareness of your attention, of the ways you communicate, and of how you let your emotions and impulses affect your choices, you will develop more fulfilling relationships, increase your productivity, and make decisions with a clearer mind. In this case it seems the best things in life are free.