Talking about insights after a meditation retreat seems a bit like walking on a pool of corn starch. Immersion (in wisdom) would be the expected outcome, but its definitely more titillating to dance along the surface by talking about a truth instead of living it. The danger is that this dance conveys a deceptive image of mastery, whereas the stillness and acceptance of the truly wise would dissolve any momentary solidity into a natural fluidity and immersion that allowed for much more than a fleeting moment of sensational glory.
So with the caveat of not having fully mastered and integrated my insights, here is a high-level play-by-play of what came out of my last 10-day retreat.
Visualizations & Ideas
During the first couple days of my retreat, I often struggled with intensely vivid and absorptive visualizations or seductively engaging (and often grand) ideas that distracted from the task at hand. These seemed to burst forth as my breath would become more still, and would make me completely lose track of observing respiration. When I emerged from that, I found myself ironically making mental to-do lists to capture and drive these flashes despite recognizing the futility of that process. Ultimately, the fireworks display of my mind calmed enough to stay with my breath and not become enraptured and dazzled by these bursts.
Attachment vs. Love
The first and biggest wall I hit was one of deep attachment to my wife. I found myself missing her so intensely that its fair to say that I was addicted to her presence. It was very difficult to get to the bottom this at the level of what was happening in my body, and at times disheartening to feel so challenged and ensnared by these feelings.
Despite knowing better at the intellectual level, my love had become confused or conflated with attachment, even driving me to ask the assistant teacher in a moment of weakness if its possible to separate the two. His answers did not satisfy, but gave me enough to keep pushing onwards.
Almost all of my senses and my mind craved some sort of contact with her, but as I began to slow down and stabilize, I saw beneath my game. Behind each sensory or mental contact that I craved lay an idea about some sort of quality of hers that I attached to this, and it turned out that it was the quality that I was craving more deeply than the sensation. But that too is not fully accurate, as every idea I held also carried a subtle sensation which I craved. There were so many nuances and complexities to this that I did not succeed in fully understanding it myself, but as the game started crack, another reality became apparent.
Stillness and observation of the craving lead to the unraveling of its meaning, and as more of these unraveled, a sensation started arising in my chest that I often feel when I’m experiencing love. Though I did not completely work this out, it seemed that my attachment was actually choking the flow of love despite the attachment somehow tracing back to love itself. What was that hiccup, or twist, that caused the confusion that lead to this spiral of complexity? I did not find a standard answer, but I suspect its a gap in integrity about how to seriously cultivate the qualities I admire in my wife. Contemplating her positive qualities with a concentrated, integrated mind gives rise to both that sensation associated with love in my chest as well as some energy to actually live those qualities with my actions.
Dissolving attachment and the craving behind it was not a diminishing of my love for my wife, but instead a return to a more natural, healthy, and productive state that allowed me to feel and express love more strongly and purely.
One Job In Life
Prior to this retreat, some pretty solid and heavy things were arising on the cushion at home, sometimes leading to real difficulties in day-to-day life. Part of my intention behind this 10-day was to do the ‘heavy-lifting’ there so life at home would be smoother. But after a multi-day struggle with spousal attachment, I discovered that I didn’t have much choice in the personal issues I chose to work on over the next 10 days.
We’re often approaching life with a ‘plan and execute’ strategy, full of to-do lists that never seem to end. Yet there is a harvest of our past actions ripening at every moment, often with both good and bad fruits. The inattention towards what seeds one cast in the past and their respective germination times means that we’re never certain about the harvest we can expect in the moment. And dealing with that unknown harvest of results is half of the job to be done at any point in time. In this sense, the work chooses you. Life decides to drop a challenge in your lap, and that makes it YOUR challenge.
In another way, the work is all the same. Observe everything that is arising at any moment in time. Is it good? Does it lead to happiness for oneself and for others? If so, amplify it and push it out into the world so others can also benefit. If not, recycle it back into the soil of the mind to nurture something more wholesome.
We have one job to do: examine the quality of the fruits (or results) we’re receiving, and pay close attention to the quality of the seeds (or intentions) we’re planting. When we perfect that process, I suspect that everything else gets taken care of.
Growth happens outside of our comfort-zone. We all know this, and so we push ourselves when we want to grow. But we’re often too pushy, too impatient.
I discovered that when I got too hardcore about pushing my limits and intensity on the cushion, it turned out to be counterproductive. It was exhausting, and made me not want to work as hard the next day. If I had to quantify it, I would say that 80% of maximum intensity is optimal to stimulate progress. Anything less, and you could definitely do better by working harder. Anything more, and you’re on the burnout trajectory.
I also discovered that some things seem like hard work because we’re looking at them through aversion-colored glasses. Its a worthwhile effort to keep examining the lens of our perspective, because every so often, the those lenses shatter and that which seems so difficult actually turns out to be very easy.
That said, I think I only averaged about 70% maximum intensity, and I’m open to the idea that this whole calculus could just be the machinations of my own laziness and comfort-seeking.
Anyone else have insight with regard to hard work?
The idea that continuity of practice was the key to success really hit home on this retreat. I started maintaining my ‘vipassana practice’ even during meals and breaks and was initially struggling with the amount of ‘hard work’ this entailed. After a little bit of burnout and some of the prior insights, another insight on the continuity problem struck.
The phenomena occurring at the level of body and mind are continuously flowing. The only thing that stops is our attention toward what is happening. And that attention turns out to be more a matter of choice than a question of hard work. Attention moves away because we decide that its more interesting to focus on something else instead of ourselves.
The moment that I recognized that I myself was a fascinating, unknown, scintillating mystery, there was nothing more interesting than what was happening at the level of my body and mind. That leap couldn’t have happened without spending time practicing equanimity, otherwise the mystery of who and what I am and how I work gets lost in roller-coaster journey of discovery along the way.
Once these continuity and related insights struck, I was able to watch and observe myself for much of the waking hours for many weeks after my retreat. To observe myself became a choiceless choice.
That said, several months later, it now takes some stronger effort and intention to maintain this, and my continuity has sputtered.
Meditation and Integration
The process of meditation is actually a process of deepening integrity, getting more closely aligned with the truth of the moment. How do we miss that truth?
Various thoughts and ideas flash and splash through our conscious minds but beneath them is a more vast and subtle reality. Just as the ripples on a lake or the waves in an ocean represent only a surface phenomenon, our conscious mind turns out to be the very surface of something immensely more powerful beneath the surface. So long as this great force hiding below is outside our understanding, its also outside our control. Despite our best efforts, we’re ultimately at its mercy so long as we remain on the surface.
Meditation deepens this understanding of what lay beneath the surface. Equanimity helps to tame it. And wisdom helps us master it. Just as light becomes a laser when all its waves are synchronized, harmonizing our conscious mind with our subconscious mind make our words and actions come from a space of deep integrity and thus deep power.
Turns out that the inner process has a basis in our neuroanatomy. In our cerebral cortex, much of the rational, deductive part of the mind resides in the forebrain, and just behind this, at the boundary of the frontal and parietal lobes lay the the prefrontal gyrus, home of the primary motor cortex. This region of the brain has what is called a ‘homunculus’, or little man embedded in it– essentially a representation of the sensory surface of our bodies. As we pass our attention up and down the surface of the body, our attention is actually passing up and down this small ridge in the brain.
But our brains are vastly interconnected. Sensation is connected to so many layers of cognition, memory, and conditioning. Moving through sensation, we start to unravel and understand these complex interconnections in our consciousness, and the extent to which we are not overpowered by what we uncover is the extent to which we can go still deeper.
Our neuro-impulses are also electrical phenomena. The repeated conscious movement of attention starts to generate a field that harmonizes other neurons the way that a magnet will make ordinary iron magnetic after repeated contact. Very loosely, I suspect that this collective, dynamic, electrical harmonic property of the brain is the kind of integrity that happens through a deepening practice. And that the ability to consciously move our attention through ever-larger portions of our neuro-anatomy is the basis for the opening of these subtle and seemingly infinite realms of consciousness.
Eventually, the space between what you think and what you feel and what you do becomes smaller and smaller until you become a fully integrated person, with each thought or word or action coming from the depth of your being and resonating with every fiber of who and what you are.
Its a long journey, but the process is beautiful enough to keep me returning to the cushion over and over again.