I’ve been going to zen meditation group for the last 2 years about an hour away from my hometown. I found this group after I left college and moved back to my parent’s with a simple Google search (the power of the internet).
Each year the group does a week long silent retreat in June. This year it was Friday, June 7th to Friday, June 14th.
We practice a mix of Zen and Vipassana (insight meditation), so it’s an open, gentle mindfulness practice from the Zen tradition, along with mindfulness of the physical body from Vipassana.
Over the past few years I’ve done a silent 10 day retreat as well as a couple week long retreats.
I went on the 10 day retreat the summer after my sophomore year of college (4 years ago). It was intense- we did like 10 hours of meditation each day, and this retreat was held in strict silence the entire time. We weren’t even supposed to make eye contact with other participants.
Somehow I crawled through the 10 days- it was really uncomfortable and difficult, but I was glad I did it. And most importantly, it gave me confidence to do other retreats since then.
With my current group I’d sat a couple weekend long and day retreats, but this was my first week long one with them.
And because of my prior experience with retreats, I knew what I was getting myself into..
There were 18 of us, including 2 main teachers and a guest teacher, for the week. The best thing about the group is that the meditation hall is on the teacher’s property.
She and her husband own 40 acres in a rural town in Connecticut. They also have a large farmhouse, so between the bedrooms and a couple people sleeping on the floor, they had enough room in the house for all of us.
It’s an intimate group. 30 or 40 people belong to the sangha (group), so I had already met most of the other people on the retreat for the week.
The average age of the members of the group I go to is 60-65. I had my 25th birthday on during the week, so everyone else in the group was at least twice my age, and about half the people were 3 times or more my age.
I like being the youngest by decades because it’s much less distracting. I’ve sat retreats alongside young women near my age and the celibacy of the retreats makes it hard not to get lost in fantasies a lot of the time.
We got there on Friday night (June 7th), ate dinner (we had soup every night), and did a couple hours of meditation. The first night was relaxed, but I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach all night- I knew what was waiting for me the following morning.
The next morning the bellringer (the person in charge of ringing a small brass bell to wake us up and for meals) came around at 5:30AM.
I sighed heavily, and with a feeling of dread, I crawled off my small cot on the ground. A few minutes later my roommate groaned and got up from his bed. Then I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a zip up fleece and went downstairs to the kitchen.
There were already about 10 people in the kitchen drinking coffee silently, so I grabbed a mug from the counter and poured a cup from the big thermos. Then I drank it in silence.
We had to be in the meditation hall by 6AM, and it was only a short walk from the kitchen, so we had about 20 minutes. I tried to psych myself up for the day, while I drank coffee, but I knew regardless of what I told myself, the day was going to be brutal.
20 short minutes later, me and the 17 other people were sitting in the meditation hall in complete silence.
The meditation room was converted from an old shed- It has about 12 foot tall ceilings with a exposed long wooden beams holding it up. They put solar panels on the top so we can hook up fans in the summer and a big space heater in the winter.
It was still dark because the sun was just starting to rise. There were two rows of 9 of us each sitting on opposite sides of the room.
Most of the people sat on chairs all week during meditation sessions. They’re older so they can’t sit comfortably on a meditation cushion. But I’m young and spry so I sat on my cushion in criss-cross half-lotus all week.
We bowed to each other and got on our cushions. It took about a minute for all of us to get settled. Then the woman in charge of keeping track of time all week ran the gong and we sat for 30 minutes. This was the first 30 minutes of the 10 hours of meditation we did that day.
All the other days of the week we did some chanting, had a talking about zen koans, and had 15 minute meetings with one of the teachers.
But the first day there was none of this. It was just sitting and walking meditation all day- we did about 30 minutes of sitting, followed by 15 minutes of walking again and again.
Like I said, I’d done a few week long retreats, but the first day of this one was the hardest day out of any of them.
All day, morning through night, I kept nodding off and waking up. And I couldn’t stop myself from ruminating all day. I usually meditate 30 minutes a day, so overnight it felt like I went from running 2 to 3 miles each day to running 30 to 40 miles.
I wanted to cry like a baby from the frustration of just sitting there. I wanted to write, I wanted to smoke pot, my back hurt and I couldn’t focus on my breath.. Why did I come here? This practice is so fucking pointless anyway.
At the end of that day (Saturday night), I convinced myself that I was going to leave the following morning. I lay there for an hour and planned what I would tell my host and mediation teacher.
But I managed to white knuckle it through the sittings on Sunday. And by Sunday night I had calmed down a bit and resolved to stay the whole week.
Each day the first sitting was 6-7:30AM, followed by breakfast and a break. Then there were two, 3 hour sittings from 9AM to noon and 2:30PM-5:30PM every day. The last meditation sessions was 2 hours from 7-9PM.
After that we got to sleep until 5:45ish. Imagining my soft bed and going to sleep that night was what got me out of bed and forced me to my cushion.
But this retreat, like all the others I’ve done, was hard but equally as rewarding. If nothing else, it’s a good practice in determination and to sit quietly and try to focus on your breath, body and mind without getting distracted by thoughts or emotions, regardless of if there good or bad.
This retreat reinforced one main idea for me..
Thoughts and emotions aren’t reality
Most of our thoughts are disconnected from reality. This is especially true with distressing thoughts and emotions like shame, anger.
I think chronic negativity, depression and anxiety can be largely minimized with positive lifestyle habits. Being human, these uncomfortable inner experiences are a natural part of everyday life. And in some capacity we’re always going to have to deal with frustration, anger, impatience, and scary and uncomfortable feelings and sensations.
For most of my adolescent years I was in the habit of ruminating whenever I experienced a thoughts, sensation or emotion that I didn’t like.
Constant feelings of shame, anxiety and constant negativity subconsciously ruled my life. I thought it made me weak to constantly experience these unpleasant emotions because my life was good. After all, I’m a young man living in an affluent town in the USA. Shouldn’t I always be happy and at ease?!
I saw my internal dialogue as a direct reflection of me. I spent so much time ruminating about how I suck, or how stupid someone else was, so I took this to mean my true nature was petty and insecure.
What I didn’t realize is that our internal dialogue is only loosely based on reality. More than anything, our internal feelings/ thoughts are just stories we tell ourselves to fit our overall belief system- This is why a lot of self help stuff doesn’t work.
I used to read a lot of self help books. Probably two to three a month. Some were helpful at the time, but most were ridiculous and the author preaching how their way of life is the best. And I was lost and scared and confused enough to read their stupid thoughts.
A lot of people (including me) who read self help books and go to seminars are doing it out of a feeling of inadequacy. Not everyone. But a lot of people.
I read a lot of self help books and spent hours each week watching motivational Youtube videos.
Then, a few years ago I’ve tried to completely separate myself from self help that’s not written by someone with a MD or PhD. At least these degrees are some form of accreditation.
I realized my obsession with self improvement was because I thought I was deeply inadequate and needed to get myself better.
Mediation is about going beyond this obsessions with inadequate, shame, guilt or any other label. Waking up from the constant stream of thoughts and experiencing life just as it is without our interpretations, even if for just a second, is what mediation is all about.
But, because we’re human, we rely on thought to survive, especially in an increasingly complex world. It’s hard to differentiate between our internal world and the objective physical world we interact with everyday.
They’re almost indistinguishable. Not even milliseconds after something happens, we’re forming our opinion about and having an internal conversation with ourselves about it. And this internal dialogue usually happens without us even noticing.
A main goal of meditation is to be able to tell what is real life versus what is our perception and reaction to it. As one teacher put it, “Spirituality is about this life.”
But our minds are constantly distracting us with thoughts, sensations and emotions. That’s why you have to sit quietly in meditation because our minds will find anything to focus on and think about- I saw faces and shapes all week in the gray carpet that we had our cushions on.
By sitting still, without much sensory input, your minimizing distractions and making it easier to observe your mind.
This post could easilty have been twice this length, so I’m going to write part 2 later this week. Until Next Time!