(Of course that title is facetious — each person would get something different, based on the raw materials they bring — but here are a few tidbits of what I learned in my ten days of silence at the Spirit Rock retreat in Joshua Tree. And yes, if you’re wondering, silence means silence. Not even eye contact with others, so there’s no social-interaction-as-a-path-to-happiness option!)
From breathing to bliss
For the first few days, the instructions are pretty straightforward: Keep your attention on your breath. When you notice sensations, sounds or thoughts starting to pull your focus, bring your mind gently back to the breath.
After two full days of this practice, I started having blissful periods of contentment and happiness. It was like being on happy drugs, floating through parts of my day, enjoying being alive. It was awesome.
For some people, this is the purpose of meditation. In what’s referred to as “concentration” or “absorption” meditation, you can reach these and even deeper states of contentment and tranquility. While the teachers at Spirit Rock encouraged us to enjoy these states when they came, they also reminded us that the purpose of “insight” meditation (the type I typically am referring to when I talk about meditation) is not to escape the world. Instead, meditation and mindfulness helps us better understand how our minds work so that we can live IN the world in a wiser, kinder and more self-determined way.
Insights by watching thoughts.
Emotions and thoughts are like sounds. They start from nothing, are here for a time and then fade back into nothing. After the first few days at the retreat, we started expanding our meditation practice to include thoughts and emotions as the objects of our meditation, instead of just our breath. By maintaining some awareness of the breath, we could observe how thoughts come and go, rather than getting caught up in the content of what we were thinking.
Insights come from noticing thought patterns and emotional responses, from sensing what these thoughts are pushing us to do.
As I quieted down, I noticed several key patterns for myself. For example, planning is a default mode for me. As I watched my thoughts, I observed how I developed plans for everything – work, relationships, social opportunities, movies I wanted to watch, etc. And it was amazing how repetitive my mind was – riffing on the same ideas and themes over and over.
Then I got to watch my reactions as I sometimes got lost in these planning thoughts. I’d notice how frustrated I got when I couldn’t stay focused on my breath. I’d start beating myself up for not being able to stay focused, then I’d watch the anger rise and watch the judgment of the anger. It gave me an awareness of how often I speak to myself in negative ways, how judgmental I am of myself when things don’t go the way I want them to. I realized how conditional my self-love was — how I’d generously pour on the love
when I was meeting my goals and achieving, but withhold that love to try to get myself to keep moving, to keep achieving. Not the way I want to live my life.
This is the power of insight.
Don’t scratch that itch!
One of the instructions for mindful meditation is to sit with slight discomforts that come up, like an itch or a sore knee. At first this seemed kind of silly – what value is there in extending the time of an itch?
But it can be a powerful practice. We spend much of our lives trying to avoid pain. We scratch that itch, defend a perceived slight or yell at our kids to be quiet when we’re engaged in something else. By the practice of tolerating some discomfort, you can gain tremendous freedom to choose how to act.
By not immediately reacting to such stimuli, you create time and space for what is called response flexibility. And it’s in this pause between stimulus and reaction that you can make an active decision about how to best respond. That short pause can return the power to the rational part of your brain. This can have incredible benefits in our relationships, our work and even how we drive.
Not many of you can spend ten days in silence in the desert in this type of intense self- learning. But the basic concepts — meditation as a path to insight, watching thoughts and emotions, learning not to react immediately and unthinkingly to stimuli — are all concepts you can start tapping into with meditation any length and even with mindfulness in your normal life. It’s just about paying more attention to what is happening at any moment.
The Happiness Coach
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