On the first evening of my recent 7-day silent meditation retreat, I had a strange dream.
I was in my house, and it had flooded. As I walked through the rooms I waded in several feet of water. Panicked, I raced to call my landlord to help me. I could feel the anxiety and fear as I rushed to dial her number, mistyping it several times.
Instead of picking up the phone, though, she had her husband answer. He was unkind and dismissive, and told me that his wife didn’t want to talk to me. I could feel her presence in the background and became more and more upset as she refused to get on the phone, refused to help me, refused to even talk to me.
The next morning I woke up and still felt the weight of my anguish in the dream. I wondered why that dream came to me when it did, and what it was trying to tell me.
In dreams, other people often symbolize parts of ourselves. In real life, my landlord is a very sweet and non-dismissive woman, and so I felt that her presence symbolized a part of myself that is dismissive and cruel to my own anguish and pain.
Over the course of the week many powerful emotions and experiences bubbled to the surface, and I took advantage of the safety and simplicity of the retreat environment to stop ignoring them.
But first things first…
Was it hard to be silent for 7 days?
No, it was easy! And, it was a very, very cool experience.
The rules of the retreat were no talking and no eye contact, because eye contact can be a form of communication, and the idea is that any communication pulls a person out of their inner world, and takes away from the deepening of the meditative experience.
But did the silence feel isolating? Absolutely not.
First, the environment was so safe and warm that you could feel the mutual caring and compassion emanating from each person, even without talking to them.
I came to the retreat with a few friends from my meditation classes at UCLA, and while I did not talk to them or look at them for the entire period we spent in silence, I felt their care for me and know they felt my care for them.
One time I saw my friend sitting in the dining hall at lunch and took the seat next to her. We did not speak a single word, or even acknowledge each other’s presence, but by sitting there I let her know that she was in my thoughts. Another day, she took the seat next to me at dinner, and I felt her silent greeting.
We were each assigned jobs as a way to practice mindful working and to give back to the community. I was a second shift dishwasher. There were three of us, each with separate responsibilities. I scrubbed the dishes, the guy to my left rinsed them and put them in the dishwasher, and the other woman took them out of the dishwasher and put them away.
The guy next to me who put the dishes in the dishwasher—we barely spoke to each other, or even made eye contact, but I swear to you that we were friends.
On one occasion I thought we were wrapping up but had missed a bucket of dishes. He gently tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the bucket. I reflexively gasped, “Oh, shit!” He laughed, and I laughed, and then we went on washing dishes.
Another time he was late to the shift, so I had to get started without him. When he arrived, I saw him press his palms together and bow to me out of the corner of my eye. I bowed back, and all was immediately forgiven.
At the end of the retreat, once the silence was broken, I found him and we started chatting (mostly about how awesome we were at washing dishes). It did not feel like this was the first time we were meeting. It felt like we were already friends.
A meditation retreat is not about finding peace, but insight
I think one of the problems with the “mindfulness craze” hitting us these days is its failure to accurately represent what meditation does. People start meditating hoping to find relaxation, and instead are struck like a ton of bricks by the insanity of their own minds.
An inner peace does come with a regular meditation practice, but it comes later—not from forcing oneself into a calm state, but from reaching a deeper insight about the realities of the human experience, so one can stop reacting unskillfully to the joys and sorrows intrinsic to our existence.
I came to the retreat hoping to relax and slow down, and I did, but I also learned important lessons about how the mind works, and how I create suffering for myself.
It’s easy to find peace in the middle of a meditation retreat with no responsibilities, no phone calls, no emails, and no demands, right? What’s more challenging, and more important, is to find peace in regular, everyday moments, instead of clinging to brief pleasures and resisting inevitable pains.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is not
The Buddha taught that we are all as if struck through the heart by an arrow. This arrow symbolizes the unavoidable pains we experience through the sheer fact that we are human.
However, we carry a second arrow as well, and the mistake we make is thinking that by shooting the second arrow at ourselves or someone else we can remove the pain of the first.
Have you ever had physical pain and clenched around it? Or had heartbreak and told yourself that you must not be good enough? Or felt criticized and hurt and lashed out at someone else?
One of the goals of a meditation practice is to learn how to sit with the first arrow without shooting the second. We learn how to sit with the unavoidable pains of the human experience without adding suffering to the mix.
The first step in transforming the judgmental mind: Study it
The specific topic of this particular retreat was how to transform judgmental states of mind.
The teacher defined judgements as noticing plus reactivity. The goal was to become aware of how our judgmental minds worked so we could use our ability to discern for wise and compassionate purposes, as opposed to getting caught up in our narratives about how things should be.
“What gets measured, gets managed” –Peter Drucker
“To know the velocity of a particle we must measure it, and to measure it, we are forced to affect it.” –Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
First, we study the judgmental mind. We watch it, understand it, measure it, mindfully follow its stories. Just the sheer process of observing can create insight into our patterns, thereby dissolving the ignorance that leads to habitual reactivity.
Over the week we were instructed to become keenly aware of our judgments, both during meditation and throughout the day. Did we judge ourselves for not meditating well enough? Did we judge someone else for not moving through the food line fast enough? Did we judge our knees for getting tired from so much sitting?
What did the judgments feel like in the body? What sensations arose? How did the judgments feel in the heart?
As I reflected on recent situations where I had become critical or judgmental, I noticed that my reactivity tended to stem from feelings of being threatened or unsafe in some way. In seeking to protect myself from these difficult feelings, I had shot the second arrow into someone else.
The second step in transforming the judgmental mind: Replace negative mind states with positive ones
I recently read a story of Burmese Buddhist monks who traveled up to the top of the Himalayas in freezing cold temperatures, wrapped themselves in wet sheets, and then meditated on a heat growing from their bodies to the point where they dried the sheets through the sheer power of their thoughts.
Even after only a week of intensive meditative practice, I have no doubt that such a feat is possible.
One of the tools we studied as an antidote for the judgmental mind was the Divine Abode practices, of which there are four: Lovingkindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.
We practiced cultivating these positive mind states toward ourselves and others through repeating specific phrases over and over. For example, to practice lovingkindness toward myself I would repeat:
May I be safe and protected
May I be healthy and strong
May I be happy
May I live with ease
After hours of repeating these phrases they seemed to take on a life of their own. At one point we did an exercise directing lovingkindness toward ourselves, then toward a mentor, then toward a good friend, then toward a familiar stranger, then toward a difficult person, and then toward all beings.
Over the 45 or so minutes of the exercise, I swear I could feel an inner ray of warmth and compassion grow and grow until it emanated out to the entire world.
And then, when I noticed my mind drifting into judgment, I could repeat these phrases to myself and feel the negatively almost effortfully drift away as it was replaced by joy. With practice, I could choose to let go of negative mind states and replace them with positive ones.
As a side note, at one point I started doing lovingkindness practice for a baby sea lion who had popped its head up next to me, as if to say hello, while I was surfing in Malibu a few weeks back. I just couldn’t help but crack up out loud right in the middle of the meditation room, probably interrupting the contemplative silence of everyone else. The thought was just so… joyful. I’m sure others found my laughter amusing, and maybe even a little joyful, too.
Meditation is a tool, not a cure for all of life’s problems
I’ll admit, by the end of the retreat I was ready to drink the Kool-Aid. A few experiences right at the end, though, helped rebalance my perspective, for which I am extremely grateful.
The first experience was when one of the meditation teachers made a flippant comment criticizing psychotherapy. At first, I was a little hurt (I practice psychotherapy, and have benefitted from receiving it), but then recognized that this comment was very similar to what I often hear from my psychotherapy supervisors, who subtly, or not-so-subtly, criticize forms of therapy that they do not practice.
I believe this is driven by ego. When one dedicates his or her entire life toward developing expertise in a particular style of therapy, one likes to think that they are not missing out on something else that could, at times, be more effective.
So in this context I understood the impulse of my teacher to make a somewhat careless comment criticizing a practice different from what she has dedicated her life to teach. This moment helped me realize that even meditation teachers, far more spiritually developed than I, are human beings just like the rest of us.
The second experience happened the final evening, when I could not fall asleep because I was overcome with guilt about something that happened long ago.
Two years ago my boyfriend was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, was hospitalized, and needed surgery. I felt I had not done enough in some key moments to help him.
Grief and guilt about this situation had been overwhelming me all week (which surprised me, because this is not something I think about much, and it happened so long ago–although the environment of the retreat seemed to make all sorts of suppressed emotions resurface).
I felt guilty because I had watched him suffer overnight without pain medications because of the inexperience of the intern taking care of him, and I’m a doctor, and he was in the hospital where I had trained, and I felt I should have been able to do more to help him.
I had cried it out, and had done lovingkindness, compassion, and forgiveness practices for myself, but still the grief would not go away.
I was tired of it. I though to myself, I’m going home tomorrow, and I’ve got shit to do—I can’t keep crying about this!
So I did a brief exercise derived from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (sometimes criticized for being inflexible and overly-simplistic) where I analyzed the thought of “I didn’t do enough to help my boyfriend when he was hurt.”
I asked myself what percentage of me felt this thought was true–90%. Then I listed, in my head, all the evidence that it was. I wasn’t pushy enough with the nurse to get him pain medication, I didn’t insist on speaking to the doctor directly, for hours I didn’t do anything, feeling helpless and out of control, etc, etc.
Then I listed all the evidence that this thought was false. I did harass the nurse about a dozen times, and even had the nurse supervisor paged. When the doctor came to the room, I negotiated with him when I felt the amount of pain medicine he offered was not sufficient. I pointed to his medical record indicating what he had received in the the ER. I calmly, convincingly, argued that my boyfriend was not a drug-seeker, and that he barely takes Tylenol, and that there was no reason not to give the doses I requested.
The following day I carefully, insistently, followed up with the doctors to make sure nothing would impede his speedy discharge. I drove him home and took care of him around the clock for the next two weeks, which fortunately happened to be my vacation time. Through the whole experience I stayed by his side, translating the medical jargon, reassuring him that he would be okay, etc, etc.
Then I asked myself, what percentage of me still believes that I didn’t do enough? Twenty percent. Phew. Relief!
This moment showed me that while meditation practices are powerful, they are not a cure for all of life’s suffering. At times, there will be more effective tools for one’s problems. And the most skillful clinicians will need to weave mindfulness and meditation wisely into the moments when it is most needed, and leave it to the side when it is not.
Because honestly, there is no scientific evidence that any one tool or style of therapy (including mindfulness) is consistently more effective than any other, and in my study and experience, all of the therapeutic tools to ease suffering (including mindfulness) share more in common than their advocates realize, or would like to admit.
Which now, seems obvious. After all, human suffering is an universal as the tools and strategies, whether ancient or modern, we have developed to alleviate it.
Photo by Chris Breeze