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Five Days. Ten hours a day of meditation. Complete silence. Minimal, if any, human interaction. Why would anyone do such a thing?

So said a loud, anxious part of my mind, begging me to reconsider. Yet another part—a deeper, quieter, wiser voice, said: Try it. You want to know yourself? Why not jump off the cliff and see what happens?

I’ve been trying to pay more attention to that deeper, quieter voice.

It feels like my older, wiser, higher self, looking out for my best interests. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to ignore it, listening to whatever my rational, logical mind tells me I “should be” doing instead. While this has earned me some success in the traditional sense, ignoring that deeper voice has also brought a truckload of chronic anxiety and depression. No more of that, thanks.

I jumped.

While I’m new to retreats, I’m a fairly experienced meditator. I’ve been practicing Vipassana (also called Insight) meditation for several years and recently joined a sangha (meditation center) to deepen my practice. Before this five-day residential retreat, my only previous experience was a single-day retreat with five hours total of meditation. That experience was mixed.

During that one-day retreat, I morning session went smoothly, and I was feeling calm and confident. I love meditation, I remember thinking. The afternoon session, however, showed me how little I really knew.

Returning to my cushion after the silent lunch, I grew more and more fidgety.

My mind started to resist, churning with uncontrollable thoughts. Helpless to control the thoughts, I slowly edged closer to panic, despite the tranquility of the room and the stillness of the other meditators around me. As I struggled, it took everything I had to continue sitting there; all I wanted to do was jump up and run out the door. All I could think of was escape—it reminded me distinctly of the misery of high school detention. So boring and mind-numbing you will do anything to get out of there.

As I fought and fidgeted, a scene from the high school detention movie The Breakfast Club floated into my mind:

Principal [bursting through the doorway, zipping up pants from a shortened rest room visit]: Jesus Christ Almighty! What in God’s name is going on in here? What was that ruckus?

Andrew: Uh, what ruckus?

Principal: I was just in my office, and I heard a ruckus!

Brian: Could you describe the ruckus, sir?

The ruckus was inside my mind. My mind had hit the wall and started rebelling, literally throwing a tantrum.

I forced myself to stay on my mat, sweating, and counted breaths like sheep until the session ended. I couldn’t wait to leave; I’d never felt anything like that before.

As soon as I was out the door my mental state settled, my breathing slowed, and the panic subsided. The relief was divine, but accompanied by the anxiety of knowing that the coming five-day retreat would likely push me to my limits.

I also knew, however, it could be very good for me.

Day 1

We arrived at the retreat center, which turned out to be a repurposed former convent. The accommodations were spartan but clean. I unpacked and made myself comfortable in my room, then grabbed my meditation cushion and set out to find the meditation hall. It turned out to be… a chapel.

My gut clenched. Oh, no, I thought, I am going to have to sit for five long days in a chapel, amongst the trappings of the Catholic Church? I’d grown up Catholic and done everything I could in my adult life to escape it and never look back. But I’d never dealt with the underlying feelings that had prompted me to escape in the first place. Well, no turning back now. I selected a cushion, dropped my things, and headed off to dinner.

The retreat began with the evening session. Three monks from a forest monastery in Thailand were running the retreat, teaching a style of Vipassana meditation called Mahasati. I was familiar with Mahasati—it’s taught in our home sangha, but I’d never practiced it much because it felt too silly. Mahasati involves a series of arm movements, as well as keeping one’s eyes open and looking around the room. It looks kind of odd to those unfamiliar with it, which can create self-consciousness in new practitioners (such as me).

Tired from traveling, I stuck with my usual, more traditional technique. We meditated silently, well into the evening.

Day 2

I woke before the sun and wrote for an hour, which was to become a treasured habit over the coming days. I was tired; I usually don’t sleep well the first night in a new place. I didn’t think much of it as I went to the morning meditation session and then the first silent meal. After breakfast, however, things began to fall apart.

Remembering my panic from the previous retreat, I was prepared for it to return. My plan was to relax into the discomfort (even if it turned into panic) and watch what was happening, reminding myself I was safe. But what happened, while uncomfortable, was different this time. I did not have the feeling of being in detention and needing to escape.

Instead, this time I became uncontrollably—sleepy.

I could not for the life of me stay awake, which was made harder by trying to stay still and meditate with my eyes closed. I continually caught myself falling sideways and having to right myself, so I began doing walking meditation. Concentrating on the feeling of my feet contacting the floor and my weight shifting from leg to leg helped. So did the monks’ morning Dhamma talk (a talk on meditation practice). After another silent lunch, however, I decided to take a nap, hoping that would help alleviate my sleepiness.

It did not.

I slept for an hour and returned late for the afternoon session. My mind floundered, wondering how the heck I could still be so sleepy even though I’d napped. I forced myself to keep sitting, willing my mind into submission. But the more I sat, the more empty, sticky, and torpid my mind became. I felt stupefied, struggling through the mental equivalent of mud.

I don’t recall much about the afternoon Dhamma talk or dinner. Determined to outlast my mind and see the session through to the end, I returned for the evening session but simply could not stay awake. I gave up with an hour to go and put myself to bed early, discouraged.

Day 3

Waking before the sun, I again wrote for an hour and realized with relief that I felt better than the previous day. I still felt the pull of sleepiness during the pre-breakfast session, so after breakfast I found a place to do some simple yoga, thinking I might try to wake my body up. Yoga, after all, was created to align the body and mind to prepare for meditation.

It worked: returning to the morning session, I sat on my mat with a level of alertness and awareness that had escaped me the day before. Afraid the sleepiness would return, I decided to try the Mahasati method of meditation, this time with a more open mind. Perhaps it might make it easier to sit for long periods. I felt silly with my eyes open, moving my hands around and watching what was going on around me. I watched the monks meditating, but then realized that since they were doing the same thing I was, it didn’t matter.

I started to take in more of the room around me. People getting up and walking, coming and going. The sun sliding across the wall, illuminating the gold stars in the fresco behind the statue of the Virgin Mary above the altar. The marble steps leading to the altar, and a large chip in them, where something heavy must have been dropped. Thoughts floated in, presented themselves like a parade of snapshots, and then floated away. I became curious about how the fresco was made, who made it, who the Virgin was, why people believe in her, why they believe in the Church, how the Church grew to have so much power, money, and authority…

I let it all come. Sitting there safe and present but not being forced to practice Catholicism, suddenly a statue could simply be a statue, an altar could simply be an altar. When I stopped thinking, the trappings of Catholicism lost meaning, which allowed me to be at peace with previous experiences.

By the afternoon Dhamma talk, I felt calm, peaceful, and alert. I started to see this was not true, however, for everyone. Despite the mandated silence, some people were whispering during the afternoon talk; it was the same people who had been whispering during meals, even breaking out their phones. It’s difficult to eat mindfully and stay peaceful when others around you are flouting the silence by whispering and laughing and sharing Instagram handles. I’d already noticed people talking at normal levels in the hallways or in their rooms. The flouting of silence was starting to become irritating, forcing the rest of us to confront our irritation and not get pulled into it. This is truly the practice, I thought: letting go of the pull of irritation by not assigning value or judgment to what’s happening around us.

In the evening, the retreat director reminded us all about the mandated silence, its importance, and what it was designed to do (make it easier for us to observe and detach from our thinking minds). He warned us that one person had already left the retreat early due to frustration with the disregard for the rule. I could sense a sudden increase in self-awareness around the room and hoped that things would be better. The evening session then passed in quiet practice.

Day 4

Having made progress the day before, I began the last full day with optimism. A calm, settled mind sharpened my awareness exponentially: I noticed every little detail of the room around me. The more I observed, the more I noticed. The more I noticed, the richer and more interesting little details became, and the more I wanted to observe. Everything opened and expanded within my growing calm awareness.

Including what was happening with the people around me. I now noticed that some people were struggling with the silence; I could see the strain in their wrinkled brows, in the way they shifted position, got up and walked around, or left the room altogether for long periods.

It appeared that, like me, others were hitting their own mental wall. Some were hitting it spectacularly, the way I had that first afternoon of my one-day retreat, unable to stay still or even sit at all. In my growing awareness, an enormous insight emerged—we may be here to observe our minds and detach from the constant stream of thought, but our minds don’t want to be watched. If we sit long enough and force that observation, our minds rebel and thrash, desperate to get away.

It’s like reeling in a fish, pulling it out of the water and onto your boat. The fish flaps around frantically on the floor of the boat, gasping for air and straining for a way back to the water. Exposed to the air, it knows it’s going to die.

Our minds are like that fish. When cornered, they fight and thrash in the same way, desperate to escape being watched. The thrashing feels awful; it truly feels like you’re going to die.

The thing is, something here is going to die. But it won’t be you, physically safe and sound on your mat in the meditation hall. What, then, is going to die?

What’s going to die is your mind’s authority over you.

Every moment of every day our minds run, constantly thinking, processing the world around us, and offering up commentary or judgment about it. Most of us are completely unaware this is even happening: we think of this commentary as being “us,” our Selves—that internal voice is who we are. We believe what it says unquestioningly.

However, when we watch our thoughts without engaging with them, without running away or trying to escape them, we begin to learn that we are not our thoughts—we are separate from them. Thinking is merely a phenomenon that happens inside our minds. It is not good or bad or right or wrong; it just is. Our minds offer up thoughts the same way our hearts pump blood or our stomach digests food. Thinking is a function of having a mind.

When you watch your thoughts long enough, you realize they are actually illusions. Your thoughts are not you, and often they are not even helpful. Sometimes they can seriously hurt you or limit you.

By sitting through this mental rebellion on the meditation mat, you free yourself from the tyranny of the mind: the thinking known as the ego. Our egos don’t like being challenged; they like being in charge. So they fight.

Once you realize what is fighting and why, and you persist and don’t give up, you begin to relax and break through to the other side. Then, finally, the ego loses its power—you understand completely that you are not your thoughts and you do not have to follow the drama created by your mind. Anxiety and depression begin to unwind and float away.

With that insight, everything inside me softened and expanded. My compassion grew, both for myself and the people around me. A heaviness I’d been carrying in my heart released and floated away. Standing at a window in the chapel, meditating and watching the setting sun gild the winter landscape, I felt the insignificance of myself as one tiny speck on a rock of a planet floating through a giant universe—more keenly than if I’d been standing at the top of a mountain, or looking out the window of the Space Station.

Perspective… Such a beautiful, marvelous, elusive thing.

Day 5

My peaceful and calm awareness was growing into a radiant, pervasive sense of equanimity. I rose in the dark one last time to write while watching the rising sun, gratitude thrumming inside me. Morning practice passed peacefully as the sun cast the chapel in the gold radiance of a new day. Even the statue of the Virgin seemed calmer and friendlier now that my memories no longer held power over me. I was so happy that morning, I could actually (and ironically) have prayed, if I believed. But I don’t, and that’s okay. It’s all okay, because it just is. I don’t need to do or be anything.

The retreat ended with a final Dhamma talk. The monks laughingly told the story of a fellow monk who was afraid to try the Mahasati style because he thought he’d look foolish. For years he resisted, meditating in the traditional style with eyes closed, rock-still. Then one day, sitting on the toilet in the privacy of his bathroom, he thought he’d try Mahasati because no one could see him. As he practiced, he quickly came to realize the value of the technique: with eyes open and hands moving, it’s easier to be aware of your body, what’s happening around you, and your thoughts, all at the same time. In this way you understand separation from thought much more easily and quickly. How ironic for him to have his moment of enlightenment in the bathroom, sitting on his toilet! The lesson that day from the monks was this: It can happen for anyone, at any time, anywhere.

Buddhist tradition asserts that suffering results from thought. Whatever happens simply happens; it’s how we think about what happened that causes us suffering. Finally, after five days of showing up, trying, trusting: I understood.

And I can’t wait to do it again.

Heather Shaff

Heather Shaff is a cyclist, writer, and mom based in Boston. She's fascinated by all things growth, motivation, and learning... and will drop everything for chocolate ice cream.

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