Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
This past weekend, I attended a vipassana meditation retreat, my third retreat of this kind. Vipassana meditation (Wikipedia) is simple, but not easy. The general idea is to focus your attention on the physical sensations caused by breathing. When your mind wanders to other sensations or thoughts, you observe those thoughts without becoming entranced by them, and without judging them. In the words of Matthew Brensilver, “When we’re in the bubble of thought, we don’t know that we’re thinking.”1 The intention is to step outside the bubble of that individual thought—which allows no mental space for anything else—and notice the thought as another object that has appeared inside of your mind. Then, you should gently return your focus to the sensations of breathing.
Vipassana meditation is also called “insight” meditation, and the word vipassana is often translated as “clear seeing”. There are three primary insights that you are supposed to arrive at after a sufficient amount of time spent observing your own present-moment experience in this clear fashion (Wikipedia). First, all things are transient and impermanent. Second, nothing provides lasting satisfaction. Third, there is no self; that sensation of being “me” is illusory.
While I understand these three claims intellectually (in the same way anyone reading the preceding paragraph could), I can’t say that meditation has caused me to grasp them in a deeper or more fundamental way; I’ve had no epiphanic moment and no sudden shift in my daily experience in relation to the three insights. Over the past fourteen months, I’ve meditated for around forty-five hours. During that time, I have never been able to maintain pure, unbroken attention on the sensations of breathing for an entire breath—the inhalation, pause, and exhalation. So I still have a long way to go.
Nevertheless, meditation has produced a greater state of calm in everyday experience, and has allowed me to place a bit more space around my thoughts, so they don’t loom as large, or feel as urgent and important. And though I haven’t experienced the three insights mentioned above in a significant way, I have encountered some evidence for them while meditating.
Retreats enhance the quality of meditation sessions. It’s quiet, there’s a fixed schedule, there are no daily concerns, and it’s generally easier for me to meditate in a group. Aside from limited small-group discussion, the retreatants do not speak, or look others in the eye. No one opens doors, or says “excuse me”, or passes the salt. At first this was very awkward—especially eating meals in silence—but I’ve grown more comfortable with it.
For me, the act of meditation itself and the three insights and are more than enough to concentrate on during a retreat. But in my experience, many other new age topics always find their way into the group discussions. Here is a partial list of topics that arose:
tesseracts, fractals, high vibrational space, low vibrational space, quantum mechanics, physics generally, past lives, future lives, alternate/concurrent lives, repressed memory, experiencing memories of other people and previous generations, hearing the voice of god, chakras, energy grids, some type of spiritual
I would like to think I’m capable of entertaining an argument for the sake of discussion and analysis, even if I reject the conclusion. During the retreat, I was charitable to discussions of these new age concepts, seeking to at least understand the positions that were held and the evidence and inferences mustered in their support. But too often, I was left lost and uncomprehending: Is this just an analogy, or a factual claim? Where do the metaphors stop and the metaphysics begin? We’re discussing how it feels to realize that you’re lost in thought… then Jesus starts packing his bags for Tibet. Despite making an effort, I couldn’t see how these topics related to the experience of meditation.
Despite these detours, most of the discussions of the actual practice of meditation were useful and fruitful—especially hearing the perspectives and experiences of other beginning meditators. My biggest disappointment in the retreat was that it wasn’t longer. By the time I was finally able to start relaxing, feeling awake and alert, and focusing on the present a bit more easily, it was time to go. I’d like to attend a longer retreat in the future.
1 From Matthew Brensilver’s March 13, 2016 talk, Thinking. This quote appears around the 11:00 minute mark
Below, interviews with experienced meditators who have experienced incredible changes in their day-to-day experiences. Both are interesting, but the first video is my favorite: