“The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” – old Asian proverb
Hey Evolving Entrepreneurs,
I just completed my first 10-day silent meditation retreat. It was one of the most difficult, rewarding, and profound experiences of my life. Those who have done it know it’s impossible for words to describe the true essence of a silent meditation retreat – but here I write in hopes of inspiring you to spend an extended period of time with yourself.
For context: in most silent retreats, the rules include no talking or engaging in any other forms of nonverbal communication. No looking at others. No use of technology. You are discouraged from reading, though in mine writing was allowed. You are even discouraged from looking at your own reflection – the mirrors were covered so you have no way of looking at yourself. All this is intended to completely disconnect you from the outside world, leaving only one-way travel: inwards.
Herein lies the appeal: what discoveries are waiting beyond the borders of our daily, distracted lives? What happens when you sit with yourself for that long? What is it like to live in your heart and out of your head?
So here we go, Day 1. The guru, Claude, instructs us in a method of self-inquiry where you contemplate the question: Who am I? It may be tempting to respond with the obvious answer: your name. But you are not your name. You have a name, but you are not your name. You have hands, but you are not your hands. You have a mind that thinks thoughts, but you are not your mind nor are you the thoughts. So who ARE you?
Don’t try to figure it out – you will give yourself a headache. The question is intended to bring you into the investigation, and ultimately have you transcend your thinking mind to recognize yourself as… this awareness in which consciousness arises. Easier said than done.
Over the first few days of meditation, the distractions buzzed like a busy train station in my ears. Sitting in stillness caused a sharp pain in my hips, knees, and back. Trucks and motorcycles roared past on the nearby street. The neighbours would often blast loud music as we sat trying to meditate. I hadn’t yet acclimatized to the heat, and sweat beaded beneath my arms. And I realized my mind was used to distracting itself to escape – but here, in the temple, there were no distractions.
So began the torturous countdown in my head that, ironically, made every day feel twice as long: Only 10 days left…
Now, a 10-day silent meditation retreat is difficult enough when you are well-slept. However, at night, one of the guys in my dorm snored like a chainsaw. Despite my earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones, I woke up every night multiple times to the roar of his snore. It echoed in my ears like a migraine, keeping me from the rest I so desperately needed… and I honestly started to imagine how I might kill him in his sleep without getting caught. I had to laugh; here we were meditating on compassion and transcending the mind for hours and hours, yet here I am fantasizing about murdering my bunkmate for his unconscious act of terrorism. I’m a monster, I thought with a wry smile.
Claude, the spiritual leader of the retreat, taught us that the mind is like a neurotic secretary who wants to make you happy. He disturbs you at all hours, day and night, with suggestions, improvements, judgments and opinions, demands, to-do’s and so on. And while he is ultimately trying to please you, he ends up taking all your mental space. At first, I tried to fight my secretary by pushing him away, shutting him down, and resisting my thoughts. None of it helped – try sitting still for 60 seconds and listen to the activity in your head.
Why did I sign up for this… shoot, I’m thinking again. Go back to stillness. Breathe…. breathe…. mmmm…. my back hurts. Why didn’t I pack a roller? I always underpack. Ok, who am I… Who. Am. I…. what’s for lunch… and so on it went.
We learned several key distinctions between the mind and heart. The mind’s strategy is to grasp; to dissect and strategize in order to make sense of the world. The mind is linear, focusing on one thought or sensation at a time (and often flipping rapidly between them). In contrast, simpleawareness is panoramic and arises from the heart. The heart’s strategy is to surrender into knowingness. The mind conquers through grasping – the heart conquers through surrender.
Then on Day 3, Claude said something that resonated with me on the deepest level:
“The Enlightened mind is transparent – it hasn’t grasped something, but let go of everything.”
Something clicked. I felt like I had discovered one of life’s greatest secrets: I had to stop trying to get it, in order to get it! I moved my analytical mind into the passenger seat, and began to surrender into the ‘witness consciousness’ – relaxing, opening, surrendering, and observing. It was not easy, but it made a huge difference in my meditations.
I learned not to force stillness in my inner being – forcing causes mental friction – but to be effortless. To relax into it; to let go of everything. As I became aware of thoughts or sensations, I stopped trying to ‘fix’ them or push away. I let them be and observed without judgement. Through this process the mind naturally settled into stillness.
The mind is very agile, and at first I wanted to rush through this process. Relax, let go, surrender, I instructed myself. But like a fly caught in a spiderweb, the harder I tried, the more entangled I became in my thoughts. Surrender is a serious exercise in patience.
We explored the concept of love – Iove is the capacity to love what is, fully – all of the beauty, joy, pain, and suffering. That’s why loving someone means loving the aspects of them you like and dislike. This goes for yourself as well. One who trains to live with an open heart learns to recognize the beauty of human existence no matter its form (happiness, fear, anger, love etc). Both the joys and woes of life are equally embraced, with the wisdom they cannot be separated.
At this point I had a profound realization about my own thoughts. For so long, I had carefully selected which thoughts to allow into the garden of my mind. I thought of a bouncer guarding the door of my mind – I only allowed the ’empowering’ thoughts of gratitude, confidence, etc. to enter, while keeping the ‘disempowering’ thoughts of fear, anger, doubt, etc. waiting outside. Many years of habituating myself with positive psychology and Think and Grow Rich. But now I saw the fatal flaw: I was not equally embracing the joys and woes of life. I was selective breeding my thoughts – an ignorant attempt to ‘train’ negative emotions out of my humanity.
Perhaps this parallels all of the ways we humans try ‘improving’ nature and end up disrupting the natural balance even further.
Living in the expectation of how our minds/egos wish life would be is living in fantasy. I have done this in romantic relationships where I would judge and criticise all of the ways my partner fell short of how I expected them to be. I have done this with myself when I have pushed away negative thoughts and occupied myself with exercise, calling a friend, or some other distraction that masquerades as healthy behaviour.
Living with an open heart means accepting and welcoming life exactly as it is. I began to envision my mind as a golden temple in which an 80-year-old version of Eddie lived. I imagined him as an old guru whose nature was ease, peace, and warmth. He would stand at the temple gates greeting everything and everyone who showed up with the same expression: you are welcome here *said in a slow, soothing voice*. Pain, regret, guilt, shame or judgment could all show up – all would receive the same warm expression: you are welcome here.
And I began to look forward to our 2-hour meditations.
Then it was Day 6. The crucible of pain. Around Day 6, we were told, a purification of the mind occurs whereby the mind starts to rebel. Recognizing it’s losing its position on the throne, the mind brings up repressed emotions, traumas, and situations that we haven’t yet processed. I found myself bombarded by memories of my failures, mistakes, misjudgments, and errors, which I won’t repeat here. And I had nowhere to hide. The meditations were brutal – few times in my life have I felt more existential discouragement than on Day 6. At night I collapsed in my bed, defeated.
By Day 7, the end was in sight. My body had become accustomed to sitting without changing positions for more than an hour. I settled into the moment-by-moment experience of each step, each bite of food, each breath. Stillness had become equated with peace. And the spritual teachings we were about to learn made the entire experience worthwhile.
We learned about the spiritual meanings of non-duality and Oneness consciousness. Consensus reality dictates that you are a separate body with a separate consciousness. Infinity can exist as a bubble, but it cannot know itself as infinity within the bubble. We must dissolve the bubble to understand our true nature. Oneness is the totality of everything. Difficult to put into words, Claude described oneness as a sphere whose center is everywhere.
The river that flows into the ocean is already the ocean. The supreme reality (Oneness) is not linear – once you start awakening to the river, you start awakening to the totality of the water.
I came to a new understanding of life and death. We ourselves are like bubbles in the ocean: seemingly separate and individual, but ultimately of the same essence. The mind seeks to protect us by creating the illusion of separateness from this greater consciousness. When we sleep, die, take certain hallucinogenic drugs – and meditate properly – we transcend the thinking mind, ‘pop’ the bubble, and return to the unified field. The ultimate truth, God, Atman, Oneness… it doesn’t matter what you call it.
(For the record, drugs are the least stable access point to this level of consciousness.)
“You wander from room to room hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck” – Rumi
And finally, on Day 10, we learned my favourite concept…
4,000 weeks. Based on the average life expectancy, that’s about how many weeks you have to live. That means 4,000 Mondays, 4,000 Tuesdays, 4,000 weekends. Subtract your age and you get a clear idea of approximately how much time you have left. At the time of writing, I may only have about 2,800 weeks left. This really reduces the appeal of spending a day on Instagram or watching Netflix.
In reality, no one knows when they will go – but death is a certainty.
When we contemplate impermanence, we get present to the preciousness of the present moment. Love flows deeper on the edge of the knowing that our relationships, our passions, our love, will end – it is all impermanent. When we recognize this fact, we approach life with so much more intimacy, clarity, and presence. I wept at the realization that I may only have 1,000 weeks left with my parents both alive. I only see them a handful of times each year. I visualized their funerals and the obituary I would give to summarize their life.
“Here lies my mother, who spent every single one of her 4,000 weeks caring for others…” But have I done the same?
How will I show up this Christmas? Will I take the initiative to create bonding experiences, or will I wait for them? If tomorrow was my last day, does today reflect how I want to live my life?
How does 4,000 weeks change your priorities?
I am deeply grateful to Claude, Hridaya, and the 70 other meditators whom I shared this experience with. I hope what I have shared awakens something in you that benefits all beings in your life.
At every crossroad, choose peace.
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