“The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” – old Asian proverb
Hey Evolving Entrepreneurs,
Entrepreneurship is the reason I began meditating. In my first venture, I was never able to compartmentalize all the problems that needed fixing or opportunities to capitalize on. Furthermore, in my entrepreneurship degree, I remember all the speakers kept repeating the same thing: Self-awareness is the most important skill of an entrepreneur. Meditation literally means to know thyself, so meditation seemed like a logical strategy to support my entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Many years later, and now I have just completed my first 10-day silent meditation retreat. It was one of the most difficult, rewarding, and profound experiences of my life. Words fall desperately short of communicating what this experience truly was, but I trust something in my writing may open up something for you to discover as well.
For context: in most silent retreats, you are not permitted to talk or engage in any other forms of nonverbal communication. You are not permitted to look at others, or use any forms 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 and utterly disconnect you from the outside world, leaving only one-way travel: inwards.
And therein lies the appeal! What discoveries are waiting beyond the borders of our daily, distracted lives? What is existence when all of that is taken away? What does it mean to live from the heart, not from the head?
So here we go, Day 1. We are instructed in a method of self-inquiry that asks 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? The question brings you into the investigation, and ultimately has you recognize yourself as… this awareness in which consciousness arises.
Over the first few days, my body began revolting against the tyranny of stillness. A sharp pain arose in my hips, knees, and back. Trucks and motorcycles roared past on the nearby street. The neighbours would often play loud music as we sat trying to meditate. My body had not acclimatized to the heat, and sweat beaded beneath my arms. I struggled to move my awareness past the discomfort and a thought that would torture me for the rest of the retreat: when will this be over?
At night, one of the gentlemen in my dorm snored like a chainsaw. Despite my earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones, he woke me up every single night with the roar of his snore. A 10-day silent meditation retreat is hard enough when you are well-slept. I had to laugh: here we were meditating on compassion for hours at a time, and I’m fantasizing about violently murdering my bunkmate for this 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 the space of your being. At first, I tried to fight my secretary by pushing him away, shutting him out, and resisting my thoughts. I had desperately underestimated how neurotic this secretary is – this guy doesn’t take days off!
Relax and surrender… wait, I’m thinking again. Shoot, go back to stillness. Ok breathe…. breathe…. mmmm…. I wonder what kind of bird that is. My back hurts. I should have brought a roller. Ok, who am I… Who. Am. I…. and so on it went.
We learned several key distinctions between the mind and heart. The mind’s strategy is to grasp; but everything is entangled in the interconnectedness of the universe, which is why the mind has to dissect and separate in order to make sense of the world. The heart’s strategy is to surrender into knowingness. The mind is linear, focusing on one thought or sensation at a time (and often flipping rapidly between them). In contrast, awareness is panoramic and arises from the heart. The mind conquers through grasping – the heart conquers through surrender.
Then on Day 3, Claude said something that resonated with me at 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.
I learned not to force my meditations – forcing causes mental friction – but to be effortless. As thoughts popped into my head, I stopped trying to ‘fix’ them or push away, but to surrender to whatever sensations arose. Through this process the mind naturally settled into stillness. My mind is very agile, and at first I wanted to rush through this process. Like a fly caught in a spiderweb, the harder I tried, the more entangled I became in my thoughts. Surrender was a serious exercise in patience.
We learned that love is the capacity to love what is, fully – all of the beauty, joy, pain, and suffering. That’s why loving an other includies loving the aspects of them you don’t like (including yourself). One who trains to live with an open heart learns to recognize the beauty of human existence no matter its form (joy, pain, suffering, happiness, fear, 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, only allowing the empowering thoughts of joy, gratitude, confidence etc to enter, while keeping the disempowering thoughts of fear, anger, doubt etc waiting outside. This is the habituation of a high achiever who wants to live an exceptional life. But now I saw the fatal flaw: I was not equally embracing the joys and woes of life. This was selective breeding – an ignorant attempt to ‘train’ negative emotions out of my humanity. Which parallels all of the ways humanity tries to ‘improve’ nature and ends 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 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, a purification of the mind occurs whereby the mind starts to rebel. Recognizing it is losing it’s position on the throne, it brings up repressed emotions, traumas, and situations that we didn’t process in the moment. I found myself bombarded by memories of my failures, mistakes, misjudgments, and errors, which I won’t repeat here. The onslaught was brutal – few times in my life have I felt more discouraged than on Day 6.
By Day 7, the end was in sight. My body had become comfortable 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 to come paid for my retreat many times over.
We explored 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. It is 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 drugs and other substances, and meditate properly, we transcend the thinking mind, we ‘pop’ the bubble, and we return to the unified field – the ultimate truth, God, Atman, Oneness… it matters little what you call it. Those are those breakthrough moments drug-users rave about in the midst of a hallucinagenic experience.
(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.
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?
How does 4,000 weeks change your priorities?
I am deeply grateful to Claude, Hridaya, and the 70 other participants whom I shared this experience with. And I would happily entertain a conversation if you would like further details about my experience.
At every crossroad, choose peace.
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