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meditations iii: silent retreats are a hell of a drug

In my last post, I said that one of my medium-term meditation goals was to go on retreat. Scratch one off the bucket list: I just came back from a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Clarinbridge, Co. Galway. The retreat was held by Nick Scott of Teach Na Tuisceana, which is associated with the Sunyata Buddhist Centre here in Co. Clare. As luck would have it, I am pretty fortunately placed for access to both of these – other retreatants were coming from as far off as west Cork and Donegal. It’s funny how a community like this could be right there, under my nose, and I had no idea until I started looking.

Anyway, in this post I’ll briefly go over the location and format, before moving on to my own concerns going in and how it all turned out in terms of my practice. If you’ve looked at the scroll bar and balked a bit, the tl;dr is: I bliss-tripped for 5 days straight and had a moment of profound insight, it was a 10/10 experience, and I’ll be going again next year at least once, maybe twice if I can manage it.

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I don’t want to spend too much time on the details of the retreat, but some basic description is probably helpful. The retreat was held in the Irish Pilgrimmage Trust centre on the grounds of the Kilcuan estate in Clarinbridge. It’s an old landed gentry ‘Big House’ estate that was donated to the Brothers of Charity by its widower owner after the war of independence. Bits of it have been parceled off and sold over the years, so there’s an Educate Together National School, a swimming pool, and a walled garden in the area, plus various public hiking trails. It’s quiet and a lot of it is forested, so it’s a really cool spot for something like this. Downsides? Lots of midges and other biting insects. If you go into the forest, prepare to be eaten.

The retreat itself was conducted in ‘noble silence’, which is best explained as no unnecessary speech. The idea is to remove the chatter and noise of daily life so that the mind can get a bit quieter. You could ask questions of the volunteers throughout the day, and there were q&a sessions during the daily talks. But you would mostly avoid talking to other retreatants unless it was about something relevant, and even then you’d keep it brief. There were also no phones, electronic devices, etc – these had to be surrendered on arrival. Obviously this was sort of based on the honor system: there was no searching of rooms or anything weird like that, so you could theoretically sneak stuff in. But you’d really only be sabotaging yourself.

And if I’m honest, boredom wasn’t really an issue, at least for me. The schedule was as follows:

06:00: ‘morning puja’, the first session of sitting meditation
07:30: breakfast
09:00: second session, broken into 1 hour sitting, 1 hour walking meditation, and another hour sitting, in that order
12:00: lunch
14:00: third session, arranged the same as the second
17:00: tea break
18:00: yoga session
19:30: ‘evening puja’, some sitting followed by a talk, q&a, and then some more sitting
21:30: end of the daily schedule

Sometimes the evening sit would go on a bit longer, and the meditation hall was almost always free to use if you wanted to get more practice in. I took advantage of this almost every night, sitting until 22:30 or even 23:00, before going for a quick walk around the grounds and then bed. As it turned out I and one other person had our own toilets but had to share my shower, so it made best sense for me to get up at 5:10 in case he wanted to use it. All in all the schedule was pretty full and more than sufficient to keep me occupied.

I mentioned volunteers above. That’s because the retreat was offered on a costs-covered basis. The Irish Pilgrimage Trust is a third-party charity and owns the facility where the retreat was held, so there is a charge per-head per-night, but again this is not for profit so the fee is modest. The cooking was done by a volunteer from the local Buddhist community, and the food was provided at cost (and I should say was all vegetarian with vegan options and consistently delicious and plentiful). Other volunteers helped with management and organisation, and Nick himself teaches for free. A donation is requested but not required if you can’t afford it, and any excess money from the retreat is given to the Sunyata Centre. This also applies to food, which I personally dropped off (along with a retreatant who was staying there) because we live relatively close by. The estimated cost of 10 nights bed and board was €400-450. Even leaving aside the teaching and other assistance offered, this is an absolute bargain for your own en-suite room with food and cooking provided.

***

Going into this, I had four ‘worries’, the first three of which were fairly boring. Number one was that about two weeks before the retreat, I picked up a small shoulder injury doing pull-ups. During normal life it was present but not a big deal, but it would become extremely distracting when I tried to meditate while sitting. So I was concerned it would get in the way while on retreat. For the first couple of days it was an issue, and I actually had to give up on the cushion for the remainder, but between using a chair and lying on my mat, I was able to work around it extremely well. Unfortunately it did mean I wasn’t comfortable attending the yoga sessions, which was a shame, but I didn’t want to risk aggravating it and have that get in the way of my meditation practice.

The second worry was that I wouldn’t get on with the food or that there wouldn’t be that much, but this was basically totally unfounded – the food was AMAZING and there were heaping portions, you could go for seconds without issue and eat as much as you wanted. The third worry was related: with a fast between 12:30 and 7:30, I thought I would be extremely hungry in the evening and unable to sleep. I’m a dreadful midnight snacker and absolutely hate being hungry in bed. Nick told us on the first day that after a couple of nights our bodies would adapt: in my case I adapted instantly. It simply wasn’t an issue. I ate enough at breakfast and lunch and while my stomach felt empty, I didn’t actually feel hungry. I’ve been on a phased diet (i.e. with breaks – three weeks on, two weeks off etc) for the last 5 months, so I know what it’s like to feel hungry, but I was so satisfied that I doubted I’d lost any weight that week. However, when I got home I was genuinely surprised to find I’d shed 1.5kg. I honestly think this was primarily due to all the walks I was taking in the forest, which I would explore for up to 2 hours a day. I must have been in some kind of caloric deficit, but it never felt like it – I was gleefully and shamelessly stuffing myself the entire time.

The fourth worry was more to do with the content: would the whole thing be a bit wacky for my tastes? I am sort of allergic to anything that smells (by my own less than perfect estimation) of spooky or wooo, and even doing meditation initially required getting over my gut level aversion to That Sort of Thing. I had done enough research to feel like this organization was legit and the approach up my street, but I couldn’t really know until I got there. In the end my worries proved groundless. Nick teaches within a tradition, but mostly for pedagogical reasons, and has no interest in converting people to Buddhism, much less that tradition. He came to it by meeting a monk many years ago who impressed him greatly (Ajahn Sumedho), and in his opinion it was too confusing to teach a pick’n’mix from various traditions. His broad advice when it came to traditions was that early on it was good to try a bunch and see what works best for you, but that eventually you need to settle into one so you can have a reliable gauge or measure of progress. This all struck me as tremendously sensible. Nick is also a botanist by training with a PhD, and very pragmatically minded. Though always kind and respectful, he made it fairly clear that he has little truck with delusion or fantasy.

In other words, all my worries were dispelled almost immediately. But, I hear you ask (you’re definitely not asking), how did the actual meditating go?

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The first 3 days were good. I arrived on Friday evening, so practice proper began on Saturday morning, and I quickly got into a reasonable groove. There was always a fair bit of distraction, but also some solid time where I was consistently with the breath and a little bit of what is known as access concentration (more below). This is about where my practice had been coming in the door, but it was a lot more consistent, and because of the schedule I was obviously doing a lot more of it on any given day than I normally would.

Then on Tuesday, things kicked off: I started to hit the first and second jhanas, consistently and hard. If you don’t know, jhanas are basically states of intense and sustained mental concentration that produce a variety of phenomenologically consistent and semi-predictable experiences. While there is considerable variance in form and intensity, they have strong archetypes and at least initially are experienced progressively (though skilled and experienced practitioners can move up and down through them more or less at will). I’ll do my best to describe them here, but just bear in mind that it’s not exactly the same for everybody, or even for the same person at different times – they really are best thought of as archetypal in nature. There are also some terminological disputes out there which confuse things even more (they sure as hell confused me when I was trying to figure out my past experiences), but I’m going to ignore them here.

Access concentration, at least from my point of view, is when you’re with the object of meditation (in my case the breath) consistently, clearly, and effortlessly. Where previously I might be breathing in and out naturally but consciously, and drawing my mind back to the breath from thoughts and distractions, at a certain point I slip into a kind of rhythm or flow where it’s just sort of happening. I find there’s even a degree of detachment, as though I’m just observing the whole thing rather than doing it. For me this usually raises a smile, and it’s not that long before I’m in pre-jhana territory. The mild pleasure of being with the breath quickly starts to build, but I find it’s important to stay with the breath for as long as I can, because if I switch concentration to the jhanic sensations too soon they doesn’t stabilize or are less intense (something that is true of all jhana transitions). In a good sit, the jhanic sensations eventually come to the fore in a way that is almost impossible to ignore, I switch my focus to them, and from there I’m going for a ride.

What do I mean by jhanic sensations? Well with the first jhana, it’s basically a kind of chemical-emotional pleasure. When it’s less intense, it’s just like feeling really good or happy, probably best captured by ‘joy’. When it’s more intense, words like ‘euphoric’ and ‘orgasmic’ are more appropriate. I have taken to calling it ‘brain orgasm’, and experientially it reminds me most of using MDMA. The intensity seems to be linked to how concentrated I am at the point of ‘take off’, but I don’t have this down to a fine art yet. Whatever happens happens, and it’s either really good or almost overwhelmingly amazing. For me, this particular feeling has an afterglow (and can even have ‘aftershocks’) for an hour or more after the sit, and I have even learned how to access it briefly from a state of non-concentration by quickly focusing on the areas of my head where I feel it.

When meditating, this feeling eventually subsides and another sensation comes to the fore, and I’m into the second jhana. This is often described as ‘tingling’ or ‘energy’, but for me at least presents as a kind of golden electricity, initially located primarily in the hands and arms, sometimes the feet. As my concentration shifts to this, it will grow and ebb and surge, sometimes spreading to the entire body. From my reading I don’t think that this sensation itself is particularly ‘second jhana’, but at least for me it eventually stabilizes and has its own steady momentum, and that’s the key difference. It’s incredibly pleasurable but in a very different way that feels more physical and suffused compared to the chemical vibe of the first jhana. Once it stabilises, I’m kind of just in it and enjoying it, without the visceral pleasure spasms of the first jhana. I have no ‘real-world’ frame of reference for this, though I have seen it compared to heroin. For me at least, the tingling often arises alongside the pleasure of the first jhana after access concentration, and occasionally can be more apparent, such that I skip straight to the second jhana without really dwelling in the first. From my reading this isn’t uncommon, though it usually means a weaker second jhana experience.

For the next 3 days, I was blissing out. Some quick first jhanas in the morning before breakfast. Tasty second jhanas in the late morning. Mind-blowing intense jhanas in the afternoon. Chilled-out jhanas before bed. And an almost constant afterglow all day, stifling giggles underneath my mask as I walked around the retreat centre. There were times where I thought to myself, “this isn’t a spiritual journey, you’ve basically gone to an opium den for the week”. I can’t stress enough how intense and chemical and physical these experiences feel.

I’d had tastes of all of this before, just never so consistently or intensely. But on Thursday, I started to get into territory I hadn’t seen since my first out-of-the-blue concentration experience. I crossed into the third jhana, which I can best describe as ‘deeply chill’. I was just sitting with a kind of pleasant post-pleasure vibe, simply letting it happen, and remaining happy and concentrated but with none of the physical fireworks. I was with this feeling for a relatively short period, and then some spatial elements began to come into play. I am fairly sure this was weak fourth jhana. I had this sense of space opening out in front of me, of there being real depth to the field in front of the mind’s eye. I also experienced a strange proprioceptive drift, with the spatial position of my hands and other body parts seeming to detach and float left and down. None of this was particularly intense, but that would make sense given how little time I spent in the third jhana. This was pretty much new to me so I had no idea what I was doing.

I would dip into the third jhana a couple more times during the retreat, but I didn’t get to the fourth again. This was largely a function of time: the chime would typically be rung after 50m or so. Because it always took me a while to get concentrated at the start, that was only long enough for me to get into or possibly through the second jhana, so I would get interrupted before I’d really settled into the third. Getting back to the fourth jhana has thus become something of a post-retreat goal, as it had the strange spatial qualities that were the hallmarks of my first Big Experience while meditating. However, even though I only got there once, it was a breakthrough moment for me, because I was finally able to situate that experience on the conceptual map. I know what it is and where it is, and that’s almost more important than actually getting there again.

***

Maybe all of this sounds incredible and fascinating and exotic. Maybe it sounds kind of superficial, unprofound, or even base. I think these are both accurate assessments in their own way, and it is commonly noted in meditation theory that the jhanas, whilst incredible, are nonetheless ultimately as impermanent and unsatisfactory as all other mental phenomena. I have experienced this myself: the first and second jhanas each get tiresome eventually, and by the end of the retreat I was semi-exhausted by them. I didn’t spend enough time in the third and fourth for their lustre to fade in the same way, but from my reading I have no doubt it’s the case. The comparison between jhanas and psychoactive substances extends to the ennui that can accompany the latter. As mind-blowing as the experiences can be, they are fundamentally trivial.

What I had really hoped for from the retreat was some kind of insight experience. I had a reasonable grounding in core Buddhist meditation theory, but I’d never had the kind of ‘lightening-bolt’ moment I’d seen described elsewhere. Leigh Brasington has an analogy where he compares it to the difference between having a fruit described to you and actually tasting one. This perfectly captures how I felt: the concepts in play didn’t confuse me, but they didn’t really resonate either.

This changed on the Friday.

On Thursday one of the teachers on the retreat had discussed a really useful technique for investigating emotional content: to step back and observe how the emotion manifested physically. I had done this before without realizing it (I mentioned it in my previous post), but I didn’t really understand the process until then. What he described made immediate sense to me, and as luck would have it the next day I got the chance to use it in anger, so to speak. Some difficult ‘stuff’ related to my past addictions and resulting actions had come up during that evening’s talk. I was basically feeling rotten about how I had behaved and how selfish I had been during those years, and had begun to engage in unproductive self-flagellatory ideation. But before it got too far along I had the wherewithal to deliberately employ this new tactic. I noted the sensations in the chest, in the ribs, in the throat, and all of a sudden I was detached from the emotion. Instead of it growing and suffusing and dominating my experience, it was just another object within my field of awareness. I was no longer identifying with the emotion – it was akin to a cold breeze or a harsh bright light, just another object in conscious experience. Later I would note a ‘hollowed out’ feeling in my chest that I typically associate with the after-effects of extreme emotional distress or grief, except none of that had ‘happened’. The physical process had chemical momentum and so had run its course in the background, but without ‘me’ going through it in conscious experience.

This would be cool enough on its own, but it wasn’t the moment of insight. That came afterwards. You see, in Buddhist theory there are a set of axioms known as ‘The Four Noble Truths’. Translations and interpretations vary, but I like this version from Daniel Ingram’s MCTB:

1) there is suffering or dissatisfactoriness
2) there is the cause of suffering
3) there is the end of suffering
4) there is the path that leads to the end of suffering.

After that evening’s sit, I had a sudden flash of insight. I thought of all the times I had suffered through the years, but particularly periods of emotional self-harm that had no apparent cause or basis. My teenage years and early 20s when I had irrationally convinced myself I was fated to be unhappy; my periods of depression and low self-worth; my periods of self-medication and self-harm; the days and weeks when I was getting ready to pack it all in. In a moment I saw them all, and realized: I never have to go through that again.

Of course bad events could still happen and things might get tough. Of course I might not have my practice together or become lazy and fall off the cushion. But it was in my control. There is a cause of suffering, and there is an end to suffering, and I suddenly understood that this was that. You see, I knew how to handle the suffering that came from my behaviour. I just needed to change my behaviour. The ‘path‘ that leads to suffering includes morality and other stuff like community. Cool, OK, working on it. But there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t a product of my behaviour, but rather events that ‘I’ was essentially downstream of. Stuff which didn’t originate with my comportment or morality, but came from seemingly nowhere and then affected my comportment and morality. Now I realized, in a really fundamental way, that I could detach from that stuff, let go of it. It was impermanent and it wasn’t ‘me’. If I so chose, I never had to suffer that way again.

That night as I took my walk before bed, the night’s sky was particularly clear, checked only by a gleaming gibbous moon. I was basking in the constellations in all their twinkling clarity, when a great shooting star streaked across the sky, its wake visibly and vividly orange and sparkling. It was of course a coincidence, but hot damn did it feel appropriate.

***

This post is quite long and heavy on esoteric theory and inaccessible subjective experience. So I want to end it with something practical. I had another flash of insight before the end of the retreat, but one that was a bit more down to Earth. In Buddhism, there is a teaching referred to as ‘The Three Jewels’. The first is the Buddha, to be taken as an exemplary (but importantly, human and emulatable) being. The second is the dharma, or the core teachings of the Buddha. And the third is Sangha, or community.

I do not consider myself a Buddhist. But one thing I took away from the retreat is that when it comes to spiritual life (in the broad and secular sense which Sam Harris among others has tried to reclaim), I did not have a community. I have come away from the retreat with a strong desire to change that – to spend more time among other meditators and people who are good, and kind, and on the path. So much of my ethical life has been lived in the abstract, and for years I’ve recognized a yearning for a shared practice or ritual experience that was grounded while also consistent with those more abstract values. For the first time, I’ve found something that resonates with me, and it’s meditation. I want to meditate, and spend time with other meditators, and cultivate this aspect of my life from now on. And though it’s practical and social and worldly, in the long run I think that insight might be as important as any I’ve had while on the cushion.

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