My Experience: Ten Days of Silent Meditation

The last human interaction I experienced before entering into ten days of silent meditation occurred as I was walking from my car to the Porta-Potty at a park where I’d been playing guitar, sounding out the last few hours before I gave myself over to silence.
 
A man called to me from his car, “Hey! How ya doin’?”
 

I approached and peered through the open window. He was on the far side of middle-aged, pot-bellied, wearing only a pair of shorts. His legs were spread and his bare feet were up on the dashboard.

“Doing well,” I said.

“Yeah! Well, my doctor said I needed to keep my feet elevated! So I figured I could do it here!” He seemed extraordinarily pleased with himself. Indeed, it is being present for the simple pleasures in life, such as sitting half-naked in a hot car with feet on the dash, that gives our days meaning. I couldn’t argue with him there.

“Looks like you’re doing pretty well for yourself, man. Enjoy,” I said with finality, wanting to cut the conversation short before he had a chance to continue.

As I walked away, he hollered after me, “Hey! That girl walking by is good-looking!” His yelling then disintegrated into something pressured and unintelligible. I walked on, thinking to myself, I really don’t think I am going to miss talking to people.

And indeed I did not. Many people seem to be impressed by the idea of spending ten days in silence–and at retreats such as the one I attended, there is not a word or even a glance or gesture exchanged with another person, and no outside stimuli available to distract the mind. It was not difficult for me, although I had read numerous “horror” stories on the Internet and was quite prepared for it to be the hardest thing I’d ever done. This is not to brag; this merely points to the fact that I am an introvert and quite comfortable inside my own mind.

During those ten days, the pressures of human interaction completely fell away, and I found myself feeling revitalized and even ebullient, freed as I was of the energetic burden of interacting-as-acting, the anxiety of having to manifest a persona. A lovely spell of silence and attention was cast. Experiences such as the feeling of grass on my bare feet or watching the clouds at change at midday became pleasurable and absorbing to a degree that I knew was possible, having once been a child, but had rarely been able to revisit in my adult life.
 
Living inside the strict routine of the retreat was also enormously freeing. Guided by bells, I moved through my day effortlessly. There was not a moment’s energy wasted on wondering what I would do next; there was none of the usual, slightly anxious weighing of options in order to determine which course of action promises the best return on investment. We retreatants rose at 4 am and retired at 9 pm. The time between was filled with ten hours of meditation (broken up into sessions lasting between one and two hours each), eating delicious and satisfying vegetarian food, resting or walking the grounds, and watching a recorded talk by the enormously likeable and down-to-earth vipassana teacher, S.N. Goenka, in the evening.
 
The first three and a half days we practiced anapanasati, a type of concentration meditation where the attention is focused on the touch of the breath entering and leaving at the nostrils. On the fourth day, we began to practice the technique of vipassana, or insight, meditation.
 
I came to the retreat with six months of strong anapanasati practice behind me, and I was fairly uninterested in vipassana, which is said to produce enlightenment. I knew that anapanasati is capable of producing states of blissful absorption, known as jhanas, in the meditator, and attaining such a state was my goal. Next to the promise of bliss, the idea of true enlightenment–the complete liberation from suffering–seemed distant and theoretical and not at all sexy. I don’t need complete liberation from suffering; I just want to feel ecstasy, I thought. But when the time came to learn vipassana, I absorbed the instructions  and practiced attentively. I am glad I did.
 
The vipassana technique I learned involves scanning the attention through the entire body repeatedly, looking for some sensation on absolutely every millimeter of skin. It sounds simple, and it is. Each sensation, pleasurable, painful, or indifferent, is met with awareness and equanimity. One has equanimity because one understands that all sensations, whatever they may be, are impermanent, constantly changing. They are impersonal, and to identify oneself with them is to generate misery after misery. By repeatedly and attentively performing this body scan, one comes to understand at an experiential level the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering, and no-self, which penetrate all reality.

One’s mind sharpens, and subtler and subtler sensations are discerned. On the first day of practice, I experienced many “blind” spots on my body where I could not feel any sensation, and many pains–some strong enough to throw me into a state of wild panic. With a little practice, however, I was able to discern a very smooth, tingly, almost minty feeling flowing over my whole body. I watched sharp pains with detached curiosity as they pulsated, fragmented, and disappeared. It is said that with time and diligent practice, the vipassana meditator experiences the body’s apparent solidity dissolving into the mass of vibrations that it actually is. The nature of reality–down to the quantum level, where everything that appears to be real and permanent is actually constantly flipping in and out of existence–becomes apparent at an experiential level.

One of the fundamental teachings I received at the retreat has to do with the nature of suffering. We suffer, whenever we suffer, because we experience craving, aversion, and ignorance. We crave pleasant sensations, we feel aversion for painful ones, and we ignorantly identify ourselves with these impermanent and undependable sensations. I can see the truth of this shot throughout my entire life, coloring every moment. Even the mind’s habit of compulsive thinking, which has baffled me so much in my concentration meditation practice, arises from a form of craving: the mind craves the stories it tells itself, the satisfaction of pleasant thoughts.
 

Before I went on this retreat I understood a little about the power and joy that comes from equanimity. I knew from my life experience–in particular, the repeated experience of depression and remission from depression–that outer circumstances are quite secondary and that real peace comes from the balance of one’s mind. But it was a mystery to me why I sometimes possessed such a deep equanimity, and why it just as suddenly would leave me and I would be plunged into a solid despair, where everything was extraordinarily painful. I have now learned a technique for systematically cultivating equanimity. And I cannot think of anything more valuable.

Ayahuasca and The Big Now

The day after my first ayahuasca ceremony, I lay on my back in the sun and wept.

Despite the maestra’s injunction that I shouldn’t have any expectations, because ayahuasca would give me exactly what I needed, I had pinned a lifetime of hope on those little cups of thick, earthy medicine. I approached the drinking of ayahuasca with the fervor of desperation. I knew I was carrying a sickness within me that, left unchecked, would kill me. Depression, especially in its chronic forms, does kill–either by slow degrees as it methodically removes all hope and vitality from its host, or via the final coup we refer to as “committing suicide” (as if it were a crime).

I had expectations, all right. I expected to talk to God. I thought that I would be given glorious visions, that a rainbow snake would wrap itself around my heart and squeeze life back into it, like a cosmic ventricular assisting device. I hoped against hope that I would come down from the dream and, as Kira Salak famously wrote in National Geographic, find that “the severe depression that had ruled my life since childhood had miraculously vanished.” 

 
I was giddy after I drank my first cup of medicine. “It’s in me now,” I thought. I found the taste strangely pleasing–it reminded me of chocolate, of tobacco, of the wet warm scent of decomposing leaves. It was not at all foul, contrary to reports I’d read. I lay there in the darkness, in a circle of beautiful people. Others began to vomit, to weep, to sigh. The medicine songs swelled and faded. I felt nothing. I went back up to drink again. Now I felt sick, but nothing came. I drank a third time. Finally, I vomited. But it was just me, vomiting in the dark. Disgust crept over me. This vomit was foul, offensive; I had to be rid of it. Ridiculously, I left the room and emptied my bucket into the toilet.
 
 
That’s when it started. The pain. It was like depression on full throttle. It was as if the medicine said to me, “You want to die? I’ll show you what that feels like.” And I lay there and was made to feel the pain I’d be inflicting on those who loved me, were I to bow out of the game. It was horrifying. Accompanied by the intense staccato noise of those around me purging, the suffering of others bled into my own suffering, and it was overwhelming.
 
Then there was a shift, and I saw myself as a child. The pain of all those years of not loving myself hit me like a lightning bolt, and it paralyzed me. It was so strong that I could not even weep. It was hell, and all I could do was lay there and take it. I couldn’t make it stop; I couldn’t go to sleep; I couldn’t distract myself in any of the myriad ways that I might have normally escaped such a feeling. I began to fear that it would go on forever, that I would be made to live with a broken heart always.
 
 
This went on for hours. And then morning came. The ceremonial silence was broken and as I listened to others share their experiences, I felt a silent, jealous rage building in me: Nothing had happened to me, save the usual suffering I lived in, multiplied a hundredfold. I hadn’t gone to other realms; I hadn’t talked to my ancestors, or been gifted my true purpose by an unearthly creature. Of course, I would be the one who was forsaken by everything, even ayahuasca, the mother of all healers.
 
I drove to a park. I slept a few hours. I woke to lay in the sun and weep. What was I going to do now? Where could I turn? What remained? I cried my eyes out. After a while, I sat up. I wrote a poem. I went into the bathroom and washed my face, and instead of looking in the mirror and thinking, “Why are you so ugly?” I thought, “Why are you so beautiful?” Just like that–without even trying.
 
At the second ceremony that night, I asked for more medicine than I had been given the first time. I had a new set of expectations now: I expected it to be hell, physically and mentally. I went into it with the attitude of a condemned person who has nothing to lose. I lay on my back and focused on my breath, repeating the word “release” as my mantra. After a while, a voice spoke to me. It was really just a thought, but I had the curious and distinct sensation that it was coming from outside me. It said, “Do you really want to carry all this around in your body?” I cried, “No! Take it from me!” At that point, something took over my body. A strange, cold, tingling energy moved through me. My hands stiffened as if with palsy. My whole body shook, violently. I yawned uncontrollably. This went on for quite a while.
 
When the ceremony ended, the maestra told us that despite whatever we may have just experienced, the real healing would occur later, in the days and weeks to come. I was skeptical. I left quickly, because all I felt was a burning desire to get home.
 
I drove for hours through the pre-dawn dark. As the light came, I was struck by a thought. It was a spiritual truism that I already knew rationally, but it hit me with the full force of revelation. I had lost so much of my life wishing that each moment was in some way, any way, different than how it actually was. Something in me cracked, and I began to bawl, grieving for all those lost moments, each of which had been beautiful and perfect just as it was. The energy that I had felt the previous night returned, coursing through my body, shaking me hard. I had to pull off the highway and wait until it passed. I gazed at the purple-brown Virginia mountains in the distance, and for once, I did not wish that they were some other, more distant, more exotic mountains.
 
That afternoon, I went walking through the woods, as is my habit. Sometimes on these walks I let myself get lost in fantasy; other times I make a point of being mindful, of staying focused on my breath and surroundings. On this particular walk, though, I heard a drum beating to the rhythm of my heart. The drum was saying, “Now! Now! Now!” as if calling out each moment for what it was. There seemed to be cracks everywhere, joyful tears in the usual impenetrable fabric of reality. “My God,” I thought. “It’s all happening now.” My limbs became so light that I practically ran up the mountain.
 
It was there on top of the mountain, after sitting in a state of empty bliss by the thrashing stream, that I met my snake. He was not the giant, intrusive rainbow anaconda I’d hoped to encounter in my visions. He was a placid dun-colored fellow laying in the grass. My dog ran past him unawares. But I squatted down by him and for a long moment out of time, we were together, the snake and I. Then I stood up, called out the words, “Thank you,” to everything and to nothing in particular, and walked down the hill, into my life.

 

That Thing

I used to feel it when I was a kid in the ocean. My dad would take me out and we’d just be there, in the waves. There was no self; there was no sense of time. There was just this wave–now this wave–now this wave. I was alert to each of them, because if I didn’t calibrate myself appropriately, I would be smashed into the sand. When the monster waves came, I did one of two things: I rode them in to shore, or I ducked under them, to the calm below, and felt only the pleasure of the enormous tremor rolling over me. I loved the ocean for this exact reason, and I looked forward to our annual camping trip at the beach all year long. It was magic.

Then, when I was about twelve years old, I went to the ocean, and I couldn’t get the feeling back. It was gone. I was a huge blot of a self in those waves. I felt so distressed about this. I went back to shore and sat on the sand and read my Seventeen magazine. Perhaps, I thought, if my thighs were thinner or I had certain clothes, the feeling would come back. All the women on the pages looked to be in a state of rapture, after all. Luckily, this particular type of thinking was a trap that I quickly escaped, but many women–many people–aren’t that lucky.

I thought that perhaps if I could have sex with someone, I would experience that feeling of oneness again. This was the reason I was so hell-bent on having sex when I was so young. It was not because I felt lustful–I didn’t–it was merely because I thought that somehow the application of parts together would result in an alchemy of union. As you might imagine, I was profoundly disappointed when I got my wish. “Is that it?!” I kept thinking. “That’s no different than me touching my own elbow!”

When I discovered marijuana, I really thought I had found it. I was sixteen years old and we were on top of a parking deck at night, smoking, when the cops came to arrest us. I felt blissful, absorbed, happy. Everything was beautiful. I was convinced that, finally, the universe loved me. After talking to me, the cops let me go. “She’s a good girl,” they told my mother. My friend took the rap and paid the price, and I was left feeling invincible.

I went on for quite a while like this. The marijuana and other substances worked pretty well, much of the time. They gave me the illusion that I had it, again. And when they didn’t work, I was left feeling like “a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” I didn’t give up hope, though. I just made plans for the future, thinking that perhaps this job or that job, this person, that part of the country, some grand arrangement of circumstances, would allow everything to click back into place.

Then one day, when I was twenty-seven, the bottom dropped out. The pot stopped working. The man I adored left. My plans for the future revealed themselves to be laughable delusions. It was winter. It was profoundly dark and cold, inside and out. I could think of only two options: commit suicide, or try to meditate. I had a vague idea, based on reading I’d done when I was a teenager, that the latter option might be helpful. So I began to try.

And now, five months later, I wish I could forget this whole story that I have written here. My achievements, my failures, my loves and my losses, my hopes and fears–all of these, I now see, are what hold me back from union.  Everything I identify as “me” is just the compulsive production of this unruly mind.  My mind spins on these things and therefore I am separate. I don’t want to see the river, I want to be the river. I don’t want to lay on the rock, I want to lay in the rock.

I try to concentrate on the present moment, and my mind, like a shoddy magician trying to pay the bills, keeps pulling out bad trick after bad trick, saying, “Look over here–you like this!” “Oh, check this out! This is gonna grab you!” And usually, it does. I would like to strangle this magician. I would like to shoot her in the face. But I can’t. That would indeed be suicide. I can only, with gentleness, train my attention away from her. And some now, I’ll have it. I’ll be able to enter the ocean and move with the waves without a single thought.

 

How To Melt Despair (Without a Microwave)

Tonight I dealt with a difficult feeling. The source and contents of the feeling are not important, but the quality of the feeling and what I did in response to it are.

I’m talking about the kind of feeling that eats away at your insides. The kind of burning, seeping, anxious despair that makes any happiness or stability you might have felt ever in your life seem like an utter lie, an impossible construction. The kind of feeling that hollows you out, curb stomps you, and spits in your face for good measure.

When faced with this sort of feeling in the past, I have done one of several things. Perhaps I would engage in a marathon bout of mindless eating, choosing only the sweetest tastes in a misguided attempt to counteract the acrid burn I felt inside. Or, if Little Debbie was inaccessible, I might engage in some run-of-the-mill self-mutilating behaviors–nothing too dramatic, mind you, because I am both a hedonist and a coward. I would probably partake of the Special Friends: alcohol and your basic smokables, guaranteed to stuff down any bad feeling (until they simply don’t, and you’re just fucked up and sad, with a hacking cough to boot). Maybe I would have engaged in one of the the so-called normal distractions: watching movies or television, which I’m not too good at; reading, which I am; mindless internet browsing, which I believe anyone can do. Shopping, which provides relief for many, never worked for me; it simply amplifies any feeling I might already have of wanting to shoot myself in the head.

Perhaps I would have done some journaling, that frenzied scribbling of one’s thoughts in a little notebook for no one else to read. As an introvert possessed by the delusion that my thoughts and experiences are somehow special and worth recording, I’ve done plenty of this. As a result, I have an awful lot of notebooks full of horrible, self-loathing, despair-laden thoughts. And not a lot of relief.

Finally, there is the depressive’s standby, the classic move I could always turn to when there was no other palliative around, or I was just so hollowed out that I didn’t even have the energy to turn on the television: find somewhere dark and lonely, curl up in a ball, and cry. (In an extension of this move available only to the very lucky/soporific, one can transition from weeping into the formless void of sleep.)

In my experience, these strategies have several major flaws. First, they fail to address the maddening fact that an emotion which has arisen out of the void is now wielding tremendous negative power over you. Second, the feeling is still there, though it might be (temporarily) duller. And third, the strategies themselves are entirely capable of heaping additional trouble on top of an already dicey situation.

Tonight, with my Very Heavy Feeling sprung up out of nowhere and ravenously eating away at my insides, I did none of these things. What is even more remarkable is that I didn’t even pause to consider, struggle with, and finally reject any of them as a course of action. I simply sat down, crossed my legs, set my timer for 30 minutes, and attempted to focus all of my attention at the tip of my nose, where I can feel my breath entering and leaving my body.

I say “attempted,” because it was indeed a struggle. My mind told me fantastic stories in very convincing words. It showed me a hundred images, some of them pretty, some not so much. My mind also tried to thrash about in the Very Heavy Feeling in my solar plexus, commenting on its weight and its painfulness, and insisting that it signified my failure as a human being. Through each of these distractions, I pulled my attention back to the tip of my nose, to the quiet experience of my breathing.

And when the timer went off, and thirty minutes had elapsed, the Very Heavy Feeling was gone. Melted. Irrelevant. It had become just one tiny little bit of the masquerade, which I simply no longer had to pay any mind.

Eight Things Depression Has Taught Me About Life

I am twenty-seven years old, and I have struggled with depression for seventeen of those years. It would not be incorrect to say that depression has been a defining experience in my life. This is a fact that is capable of filling me with great shame. After all, I come from a privileged background, I have not suffered significant trauma, abuse, or loss, and I have a supportive and loving family. Despite all this, depression has been and continues to be my companion–often manifesting as a low-grade dysthymia, sometimes blowing up into a debilitating episode of major depressive disorder.  And there have been a few brief, sparkling, miraculous-seeming remissions from the illness, which I treasure and study like holy texts. It all feels very random, very senseless. However, I cannot fully believe that my suffering is without meaning, either for myself or for others. And it is in an effort to uncover that meaning that I have compiled the following list of things that I have learned from depression.

1. There is no happiness in material things

Being depressed from such a young age totally took away any desire I might have ever had to pursue wealth or the accumulation of objects. Depression has a way of equalizing the impact of exterior circumstances–whether you’re riding in a broken-down, twenty year-old Toyota that smells like unwashed feet, or a new BMW with heated leather seats and a state-of-the-art stereo, you still feel the same. A depressed person feels no different, whether she’s eating out of a dumpster or dining at a restaurant with cloth napkins and multiple forks. Money simply brings no relief from the suffering. A lot of people throw around the phrase “Money can’t buy happiness,” but depression has made me understand this in a very deep way.

2. A sense of humor is what really makes a person wealthy

If there is one thing that DOES cancel out depression, if even for just a moment, it’s a good, honest, deep laugh. I find that when I am not in my depression that I am in possession of a pretty respectable sense of humor. There is no describing the joy that I get from laughing, or from being able to make others laugh. It is a fortification against the ups and downs of life. And I credit my depression with making life seem absurd and random enough that I am able to laugh, deeply, at just about anything.

3. Attitude is everything

Being a disease of perception and emotion, depression takes away one’s ability to choose his or her attitude. “Positive thinking” simply loses all meaning when a person is utterly unable to connect with himself, others, or anything at all in life. I have had the experience of existing in a state of depression for years, and then being lifted out of that depression and suddenly having the ability to choose my attitude about circumstances. Let me tell you, having that choice is a relief. It feels like a superpower.

4. Wherever you go, there you are

When I was thirteen, I went to Mexico. At that point in my life, I thought I was unhappy because of my circumstances–the stupid shallow American culture, the stupid people around me, the stupid school I went to. When I went to Mexico, I felt the same unhappiness. This was a humbling experience. My unhappiness was not due to any outward circumstance, but to something within me. There is no such thing as a “geographical cure” because you cannot escape yourself, even at the top of a mountain or in a remote third-world village.

5. Have compassion for others

Mental illness takes people and it twists them up into something they never wanted to be. I know that my depression might make me seem aloof, humorless, uncaring, selfish, or lazy. Truth is, I am none of those things, but if you met me during my depths, you would not know it. I know what mental illness has done to my personality, and this knowing has made me more compassionate towards others. You just can’t judge other people, because you never really know what they are going through on the inside.

6. Be adventurous and try new things

Although this might seem contradictory to #4, it’s not. Depression has made me unattached to circumstances. If I am unhappy here, there’s no reason to stay–might as well go somewhere else and try something new and see how that feels. Because of this attitude and the myriad circumstances it has lead me to find myself in, I have learned a lot about myself. I know from my illness that there is no security in “security”, so I might as well pile my plate high from the buffet of life. Consequently, I have a deeper and broader perspective than people who have never ventured outside the straight-and-narrow.

7. Friends are the most precious things in life

One of the most painful parts of depression is that it takes away my ability to have relationships with others. The brain-fog, the uncontrollable crying, the low self-esteem, and the total apathy towards things that I used to find enjoyable make it hard to connect with anyone. This leads to a soul-eating sense of isolation, which compounds the depression. But take away the depression, and suddenly, I regain my ability to connect. To share in the joys and sorrows of others. To help others, and be helped by them. It’s truly an amazing feeling to emerge from the cave of isolation into the sunlit web of relationships with others.

8. It’s all an illusion

When I’m depressed, things are not what they seem. The successes of others fill me with a jealous self-loathing. The sunlight makes me want to die. I know rationally that my perspective is incorrect, but I just can’t help it. My depressed perspective is an illusion–a very persistent one, but an illusion nonetheless. This realization has lead me to question what else might be an illusion. Turns out, everything. There’s a lot of freedom in this realization. And there is something to say about quantum physics here, but I’ll save that for a later post…

I am interested in the experiences of others with depression and other mental illnesses. What have you learned from your experience of mental illness? Please share in the comment section below. Thank you for reading. I hope this post helped you in some way, or at least made you feel not quite so alone.