In the late-80s I was interested in Buddhism and Vipassana meditation. I attended several 10-day silent mediation retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. These were all over New Year's. They were pretty profound, and after three of them (1987, 1988, 1989) I decided to do the three-month silent retreat, which ran every year from about mid-September through mid-December.
I was in the Navy at the time -- with 12 1/2 years already in -- but I got out and attended the three-month retreat in the autumn of 1990.
It was three months of mostly silent sitting on a meditation mat in a big hall with about 100 other people, or performing walking meditation. The days tended to be punctuated with an hour of sitting, followed by an hour of walking, followed by an hour of sitting, etc.
Of course there were meals -- breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon tea with rice cakes -- and there was an evening dharma talk in the meditation hall (rotated among the four retreat leaders). Also, to make sure people weren't going batshit insane, there were once or twice weekly individual meetings with a retreat leader.
During the three months there was no talking among retreat attendees, no eye contact, no music, no television, no nothing. Just you and your feeble attempts to follow your breathing for more than four or five breaths without having your mind wander off into some fantasy.
Prior to this I had been a Navy SEAL. In going through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, I was looking for an experience that would reduce my existence to just consciousness and the will to go on. For some reason I thought BUD/S -- with the fabled five sleepless days of Hell Week -- would produce something along those lines. It didn't. BUD/S was actually pretty disappointing from that point of view. You just had to not quit.
I did find what I was looking for on the meditation mat, though. About a month into the retreat, in the absence of any of the normal distractions and stimuli that allow us to form opinions, etc., the mind does strange things. It starts to crack a little. Or at least it did for me. You can't even begin to imagine the waking heavens and hells that start unfolding inside your skull. At times I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.
And eventually a space began to appear. I began to become aware of a little separation between the movies that were playing in my mind and the observing entity that was aware of them (and not attached to them). For lack of a better term I'll call that entity my consciousness.
It was very much like the beginning of the Woody Allen movie, "Play It Again, Sam" where Woody Allen is watching "Casablanca" and totally identifying with the movie. Then the movie ends and the lights inside the theater come on, and you can see Woody Allen become aware that he is not the move, he was just watching the movie.
For me that's what Vipassana mediation was about: realizing that you have no control of your mind. Your mind will produce ideas and emotions and fantasies and any number of things completely on its own, similar to how your liver will produce enzymes on its own. But there is also an observer that can detach and not identify with what the mind is doing. That observer can dispassionately watch what's playing on the screen, and not get all caught up in it. The observer can watch it...label it...and not act on it. The observer can just let it float on by. That was serenity.
I met the woman who became my wife at one of those retreats. (She has done two of those three-month affairs). Although we've both moved on to different phases of our lives, somewhere not far from our daily thoughts is the notion that someday we'll move back to central Massachusetts and spend more time of the meditation mats before we die.