So yesterday I finished a 10-day virtual meditation retreat taught by Tucker Peck and Upasaka Upali.
Several people have asked me what it was like, so here are some highlights.
First, a “virtual” retreat means that you spend 10 days doing pretty much nothing but meditation, and also don’t talk to anyone except the teachers, who hold daily lectures and once-every-two-days personal interviews over Zoom. Also, when you sit down to meditate, you are encouraged to do it in front of a camera, so that you can see everyone else who is meditating and they can also see you.
At times it was great, such as when I was mostly just doing concentration meditation and focusing on my breath, and then suddenly memories of playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown together with a friend came up and I just felt a strong sense of connectedness and loving-kindness towards her, even though I hadn’t even been doing loving-kindness practice.
At other times I was figuratively clawing my eyes out of boredom and a desire to just be back on social media and able to talk to people.
In retrospect, it feels odd that the boredom was sometimes so strong as to make it impossible to meditate, since if I hadn’t been bored I could simply have meditated, and I was bored because I couldn’t get the meditation to work… it now feels like what was actually going was some desire to be in control, and that clinging onto the desire to be on social media and check my messages was a way of asserting a sense of control. Or something like that. Something to look into, anyway. In any case, it was a good opportunity to investigate the nature of discomfort, and I got quite a bit of that done.
Things that felt like significant shifts, or at least interesting experiences:
* I went into the retreat with the thought of wanting to give The Mind Illuminated -style concentration meditation another try, since it had worked well for me before, but I had eventually ran into various roadblocks with it. Over the last few years, every now and then I have tried it for a bit, maybe gotten a bit of initial success, and then had it stop working again.
What I noticed this time was that following the breath felt hard because it would bring up unpleasant sensations in my belly – sensations which pretty much only pop up when I’m doing meditation, so have to be psychogenic. So this time I decided to investigate those sensations. Shifting my attention on them caused various kinds of material to come up (including the previously mentioned example of playing XCOM), which eventually led to…
* There was a moment when I heard a voice in my head saying “it is safe to feel loved”. I was a little surprised by that, since I had not thought of myself as someone who finds it unsafe to feel loved, but it felt significant.
* Afterwards there were lots of long-forgotten memories and experiences returning to mind; much of it had apparently been blocked either to keep negative memories out (which also had the effect of blocking positive memories), or because they were positive in the “I feel loved” sense, and that was experienced as unsafe.
Either way, lots of various happy, neutral, and unhappy memories coming up, with an emphasis on the happy ones. And it’s worth noting that the threshold for what my brain considered a “happy” memory was set ridiculously low. There were things like:
At one point there were so many of these that it became outright painful to feel that happy. Then suddenly some dark and unpleasant thoughts started coming up, which surprised me at first, since I hadn’t expected them to show up when I was feeling so good. But then I got it since
* I had had a bunch of weird uncomfortable thoughts and fantasies that seemed to have at their core a desire to feel loved, while simultaneously finding unsafe to feel loved, and then trying to satisfy the constraints of “feel loved but also do not feel loved” at the same time. At least, that would explain why they seemed to come up at that particular moment, then have the thought of “it’s safe to feel loved” somehow… penetrate through them… for the uncomfortable thoughts to then disappear. For now, at least.
* As I mentioned, we had 15-minute interviews with the teachers every two days. For most of the early part of the retreat, I would spend a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say in the interviews, making detailed mental notes of what had happened in my meditation that I could report on, etc. Whenever this happened, it would always feel like I “fell out of mindfulness” – I identified so strongly with the experience of thinking about what to say that I couldn’t maintain any kind of mindful observer stance at the same time. Thinking about it just felt like something that “I” did – and I kept doing it to an annoyingly frequent extent. (This had also been true before the retreat – “thinking about what to say to people” is the kind of thing that has always caused a lot of identification.)
But over the course of this retreat, it felt like the “shape” of the mental subprocess doing this was starting to become more distinct – as if I could start carving out its boundaries, making it more visible against the backdrop of my mind. When I got it clear enough, I switched to an Internal Family Systems stance and asked it what it was trying to accomplish and why it felt it was so important. As a result, it started giving me lots of memories of times I hadn’t known what to say to people and that had felt like it’d had negative consequences.
I gradually worked on it over some days, eventually managing to drop the process so that it wasn’t as preoccupied with making such plans all the time. As a result, I went into my final interview without much that I’d have had prepared – and I think mostly managed to not embarrass myself anyway. After the interview, I reviewed the conversation, and concluded that I could have said a few things differently in order to make myself appear more impressive or cool, but overall it wasn’t a major difference and probably not worth all the energy that would have been spent on those “minor optimizations”.
Now it feels more that – for the first time in my life that I can recall – I can actually let that planning process work in the background while experiencing myself as separate from it, and for the most part it doesn’t feel the need to pre-plan so many things anyway. (This feels like it saves a lot of mental energy!)
The actual experience of speaking to people also feels different now. “I feel more present” is a boring cliché but also feels somewhat apt; I’m less focused on what I should say next and more aware of what I did just say. This includes being more aware of the “physical” details of my own voice, such as the cadence, volume, and how the individual phonemes and words… “hang together”, for lack of a better description.
The analogy that comes to mind is that previously, most of my focus was on processing the informational level of what I was saying or about to say. Now that I feel more relaxed about what the informational level should contain, there’s spare processing capacity to also pay attention to the “lower levels”, such as the physical properties of my voice.
* Besides TMI-style concentration meditation, my other practice on the retreat was some variety of “do nothing“-style meditation – which in my case felt more like “do anything“, as in “whatever my mind wants to do or think, I let it do or think”. It was this practice that felt most interrupted by the intention to think about what I was about to say, because it did not feel like I was letting my mind do what it wanted, rather I (as opposed to “my mind”) was actively deciding what to think.
There were a few enjoyable experiences where this kicked in pretty strongly. On a few times when I sat down to meditate, it felt like I wasn’t doing anything at all, and rather just letting all intentions to do anything relax and fall away on their own. Then I would become aware of some tensions or discomforts in the body… and it would start feeling like those tensions were also maintained by some kind of an intention, as if my mind was actively creating the tension/discomfort because it wanted to feel discomfort. Then my attention would be drawn closer to the tension, some psychological content would come up, it would either resolve or the timer I’d set for my sit would ring… and gradually the process would continue, until it would run into some obstacle that changed the nature of it.
* I felt like I would get brief glimpses of what you might call the ego – there was a sense of just doing nothing and letting the mind relax, and then a feeling of there still being something that was acting as an active doer, guiding how the meditation process should go or which intention to relax next or even just the fact that this was a process of relaxing intentions… as for on many occasions before, there would be small flashes of it, some of which would bring up some additional content or emotion, but never quite enough to see it clearly.
Overall, I feel pretty good and happy now, on the day after the retreat.
For now at least, that experience of “it’s safe to feel loved” seems to have rekindled something of a core state of love – that is, an experience of love which is not tied to being loved by any particular person, but rather feels like a happy comfortable background state which easily turns into warmth towards people who I think of or interact with. Similarly, some of those feelings of competence and agency that I found in the memories that I connected with, seem to be more naturally accessible now.
Some of Buddhist psychology suggests there are some basic discomforts that sit inside you, and which appear to be caused by external circumstances, when they’re actually internal processes that just happen to grab onto whatever happens to be available in the environment. So if you are feeling mistrustful and run into someone, your mind may grab onto whatever features that the other person has that seem like they could be used to justify the mistrust, and act as if that person had caused it. (This has some interesting parallels to predictive processing models of mind, which I have compared to Buddhist psychology before; you could think of this as there being a high-level prior for “I feel mistrustful”, with any incoming sense data being adjusted to fit.)
The NLP concept of core states seem like they act in a somewhat similar way, but for more wholesome experiences. So if you have a sense of agency or a sense of love as a core state, then the mind’s background assumption is that you are going to experience agency or love, and it will grab onto any opportunity in the internal or external environment – even the memory of a bus stop if it doesn’t find anything else – in order to do so. PJ Eby has suggested (and I previously made a similar suggestion in the context of the IFS concept of “self”) that experiencing those core states is the mind’s basic tendency, and that we only learn not to experience them because we find them unsafe:
… what CT [Core Transformation] calls “core states” are also accessible by simply not activating the parts of the brain that shut off those states. (e.g. by telling us we don’t deserve love)So if, for example, we don’t see ourselves as worthless, then experiencing ourselves as “being” or love or okayness is a natural, automatic consequence. Thus I ended up pursing methods that let us switch off the negatives and deal directly with what CT and IFS represent as objecting parts, since these objections are the constraint on us accessing CT’s “core states” or IFS’s self-leadership and self-compassion.
… what CT [Core Transformation] calls “core states” are also accessible by simply not activating the parts of the brain that shut off those states. (e.g. by telling us we don’t deserve love)
So if, for example, we don’t see ourselves as worthless, then experiencing ourselves as “being” or love or okayness is a natural, automatic consequence. Thus I ended up pursing methods that let us switch off the negatives and deal directly with what CT and IFS represent as objecting parts, since these objections are the constraint on us accessing CT’s “core states” or IFS’s self-leadership and self-compassion.
Possibly some of those objections are now a little lessened again. At least, for today. :-)
As someone who has a regular practice, would you say the level of insight/time sitting was basically the same as your normal practice, or do you find that these retreats increase the density/intensity of insights?
A little hard to compare, since the equivalent amount of sitting practice spread over a longer duration would also include much more off-the-cushion time, so more opportunities for things to process or come up via environmental triggers. But I do feel like retreats have caused insights that wouldn't have come up otherwise. Especially since if something caused a strong aversion to practice in my daily life, I would just practice less, whereas on retreat there isn't really any other option than try to work with it.
This post is really fascinating for someone like me that just started meditation. It both show me that even with a lot of practice, not everything goes as expected; and that it's possible to actually make progress on the things dragging you down (the "what will I say?" for you, the "it will soon be over, and it's tragic" for me). Thanks!
At the beginning of the retreat, the teachers mentioned that people ask them what to expect during a retreat, and they said something along the lines of "well basically anything can happen, every retreat is different". So maybe one result of extended practice is accepting that there isn't even such a thing as things going as expected, because you learn not to have any expectations in the first place - and that that's part of the fun, something new each time. :)
I'm curious, did you notice you became more settled after the third day? It's a somewhat common experience during sesshin to have something of a breakthrough or surrender on the third day and give oneself over to the sesshin, so the speak. I realize this is a different tradition, so curious if you saw evidence of a similar phenomenon.
Based on what the teachers said in the dharma talks, they expected most people to experience such a shift, and apparently most did. I didn't get that, though - my amount of surrender kept going up and down.
I think I was most settled on the first half of the sixth or seventh day, where I had that experience of not making any decisions at all (and having a hard time remembering what it would even mean to make a decision) and just allowing all intentions relax themselves. That lasted until the successive relaxation brought up glimpses of some fear, and then that turned into powerful energy sensations in the forehead and strong and agential-feeling intentions to do something about those, and then I never had the same level of surrender again.
I've experienced settling day as early as the second and as late as the sixth day. Agree that it feels like a distinct shift.