The squirrel was back. With a distinct battle scar at the base of its tail, he was clearly a fighter — he had no problem greedily shoving seeds into his mouth while menacingly chasing away the birds that the feeder was meant for.
Inside the meditation center, a crowd had formed to watch the spectacle. Dozens of meditators sat mesmerized by the squirrel's shenanigans. This was easily the most exciting thing to happen in days — no, weeks.
When people ask me what I did during the 3-month silent meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society , it's hard to give a simple answer. I can say, "I sat and knew that I was sitting" because that captures like 90% of the experience, but I'll just have people staring back blankly waiting for something more because you'd have to be crazy to get on a plane and dedicate 3 months of their life just to sit. I mean, you can do that at home for free.
And then there are all the thing you don't do. There's no talking, of course, but you're also discouraged from using your phone, listening to music, reading books, or anything else that could distract you. To many people. that sounds pretty close to being in hell.
In one sense, it's easy to explain what a meditation retreat is like. Here's the daily schedule I followed for three months:
5:00 AM — Wake Up
5:30 AM — Sitting meditation
6:30 AM — Breakfast
8:15 AM — Sitting meditation & Instructions
9:15 AM — Walking meditation
10:00 AM — Sitting meditation
10:45 AM — Walking meditation
11:30 AM — Sitting meditation
12:00 PM — Lunch
1:30 PM — Walking meditation
2:00 PM — Sitting meditation
2:45 PM — Walking meditation
3:30 PM — Sitting meditation
4:30 PM — Walking meditation
5:00 PM — Dinner
6:15 PM — Sitting meditation
7:00 PM — Walking meditation
7:30 PM — Dharma talk
8:30 PM — Walking meditation
9:00 PM — Sitting meditation with chanting (optional)
Basically, you sit and you walk. But a timetable only tells you so much. The real element of interest is the internal experience that unfolds throughout the days, weeks, and months. What happens when you stop speaking? When you remove yourself from "normal life" and all the pleasures and distractions that it offers? When you set the intention to simply be with the present moment as it arises?
My experience of the 3-month retreat can be broken into three phases:
To be clear, these weren't phases that I planned in advance; it's only in retrospect that I can construct this narrative to stitch together my experience.
Meditation practice is often divided into two categories: concentration and insight. Concentration practice focuses on stabilizing your attention and quieting the flood of thoughts that arises when you stay still and close your eyes. Insight practice, on the other hand, focuses on clearly noticing the details of what's happening in the present moment. In reality, meditation practices are not so clear-cut. For example, watching the breath can be used as concentration practice by simply staying with the breath sensations as well as insight practice by paying close attention to what those sensations feel like.
One common approach to meditation is to start with concentration practice and then transition over to insight practice when attention becomes more stable. The idea is that you work on building a powerful microscope before directing it towards inspecting the present moment in order to have profound realizations about the nature of reality.
On the other hand, there are many teachers who recommend going straight into insight practice. The idea is that using the microscope will naturally entail improving it and that you don't need to dedicate all of that time preparing it beforehand.
When I began the retreat, I struggled to choose between the two approaches. I felt drawn towards concentration practice because I had neat experiences from it, but there was no time to be wasted. I wanted to start having insights as quickly as possible and blaze my way straight to enlightenment. Insight practice it was.
The specific practice that I undertook is called "noting", and it involves noticing the predominant experience at any particular time and lightly assigning a mental label for it. You do this for anything that arises — physical sensations, thoughts, emotions — and the purpose isn't to come up with the perfect description but rather to have the label orient your attention toward the felt experience of what's occurring.
For example, the process of drinking a sip of tea would involve mentally noting "reaching" as I notice the sensations of my arm reaching for the mug, "touching" as I feel my hand wrapping around the handle, "hard" as I notice the hardness of the mug's surface, "lifting" as I feel my arm lifting the mug, "touching," as I feel my lips press against the edge of the mug, "hot" as I sense the heat of the tea, "swallowing" as I notice the sensations of the tea passing down my throat, "lowering" as I feel my arm lowering the mug onto the table, and so on. Everything is done very slowly to ensure that I'm being mindful of each experience as it happens. If I notice that I've stopped assigning mental labels, it's a sign that I've stopped paying attention.
If this sounds tedious and tiring, it definitely can be at first. But after slowing down and mindfully noting everything for a while, you get used to going about your whole day like this. The teachers stress maintaining the continuity of mindfulness throughout the day, which means being mindful in every single moment of consciousness — from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep.
The noting practice has somewhat of a reputation for being a powerful technique that can lead to insights very quickly. I took encouragement from that and noted all day long as meticulously as I could. Walking to the dining hall? "Lifting" (my foot), "moving", "placing". Eating lunch? "Chewing", "tasting", "swallowing". Peeing in the bathroom? "Lifting" (the toilet seat), "pulling" (my pants down), "releasing". Noting carefully and putting in maximum effort would ensure that I would have groundbreaking insights into reality.
A week passed. Then two weeks. Then three. The retreat was 25% over. I started feeling anxious. I had carefully noted lifting the toilet seat hundreds of times. Where were the epiphanies? I began to fear that the entire retreat would pass by and I would have nothing to show for it.
At the beginning of the 3-month retreat, you get assigned two different meditation teachers, and every week, you have a 15-minute practice meeting with each teacher where you can discuss your practice and ask questions. During my meetings, I inquired about the minute details of my technique to make sure I wasn't doing anything that was ruining my chances for insight: During sitting meditation, should I be noticing the breath in my abdomen or at my nostrils? During the day, when I notice thoughts arising, should I note "thinking" once or keep repeating it until the process of thinking subsides?
I entertained the idea that I might be trying too hard, but since I hadn't had any incredible insights, that probably meant that I should try harder. Results occur proportional to the effort put in. That's how life worked, and to my understanding, that approach worked for a lot of people in meditation as well. In one of my practice meetings, I told my teacher that the way I motivated myself to stay mindful throughout the day was to tell myself that insight could happen at any moment and that I'll miss it if I didn't pay attention. I half-jokingly asked her if that sounded unskillful, and she replied in no uncertain terms: "Yes. You need to relax."
The fourth week started, and I found myself able to let go of expectations a bit. I could simply practice and trust the process to unfold in its own time. I felt a sense of ease that came with surrendering, but those moments were short-lived. I still wanted to get something out of the retreat and after almost a month, nothing had happened. I wondered if I should switch to concentration practice and see if that'd make a difference. After consulting with my teachers, I decided to make the shift. I would focus on staying with the sensations of the breath all day, every day. Feel the sensations of breathing in, feel the sensations of breathing out. Sitting on the meditation cushion. In, out, in, out. Taking a walk outside. In, out, in out. And then finally, things started happening.
Everyone else had gotten up when the bell rang for lunch, but I remained sitting in the meditation hall. My mind was fully settled on the breath and my concentration felt pristine. I didn't want to end the sit just yet. A feeling arose, but unlike all the other sensations that simply arose and passed, this one opened into a clear recognition.
Suddenly, I saw myself. It was as if my mind had settled into a still pool of water and I was able to look at my reflection for the first time. And what I saw was just how at such a deep level of my being, I craved and sought external validation.
I'd always known that I cared about what other people thought about me, but it didn't seem like that big of a deal. But this time, I clearly saw the reason behind why I sought acceptance from others: I didn't accept myself. My need for approval and my lack of self-love were two sides of the same coin. If I truly loved myself, would I care so deeply about what others thought of me? Would I agonize over every single word whenever I wrote a blog post or a Facebook status, trying to make it absolutely perfect so that people would perceive me a particular way? The realization broke open my heart, and all I could do was weep. But rather than leading to feelings of shame about the inadequacy, the discovery brought with it a surge of love that filled the hole that had been uncovered. It was as if light had illuminated a dark room, and by the very nature of light, the darkness could no longer remain.
It was the first major opening of the retreat, and it seemed to be a direct result of the concentration I was cultivating. Building concentration is a gradual process, and you can start by continuously directing your attention to the breath. In the beginning, thoughts arise, you get sucked in, and you realize 15 minutes later that you had been thinking about your friends from elementary school and how fun it would be organize a reunion. But as you hold the intention to return to the breath over the hours and days, your mind settles more and more until attention remains exclusively on the breath. Once you get here, it can feel as though you've reached as far as you can go. Thoughts simply come and go, sensations arise and pass away, and your attention is single-pointedly on the breath for the entire meditation session. Your concentration seems flawless.
It's at this point that you can take the next major step: dropping all effort. It feels counterintuitive because it was only by being vigilant and almost paranoid about not getting lost in thought that you were able to finally stabilize your attention on the breath. But at this stage, when you fully relax and stop actively trying to stay with the breath, your concentration doesn't just evaporate. Rather, you discover that your mind is fully present with whatever your attention happens to land on. It's impossible for me to communicate what the felt experience of sharpening your mind to this degree is like, but I can describe some of the side-effects.
There's the energy. I noticed a dramatic boost in my desire to practice. My sits became longer — soon I was skipping the walking meditation sessions so that I could extend my sits to over 2 hours. From the moment a sit ended, I couldn't wait for the next one. I would go to sleep with a huge grin on my face, giddy beyond belief that I'd get to meditate as soon as I got up. I started waking up at 4AM so that I could meditate on my own before the full day of meditation. I couldn't think of anything I'd want to do but meditate, and luckily for me, that was the only thing on the schedule.
And then there's the other kind of energy — the spooky kind. Whenever I fully stabilized my attention on the breath and dropped effort, I felt waves of pleasant tingling sensations cascading down my body. As I continued sitting and deepening in concentration, there were more fascinating sensations, like the feeling of electric currents running up and down my spine and light pricks on my back, like the pattering of rain. I still don't know what "energy" is or how it works, but it's definitely possible to have experiences of it manifesting in one's body and building concentration seems to increase sensitivity to it.
And best of all, there's the joy. During the sits and between the sits, I felt an overwhelming sense of delight and excitement. I was finally making progress! In meditation, there are altered states of consciousness called the jhanas where your concentration is fully immersed in an object, and you're bathed in rapture, euphoria, and ecstasy. Whenever I had read about these states in the past, they had always appeared so grandiose, almost to the point of being unachievable. But now, they didn't seem so far off given my recent meditation experiences. A single week had made such an incredible difference, and I had seven more of them! It was only a matter of time before I got to taste these blissful states myself. I even grabbed an extra brownie from lunch and stored it in the fridge with the plan to eat it as a way to celebrate getting the first jhana. It was inevitable; with every sit, my concentration deepened further and the energetic sensations became more intense. And of course, then everything fell apart.
It started with a weird feeling of pressure in my heart, as if my heart and the area around it were contracting. The first thought was that there was something wrong with my heart, but the stories I had heard about people experiencing strange bodily sensations when undertaking intensive meditation made me suspect that this might not be a medical issue. Plus, whenever the heart pressure became strong, the pleasant tingling sensations and the electrical currents in my spine disappeared so it definitely seemed like a meditation thing rather than an actual problem with my organs. Of course, I thought about how if I dropped dead the following day, I'd be the poster child for how a promising Princeton-educated former Google employee threw his life away and died in the middle of nowhere thinking that an impending heart attack was "a meditation thing". (Thankfully still here!)
Much to my relief, the heart pressure didn't make an appearance in the next sit. But then it showed up again. And stayed. With every sit, the heart pressure became bigger, stronger, and firmer. I wasn't sure what to do with it, so I simply directed feelings of goodwill toward it with the hope that I could somehow love it to death so I could return back to my quest for jhana. It wasn't down with that plan.
Soon, the heart pressure increased to the point where it felt like a solid brick lodged in the middle of my chest, and all the joy that I had been experiencing in my meditations completely disappeared. I started panicking. What was this thing and how long would it stay? My worst nightmare was that it would stick around for the remainder of the retreat and I would make no more progress in my meditation. I couldn't bear that thought, especially since I had only just had a major breakthrough after weeks of fruitless noting practice.
I had heard about people experiencing "energy blockages" of some kind, often in their head or their heart. I suspected that this might be one such blockage, especially since it was in the heart area and that's one of the major focal points of energy ("chakras") described in many spiritual traditions. When I brought this up to my teachers, they immediately instructed me not to call it a blockage because calling it that will lead to feelings of aversion toward the sensation rather than accepting it as it is. Okay, while I accept that language can color our perception of reality, I'd rather call it what it is. But sure, let's call it "heart pressure". So how do I make it go away?
For a week, I tried to continue with my concentration practice, but it was frankly depressing. My concentration was still extremely refined and stable, but all the joy and the fascinating energy sensations were gone. Instead, I had this massive lump in my chest that was ruining my straight shot to the jhanas and enlightenment. I tried to accept it and just let it be, and for stretches of time, it felt like I was able to do just that. Sometimes it felt like it was trying to show me something, as if the solidity of the heart pressure were a reflection of how hardened my heart had become over the years.
It was clear that I wasn't going to make any more progress with my concentration practice, so I decided to switch to a different practice called "metta", common translated as "loving-kindness". The core of this practice is that you cultivate a sense of loving-kindness and then direct it toward all beings. It's often practiced using a set of phrases such as "May I be free from suffering. May I be free from ill will. May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be truly happy." With each phrase, you really try to feel into it and develop a felt sense of ease, peace, love, and happiness. Once you've built it up toward yourself, you can move onto directing those feelings and goodwill toward your family, your friends, acquaintances, strangers, and finally, all beings in the universe.
I wasn't thrilled about switching to metta practice. Unlike insight practice where you directly try to perceive insights about reality, or concentration practice where you sharpen your mind to prepare for insight practice, this loving-kindness stuff seemed like a practice for weenies. I didn't come to meditation to make peace with past hurts or wade through the swamp of my psychological gunk — I came to explore the depths of consciousness and discover the nature of fundamental reality. And besides, I had tried loving-kindness practice before at a 10-day retreat a few months before the 3-month retreat, and it hadn't done anything for me. I had just walked around endlessly phrases in my head without anything to show for it.
But metta somehow made the heart pressure more bearable and felt like the best option. Since my old teachers had switched out after 6 weeks, I consulted with my two new teachers about switching to metta practice, at least until the heart blockage resolved and I could return to concentration practice. They thought it was a reasonable idea. So I began the practice for weenies.
My exploration of metta went along these lines:
Okay, metta's not too bad, I guess.
Neat, it turns out that metta can be kind of nice.
Oh my god, metta is unbelievably enjoyable.
Within a few days, it felt like I had access to free MDMA on demand whenever I practiced metta. No matter who I directed my attention toward, I found that I was able to cultivate a deep sense of loving-kindness toward them. And that became the source of profound healing.
During my sits, painful memories from different stages in my life came bubbling up and were seen anew in a perspective suffused with love. I remembered how tough my brother had been with my sister and me and felt my indifference toward him drop away. How much pain had he been going through to act out in that way? I remembered how my aunt and uncle had neglected and hurt me as a child and felt my resentment fade. How could I hold their ignorance and fear against them? In every situation, there was no one to hate and no one to blame. People had hurt me only because they themselves were hurting, and loving-kindness had the infinite capacity to hold them all.
And thankfully, it had the capacity to hold me as well. I remembered the times when I had hurt various people around me, from my ex-girlfriend at Princeton who had suffered my callous selfishness to the friend I had unjustly kicked out of a shared project. I had already started sending out apologies after experiencing some remorse at a previous retreat, and many of them had written back to tell me that they forgave me. I was so undeserving, and yet the universe had let them heal enough to let go of the suffering I had caused them. It was only through grace that I could be forgiven.
These memories and shifts in perspective came unexpectedly, and I often found myself with tears and snot pouring down my face, weeping quietly so as to not disturb the other meditators in the hall. I had come into the retreat looking to transcend the self and discovered that all the psychological material, traumas, baggage, and history needed to be fully processed and accepted before they could be released. The path excluded nothing. I had expected to get things, to gain grand insights and progress toward enlightenment, when what I really needed to do was to let go. Let go of my expectations, let go of my pains, let go of myself. Let go of everything. It was what all the spiritual teachers had been saying all along. I just hadn't believed them.
As of this writing, it's been four months since the retreat ended. If I had to give anyone advice for the 3-month retreat, it would be three simple words: Trust and surrender. It was the phrase I repeatedly returned to when nothing made sense, when nothing was happening, and I was seemingly getting nowhere. As I grappled with reality over the weeks and months of the retreat, one thing was hammered into me through all the unexpected twists and turns of practice: I am not in control. Life is simply unfolding.
These days, there is a sense of fundamental okay-ness with everything. When I meditate, my concentration is often weak and I get lost in thought, but that's okay. The heart pressure still shows up and I still have no idea how it works, but that's okay. I sometimes get caught up in my silly stories, but that's okay. At some point, I'd like to do more retreats and even the 3-month retreat again, but I don't feel the same drive for progress as I did before. Even the idea of making progress doesn't seem as relevant anymore because things will simply unfold in its own time, and everything will be okay regardless of whether I have more insights or not. The only insight that seems to matter is that reality simply is what it is, and fully surrendering to it is the source of true peace. Even if I forget that sometimes, that's okay, too. Did I mention that everything's okay?
Thanks for making it this far. I'd like to close out this series on the 3-month retreat with a post I made on Facebook a week after the retreat ended. The final words are meant for all of you now as much as they were for my friends back in December:
And so it ends. The last three months of silence and meditation have been one of the most special experiences of my life. There’s so much I want to share, and I’ll start with this particular gem:
As some of you know, I lost my mother figures early in life: my mom when I was a kid and my grandma when I was in college. During one of my meditation sits, I felt my heart break at the image of my grandma and started crying. At this point in the retreat, I had become much more familiar with the process of purification, where the stillness of the mind allows deep-seated material to surface into consciousness. I thought I was mourning the loss of my grandma, but the quality that became predominant was the love that she had poured into me as she raised me. As I sat there weeping and receiving her love, the image of my mom appeared and I felt the love that she had held for me and connected with her in a way that I never had before. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t only received love in the past but that I was loved now in the present, and the feeling of love that pervaded my experience expanded to include the care and support from my sister, my brother, my dad, my stepmom, and my grandpa. But it didn’t stop there. Soon I felt love from all of my friends, my former and current teachers, the retreat staff, the family who had fed me at an RV park earlier this year — basically everyone who had ever been kind to me.
The culmination was the experience of feeling deep, unconditional love from the entire universe, the incredible web of causes and conditions that brought me to exactly that moment of me bent over simultaneously crying and laughing with snot and tears everywhere. And from the well of bottomless love arose a profound peace that I wish I could instill in everyone.
As with all things, this experience came and went and ultimately, meditation is not about collecting peak experiences. But experiences like this during retreat revealed just how powerful these contemplative practices could be and how they transform the heart and the mind.
Opening my heart throughout the retreat also revealed how so much of my past behavior have been motivated by deep selfishness and self-centeredness which often led me to hurt others. If I’ve ever been unkind to you, I’m sorry and ask for your forgiveness.
If you’re reading this, the universe brought us together at some point and you’ve shaped me, whether you realize it or not. I’m grateful to have met every single one of you. Thanks for being a part of this brief and magical mystery we call life. I love you.