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Ten Days of Silence
Reflections from my meditation retreat in Thailand
After traveling for four months, I came back home in Seattle! I have much to reflect on. The most notable part was the 10-day silent meditation retreat last month that I’ll discuss in this post.
It’s an ongoing process to absorb and integrate what I learned during the ten days. I see the lessons that follow as the start of my journey rather than the conclusion :)
(I’ll dive right in, but if you need more context about the retreat, check out the Suan Mokkh retreat website.)
It’s surprising how much I talk to myself.
We all know what it’s like to speak inside our heads — we rehearse what to say before meeting others; we chew on the words we have spoken, sometimes proudly, sometimes regretfully.
Although it feels like I’m having real conversations, when I repetitively go through the same dialogues, I realize I’m truly just talking to myself.
Does constant self-talk bring happiness and fulfillment, or does it just induce suffering and distractions from more important tasks?
(Before the retreat officially kicked off, I stumbled someone sitting still in the woods. Just as I thought things couldn't get more peaceful, a mischievous monkey darted through the scene.)
Being in the present is not thinking about being in the present.
I try to remind myself to be in the present moment in daily life. Often I did feel I was living in the present, and telling myself “how mindful I am right now.”
There was a moment during the retreat when I let go of that thought and simply experienced the present. No thoughts arose. Then it hit me: this is what it means to be truly present.
True presence means fully experiencing here and now. If I’m thinking how mindful I’m, then I’m probably not.
Suffering follows a process.
Food was my biggest craving. My mind constantly wondered when and what the next meal would be. I was kept reminded of all the food and restaurants with which I’m familiar at home — my mind would literally iterate all the restaurants I know in Seattle!
One teaching in the retreat was “dependent origination”, which explains how suffering emerges: Ignorance gives rise to contact; Contact gives rise to feeling; Feeling gives rise to craving; Craving gives rise to attachment; Attachment gives rise to suffering, which leads back to ignorance (simplified version).
Then it dawned on me that thoughts about food surfacing in my mind don’t necessarily lead to suffering; they merely start with “contact”.
The next time I noticed these thoughts, I returned my attention to my breath, instead of adding more judgement. This halted the cycle and the thoughts eventually faded.
With timely and strong enough mindfulness, we can interrupt the cycle before it leads to suffering.
Living in the present requires continual effort.
We often talk about living in the moment lightly. It may be easy to achieve that for a few transitory moments, but to sustain it we have to make efforts.
When I tried to clearly see what was going on in my mind, I noticed my attention was constantly bombarded by thoughts about the past and projections for the future. I had to make continual effort to return to my breath or to whatever task that I originally intended to do.
Craving proliferates to more cravings.
In the retreat we ate two formal meals, breakfast and lunch. At dinner time, the schedule says “herbal tea” would be served.
On the first night there was hot chocolate. “This is much better than bland, zero-calorie herbal tea,” I thought. The following nights other sweet drinks were served, but I found myself thinking every day “It would be nice if they served hot chocolate again tonight!” I thought I would be satisfied when they did.
One night, I sighted the deep, inviting brown liquid. “Wow, it’s finally here.” But I was probably satisfied for one second before the next thought rushed in: “It would be nice too if they serve soy milk!” When I noticed this thought, I laughed at my never-satisfied mind.
“Life is just one damn thing after another.”
When I rest my awareness and notice what’s happening in my mind, I notice the ceaseless sounds from insects and birds, and also the incessant thoughts, sights and feelings. They never stop and are always changing.
I tend to think the sounds are from the outside while the thoughts are from within, but from the matter of subjective experience, they're all from my consciousness, or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to notice them.
I’ve tried to cultivate a peaceful mind free of all problems, but turned out it’s not feasible (also, that state of mind can actually be quite boring).
Given that thoughts and sensations are always occurring in our minds, understanding their nature becomes crucial. Fortunately we have some control over it.
It seems there are two actions we can take 1) cultivating a mental state that allows more wholesome thoughts to enter our consciousness, and 2) releasing unwholesome thoughts when they arise.
For the first, what determines the content of consciousness? The more I observed, the more I realized these thoughts were connected to past experiences. Because I decided to come to the retreat, I was able to hear those sounds in nature. Thoughts are determined by prior causes too. Even my thoughts about the future (e.g., all the food I plan to eat and sites I aim to visit) stem from some contact with these concepts in the past. Now, out of boredom, these thoughts surface to distract me.
Since there are always appearances in our consciousness (thoughts, problems, ideas, sounds, sights), and those appearances are influenced by prior causes, it might be wise to think about how to create a condition so better things appear in our minds. We can make better choices, for example. And the consequences of those choices become the seed for future state of mind.
The idea that we’re affected by prior events may not seemed profound, but what if every choice we make becomes part of the casual chain?
If every choice matters, mindfulness can be a useful tool to cut through the unconscious choices, and we can ask ourselves whether what we’re doing aligns with what we intend to do or not.
Similarly, letting go of unwholesome thoughts also demands mindfulness. Following the above logic, unwholesome thoughts also arise due to earlier influences, not solely our actions but also genetic traits and upbringing. We can’t change the past. We can, however, decide in each present moment not to repeat them. Mindfulness needs to be constantly practiced and strong enough to prevent us from falling into habitual patterns. Meditation is the way to develop such ability.
The retreat seemed to turn my theoretical knowledge about meditation and mindfulness into personal understanding. I’m more convinced of how important it is to set aside time each day to practice. I now see mindfulness as both the method and goal towards living a good and examined life.
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