Last week, I went to a 5 day silent retreat in Western Massachusetts with Josh Summers as part of my enrollment in the Summers School of Yin Yoga. I am still digesting the experience. When I was on the road home, my girlfriend asked “am I talking to Peter 2.0?” I said it was less like the difference between these two guys:
and more like the difference between these two:
In other words, while it was a significant event, it wasn’t a dramatic, life-changer for me. I didn’t come back and immediately quit my job, break up with my girlfriend, stop smoking, etc. (No, I haven’t started smoking, and therefore I haven’t stopped, either. (Nor have I stopped beating my wife.)) That said, there are subtle improvements, new tools and techniques, and knowledge was gained.
The retreat was in the vipassana style, although more relaxed in most ways. We woke every morning at 6AM, sat in meditation 6 times a day for 30 minutes, broken up by 30 minute walking meditation sessions, recollective journaling, meals, dharma talks, chores, and more reflection.
On the first night there, I felt intense pain between my shoulder blades. I first thought that this was caused by the 200 kettle bell swings I’d done two days prior in the morning Krav Maga practice. After downing painkillers and sleep aids, I slept it off and the next day it was fine. The next day, my teacher noted this sort of phenomenon was common, and he himself often experienced it. “Hah!” I thought to myself. “Already checked that box!” Little did I Know that my mind wasn’t done trying to torture me, because two days later, when the weather had finally cooled and the conditions were optimal for a run, it returned. This time, it came back on the right side, and manifested as a searing blade that stabbed with every step I took. I didn’t get 0.10 miles before I had to stop and try to massage the knot out against a telephone poll, which didn’t work. I sheepishly limped back to the retreat center and stewed, all the time repeating “this is pain, and it’s like this. This is pain, and it’s like this. his is pain, and it F***ING SUCKS!” After discussing this in a small group during our afternoon session, the pain vanished and I was again able to do a 2 mile run uphill with no pain.
Similarly, other pains manifested in almost all sitting sessions, normally in the knees and hips. Depending on how I sat, my whole right leg would fall asleep from the hip down to the toes. Over time, I ended up sitting in seiza, which proved to be most sustainable. In seiza, I was usually able to sit for around 25 minutes before discomfort began to settle in. Coincidentally, this is when the meditation sessions would usually start to “get good.” Go figure – the mindbody was trying to distract me just when the good stuff began. Huh.
So what is the “good stuff?” Apparently it’s different, yet similar, for everyone. In my experience, I feel more relaxed, calm, and able to focus after a good session. Other people report stories similar to dreams, conversations with family, friends, and coworkers, and lots of other stuff. If you’re interested in a number of different accounts, I recommend reading Jason Siff’s book, Unlearning Meditation.
The technique I usually used is best described in the aforementioned text, although I often reverted to tagging/noting, metta (loving kindness), and body scans when I felt the need to. As the week progressed, the sessions became easier, with the final session Sunday morning flying by with zero discomfort.
I’ve managed to wake up, caffeinate, and meditate every day since the retreat, and will continue to do so. I also plan to try doubling a normal sit time (to an hour) once a week. Wish me luck.