Retreating Into Meditation


At the moment this post is published--Monday evening--I'm probably miserable. But I can't say for sure.

Monday is the third full day of a week-long silent meditation retreat I'm attending. Since being on a silent meditation retreat means cutting off all contact with the world, I had to write this post before the retreat started. But since this isn't my first week-long meditation retreat, I can with some confidence predict how I'll be feeling three days into it. And it's not a great feeling.

As I put it a couple of years ago in a piece I wrote about my first meditation retreat:

We spent 5.5 hours per day in sitting meditation, 5.5 hours per day in walking meditation. By day three I was feeling achy, far from nirvana and really, really sick of the place.

I was sick of my 5 a.m. "yogi job" (vacuuming), I was sick of the bland vegetarian food, and I wasn't especially fond of all those Buddhists with those self-satisfied looks on their faces, walking around serenely like they knew something I didn't know (which, it turns out, they did).

Since that first retreat, in 2003, I've been on two more, not counting this latest one. And the pattern is fairly general: Tough first few days, followed by something much better--and, at its best, much, much, much better.

If you're curious about what I mean by "better," you can read the account that the passage above is taken from. But, as I re-read that account now, it strikes me as not doing a great job of capturing why a meditation retreat can be worth the early days of frustration.

I mean, the warm, fuzzy feelings I describe in that account are genuine--they were definitely part of the payoff. What I failed to convey is the sense in which these feelings, though warm and fuzzy, are the product of a sharp, even cold, clarity; I failed to really explain why there's such good reason to believe that the state of consciousness a meditation retreat can induce, though off-kilter by comparison with what we think of as normal consciousness, may actually bring a more trenchant, truthful apprehension of the world than normal consciousness affords. After I return from this retreat, I'll try to do a better job of explaining what I mean. Meanwhile, any readers who want to plant the seeds for my post-retreat ruminations with questions or comments should feel free to leave them below.

[Postscript: I've found that when I write about the uncomfortable parts of a meditation retreat, I sometimes get blowback from commenters who say that I should quit whining and be grateful that I have the opportunity to sit around meditating while other people are working for a living. So I want to emphasize that I agree that a meditation retreat is ultimately a kind of luxury, and I feel lucky to be able to attend one every now and then. Still, you'd be surprised how unpleasant sitting around doing nothing can be.]

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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