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 The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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