How a Silent Meditation Retreat Rejiggered My Sense Of Self

Which mind are you, anyway?

Yours truly, heading into retreat. 

“Meditation isn’t a sedative,” my teacher explained. “It’s a laxative.” And if you’re lucky, she added, you get the right things flushed out of you.

This—an irreverent bit of Buddhist advice—came at just the right time. It was, if I recall correctly, day three of a week-long silent meditation retreat at Dai Botatsu, a zendo on the highest lake in the Catskills in Upstate New York. And the thing about a silent retreat, as anyone who has dipped their toe into such a thing will tell you, is that it’s only outwardly quiet. In my head, and I can assume in the heads of the earnest practitioners around me, things were loud. Real loud.

In Zen Buddhism, the tradition that’s been pummeling me with wisdom over the last year and a half, the name for a summer retreat like this is sesshin. Thanks to the beautiful ambiguities within the Japanese language and the subtleties of translation, sesshin can be rendered as both “the mind meets itself” as well as “the heart meets itself.” But this kind of meeting isn’t always, how do you say, the most cordial of things. Thankfully I had the silent support of my fellow intronauts of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care.

My heart, mind, or whatever you want to call the inside of the self was going a bit bananas because of a recent, very positive, romantic entanglement. Without getting into the gory details, it’s enough to say that my mind, with decades of experience in worrying about things, was occupying a good chunk of its time trying to suss out what could go right and what could go wrong—vividly illustrating the muddy relationship between romanticism and neuroticism.

Nothing like a still lake to put the flotsam of your brain into stark relief. 

I brought this up to my teacher, a former dancer who is now, in her later years, an official Zen sensei. Her advice: “Keep coming back to one. One is home. One is where all of your strength, and all of your gentleness reside.” The one she was speaking of is simple enough: in my meditation practice, I count my breaths up to ten. If I reach double digits, or if, more likely, my attention wanders off and I lose my place, I start over at one. Before this retreat, I had always done so with a bit of chagrin, a smidgen of shame—there I go again, doing something wrong.

Zen Buddhists make a big deal about the difference between the “conditioned” and “unconditioned” mind, and for good reason. Your conditioned mind, a Western psychologist might agree, is the stuff of your conditioning—the experiences (read: traumas) you had as a kid, an adolescent, or an adult. Attachment theory, a rather revolutionary field within relational psychology, holds that our early experiences of relationships frame not only how we relate to other people, but how we relate to ourselves, thus coloring much of our lives. Perfectionism, as clinical psychologists recently explained to me, is a sort of disordered attachment—as kids, many perfectionists never felt like they were good enough for their parents, and they arrive into adulthood with an often brutal relationship with themselves. In what’s something of an internalization of the perceived parental gaze, perfectionists have difficulty ever finding themselves to be good enough, compared to some imagined standard. Such is the power of conditioning: it can be so absorbing , and so familiar, that you don’t even know it’s there—it’s like explaining water to fish. Until you realize, like the poet says, that “this is water.”

The unconditioned stands in still contrast to that messy noise, and one of the fundamental tasks of Zen practice is to get intimately familiar with your own unconditioned-ness, which is what sensei was instructing me to do. It’s as simple as it is profound: with four and a-half hours of formal meditation a day, and otherwise maintaining silence through the rest of the day, you’re either experiencing the swirling vicissitudes of your conditioning or, for spells of time, you’re gliding along the coolness of your own mental clarity like a swan on a lake. 

The path up to the zendo. 

Over time, this intimacy with your own experiential stream creates a meta-cognitive, almost aesthetic awareness of when you’re lost in thought—that is, in your conditioning—and when you’re directly experiencing the immediate situation of your life, or the unconditioned mind, in the language of the practice. With that, a shift of allegiance starts to happen: you start to invest less of your identity in the narratives that your conditioned mind unspools, what’s called “decentering” in the cognitive behavioral therapy literature. Instead, you start to feel like the “real you” is in that peaceful direct experience, if a “real you” exists at all, though those are deeper philosophical waters than we need to get into here.

To neuroscientists, that kind of narrative-free, unconditioned experience slots under the rather ominous—and devastatingly Buddhist—label of ego dissolution, or “a reduction in the self-referential awareness that defines normal waking consciousness.” Scary as it might sound, it’s evidently super positive: that dissolution is correlated with reductions in anxiety and depression, and smoking cessation rates that double those of pharmaceutical interventions , among a host of other positive effects. Ego dissolution has a way of “extracting the patient from his or her usual patterns of thought and contemplat[ing] upon them from a vantage point,” Enzo Tagliazucchi, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, told me in an earlier interview. When you’re not immersed in your autobiography, you can see your life more clearly, honestly, and maybe even compassionately.

The Demon Fighting Factory. 

This, I think, captures the flavor of what happened for me on the retreat. I started to be a little less hypnotized by my own anxieties. In open sozan, a group debrief where everybody take turns sharing their experiences for one minute, I referred to the zendo as a “demon fighting factory”: a place that, with the support of community, and the guidance of teachers, you can spot the ghosts that have long haunted you, and flush them out.

Now I realize why Zen poetry is populated with morning dew, mountain lakes, and wasabi, all things that bring freshness to mind—because, I now realize, the point of practice is to become at ease, and even trust, the dewy rawness of present moment after present moment after present moment. You drop the story, and keep coming back to one.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


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