Happiness Independent of Conditions: 10 – Day Mindfulness Retreat
I just completed a 10-day retreat with Shinzen Young in California. In one of the early days of the retreat, I was having a difficult time with pain and anxiety. Towards the end of a 1.5 hour sit, I was already having incredible back and neck pain and was hoping we could end soon. With Shinzen’s instructions for “nurture positive”, I started to imagine what it would be like to be a better person who creates a life worth living, can love and serve others, and is happy independent of conditions. I was so moved with this exercise I had forgotten about the pain and anxiety and had tears in my eyes. Great, I had a single moment of relief and joy but here is my question: could this practice have lasting effects?
The answer seems to be yes. For the last 3 years, I have had experience with Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), vipassana, and Goenka-style mindfulness approaches. I have attended a 10 day Goenka-style retreat before, I have completed 4 other shorter free style vipassana retreats in addition to the teacher training in MBSR. I teach graduate course in clinical psychology titled “Mindfulness based interventions” in which students learn theoretical and applied foundations of mindfulness based interventions, mostly MBSR. In my clinical work as a psychologist, I also teach my clients basic mindfulness skills in the context of individual psychotherapy. One of the turning points in my practice was when I decided to have a regular formal daily practice. And, it made all the difference.
In clinical psychology research, when we investigate whether an intervention works, we ask the following question: What intervention, for which individual, with what specific problem, under which set of circumstances, for how long, with what negative side effects, with what external validity and how (what is the mechanism) does the intervention work? Well, the research literature has randomized controlled trials looking at the effectiveness of Mindfulness interventions, but I will just report my personal experience here.
I have seen the change as a result of daily practice in many areas of my personal life. First of all, I used to experience a medium to high level of baseline anxiety in my daily life. With anxiety, I was always thinking about and preparing for what’s next. For example, if I had 2 hours in the morning before I have to leave, I just could not productively use those 2 hours for something else, but just wasted time. I had a perception of not having enough time for anything. I never worked out regularly. I had eating binges of junk food once in a couple of months. I numbed myself watching too many hours of shows. I was overwhelmed with the stress of work. Now, if someone had told me I would complete a 15K, I would be less anxious, and be more productive with more perception of time, I would not believe them. First of all, for running a 15-K race, I would say I did not have the patience for the time it takes, tolerance for the physical pain, and enough daily exercise to prep for it or did not see the meaning of it. But, I did. I recently completed a 15K and the fact that I could complete it is a major change from where I was before. Similarly, I noticed positive changes in all the other areas.
So, coming into Shinzen’s retreat, I had a clear goal in mind. How to deepen my practice and gain the 3 benefits of practice he talks about: sensory clarity, concentration, and equanimity. Before I came to Shinzen’s retreat, I had watched several of his videos in which he described the basics of his system, called “unified mindfulness”. One of the basic standard instructions in his technique is called, “See-hear-feel” where we notice, acknowledge and label what is going on in our mental screen, talk space, and bodily, somatic experiences. What is brilliant about this techniques is the process. Since we continue to label the sensations as see-hear-feel, this process creates a positive feedback loop which wonderfully helps with concentration.
One of the structured activities in this retreat was a live phone consultation with the teacher during meditation. I go into a room, meditate for 1.5 hours and Shinzen calls me during my meditation to see if I have specific areas I would like to work on. He answers questions that come up during the practice. He offers specific suggestions and techniques on these areas of interest for my personal practice.
Another example of nurture positive techniques is formulating a positive, adaptive statement or phrase and putting it in the background as part of the talk space. For me, some examples of a positive statements include “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional, it is painful but not dangerous” “you can deal with this” “this too will pass” “all is well” to cope with pain and other difficult situations. Also, I used “this is it, enjoy the journey” to appreciate the moment.
I was also moved by Shinzen’s personal stories. He told us the story of how he failed math as a young student but later in life he succeeded in math. He quoted John von Neumann, “in mathematics, you don’t understand things. You just get used to them” as he discovered the secret of learning math and he described 3 steps in this process. First, he said he deconstructed his negative beliefs about his ability to do math even though he had factual evidence for his failure in the past. By focusing on bodily sensations, mental images, and mental talk around the belief “I am not good in math” he was able to deconstruct this automatic thought. Second, he used concentration skills to focus on persisting his efforts in sustaining attention on the topic. Finally, he expanded his identity by focusing out on other mathematicians by using all his senses. I thought this was a great example of how we could change our negative beliefs about ourselves, our capabilities and personalities.
Here are some of my other notes from the retreat:
- Meditation is like real estate: location, location, location! It is important to note and acknowledge where we have the body sensations. Also, forgetting about the concepts like, hand, arm, but focusing on where it is in the body is hepful.
- If you can’t be disciplined, be strategic.
- Subtle could be significant. To understand our emotional patterns, we may need to look more carefully at the complex automatic associations among our emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations. If we notice subtle patterns, for example one sensation triggering another thought or emotion, this could be a great opportunity to untangle these emotional difficulties.
- Having an equanimous tone of voice when labeling body sensations associated with difficulty emotions could be extremely helpful.
- Use cognitive reframing to deal with difficult situations. When we face a difficulty in practice we could reframe the situation as “this difficult situation is a great opportunity to use my skills and develop my practice”
- Emotions are all system responses, including thoughts, bodily sensations, and mental images. That means if we could change one part of it, we could change the whole system.
Having an unbroken practice in a retreat for several hours may be tiring. But it is also easier to practice in a much simpler and well structured environment surrounded by motivated people and a great teacher than to practice in our frenzied daily lives, interacting with people in a much more complicated and emotionally loaded environment. This was a very special retreat where I learned several very helpful techniques and ideas on how to make my practice continuous and deeper.
Shinzen is a great teacher who developed a comprehensive system with specific techniques that work. I very much appreciated Shinzen’s teaching style that included his personal stories, examples, history, science, and theoretical background of applied techniques. I hope to continue with the teacher training of this program.