In 1988, in an effort to explore the Buddhist path, I decided to do a month long silent meditation retreat in the forests of Vermont.  It was a stretch.  Outside of a few weekends of meditation I had never tried to practice for so long.

I walked up the road to the meditation center filled with anxiety, not knowing if I could do it.  To meditate for twelve hours a day, thirty days in a row, was really intimidating.  I felt like I was entering a spiritual boot camp, and put undue pressure on myself because failing was not an option.

I was greeted warmly and given instructions on the program.  For this month long silent meditation retreat, the group would start meditating at 6:00 A.M. and finish at 10:00 P.M.  We even ate our meals in meditation.  The only time off was during work period, and a half-hour after each meal.

Determined To Do It Right!

Being an over-achiever I was determined to do this program right.  I showed up for each session, followed the rules, and did my best to be a good meditator.  I found the days grueling.  The first thing to fall apart was my body.  My knees throbbed, my back ached, and my ankles were killing me.  I had been assigned a seat in the front row, and even though the instructions were not to tough it out physically (we could do whatever we needed to stay reasonably comfortable), I was damned if I was going to let others see me squirm.  A few people even said to me that they noticed I never moved.  I was getting a reputation as a “good meditator” simply because of my posture and I had to uphold that.  This attitude, however, made me the worst meditator.  I had developed a competitive attitude and a ridiculous sense of pride.

Is Anybody Else Going Through This?

Not only did my body hurt but my mind was going crazy.  Thoughts were flying through my mind with a frequency and velocity I could hardly bear.  The memory of some previous blissful TM experiences was lifetimes away, and after seven days I began to doubt that I could complete the retreat.  What made it worse was that it seemed I was the only one going through this anguish.  We were in silence so I wasn’t able share my heartache with others, nor determine how they were doing.

Nighttime Escape

My only sense of comfort was plopping into bed at the end of these grinding days, when I could finally indulge my discursive mind. The meditation instruction was to label the thoughts that arose in my mind as “thinking,” and that was hard work.  But night time was my time.  I would leave the rigors of the day behind to feast on my delicious thoughts.  It was almost a mutiny against the instruction. I looked forward to my evening banquets where no one but my thoughts were invited, and where I could escape the discipline of these interminable days.

After the first week my body started to soften and the pain became workable.  My attitude of not moving in meditation made it unnecessarily difficult, but I thought I could make it to the end of the retreat.  After twelve days it got worse.  I began to notice that the momentum of all the labeling, the force of the meditation technique, was starting to extend into my bedtime.  For a few nights I was able to keep it out, but as the days passed and the technique took on momentum, I could no longer keep meditation from entering my post-meditation world.  My only avenue of escape had been cut off.

I was anxious, unable to control my mind.  My mind went ballistic as part of me tried to indulge my thoughts and the other part kept labeling whatever arose in my mind as “thinking.”  I had read that meditation releases the demons buried within you.  Maybe it was true.

Let Me Out of Here

In the darkness and solitude of one dreadful night, alone with my uncontrollable mind, I was in a state of panic.  I had no idea what was happening to me.  I thought about waking up my meditation instructor but had no idea how to find him.  I lay in a cold sweat all night, making the pledge that when the sun arose I would leave the retreat.  It has been said that religion is for those who are afraid of hell, while spirituality is for those who have been through hell.  I had no idea that spirituality could put you through hell.

At daybreak I called my wife, and through tears of embarrassment and dejection told her that I could not complete the program.  I packed my bags, but as a gesture of courtesy decided to tell my meditation instructor I was leaving.  My eyes were red and swollen from crying all night, so before I met him I went to the bathroom to stuff my pockets full of tissue paper.  Tears would surely flow when we met.

My meditation instructor was a good one.  As we sat across from each other in the interview room, I broke down.  He didn’t say anything, but looked at me with incredible kindness, providing the space for me to express my pain, my fear, and my embarrassment.  I had tried so hard to keep it together for the last thirteen days but I just couldn’t anymore.  I tried to be a good meditator, yet he was seeing me for what I truly was — a failure.

Where Are the Feelings of Panic Coming From?

I told him there was no way I was going back into that shrine room and that this path was not for me.  I poured out the pain of the evening before, and the repressed heartache of the past two weeks.  After listening with patience, he told me that of course I could leave.  But he asked me one thing: “Where do these feelings of panic come from?”  I told him that I felt it in my stomach and my head and . . . .   He interrupted me and asked again, “No, that’s not what I mean.  Where do these thoughts come from?”  I told him that they probably come from my childhood, perhaps from my parents or . . .  He stopped me again, and said, “You might want to take a closer look.”

At this point the flood of emotion stopped.  I asked him, “What do you mean?”  He said, “Why don’t you find out for yourself?  Look, you can leave now if you want, that’s not a problem.  But you can’t get a ride out of here for a few hours, so why don’t you have some breakfast?”  He had gently pulled me out of myself, and started to reach something deeper than my pain.  He made a suggestion: “If you feel up for it, I want you to consider something.  I want you to consider going in just for the morning session.  I know it may not be easy, but you might want to give it a try.  If you go in, and still want to leave after the session, you have my blessing.  Have some breakfast and then decide.”

I left the room reflecting on his suggestion and went to get some food.  I kept my head down, fearing that others would see I had been crying, and ate alone outside.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was set on leaving, yet the calm confidence of my meditation instructor was haunting me.  I looked out across the lush forest and decided that if I could get through four sessions a day for the past thirteen days, I could probably do one more.

Looking

When the gong started to signal our line-up for entering the shrine room, my heart began to pound.  I told myself I would give it a few minutes in the shrine hall and if I didn’t like what was happening, “reputation” or not, I would leave.  It took more courage to enter that meditation hall and face my mind than it did with any previous event.  I looked up and saw my meditation instructor at the front of the line, opening the door.  Catching my eye, he gave me a reassuring smile.  I went in, walked to my front row cushion, and sat down.  I had nothing left.  I had been up all night, cried myself dry, and sat there utterly spent.  I finally just gave up.

Within a few minutes my mind settled.  I began to look at the feelings that remained and to ask myself the question my instructor had posed: where is this feeling coming from?  I really looked and tried to find its source.  I could not.  Every time I looked I found nothing.  I eventually gave up just rested in the space that was the “answer.”  I found myself dropping into that same mysterious atmosphere I stumbled into years earlier.  My breathing became quiet, every thought evaporated, and I descended into a pool of tranquility.

The morning session lasted three hours and for most of it I sat in deep meditation.  My pain was gone, my thoughts and emotions were gone — there was just the silence of being present in sacred space.

Both Sides

I finished the retreat and have completed many more, including the traditional Tibetan three-year retreat.  In my work as a meditation instructor for the past 30 years, I have heard countless stories about the struggles of spiritual practice, and the ways both young and old students work with their spiritual and psychological pain.  In my practice as a doctor of dental surgery, and years of volunteer health care work in third world countries, I have also witnessed, and worked to alleviate, physical pain.  This combination of spiritual and material experience has allowed me to explore hardship in intimate detail, and to discover that the darkest of times often points to the brightest of lights.  And that even pain, or perhaps especially pain, can be deeply spiritual.

Even after thirty years of practice there are times when I am the most unstable meditator, one day enjoying the fruits of the path, and the next day lost in discouragement and doubt.  These experiences have inspired me to reconcile the highs with the lows.  Why does a path that bestows such bliss also bowl us over with such pain?  Why does it have to hurt so much?  Why is it such hard work?  It is my purpose in this book to explore these questions.  The Tibetan teacher Anam Thubten writes:

“There is no magic wand, so it is very common to lose that initial love that we had with our spiritual practice.  Spirituality is not about fixing all of our problems and the earlier we find out about this, the less disappointment we are going to face.  We have to let go of all of these fantasies. . .  If we hang on to them, we often run into disappointment and that can sometimes create a huge obstacle to inner awakening.  It can completely draw us away from the path.”

Balance

The key to a good journey on the spiritual path is balance. Look at nature: during the course of twenty-four hours it is light half the time and dark half the time.  To reject the night is to reject reality itself.  The path is about learning how to accept and work with darkness and the inevitable hardships of life just as much as it is about learning how to work with joy.  The eleventh-century sage Padampa Sangey said, “Approach all that you find repulsive!  Anything you are attracted to, Let go of it!”

If we lose our balance we fall off the path, retarding our progress.  It is my aspiration to help us work with these two extremes, thereby coming to understand the roller-coaster ride that awaits us along this transcendent but challenging path.

If You Are Considering a Month Long Silent Meditation Retreat

It’s not for everyone. However if you have had some experience with meditation and want to take your practice to the next level, it can be a life changing experience.  Feel free to reach out to me at andrew@andrewholecek.com and I would be happy to answer any questions and recommend some retreat centers.

Related reading:

Meditation is Difficult Because Waking Up Hurts

Shamatha Meditation Instruction

Excerpted from Andrew’s book, The Power and The Pain; Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy,

Transforming Spiritual Hardship Into Joy

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