Earlier this year, I attended my first Vipassana retreat. From 4am to 9pm for 10 days, with brief stops for breakfast and lunch, I meditated. Multiple times each day, I was reminded of the impermanence of existence (annica) and the importance of creating consistency with a meditation practice.
Although this was my debut retreat, I’ve been meditating for six years. I’m well-versed. The discipline required for 10 days of noble silence was manageable. The experience renewed my vigour, as I found myself grounded, grateful, and connected to the wildlife of the German countryside, determined to stick to the recommended practice of one hour, twice per day.
As I left, I told myself: the results are worth it. I can do this.
And I did. For a number of weeks, I’d wake up, stretch, spend an hour on the mat, and feel a sense of fulfillment. Each evening I’d do the same.
S. N. Goenka — who taught the technique posthumously through recorded audio and nightly Dharma talks — would be proud of my effort and determination.
A sudden break
But two hours became increasingly challenging. After a month, I reduced to two 45-minute meditations. That’s better, I thought.
But I was ignoring warning signs; my practice, which has given me so much inner-freedom and joy, was becoming a chore. I was more committed to the idea of commitment than the practice itself.
The low hum of discontent grew as sitting in meditation felt burdensome over the following months. Then, one day, I stopped. The desire to meditate dissipated. I was experiencing the meditative equivalent of burnout. I’d overextended myself, ignored the signs, failed to check in with myself.
Aware of the ups and downs of the spiritual path, I decided to listen to this sense of apathy, to flow with it and trust the path I was taking. This led to a complete detox from the practice, without allowing myself to fall into the trap of guilt.
My hiatus was necessary, and taught me an important lesson.
Meditation is experiential
As soon as meditation is intellectualized, we move away from the realm of genuine meditation. The trouble is, our minds love to intellectualize. Talking or thinking about meditation can be addictive, entertaining.
During my break, I realized that I’d moved away from the practice itself and was conceptualizing the results. I wasn’t open-minded or ready to experience. I was sitting with the expectation I’d feel better, calmer, clearer, through meditation, but these expectations led to disappointment, frustration, and a sense of entitlement.
Enter the paradox of meditation
Yes, peace of mind is often the outcome, but only when we let go of the desire for peace of mind. During the Vipassana retreat, I’d surrendered to learning the technique. The benefits took care of themselves. But in the months following, I’d developed a craving for the benefits, instead of allowing them to arise naturally.
My unplanned break illuminated this issue through the opposite experience. Because I wasn’t meditating, my expectations reduced. But rather than feel irritable or distracted, I was more grounded, calmer. Without the safety net of morning meditation, I was instinctively mindful throughout the day, bringing a sense of ease and flow.
Upon reflection, having sat for 45 minutes or an hour in the morning, I created a sense of “I’ve done my part for the day” and stopped paying as much attention to mindful practice throughout the day.
Additionally, my expectation of calm created resistance to anything other than calm — such as anxiety or unease — thus making those symptoms increase via inner tension.
Energised by this realization, I returned to my practice. This time, though, I maintained a sense of playful curiosity, a crucial element of the Beginner’s Mind.
I made sure I wasn’t being enticed by expectation, but re-focused on the technique and let go of expectations of outcome. With a new sense of ease, my enthusiasm returned.
As a big believer that everything unfolds exactly as it should on the spiritual path, I see my hiatus as an important reminder to avoid complacency. It’s a reminder of duplicity of ego traps, of the tendency for craving, attachment, and expectations to find their way into spiritual practices.
Above all, it offers a reminder of the core ethos of mindfulness — equanimity and acceptance. It’s a reminder that, sometimes, loosening your grip is the best way to continue to grow.