25 January, 2021
If you're feeling unproductive during coronavirus, this option is always available to you: lock yourself in your room for ten days, eat nothing but brown rice and black beans and meditate all day.
The ten day online meditation retreat I just took was as painful as it sounds, but at the same time much better than you would expect. There were moments where I thought I might never feel fear or suffering for the rest of my life, but those too passed. This is no silver bullet to life. More like swallowing a pill the size of your fist.
Throughout those ten days I wondered, as you probably are right now, why the hell I decided to do this. Why cause myself the most intense boredom, leg pain, hunger, frustration that I had in my life? Why listen to some strange man with an uncanny mix of guru and entrepreneur tell me about my conditioning. The kind of person whose eye contact pierces through you, even through a computer screen. It feels like he's trying to sell you something, something other than just this meditation retreat, and he could if he wanted to.
In between points of genuine peace and happiness (laughing for 30 minutes for no reason, reliving the best moments of my life) there were low points. It was a coin-flip whether I'd work through the pain of sitting in the same position for an hour to feel peaceful in spite of it, or that I had accomplished nothing but frying my nervous system with pain and intense emotion, essentially torturing myself.
But coming out of the other end of these cycles of pain, I realized I had learned something each time. I had gone through the hardest thing I could experience, taking myself to the point where I couldn't take it anymore. Needing to give up.
We all know that the tragedies and trauma of life teach us about it the most. Eventually boredom invites you to be curious, breakups teach you to appreciate, and death brings urgency. But it is nearly impossible to keep this larger cycle in mind when going through our misfortunes.
I was forced to experience directly what I most hated to think about, what I most deeply feared, and the feelings that made me want to punch a wall the most. And so I got ten days, ten cycles of watching my mind intensely wanting to move, use my phone, eat eggs, argue about politics, and give up. But also repeatedly seeing myself eventually get to bed, somehow unharmed.
I don't think it is crucial, although at times I thought it was, that all my friends now go on this retreat. But I did have a special opportunity to be forced to experience, and not just know my least favorite things.
I already knew about my constant need to be entertained, to be loved, my fear of death, the way the mole on my pinky must mean I have melanoma. But directly experiencing them in their worst form when you can't run from them, and seeing them all eventually pass gave me an opportunity to change my identity, the real necessary change to change any of your behavior.
You may be someone who too often fears small social interactions like me: I can not help but worry about talking to my barber or calling a stranger on the phone. And although knowing that about myself should help me overcome it, these kind of things often become self-limiting beliefs, negative habits of fear we use to protect ourselves. Do you really not like to dance or are you still too scared from that time you felt intensely uncomfortable about it in middle school?
To change the shortcomings that we know we should change about ourselves, we often need a painful moment in our life that forces us to suffer through them completely. In experiencing their eventual passing, we see that these worries, fear, and pain are not essential to our identity. I still worry about most of the same things, but I directly experienced how useless that worry is, and how it doesn't describe me, the me in this moment, but describes my previous patterns of behavior. It describes a long line of preceding me's who I have the choice whether to identify with.
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