I just returned from 10 days of silence on an Insight (Vipassana) Meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. This is not the first time I’ve done such a radical thing. In fact, it was the 15th time I've sat in silence for anywhere from a week to a month since I stepped onto this path in 1988.
There are so many things to write about following an experience such as this, but not because I’m aching to talk after being silent for 10 days. In fact I plan to avoid talking as much as possible for the next few days. Unless you’ve spent a significant amount of time in silence, it’s impossible to know just how agitating talking can be.
I call it the vipassana hangover. After just 30 minutes of conversation following the retreat, I felt edgy and uprooted, with an incipient headache tapping at my forehead—much like the more popular alcohol-induced hangover. I wanted nothing more than to get back on my cushion, close my eyes and reconnect with the simplicity of each inhalation and exhalation—and of course whatever else happened to be occurring at the moment.
So spending seven hours in the San Francisco airport was not what I’d envisioned for my transition back into the fast-paced, high-intensity world we all inhabit. Fluorescent lights, aggressive air conditioning, people in a big hurry, flight delays—all these things feel especially harsh when you’ve spent 10 days dismantling the armor that shields us from everyday sensual bombardment.
But our lives do not unfold in hothouse conditions. If I’d wanted to test the value of 10 days of meditation, this was one pretty effective way to do it.
Things Are As They Are
Insight meditation is not about throwing feel-good platitudes at the harshness of the world. It is not about achieving blissful states and then somehow making them stay forever. The practice is about seeing and being with things as they are. Were the fluorescent lights, air conditioning, hubbub and flight delays pleasant? Of course not. And I felt their harshness more acutely yesterday than I would have in any other situation.
But here’s the thing: As I paid attention to the unpleasant sensations, they just came and went, as all sensations and thoughts do in every moment of our lives. My mind did not create further drama by taking it all personally, or getting angry or upset. It was simply what was happening in that moment, and despite the unpleasant nature of it, it was really okay. In fact, while the conditions were about 180 degrees from the serenity of Spirit Rock, seven hours of sitting in an airport is actually a pretty luxurious chunk of time to have nothing to do but practice.
So while the airport would not have been my first choice for a peaceful transition, it was truly no better or worse than anywhere else I could have spent the day. Sensation is sensation, no matter whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The silent yoga mind does not depend on external conditions, those thoughts, sensations and emotions rolling by in each moment. It depends on allowing the flow of those conditions without hindering them by grasping at the pleasant ones or resisting the unpleasant ones. Flight delays and fluorescent lights are part of life. I’m grateful to my practice for preparing me to navigate them with equanimity.