How an intensive ten-day meditation retreat could transform your life for the better

Summer holidays driving you crazy? A silent retreat might be the answer

Zoe Schlanger
Wednesday 19 August 2015 01:00 BST
Peace movement: more than anything, Vipassana meditation is about training the brain to quieten down – to not react on impulse alone
Peace movement: more than anything, Vipassana meditation is about training the brain to quieten down – to not react on impulse alone (Alamy)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It was 5:30 in the morning on my third day of silent meditation when I noticed something in me take a sharp turn left. I was groggy, frustrated by my inability to sit still and hungry for the breakfast that was still an hour off. I got up from the spot on the floor of my bedroom where I’d been attempting to meditate and walked outside, to the new-growth woods behind the residential quarters at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Shelburne, Massachusetts. It was springtime, and the outdoors seemed spring-loaded with potential: the buds on the trees were sharp little things, and hundreds of fuzzy fiddlehead ferns dotted the forest floor, curled snug. I walked down a little looping path that stopped unsatisfyingly soon; “course boundary” signs curtailed my meandering to an area the size of a soccer field. Exercise, like so many things here, was not permitted.

For the past three days, a brass bell had woken me at 4am, along with the 129 others who had committed to this 10-day silent saga. We meditated, with guidance, for roughly 10 hours a day, broken up by meals and “free time”, which was free only in the sense that we weren’t meditating. We weren’t allowed to read or write, speak to one another, make communicative gestures or even look at one another in the eye. So we all paced the small loop in the woods, staring at trees, careful not to acknowledge one another’s existence. No nodding, no smiling.

During free time after lunch, I walked outside to find a cluster of women standing in the courtyard stock-still, eyes closed, faces tilted toward the sun, looking posed for alien abduction. One woman wore a Nirvana band T-shirt, presumably without irony. I began to giggle, a major transgression, but I couldn’t help it. It all seemed so ridiculous. What the hell was I doing here? There’s no way, I thought, that this silent sitting around, this utter lack of mental stimulation, could be benefiting my brain. I briefly entertained the idea that this was all one massive 2,500-years-running placebo effect. I went over my previous few days in my mind. I looked back at the women. Is this what it felt like to be brainwashed? Was I mid-brainwashing? Would someone being brainwashed question whether she was being brainwashed? No, I finally told myself, I wasn’t being brainwashed; I was being silly. I turned away and stood outside in the sun for a while, in silence, and resigned myself to the idea of another week of this.

In the past few years, the human quest for self-optimisation has collided with improving mobile technology to produce more than 100,000 health apps for smartphones. The mobile market research firm Research2Guidance estimates that mHealth apps, as they’re called, will be a $26bn industry by 2017. Other popular apps claim to make you smarter. Then there’s the burgeoning field of DIY biohacking, led by trans-cranial direct-current. This involves strapping electrodes to one’s head and running a low dose of electricity through the brain. The therapeutic potential appears enormous, and for the DIY crowd, a central appeal is neuroenhancement – the potential to prompt clear-headed focus and amp up cognitive functions. But all these interventions are temporary, rely on devices and paid services, and are relatively unproven. What if the ultimate neuroenhancing biohack is 2,500 years old and costs nothing?

A few years ago, a computer scientist and a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona enrolled 45 human resources managers in a trial: a third took eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, a third took eight weeks of body relaxation training and the rest had no training at all. All three groups were given “stressful multi-tasking” tests before and after the eight-week period; and those in the mindful-meditation group were able to sustain their focus longer than the other groups and reported feeling less stressed.

The brain changes functionally and structurally all the time, taking in lessons from and responding to the stimulus of daily life. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity. But what if you could determine the way your brain changes? For years, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, has referred to the neurological effects of meditation as “rewiring the brain”.

Most of the time, he says, “our brains are constantly being shaped by forces around us of which we are really not aware or dimly aware”. But research suggests that meditators (he’s one) are able to intentionally guide that process – and such research has exploded in recent years. In 1980, there were just three papers published on the topic. In 2014, there were 535. One found that meditators appear to lose less grey matter over time than their non-meditating counterparts. Another suggested regular meditation may “reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal ageing”. A third, from 2012, found that long-term meditators may develop more gyrification, or “folding,” of the cortex, which is associated with faster mental processing – and the more years a person meditates, the higher the degree. A fourth found evidence of increased thickness in the areas of the brain associated with attention and awareness of sensations and emotions in oneself and others. A fifth went so far as to suggest that regular meditation might help you grow more brain.

One technique seems especially promising. Vipassana is the Buddhist meditation technique on which the now wildly popular Westernised concept of “mindfulness” is based. Henepola Gunaratana, an influential Buddhist monk, once described it as “looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing”.

Buddhist monks meditate at the yard of Borobudur temple in Magelang, Indonesia (Getty)
Buddhist monks meditate at the yard of Borobudur temple in Magelang, Indonesia (Getty) (Getty Images)

More than anything else, Vipassana meditation is about training the brain to quieten down – to not react on impulse alone. (You might think you’re not impulsive, but the next time a fly lands on your neck, watch how fast you swat it.) These sorts of knee-jerk reactions extend into the emotional realm. When something negative happens, or whenever we crave something, be it a cigarette or the approval of a peer, we react without thinking. And that creates habit patterns that ensure the mind will react in exactly the same way the next time a similar scenario arises.

Here’s where meditation begins to show itself as a biohacking marvel. Learning how to interrupt one’s reaction pattern – and then doing that over and over – can reshape behaviour. And if behaviour is changing, then the brain is changing, says Katie Witkiewitz, a clinical psychology researcher who has studied the potential for mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to cure addiction among prison inmates.

The crux of MBSR is learning to pause when one ordinarily wouldn’t, observe what’s happening in one’s body and then move forward. Witkiewitz set up three randomised medical trials in which people suffering from various addictions enrolled in MBSR programmes modelled on a secularised version of Vipassana – no stories about the life of the Buddha – and the results, she says, were “amazing”. Meditation led to “significant reductions in drug use, heavy drinking and cravings, and significant improvement in mental health”.

I found out about Vipassana in the winter of 2014, in the midst of a break-up of the sort that upends every part of one’s life. I was hungry for anything that might stabilise me when a cousin came back from a Vipassana retreat exuding an enviable sense of calm. She listened quietly as I babbled over brunch about the minutiae of my relationship drama and ticked off all the ways I needed to radically change my life. She said the retreat taught her to “be OK with what’s going on now”. I shrivelled a little. Was my distress that obvious?

I had never meditated before, but I enrolled for the course. (The retreat, like all Vipassana programmes, was free, funded by donations from and run by a rotating cast of former students.) While I waited, I watched “mindful living” – based on Vipassana traditions – have its media moment. And six months later, I got the call.

By the third morning of meditating, my mind was still flailing wildly, jumping from one thought to the next to avoid being quieted. I felt as though I were being dragged around by a petulant child. The more I desired a quiet mind, the more wildly flamboyant my distractions became. As soon as I’d managed to banish the choruses of the last five songs I’d played on Spotify before the retreat began, up came a few bars from Christina Aguilera’s Spanish-language rendition of “Come on Over”.

Then my thoughts turned abstract. With eyes closed, I focused on the dark outline of my eye sockets inside my eyelids. Bad move. Within moments, swirls of blue and yellow gyrated around the vague form of two ovals. I was kind of impressed; resisting quietude with a psychedelic light show is downright slick, really.

As calmly as I could, I pushed the light show aside and began to observe my galloping thoughts with detached amusement. There they were, charging around. What a ridiculous spectacle. Slowly, the clamour dimmed. And after that, the meditation got easier.

Two days later, I walked outside. My morning meditation had gone relatively well, I thought, and I felt calm and concerned only with what was happening in the present. I saw a bird’s nest cradled in a crook of a large, leafless bush about my height a few yards from the door. As I leaned in to peer into the nest, the bare branches filled my field of vision. A second passed as my eyes adjusted to the sunlight and focused on the empty bowl of the nest. As soon as they did, dozens of fat black ants came into focus too, scuttling up and down the branches in every corner of my field of vision. I was watching the ants without shifting my gaze from the bird’s nest. The whole scene, peripheral vision included, was unnervingly crisp. It was like watching a scene in Imax, every corner in laser focus.

All in the mind: the crux of meditation is learning to pause when you ordinarily wouldn’t, observe what’s happening in the body and then move forward (Getty)
All in the mind: the crux of meditation is learning to pause when you ordinarily wouldn’t, observe what’s happening in the body and then move forward (Getty) (Getty Images)

For the remainder of the retreat, walking in the woods was a sensory field day. I could see the fuzz on the slowly unfurling fiddleheads from yards away. For the first time in my life, I heard the dead leaves on the forest floor settling on one another. One afternoon, I watched a nuthatch land on a tree trunk, and I could hear its talons make contact with the bark. Nearby, water not more than an inch deep moved languidly along a ditch. I could hear that too.

When I got home, New York was briefly unmanageable. I felt daunted by conversation, and socialising was unappealing. But I soon readjusted to the speaking world, and started noticing little, perhaps permanent, changes. When I faced my morning commute, I was less filled with the sense of existential malaise that used to come when I was wedged between two sets of shoulders, my forehead knocking lightly against the backpack of the person ahead of me. Now it didn’t seem so bad. All these people were just trying to get to work too.

My impulse to fill pauses in conversations was toned down, and time slowed down a bit too, because I was paying more attention to things as they happened. My typical obsessive interest in thinking about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life also seemed reduced, along with my equally large drive to rehash recent social interactions and pick them apart for errors on my part. Perhaps biggest of all, the animosity toward my ex evaporated.

I decided to test out whether what I was feeling would translate to a real-life interaction, so I arranged for us to meet for a coffee a week later; the first meeting since our split. As we chatted, I prodded myself mentally, searching for the familiar hurt and ill will. It wasn’t there. Learning to let go of negativity sounds Hallmark-level trite, but there it was.

And there’s more. Before the retreat, someone suggested I get my thyroid and cortisol levels tested. Since both can be tied to stress, he hypothesised they might shift in a setting designed to train calmness. So I went to my doctor and discovered that my thyroid levels were slightly abnormal, and my levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, were four points above the upper threshold for normal. “Double what I’d like to see for you,” my doctor said.

Two days after the retreat ended, I went back. My thyroid levels had dropped one full point when, according to my doctor, it would take “at least six weeks” on thyroid medication to get that result. And my cortisol level fell almost 10 points, to squarely within the normal range. That would ordinarily “take months” on a stress-reducing supplement, he said. He sounded impressed.

At the retreat, the teacher warned us over and over not to look for major shifts in our lives when we got home. Any small changes – food that tastes a little better, the family interaction that seems a little less excruciating – are remarkable enough. But my constellation of little changes seemed just evidence, really, that with continuous effort, I could change the way my mind worked. I could decouple, however briefly, my sense of self from the meat sack of mind and body. And that decoupling gave me the ability to actually control where that sack was headed next.

© Newsweek

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