After ten days with no internet, phone, reading, writing, or talking

May 12, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Freedom, Nature

The last ten days’ experience was challenging and rewarding—too much to cover fully, so I’ll just put some highlights.

Top benefit 1: time without distraction

Few vacations give you undistracted time like ten days without internet, phone, reading, writing, talking, or almost any obligations. This retreat gave that, though it was not a vacation. It was work.

You know your world distracts you. Sometimes you can tune some of it out. Some people can escape it for some time, but even getaways to the beach, camping, or remote islands tend to have obligation and people you have to talk to. Interacting with people, as much as I love it, takes a lot of attention.

At home it’s hard to get more than a few minutes without a call or car honking, meaning it’s hard to focus on one thought for longer than a few minutes, meaning it’s hard to develop thoughts more complex than you can develop in a few minutes. For ten days my main distractions were only from my mind, which was the point, to experience and learn to handle your mind.

Over ten days, even with the grueling schedule of up to ten hours of meditation per day, you get a lot of time to think and focus. You don’t bother with inconsequential things. I got to think in depth about all my major projects and relationships. I can’t tell you the peace of mind that brings, as well as strategic vision. It helps me live more deliberately and less reactively.

We’ll see how that translates into practice.

Top benefit 2: the meditation technique

There’s a reason to take all that time—to learn a meditation technique and practice it. Ten days of ten hours’ practice per day is one hundred hours. For someone who meditated thirty minutes a day twice a week, that’s two years of meditation. From another perspective, I have friends getting MBAs who take “block week” classes, where they cover a semester in one five-day week of 9am-5pm classes. Add in three hours a day of homework and you get fifty-five hours. We worked ten days 4:30am-9pm, which comes to 165 hours, or three block week MBA classes. Yes, you still process what you’re learning when you’re not meditating.

The technique is easy to describe—you focus on your body’s sensations, observe how they change, and learn not to react to them. The goal is to think and act not reactively or on autopilot but thoughtfully. The value is in the experience and practice. The intellectual understanding of it helps no more than looking at this picture helps you waltz.

Basic waltz step

If you want to master dancing you have to dance and dance and dance. If you want to master thinking non-reactively, you have to face and overcome increasingly challenging distractions, at least with this technique.

Here are some benefits of the technique:

  • Better focus
  • Less susceptibility to distraction
  • Wasting less time
  • Less reactivity
  • More control over your emotions, meaning more of the emotions you want and less of the ones you don’t
  • Clearer thinking
  • More resilience
  • Less being manipulated by others
  • Less misery
  • You won’t find yourself bored as much

Within a few days I could hold a thought for an hour or more, developing deep thoughts on challenging topics I’d otherwise just react to circumstances on.

Top challenge 1: pain! Intense and enduring pain.

Sitting still for an hour hurts. Sometimes the pain starts within five minutes and increases for the next fifty-five. In meditation, pain never comes from risk of injury, at least not how I sat, so you’re only dealing with handling physical sensation. You can stop the pain any time you want. And it’s not the only sensation. In the last few days, you get pleasurable sensations.

The skills to handle physical sensations without blind reaction apply directly to handling life challenges without blind reaction so the skills of this technique apply everywhere in life—relationships, business, hobbies, time on your own, and so on.

Top challenge 2: mentally handling so much time without distraction

As much as you’re learning, you have a lot of time to think. That’s another point of keeping distraction away—to make yourself aware of your mind’s processes and master them, or at least start along that path. Until you do, you feel bored and distracted as your mind jumps from topic to topic with nothing to mollify it, like talking to people, working on something external, or watching TV.

Top problem 1: religion irrelevant to the instruction

The hosting organization is fundamentally Buddhist. Many people went for the religion, so I can’t complain, but I didn’t go for religion. Buddhism doesn’t have the intrusiveness of some religions, but it does add things irrelevant to the practice that ended up as an exercise in patience to me. The founder of the organization has the zeal of a convert, having converted himself, and kept telling me things like I would have endless lives of misery if I didn’t follow his technique, appealing to the supernatural, appealing to scripture, and things like that.

If you have a technique that works, not letting it stand on its own distracts and detracts. Chanting in a foreign language by someone who speaks English to people who speak English amounts to rite and ritual, something the founder spoke against in other religions over and over. He kept describing other religious groups as sects, touting his sect as universal. Does he believe others describe themselves as sects? Of course they don’t. They say they have access to absolute truth too.

The last day or two he spent a lot of time talking about how so many others were miserable and that we should help them. I haven’t found the idea or practice of “helping” people who haven’t asked me for help ineffective and counterproductive. In a religious context what he said sounded like missionaries talking about a paternalistic white man’s burden to save people.

While no one else I spoke to on the last day, when the silence ended shared my problems with the religious aspect. I first thought that meant I was more sensitive to something they weren’t. Then I realized since most of the people were on their second or more trip, the organization had likely pushed away people like me. I have nothing against India 2,500 years ago, but I’m not Indian and I live today, so I would expect you could make a practice you call universal more relevant to my life.

It occurred to me that there might be an entrepreneurial opportunity to teach the same practice without the religion for people like me.

Top problem 2: judgmental language

If you’ve tried my exercises on avoiding judgmental language, you likely noticed when other people judge a lot. They use words like good, bad, right, wrong, should, appropriate, inappropriate, ought to, and so on a lot. The founder used them a lot too. I wanted to learn a technique, not for someone to tell me how to live my life. Taking out the self-righteousness would have strengthened his message.

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