Health is about far more than food. If you’ve spent any time poking around Summer Tomato you likely already know everything you need to know about how to be healthy.
Eat lots of vegetables. Source high-quality fish and meats. Be an adventurous eater. Minimize processed grains, sugars, oils and proteins. Be active, not sedentary. It’s pretty simple.
Of course if knowing those things were enough we’d all be frolicking in a field of rainbows to celebrate our excellent health. The reason healthy eating is hard is not because you don’t know what to eat, it’s because you haven’t figured out how to change your habits.
It’s the mental game that holds you back.
From the first days of Summer Tomato I’ve been obsessed with helping people crack the code of behavior change, and time and again the science has led me to the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness, or being aware of what’s going on in your head in the present moment, is the secret sauce for success in nearly all aspects of life. For health in particular it helps you make better food choices, eat proper portions, and find the habits that work best for you.
This is because in order to make the best decision––the decision you really do want to make––you need to be aware of the unconscious reactions you have to the world around you. You need to turn off the autopilot and ask if it is sending you in a direction you really want to go.
Mindfulness is the pause that provides the space for wisdom. It is also incredibly difficult to cultivate.
My first taste of how tough it is to learn mindfulness came several years ago when I tried to build a mindful eating habit. Slowing down and actually chewing my food was shockingly difficult to learn, far harder than forcing myself to wake up in the pitch dark and dragging my butt to the gym at 5am like I did in grad school. It took over six months for me to finally build the habit of mindful eating, and it’s something I continue to work on.
What I’ve learned from my own experiments in mindfulness, as well as reading the experts, is that mindfulness takes regular practice. The practice of mindfulness is called meditation, and it’s something I’ve been working on for the past few years.
This year I decided to take my mindful practice to the next level by going on a 10 day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in CA. It was an incredible experience that has been hard for me to put into words. The best I could come up with is that it was like a deep tissue massage. Some parts were blissful, others painful, but in the end it was well worth the investment in myself.
That said, there are a ton of details I could go into to explain what the 10 days were like. To gather focus I asked my readers what they most wanted to know. They basically said “everything,” so here you go. I separated out the questions so you can choose your own adventure.
Q: Why did you decide to go on retreat? How is it different from regular meditation practice at home?
I spent most of the first day wondering this myself. A silent retreat was never anything that I thought I would do.
I ended up at Spirit Rock because I had been working with my friend and former colleague Dr. Adam Gazzaley on a new app he’s developing to teach you how to focus on your breath, the core skill in mindful meditation. Adam is a neuroscientist who builds video games and apps that train your brain for better attention (and other skills) and has had amazing results, so I jumped at the opportunity to be one of his beta testers.
After using his app Meditrain for just six weeks (sorry, the app is not available publicly), I was able to sit through a 30 minute meditation for the first time in my life after years of not being able to crack the 10 minute mark. I also noticed tremendous improvements in my ability to focus on work, deal with stress, sleep through the night, and other activities, and generally found life more simple and pleasant as a result.
Through working with Adam I got to meet Jack Kornfield, the founder of Spirit Rock, and he suggested we attend the 10 day retreat he was leading later in the year. With all the benefits I had experienced from my simple 30 minute meditation practice (it actually stuck after training with the app), I was excited to take him up on it and see what it was all about. Adam and his girlfriend were also on the retreat.
We were all a bit reluctant to commit to 10 days, but Jack assured us it would be a more meaningful experience than a shorter retreat so we decided to go for it. In retrospect, a bit more research into how a retreat works would have been helpful, since we really had no idea what to expect.
Q: What was the schedule and format of the retreat? How did you communicate? What did you eat?
As you can see from the schedule above, we basically meditated all day long from 6am until 9:30pm. We had two qi gong sessions per day, which is a movement meditation similar to tai chi. The schedule alternated between sitting and walking meditations for 30 or 45 minute sessions.
When we arrived everyone was assigned a work meditation. Mine was to help clean up and put away the food after dinner. There was some talking during this task to coordinate what foods should be saved, where they should be stored, etc. Working felt really good after sitting so much.
The qi gong (I loved this) and sitting meditations took place in a large meditation hall that held nearly 100 people. The walking meditations could be done outside or in special rooms designated for walking. Bells signified the beginning and end of the sessions. There was a note system for communicating with teachers, although this was discouraged.
The 5pm sitting meditation was always a guided metta or “loving kindness” meditation, which was my favorite practice. It was less about focusing on your breath and more about practicing compassion for yourself and others.
After breakfast each morning I did some stretching and a light workout (planks, lunges, etc.) so I didn’t go completely nuts. I also took a hike in the hills each day after lunch, and easily got my 10,000 steps. Spirit Rock is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in the world, and these hikes were one of the highlights of my day.
Each evening there was a dharma talk, a lecture on some part of our practice. These were incredibly insightful and answered a lot of the questions I had. We had world class teachers, so as someone who is deeply curious about the nature of mind and consciousness I couldn’t get enough. So good.
Every other day we had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a teacher to discuss our practice and ask questions. Being new to meditation and Buddhism (they didn’t push the practice as religious, but there were a lot of Buddhist words and traditions used) I had many questions and always looked forward to these sessions.
The food at Spirit Rock was amazing. It was lacto-ovo vegetarian and bursting with organic, fresh and delicious California produce. After eating East Coast produce for the past four months I almost cried when I had my first bite of salad. Lunch was the largest meal of the day. There was no alcohol or coffee, but lots of tea.
I would wager that most people lost a few pounds, but that certainly was not the goal. The retreat felt more like a soul cleanse than a body cleanse.
Q: What was it like to be in silent meditation for 10 full days?
The evolution of the retreat was fascinating. The first day everyone was restless in the meditation hall, adjusting their cushions, clearing their throats, and generally unsettled. By Day 10, you could hear a pin drop for a full 45 minute session.
It took 4 days for me to settle in and stop being so reactive to the world, which led to my first big insight: Jeez are we overstimulated all the time.
Relaxing is shockingly hard to do, even in an environment where there was virtually no external stimulation. Comparing that to the streets of New York, no wonder we’re so stressed all the time.
As the relaxation settled in I started to feel deeply grateful for this opportunity to unwind and truly experience the world. The first few days my instinct was to reach for my phone and take a picture when I saw the wild turkeys in front of my dorm building or the moon rising over the hills. But once you realize you don’t have that option, you understand that another choice you have is to actually appreciate what you’re witnessing right in this moment. It was profound.
I don’t want to give the impression that the relaxation and development of mindfulness was a linear process. It wasn’t. Every day I had very difficult meditation sessions where I couldn’t wait for the stupid bell to ring. Every day I also had sessions (or at least extended moments) that were clear and peaceful. What changed was how much of the time I was able to spend in mindful awareness relative to distractedness. It was a bit like a rollercoaster, but there was a general direction toward improvement.
My experience of mindfulness also deepened over the course of the retreat. In the beginning a “good” session felt like a calm attention to my breath and vague sense of well-being. Later in the retreat a deep mindful experience felt more like a hyperawareness of everything within and around me as I witnessed it occur a fraction of a second at a time. It was super cool, and something that I don’t think could have happened in a shorter retreat or in my normal life (at least at my level of practice).
Q: How has my personal meditation practice expanded and improved?
Going into the retreat all I really knew about mindful meditation was that I was supposed to focus on my breath. Over the years I had picked up a few strategies to make this easier, but generally felt as though I was in a semi-constant state of failure while meditating as my mind would inevitably wander away from my breath to itches, memories from yesterday’s conversations, or emails that needed to be written. In other words, meditation was not very rewarding.
This perception changed during the retreat. Through the dharma talks and my personal interactions with the instructors I came to realize that while the breath is an ideal anchor for attention, focusing on other things can also be considered mindful meditation so long as it is accompanied by awareness. This is tricky, as it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re being mindful when you’re really just thinking about thinking, but it was a huge insight for me.
Essentially I came to realize that there are three types of inputs that can distract us from our breath: 1) stimulus of the body (e.g. itches, sounds, sight, temperature changes, tummy growls, etc.), 2) emotions and feelings (aka matters of the heart), and 3) thoughts (e.g. memories, planning, analysis, fantasy, etc.). I thought the goal was to prevent these distractions from arising, which is an exhausting and frustrating practice. Now I understand that the goal isn’t to suppress them, but to notice them, make note of them, and let them go.
Mindfulness is the practice of noticing what is distracting you from being present to your breath. It is hard, but it is a skill that can be acquired with practice. During the retreat, Jack repeatedly made the analogy of your attention being like a puppy that needs training. At first you’re lucky if you can get 10 seconds of calm and cooperation. But each time the puppy wanders away you gently pick it up and put it back where it belongs, until eventually it learns to stay.
Having recently trained a puppy, I felt this was a perfect analogy. Sometimes you feel like you’re getting nowhere, but you are slowly making progress. Also, just like a puppy your attention can get tired. On a couple different evenings I was so tired, frustrated and distracted that I decided to bow out of the last sitting and get some extra sleep. The next day I invariably felt rejuvenated and found practice much, much easier and more rewarding.
I also found tremendous benefit in finding accurate labels for my thoughts, feelings and physical experiences. My best guess is that the labeling enabled me to create some distance between the experience and my sense of self, thereby allowing me to create enough detachment from it to let it go. For instance, in the early morning sitting I might find myself wondering what we’d be having for breakfast (I know, I’m so predictable). Eventually I learned to label this as “wondering, wondering” and it became super clear to me that it didn’t matter what we would be having, breakfast would come, it would probably be good, and right now my job was to focus on my breath. If I was able to label this as wondering and realize it was pointless, it was unlikely that this particular thought would distract me again during this session.
Labeling was even more useful for complex thoughts and feelings. After several days of meditation, you start to recognize patterns. For instance, during the retreat I noticed the majority of my distractions were in the form of thoughts, rather than feelings or body discomforts. Specifically I became fascinated by how my own thoughts were often focused on metacognition (aka thinking about thinking). But rather than being mindful of these thoughts by labeling them and moving on, I was getting caught up in the thought process, trying to analyze and figure out what I was experiencing and what it meant about how my mind works.
At one point I realized I really wanted to follow this thought process through to the end, since I believed it would be a valuable lesson to carry away with me from the retreat. One of the instructors reassured me that if I believed I was experiencing an “insight” it was fine to explore it. I did, and it was rewarding. But eventually I realized that my mind wanted to continue going back to this idea, even after I had resolution on it. It took an extra meta level of mindfulness to realize this pattern, then label the intruding thought as “mindfulness insight” and let it go. Without the labeling I would just continue in the same thought loop over and over again, caught in the thought rather than being mindful of it.
Another trick I learned for getting out of thought loops was to focus on the other aspects of the experience around it. For instance, if I kept thinking about my “mindfulness insight” and couldn’t stay focused on my breath, I could instead ask what emotion I’m feeling as a result of that thought. I learned that my thoughts often made me feel curious, which would drive me to want to explore them further (label “curious, curious”). If it was a thought I felt I had resolved cleverly, I would notice the feeling of satisfaction and pride (label “satisfied, satisfied”). I could then ask how that emotion felt in my body. Curiosity I could feel as a slight tension between my eyebrows and an uplifting at the corners of my eyes. Satisfied feels like a relaxed forehead and slightly upturned corners of my mouth. At this point I realize I’m no longer focused on the thought, I’ve labeled the emotions and body sensations accurately, and can go back to the breath. Mindfulness! Cool!
Q: What lessons have stuck with me after returning home from retreat?
The evolution of my mindful meditation over the course of the retreat has impacted my daily life more than I expected. My ability to be mindful to all aspects of my experience isn’t something I feel proficient at quite yet, but it is certainly something I know I can draw on if I remember, which is deeply comforting.
By far the biggest advantage is not being as caught up in my thoughts and feelings as I move throughout my normal day. I still wouldn’t say it is easy, but it is certainly easier than it used to be to let stuff go and not get upset by minor things like traffic and lines at the grocery store. I’m even getting better at not getting upset by bigger things like thoughtless comments or actions from family and friends. This may sound like a minor mindset change, but it has a substantial impact on my quality of life. There’s a lot to say for peace and equanimity.
As you might expect though, this healthy distance from stress and distraction doesn’t last indefinitely. I notice that if I go more than a day or two without a proper meditation sitting, then the stress and clenched jaw start to return. This has been a huge motivation to keep up my practice at home, which I’m doing for 30 minute sessions about 4-5 days/wk when not traveling.
Another unexpected bonus is that I’m far, far less reactive to technology. I can go days without checking email, and sometimes forget to check my phone for hours at a time. I suppose this could become a problem at some point, but for now it feels like shackles have been removed. I don’t know what exactly happened, and it wasn’t a conscious decision, I am just less reliant on my phone and email and I love it. It even inspired my husband to stop bringing his phone to dinner (!!!).
Q: Would I recommend a silent retreat to others? Would I go back?
The silent retreat is an intense, life-changing experience. I undoubtedly received lasting benefits from this single retreat, and could easily see myself doing something similar every year or so to reset my system and get back to the basics.
That said, 10 days is a helluva long time to be away from work and family. I imagine there is still tremendous benefit from doing a shorter 5 or 7 day retreat, which might be an easier place to start. I can’t imagine a newbie could become completely relaxed during a 3 day retreat, so I’d recommend a 5 day minimum.
While I would recommend a meditation retreat for anyone interested, I’d advise doing more research than I did before going in. I’d also recommend bumping up your home practice or maybe joining a community in your neighborhood to develop your practice a bit before going in. I had a ton of questions when I got there, and it would have been much easier to have them answered if I didn’t have to wait 2 days every time I had a question.
There are also many excellent books that I found helpful for my overall practice and for preparing for retreat. These are:
10% Happier by Dan Harris – Journalist Dan Harris actually went on the same 10 day retreat at Spirit Rock that I went on and wrote about his experience in this easy to read and entertaining book.
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach – I’ve recommended this book to about 10 friends and all of them have described it as life-changing.
Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield – I’m reading this now and it’s an excellent introduction to mindfulness and Buddhism.