Last year, I attended a weekend retreat with Zen teacher James Austin. Austin spent most of Saturday presenting information from his book Meditating Selflessly, and from other research he and others have conducted on Zen and the brain. His exhortation to get out of the meditation hall and spend some time in nature looking at birds, or, if early morning, the planets and stars, led to me leaving the retreat on Sunday and disappearing for a few hours into the woods. (Austin’s presentation was over.)
During the retreat I asked Dr. Austin what he thought about people with a serious mental illness practicing meditation. I have bipolar disorder and had scheduled a very intensive, silent retreat.
Austin said that people with a “mental defect” should not undertake intensive meditation. I was surprised at both the language and the sentiment, especially as I have gained so much from my meditation practice. But I have respect for Dr. Austin’s work, and was so influenced by his retreat that I decided to take his caution under consideration.
So I went on the silent retreat anyway.
It was four and a half days long, alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation from 6:30am until 9:00pm, with breaks for meals and a little bit of exercise. In the middle of it all was a 30-hour period of “noble silence.” No speaking, no media, no reading or writing, not even any eye contact with others — only each practitioner and what was in his or her head and body.
The first several hours were pretty boring. My mind wandered, my legs ached, and sleep kept taunting me. What sleep there was during the period was full of very vivid dreams, but they were lost as I respected the rules and did not write them down. However, about 16 hours into this period of silence I came apart.
Eleven years ago I attempted suicide and nearly succeeded. Since then my recovery has been complete and I live a productive, rewarding life managing my mental illness well. I thought the events leading up to, and resulting from, the suicide attempt were resolved.
But so many emotions, especially a sense of the grief of others, came crashing in during the silence. I lay down, sobbing, for what seemed like hours. It was the most difficult, heart-wrenching experience I have ever had on a meditation cushion. Perhaps Austin was right.
I stuck with it, and it became clear that I had built an entire myth of strength, resolution, and coping, along with some neuroses, around the events of prior years. What I was unsure of was what to do with it all. The answer, in mindfulness meditation practice, was to just experience it.
After the retreat I was afraid that so much was left unresolved. Perhaps I had been keeping truths from my doctor during years of psychotherapy. Perhaps I had left in pain people who were hurt by my actions.
But further investigation in meditation, and conversations with my doctor and those closest to me, led me to the decision to just let it be. The emotions I experienced were pure, but they were not reflective of my present self. Nor would they influence me unless I gave them undue credit. What troubled me were mere thoughts about an event. I needed to accept what I had done, and release any attachment I had to the pain I held inside.
Yes, I was holding, even depending on, this pain. Dysfunction had become more comfortable for me than the challenge of living with health. I was holding on to illness because the uncertainty of independence and responsibility were too daunting. Life without the symptoms of bipolar disorder that I have lived with for so long had become scarier than the uncertainty of moving on. As Mark Epstein states in his book The Trauma of Everyday Life, “A conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with oneself or one’s world, painful though that might be, is more tolerable than staring into the void.”
How could I move beyond these things if I were so caught up in reliving them? My practice has taught me to fully experience without judgment what comes to me during meditation; without judgment of me, my thoughts, events that have already happened, or others’ roles in the outcome. Just acknowledge what comes up and then put it down. During this retreat I fully experienced things that were left eating at me for years. Finally, I was able to simply let them go. With that I have moved beyond the pain and fear and found greater wellness.
So was Dr. Austin right? While that intensive meditation retreat was among the most challenging few days I have ever spent, I emerged from it more whole, after I came apart, than I was before the silence began. Would I recommend it to others who deal with a serious mental illness? Yes, but with qualifications.
I think one needs a well-established meditation practice before undertaking such an intensive period of self-investigation. And I think such a period should be entered into at a credible retreat center with experienced teachers ready to assist or intervene. Only after these things are established may one set about to deal with whatever arises.
Then, just as one does with the mundane thoughts that rise up during daily practice, one may experience and let go of the darkest secrets he keeps from himself. With practice, we can come apart and re-emerge a greater, more authentic, more secure whole. With practice, we can move into the uncertainty we fear.