Mental Health

My Takeaways from Days on Silent Meditation: Part Two


I don’t need to meditate all day to be mindful.  I just need to remember what it is like to have a mind at rest, to remember that I can tell the difference between a thought and a threat.

In Part One of this blog series on meditation retreats, I described my first experience at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. For roughly three weeks after that retreat, I continued to be strongly affected by the insights gained from the three days of silent meditation and mindfulness instruction. The things I typically try to do in my life to “be good” or to be healthy, compassionate, and present-minded; they take effort. But for these three weeks, they appeared largely effortless. I gradually returned to my conditioned ways of being, which is fine, but it got me interested in intensive meditation experiences. I used to work in an intensive outpatient program where children with OCD would focus 3-hours a day on their treatment and then go home and do even more ERP homework. I remember thinking that no one can really live that way forever, but maybe if they could live that way for a short period of time, all they really needed to do was remember that that is a way to be. Mindfulness and meditation are much the same way. I don’t need to meditate all day to be mindful. I just need to remember what it is like to have a mind at rest, to remember that I can tell the difference between a thought and a threat.

I Learn Something New Every First Time

Since those illuminating three days last September, I have been on four more retreats: a 2-day with Hugh Byrne and a 7-day in with Tara Brach and Jonathan Foust, both sponsored by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington in Maryland, a 5-day with Michael Grady and Jean Esther and another Labor Day weekend (this time with Bonnie Duran and Winnie Nazarko) again in Barre. Working with different teachers is illuminating. Like many mindfulness books, having the same thing expressed in different ways makes it more likely to stick.

Every retreat experience is different and the same; different in that I learn something new, and the same in the sense that the mind follows predictable patterns. On my first retreat with Anushka Fernandopulle and Pascal Auclair, I felt I got my first peek at the truth, that all we have is the present moment and OCD lives in the space between our experience of the present and our stories. The teachers didn’t tell me this, but simply facilitated the space for the insight to arise. On my second retreat, a short 2-dayer, I learned that the less I do, the more I accomplish.  Getting away from my distractions, not just my phone, but nearly all of my “activities” clearly demonstrated that the mind yearns for space to grow and distractions limit it. On my third retreat, 5 days in Barre, I learned more about self-compassion and how nonsensical and yet deeply ingrained hostility towards the self can be. On my week-long, which included an emphasis on body-focused inquiry, I came away with insights about how much we miss when we view the mind and body as separate. On the 3-day retreat this Labor Day weekend, I learned that I don’t have to define myself by my thoughts, my body, or my job. I don’t have to define myself, full stop.

Taking OCD Along

I had the new experience of going into retreat this most recent time with an active obsession. In the anticipatory build-up to the break from a stressful work week, I got stuck on something just before I left. Generally, when you immerse yourself in mindfulness meditation, the mind naturally wanders to a wide variety of stories, like cable tv channels; stories about your childhood, your relationships, mistakes you’ve made, and everything from your wildest fantasies to whether or not you’re finally going to get your car washed next weekend. But when you enter a mindfulness meditation retreat with an active obsession, something that really triggered your OCD, your mind wanders from the present moment to one channel only. It’s as if all of your subscriptions have been cancelled except that one station that plays that one movie over and over and over again. You attend to the breath, you attend to the sensation of walking, the food you are eating, to the feeling of having a body – and you attend to that one thing.

Of course, this is what it’s like when you have an active obsession out in the real world, except in the real world you have an unlimited supply of distractions. You can abandon rumination, mental review, mental checking, mental repeating, retracing, rehearsing, thought neutralization, rationalization, self-reassurance (need I go on?) for your favorite song, your social media, or your stupid email. On a meditation retreat, it’s just you, the mind/body experience, and your OCD. But here’s the interesting thing about mindfulness and meditation when you have an active obsession – it doesn’t matter. If you want the mind to rest, you still simply begin again (as Joseph Goldstein is fond of saying on the 10% Happier app). And the fascinating part of this is that because an obsession clouds out everything else the mind would bother with, you can literally witness it fade away in the retreat environment. People often ask me how they will know when they’ve overcome their OCD and I usually respond that they’ll know when they stop checking to see if the obsession is still there. But I discovered in this environment, on retreat in noble silence, just me and my obsession, that it is possible to actually witness an obsession exit consciousness. Put another way, it is possible to witness the mind coming to rest more clearly when an obsession gives the mind fewer places to go.

Awful Until Awesome

Day one of every silent meditation retreat is not easy. For one thing, because your body is so used to being deprived of rest from all your big important tasks that need to get done, it takes every opportunity to conk out when you meditate. The mind goes into a state that is sometimes referred to in Buddhist circles as “sloth and torpor.” Sometimes it’s actual sleep and sometimes it’s more like struggling to keep your head above quicksand. You sit there and you watch the breath and then your head slumps, and then you realize you’re dreaming, and then you jolt up and pretend to cough and then try really hard to think about breathing again. It sucks. Jonathan Foust referred to this as “whiplash meditation” the way your head snaps back when you discover you’ve dozed off. This inability to stay focused is frustrating because you lose the ego-driven pride of how cool you are as a “professional meditator” and find yourself in perpetual FOMO. Worse, all of your unwanted stories (or that one story your OCD is attached to) just sit there, and there’s no escape.

Day two, somewhere between lunch and the end of the day, your mind acquires some kind of learned helplessness and comes to the conclusion that resisting your stories being there is pointless. There’s just not much to do about it in this environment. This has been my experience on every retreat thus far, though the most recent one with my OCD in high gear had me convinced I was doomed (until I stopped being convinced). You just can’t pretend you’re going to out-think the OCD. You begin to accept that the thoughts and feelings you’re having are just objects of attention to be observed. In other words, the mind becomes a screen, your stories become movies, and you become an audience. This doesn’t mean you stop getting carried away. I cry, jump, and laugh out loud when I watch actual movies (usually all in the same scene). In other words, I wander into the delusion that something is happening other than lights projected on a wall portraying actors pretending to have experience. But, as when at the cinema, I don’t stay in the delusion for very long. I always come back to my popcorn. This freedom to be entertained by your mind when it wanders away leaves you feeling pretty good. If you’re on a retreat for 3 days or more, the next few days feel pretty giddy. Love starts to be the only logical stance, whether it’s love for your family, yourself, that guy sitting behind you on retreat who swallows loudly every ten seconds (Swally McSwallowerson, I called him), or even your OCD.

Maybe Not

On my longer retreats, of 5 or 7 days, the experience cycles back into a dark space again. All things are impermanent, even nice things. This is because after a few days of being high on life and thinking of the lyrics to The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?” every time you see a human face, doubt starts to roll in. Am I in a cult? I did just bow to a statue. Is this just me avoiding my responsibilities and abandoning my work, family, and the rest of it? However, given that the mind has learned to rest and observe, you can see doubt itself as just another object of attention. The implications for OCD are profound. When we choose to resist compulsions in response to our triggers, we are always faced with doubt. Maybe this isn’t OCD, we think. Maybe this is OCD, but I’m still doing something wrong. Maybe the pain of doubt is trying to tell me that this time we’re headed for some truly intolerable pain. But if doubt can come and go like a song on the radio, then all we have to do is notice. Saying, “I am in doubt” is living under the thumb of OCD, but saying, “I see doubt” is true freedom.

Read Part One of “Jon on Retreat” HERE

P.S. On my 5-day retreat, I had a song stuck in my head that attached itself to my in-breath and out-breath for several days. In, and I experienced the song, out, and I experienced the song. I could remember the name of the artist, but not the name of the song, so I looked it up as soon as I got home. It was, ironically, called Empty Lungs

  • Jon Hershfield, MFT

    Director, The Center for OCD and Anxiety
    Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)