10 Days of Silence: Meditation, Pain, & How You Can Become the Most Emotionally Healthy Person You Know Part 1: The What and Why Over the Christmas holiday, I spent 10 days sitting in a darkened room in complete silence as I practiced meditating for 11 hours a day. No, I’m not crazy. Well, maybe I am, but the retreat was not an exercise in madness. Instead, it was an exercise in mental fortitude. I wanted to step-up my meditation game, as well as spend time alone to work through some of my own issues and bring some clarity to my current life. Fortunately, these things were accomplished, and much more. Read on to find out more about the retreat, how meditation can help with pain, and why you should go on your own meditation retreat (or at least start meditating). The Logistics 10 days. Complete silence. 11 hours of meditation. How did it all work? Well, the retreat was structured so that each day there was never more than 2 hours of meditation at a time without some sort of break. 2 hours meditating in the meditation hall, then breakfast and a break. 2 more hours in the hall, then another break before an hour meditating in my private room. This pattern continued throughout the day until 9PM, when I would go to sleep. The first bell of the next morning rang at 4AM, so there was little time to waste when heading to bed. At this point, after reading about the schedule, you fall into either one of two camps of thought: 1) This sounds miserable and I would never want to do this, or 2) Where do I sign up? And listen, I understand both sides. On one hand, ten days of silence with nothing to do but meditate sounds like willingly subjecting yourself to torture in a foreign prison. On the other hand, having no responsibilities except meditation sounds absolutely wonderful – no bills, no job, no one depending on you for anything, and the peacefulness of a park-like setting around you. Once you get over the hurdle of why doing something like this is completely insane, it turns out the benefits are innumerable. Google “mindfulness meditation,” and you’ll see hundreds of studies demonstrating the effectiveness of a steady meditation practice. It’s the trendiest thing in pop psychology at the moment, and Western researchers everywhere are discovering how beneficial it can be for nearly every part of your life: your spiritual, psychological, and (most surprisingly) physical health. The Science So, as I said – we all know meditation is beneficial, but why should I do it? If you are someone who is prone to chronic pain (physical and/or emotional), then consider meditation the intensive surgery that your body and mind needs to fully heal. And if you are in pain or have recently recovered from chronic pain, you need this surgery ASAP. Why? Some of my colleagues have postulated as to the effectiveness of meditation in combating physical pain (TMS symptoms) – and many of them are right that it won’t cure you of your pain outright. When someone is in intense pain, often times more drastic measures than meditation are needed to get out of it. BUT, if you have reduced or eliminated your pain, then meditation is one of the most effective ways of keeping it at bay. Don’t want the pain to come back and can’t regularly afford expensive therapy to keep emotionally healthy? Don’t worry – meditation is not only extremely effective, it’s also free! To help understand why meditation is useful for pain, first we need to understand how this particular type of meditation works. Let’s take a moment and talk about Impermanence (anitya, in sanskrit). Many types of meditation are focused on the idea of impermanence. What does that mean? Impermanence is a Buddhist idea that says that everything around us is constantly in a state of change. From moment to moment. From nanosecond to nanosecond. Nothing is the same. Nothing at all. From a scientific point of view, Impermanence is evident in every single bit of matter: the chair you’re sitting on, the walls you’re surrounded by, the food you’re eating, and yes, even your body. How could this be? How could it be that EVERYTHING is impermanent? Well, it turns out that each and every subatomic particle that is in all matter is vibrating all the time. Protons, Electrons, Neurons – they’re all moving about like it’s they’re on a Christmas shopping spree at the Mall of America. All the time. And that’s not just Buddhism – that’s Physics! Meditators have known for thousands of years what Western science is now catching up to: Every bit of matter is composed of subatomic particles that are constantly moving. Now, while all of the subatomic particles are moving about, it turns out that cells are constantly changing and dividing. Old cells die and new ones then go into their place (I’ve simplified this a bit, but you get the idea). Because those cells and atoms and subatomic particles are constantly vibrating, dying, moving, and bumping into other atoms, they are changing! All the time! Even right now as you’re reading this! In his book, “Your Atomic Self,” Curt Stager says: If you are like most of us, then you normally think of your body as a stable, well-defined entity. You expect to see your same old self in the mirror every morning, and people hold you accountable for things that you did in the past. But your atomic self will cease to exist moments from now, and earlier deeds that are attributed to you were actually done by temporary collections of particles that are no longer with you. When we recognize and understand that everything in the world is constantly changing at the subatomic level, we begin to intellectually understand the idea of impermanence. Right now, even the eyeballs you’re using to read this are changing – atomically they are not the same eyeballs they were even a second ago. * wipes sweat from brow * Impermanence! It’s everywhere. On a larger scale, we can actually see Impermanence at work in the world around us. In case you weren’t already aware, everything and everyone you know in this world will be gone someday. Impermanence again! But, I bet I know what you’re thinking: what a sad thought. I challenge you – what is inherently sad about change? If you take a moment to process the idea of change, you’ll find that nothing is inherently sad about change. Sometimes we feel good about a change (we’re happy when our bread changes into toast!), sometimes we feel bad about change (we’re sad when our toast gets burnt!), and sometimes we just don’t care about something changing. Change isn’t good or bad. It just is. Whether you choose to love change or hate change – everything everywhere is constantly changing! Your house, your car, your friends, and even YOU will all cease to exist in the form that you know them today. Does that make you sad? I propose to you that it shouldn’t! You already know that everything will change, but when it changes, you still end up feeling unsure about the change. Why? Craving and aversion. Those are two words to remember. Craving and aversion. When you crave a feeling, you develop an attachment to it. Similarly, when you are averse to a feeling, you develop an attachment to it. Attachment? What? Why is craving a feeling bad? When you crave a feeling, you are happy when it is there, but when the feeling goes away, you feel sad, defeated, and frustrated. If you were to observe the pleasant feeling, and not develop an attachment, then when it goes away (which it inevitably will; impermanence) you won’t be sad, defeated, and frustrated. Similarly, if you develop an aversion to something, you will feel sad, defeated, and frustrated when the feeling appears, and rejoice when it goes away. Responding to every good and bad feeling means that you’re constantly living on a rollercoaster of highs and lows. And while that’s fun for a little while – spending a life on that rollercoaster would make anyone nauseous (to say the least). To review: Why is it that you become miserable when something in your life changes, or you lose person or thing? Because you have developed an attachment to these people and things. And the reason you have built an attachment to them is because you have been practicing attachment your whole life. You may not be aware of it, but you’ve been practicing becoming attached to people and things as soon as you had an awareness of people and things! Because all people and things are constantly changing, you’re setting yourself up for that attachment to be broken -- and as soon as it’s broken, you become sad. It’s a pattern that we establish early on in our lives and quickly develop into an unconscious habit. Here’s another example of attachment (that I’m blatantly stealing from one of the discourses on the retreat): You have an expensive phone that you proudly use every single day. One day, while you’re walking down the street, it slips out of your hand, falls to the ground, and breaks. You immediately begin panicking about your expensive phone and what a disaster the whole situation has become and so you become miserable. What an awful day. But what happens when you’re walking down the street and you see somebody else drop and break the exact same phone? You may help them pick it up, but you don’t become miserable at the sight of the exact same phone in the exact same position. Again - the same phone, the same outcome, but an extremely different reaction. One reaction is to become sad, and the other involves no sadness at all! Because you thought of one of those phones as “MY phone,” you developed a strong attachment to it. The other phone was not your phone, and so therefore your mood was not dependent on keeping the phone functional. This is where meditation comes in. Many meditation techniques (including mindfulness, Vipassana, etc.) are the practice of remaining observant without attachment. As I wrote above, developing an attachment to ANYTHING leads to suffering. I know, I know, I sound very Buddhist. But it’s true! Attachment means craving or aversion towards anything or anyone, and developing a craving or aversion to anything is useless, for it is impermanent and will change. Don’t worry – you don’t have to give away all of your possessions and live like a monk to develop these healthier habits. But how can we take these lessons and apply them to our everyday life? And how can this help people with chronic pain? I’ll answer these questions and more in Part 2!