8 LIFE LESSONS LEARNED FROM A 10 DAY SILENT RETREAT

It was 3:45 a.m. on the second morning of my silent retreat. I laid in bed staring at the ceiling and thought, “what the fuck have I gotten myself into this time.” 

Then I thought about my ex-girlfriend, then about the dinosaurs from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure that I saw on the way up here, then about my Mom, then about my buddy Nick and the trip he’s going to be taking in a few months, then about fantasy football, then about her some more, then about this one time my friend Josh jumped off the roof of my house in Virginia into a giant pile of snow with only his boxers on.

This would continue for the next 10 days.

A silent retreat is one of those things that’s just plain difficult to explain. Anyone who does something like this is most certainly going to come away from it with their own thoughts, opinions, and experiences. At times it felt like I was in a cult getting ready to drink some magical purple drink that would take me to the promised land. At other times it felt like I was completely by myself – just some dude who’d lost his marbles somewhere in the desert.

For those of you with the attention span of a monkey here’s the 140 characters or less twitter version of my experience.

Easily the most difficult but life changing experience I’ve ever had. Oh, and I also hated every minute of it.

The schedule

  • 4:00 a.m. – Morning wake-up bell
  • 4:30 – 6:30 a.m. – Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 6:30 – 8:00 a.m. – Breakfast break
  • 8:00 – 9:00 a.m. – Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00 – 11:00 a.m. – Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teachers instructions
  • 11:00 – Noon – Lunch break
  • 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. – Rest and interviews with your teacher upon request
  • 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. – Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 2:30 – 3:30 p.m. – Group meditation in the hall
  • 3:30 – 5:00 p.m. – Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teachers instructions
  • 5:00 – 6:00 p.m. – Tea break
  • 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. – Group meditation in the hall
  • 7:00 – 8:15 p.m – Teacher’s discourse in the hall (new daily lesson to practice for tomorrow)
  • 8:15 – 9:00 p.m. – Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00 p.m. – Retire to your room: lights out

The you can’t have any fun list

  • No talking
  • No non-verbal communication, daps, hugs, fives, and waves
  • No reading
  • No journaling
  • No exercise
  • No music
  • No self loving… if ya know what I’m sayin

Seriously, this was hands down the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through. Broken bones, broken hearts, the death of the most beautiful woman in the world, you name it – it doesn’t compare. When the only thing you can do all day is sit, meditate, and live inside your own head you go real deep… I mean real deep down the rabbit hole.

And guess what?

When you finally get to the bottom – and to be honest I don’t even know if I totally got there. There are like a million rabbits high on amphetamines hopping around and not one of them will shut the fuck up for even a second.

After day 1 I thought to myself there is no way I can do this for 10 days. Sitting on my bum meditating for 12 hours every day trapped inside my own noodle was uncomfortable. It really caused me to push personal boundaries. Could I actually stand being alone with myself for 10 days like this? 

Days 2 through 4 were not any better. There were times in the middle of meditation that I just wanted to stand up shake my arms and legs and yell gibberish like some sort of crazy person on a New York City subway.

I didn’t do this.

However, on day 5 I just calmed down and accepted the situation as it was. I was here, I was going to be meditating for 12 hours per day and I was going to have to listen to all the crazy that was inside my head. 

And then on day 6 I was back to crazy again. Fuck me!

Needless to say here are 8 lessons I learned while trapped inside my head for 10 days.

LESSON #1: WE LIE, A LOT. ALMOST OUT OF HABIT.

You’ve lied, I’ve lied, we’ve all lied before. Let’s not pretend we’re saints here but I never realized how much we lie and in all the creative ways that we do it. We lie to others, ourselves, big lies, little white lies, lying for “someone else’s sake,” to inflate our ego, some do it for fun, we lie about our feelings, our day, interests, basically everything.

According to a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts, 60% of adults can’t have a 10 minute conversation without lying at least once. Most people tell an average of about 3 lies during a brief chat like this.

Sure, most of the time these lies are pretty insignificant. For example, have you ever been in a conversation with someone and they ask you if you’ve heard that new song from Kanye and you’re all like, “Yeah dude, love that shit. It’s my jam.” In reality you have no clue what new song they’re talking about. Why’d you just lie? To be agreeable? So that it doesn’t seem like you’re not down with the latest hip hop?

Hell, when I was on the retreat I skipped one of the evening meditations and instead meditated on my own out in nature. The instructor asked to see me in the hall the next day – talk about high school principal’s office flashbacks – and asked me why I skipped the meditation and if I practiced in my room. I lied and said yes. I have no clue why I lied. Right after I did it I apologized – lying was a big no-no while on this retreat – and told him I meditated outside.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that all of us are emotionally driven selfish decision-makers and that we search hard, far, and wide to justify what our emotions have already concluded about a situation and this may be one reason we lie so much.

To give you an example from my rabbit hole I have some serious commitment issues. Just ask any… ANY girl who I’ve ever dated. When things start to get serious and I can feel someone’s love for me and my love for them I start lying. Mostly to myself. I’m just too busy with work or this and that to make them a priority. For you it may be that you’re just too busy to workout or not motivated enough to eat healthy consistently.

Blah blah blah, bullshit bullshit bullshit, then we break up. Or maybe in your case you sit on the couch and eat Hot Cheetos and Takis.

The worst part of all this is that we start to believe our own bullshit by justifying these lies. This is all in an attempt to avoid dealing with fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and the unconformability that often comes with looking at the truth face to face.

Dear Justin,

You have commitment issues.

Sincerely,

The truth. #burn

Feel free to replace my name with yours and my issue with your own.

If you’ve got some time today think about some of the subtle lies that we tell ourselves. One of my favorites is, “If I could just _________, Then my life would be perfect.

LESSON #2: ACCEPTANCE AND PATIENCE MIGHT BE THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT LIFE SKILLS TO LEARN

Before going on this retreat I thought I was a pretty patient person. I soon realized I have patience in some areas of life while in others I have about as much patience as a Doctor in a malpractice suit (I hope you see what I just did there.)

When it comes to health and fitness, patience for days. I understand that progress takes time and developing healthy habits doesn’t happen overnight. But when it comes to starting a business… none. I want it to be successful and profitable right away and when it doesn’t happen I’m crying and stomping my feet like a little kid who dropped his ice cream cone on the ground.

Life moves at one pace. The pace that it wants and that’s that.

  • So the abs you want. Be patient.
  • So the money you want. Be patient.
  • So the girl/guy you want. Be patient.

Same goes for acceptance. Accepting my flaws, circumstances, and the fact that things may not go how I want them to in certain areas of life is no problem. Yet in others – back up to relationships – and I always seem to fail to accept things as they are.

I thought a lot about these two things while on the retreat and I came to a couple of conclusions.

First, the quote when life gives you lemons make lemonade is the worst quote I’ve ever heard. Sometimes life can rain like a million friggin lemons down on you at once. Or sometimes it’s just one huge Guinness book of world record sized lemon. Good luck making lemonade with all that.

We get overwhelmed and anxious about how the heck we’re going to make lemonade out of all these lemons or that one giant ass lemon, when instead we should be doing one of two things.

  • Learning how to stomach lemons better
  • Juicing the most important lemon and not giving a shit about the other ones

Second, work hard, work diligently, and accept that even if you do this things may not work out the way that you want them.

Just because you do X does not mean you get or deserve Y. None of us are entitled to anything. We’re currently living in a society that creates a sense of entitlement.

We’ve become soft and afraid to take chances. The reality is that sometimes you work really really hard for something and fail. But you know what, that’s ok, I’m ok, and you’re ok too.

LESSON #3: EGO IS THE ENEMY

On the drive home from the retreat I bought and listened to Ryan Halidays book Ego Is The Enemy. It really helped me clarify a lot of what I was thinking about in terms of ego while on the retreat. I set extremely high expectations for myself as I’m sure you do too and when I fail to reach them it’s easy for me to beat myself up about it. 

I expect to be the perfect boyfriend, the perfect coach, have the perfect body, earn over 100k per year, and so on and so on. When I fail to meet my high expectations it’s easy for me to shut down, avoid my reality, and bury myself in distractions. It’s a right cross right to the face of my ego and I can’t handle it.

I don’t want to lower my expectations and neither should you. That’s not the answer. Instead, we need to fall in love with the process of pursuing those things. Fall in love with the failures, the disappointments, and struggles. Learn from the broken hearts, the failed businesses, and the shitty 30 day fitness challenges we screw up.

The end result for all of us is the same. Death. Lets fall in love with the process. Living. All its messiness. All its ups and all it’s downs. All of it.

LESSON #4: REST AND CHECKOUT EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE

silent retreat

Yeah I know, this one isn’t really mind-blowing or anything but because of this experience I learned the value of rest and I’m not just talking about sleep. What I mean is simply taking a break from your daily grind.

Habits, rituals, and routines are important but every once in a while it’s ok to break away from them and do things a bit differently. In the month of July I completely shook up the way that I work, play, exercise, and even eat. It was absolutely refreshing. Essentially I destroyed my comfort zone. Straight up used my pimp hand and slapped it right across the face.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology. Back in 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety—a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called “Optimal Anxiety,” and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply. (1) (2)

At first I was anxious and felt like a heroin addict going through withdrawals but that was just me not knowing what to do with myself, the unknown.

From here on out I plan to take two 30 day sabbaticals off from the blog and 10 days off completely from work, the internet, and other things. Every July and December.

LESSON #5: EVERYTHING IS AN OPPORTUNITY

Right before the retreat I finished another book by Ryan called The Obstacle Is The Way. Damn you Ryan for writing such good books.

During the retreat I was constantly reminded of the Stoic philosophy featured in it. I paraphrase some of the lessons in that book below.

Often, the circumstances and situations that we feel are blocking our path can be an opportunity to create a new path. If someone you love hurts you now you can practice forgiveness. If your business fails now you can practice acceptance. If there is nothing left you can do for yourself now you can practice helping others.

What you’re going through isn’t special so don’t pretend that it is. Other people have been through this too and whatever trouble you’re having has been experienced by others. You are not alone.

Nothing stands in your way and everything is guiding you. You have a choice in how you will live with your disappointments, struggles, and failures and knowing this is an extremely powerful thing. The only variable that we can control is ourselves. Obstacles in life shouldn’t really be a surprise to any of us anymore.

Focus on the things you can change and not what you can’t. “It’s easier to fight addiction when you’re not also fighting the fact that your parents are monsters, you were born, or that you lost everything.” That stuff is already done – you can’t do anything about it.

If you want to start eating healthier you don’t need to wake up tomorrow eating perfect Paleo. Making one small change today and focus on that. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you’re capable of making that one tiny change add another. It’s the process and not the prize.

LESSON #6: SELFISHNESS RUNS RAMPANT

I’ve always struggled with authority, rules, and people telling me what to do. I want to do things my way, on my own terms, the way I want. I don’t really know why I’m like that but I am.

I’m like this with my work, my fitness, and even my personal relationships.

I was often thinking about what I want. What I need. What I should be doing. I can remember specifically one afternoon during meditation thinking what a selfish dick I am. I’ve only ever thought about myself and what’s important to me.

During the retreat I started asking myself and meditating on what the people I care most about want and need in their life and from me.

My parents, siblings, and nephews would love if I came home more to visit. My buddies may cry if I actually sit down and have a beer with them every once in a while. And girlfriends would probably love it if I closed my laptop every once in a while, quit burying myself in work, and got back to drinking wine and painting canvas’s with them, going to the Zoo, or simply staying in watching a movie and… ya know – grown up stuff.

LESSON #7: ATTACHMENT IS A SON OF A…

We’re attached to a lot of things. Thoughts, feelings, food, a way of doing things, our identity. We like to tell ourselves that this is who I am. Like I mentioned in this article, If you asked my closest friends and family to describe me they’d probably say 2 things:

  • The nicest guy you’ll ever meet 
  • A ridiculously hard worker

When people label you in ways for so long you subconsciously strive to live up to those definitions. It’s a way to confirm your identity and protect your ego. If everyone sees you as those things and all of a sudden you display traits that do not represent those definitions – who are you?

In Buddhism the term anatta refers to the idea of a “non-self.” That there is no unchanging or permanent soul in human beings. We discussed this a bit on the retreat and I really like the concept. I’m not a nice guy but I can be. I’m not a hard worker but I can be.

It sort of reminded me of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and her discussion of a fixed and growth mindset.

The fixed mindset is one in which you believe you either are or are not good at something. That talent alone creates success, regardless of effort.

Characteristics of someone with a fixed mindset might include:

  • Trying to hide flaws in yourself so that you can not be judged or labeled (aka: the perfectionist)
  • Focused on outcomes and goals like losing 20 pounds in 2 months
  • Sticking to activities and other things that you know, understand, or are comfortable with. Often afraid to try new things because you’re afraid of looking foolish, failing, or struggling with it.
  • Avoid challenging activities because your performance or outcome in them defines who you are as a person.
  • You ignore feedback or get defensive when feedback is given to you
  • Threatened or often jealous of others
  • You search deep inside yourself to find passion and purpose (guilty of this)
  • You might say things to yourself like, “I’m just not good at math.” “This is just who I am I guess.” “That’s just not me.” “I’m too old for this.” “I’m the type of person that…”
  • You always feel like you know what you’re doing and never need help from anyone.

The growth mindset is one in which you believe that anyone can be good at anything and that your skills and abilities are because of hard work, practice, and action.

Characteristics of someone with a growth mindset might include:

  • Always trying to learn something new. Especially something unfamiliar or confusing to you.
  • Focused on the process of achieving goals and not the outcome like preparing healthy meals every day and working out consistently and not losing 20 pounds in 2 months.
  • The belief that your passion and purpose come from handwork. Like Mark Cuban says, “Don’t follow you passion, follow your effort.” (1)
  • You have a list of things you need to improve or get better at
  • You accept and learn from criticism
  • You’re inspired by the achievements of others
  • You may say things like; “I am capable of.” “I have the ability to.” “I can learn to.”

Basic qualities such as intelligence, talents, ability, success, and creativity are not fixed traits and that all of us have the capability of improving, growing, and achieving things we might have originally thought of as out of our control.

LESSON #8: MOVEMENT IS MY MEDICINE. WHAT’S YOURS?

Sitting on my ass for 12 hours a day meditating is not something that I care to do often. It actually made me a little depressed. I was craving movement. I wanted to climb the rocks out in the desert, I wanted to bear crawl in the sand, I wanted to pick heavy stuff up and put it down, I wanted to run, jump, and do handstands.

Movement is my medicine. It makes me feel good. It relieves stress. It’s a form of meditation and flow for me.

What about you? What’s your medicine?

MEDITATE ON THIS

One last lesson that I learned is this.

For a guy that wants and lives a really simple life I sure do make it complicated sometimes.

I over think and over analyze everything. I often feel like if I’m not trying to discover my purpose, more passion in life, diving into some deep philosophical book, or doing something else to improve myself then I’m just wasting time.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those things and will continue to do them. However, I’ll also be spending a little more time watching episodes of New Girl, learning how to make chocolate truffles with my girlfriend or maybe just laying on the beach with her, walking the dogs – hell, maybe just sitting on the roof of my house with a glass of wine staring at the stars.

Cheers to having your life flipped upside down, messing up a little, making mistakes, and being human.

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Photo – Mike Wilson, Photo – Ilham Rahmansyah

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