A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a 7-day silent meditation retreat. “7 days of silence?!” people ask, stunned at the thought.
Honestly, the silence is not the difficult part. For me, an introvert, it’s quite nice to not have to talk, not have to interact or make small talk with strangers. Nice to eat in silence and get to really be present with the experience of eating. Lovely to walk in the woods and hear the rustling of leaves, birds, a distant train. I reveled in the experience of quiet. As a side benefit, I did not at all miss the news, social media, the constant onslaught of information that fills our daily lives.
The more challenging aspect of an extended silent meditation retreat is being with the noise within your own mind. There are moments the experience is anything but quiet, and that is not external noise. After a few days however, the internal noise begins to quiet down too. After several days of silence in the woods, there was a relaxed, quiet inner experience that felt completely natural, and yet unfamiliar. The inner experience of noise – the chatter of the mind is very habitual, but mostly unnoticeable until we take the time to get quiet. We become aware of it once it is absent.
For the first couple of days, my mind was noisy, scattered, dispersed, restless. It was hard to focus, and difficult to just stay in meditation. And then it was like the volume slowly turned down. The internal noise wasn’t absent – not completely – but quiet enough that I could begin to distinguish individual thoughts, or even patterns of thoughts. I started to notice that some of my thoughts came up again and again. They were frequent visitors. In a moment of inspiration and clarity, I decided to create names for these persistent thoughts that arose with some frequency.
There is the thought pattern I started to call “the A++ student.” This is the part of me that wants to get things right, hates to make mistakes, wants to look good, be seen as smart, doesn’t want to be embarrassed, is driven to be liked, admired and praised. Many of us have some version of this running the show much of the time. It became apparent to me when on retreat, we had a small group meeting with the teacher. Another student in my group shared something that sounded brilliant and insightful and I didn’t feel happy for her insight – I felt jealous! I wanted to be the one to share something brilliant and insightful! I wanted to be admired by the teacher – I wanted his subtle praise.
With mindfulness, we can begin to see ourselves and how our minds work more clearly. When I saw envy instead of interest or appreciation for her insight, I decided to stay with it and investigate it, as uncomfortable as it was for me. I stayed with the feeling of jealousy, I felt its stickiness and its heat in my chest, and watched as connections were made in my mind about other similar situations. Moments where I haven’t celebrated another’s success because I was afraid it detracted from my own. I began to see clearly the deep hunger I experience sometimes to be liked, to be successful, to be appreciated, to be admired.
With mindfulness comes the possibility of insight, and that is what truly transforms us. Once I saw this uncomfortable part of myself, I started to see how many thoughts were tied to this particular mental pattern. I decided to give it a name, so that I could easily call it out when I noticed it arise. What came to me was “the A++ student.” This drive was to be better than good. Better than A+, to be the best. My identity as a student growing up was tied up here, my being the “good” kid in my family, even my identity as someone that is particularly wise or thoughtful, or a good listener or a good friend is tied up in this pattern.
Once I could name it, the “A++ student” made me laugh, or at least smile. There was lightness to my seeing it rather than shame or heaviness. When I noticed it coming up, I could bring my attention to myself with some compassion, some love, some recognition that there is nothing I have to prove to anyone in order to be worthy.
As Pema Chodron says, “We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators, We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.”
We practice to transform our relationship to ourselves.
PS: Join me and others to meditate in community in my new Drop in Mindfulness Meditation class on Thursday evenings. Each week, we will take time to practice various mindfulness practices, including seated and walking meditation. Instruction and a short talk about a mindfulness related topic will be included. This class is appropriate for beginners and experienced meditators. Join us 7-8:15pm at the North Tacoma studio. Use your membership, class card, or pay a drop in.