On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 4) – Not a High

This is the 4th installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This the third of four posts of the series that explore what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. The final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

Third misconception: you don’t go on retreat to get high. No, I don’t mean to imply that people think that meditators are smoking pot as they sit for weeks on end (yogis on retreat follow the Five Precepts that constitute basic Buddhist ethics), but rather that meditation has long been associated with getting “blissed out”, or entering sometimes spectacular meditative states that are characterized by calm, tranquility, pleasure, or equanimity. Things get somewhat complicated here, as there are in fact in almost every meditative tradition including the one that I practice in (which, for you meditation geeks out there is the Theravada Buddhist tradition) practices explicitly meant bring you to such states, not to mention that even when a person is not engaged in those specific practices, other practices often involve chancing into those states unintentionally.

Some brief delving into the details of meditative practice here is useful.  As Daniel Goleman states in Varieties of Meditative Experience, and I fully agree with, all meditation practices can basically be broken down into two categories: concentration practices and awareness practices. Concentration practices involve taking an object of meditation, such as the breath, a colored disk, a mantra or a visualization and focusing the mind clearly and consistently on that object for extended periods. In contrast, awareness practices involve either using a subset, like sound or the breath, or the entirety of sensory experience to serve as the object of meditation. Awareness practices differ from concentration practices in that the meditator is not attempting to become completely focused on or absorbed in the object as it were, but rather aims to watch very closely the process of experience itself unfolding so as to learn something about the nature of sensory reality and the human mind.

Aside from anything else about meditative concentration practices, which include a plethora of permutations each with their own underlying logic, engaging in concentration practices intensively can result in states of mind that are just straight-up other-worldly. Some might be on the mild side, just resulting in general pleasant and consistently peaceful experience (which is actually mind blowing, come to think of it), others can result in levels of bliss that are pretty much entirely unknown to ordinary experience (depending on how powerful the mind gets), some even bring the practitioner to a place where the entirety of sensory reality drops away.

If this sounds pretty incredible, that’s because it is.  But it’s not why I and most meditation practitioners are involved in this whole thing.  That’s not to say that there aren’t or haven’t been points when I’ve cultivated concentration or engaged in practices that can lead to these sorts of states of mind, but they’re only a means to an end, like the aforementioned disconnecting from email. The point is to create the conditions under which what’s going on in the mind and experience can be clearly seen, as my primary meditation practice falls into that second category I mentioned, awareness practice.

Called Vipassana which means “clear seeing” in Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism, it is often referred to as Insight Meditation. In technique it’s very simple, though can often be quite challenging in practice. As the Buddha said, “In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.” Basically, the practice entails having a bare awareness of experience from one moment to the next, without grasping at it or pushing it away. Concentration is a means to an end in that it helps with the “one moment to the next” part, as one might be aware in one moment, but unless there’s concentration, the next one will go by unseen. So, concentration is a necessary part of the practice, and hence some of these blissful and otherwise altered states of mind might come about, but they’re not the heart of the practice or why it’s done. You might get a little high in the course of a retreat, but that’s not what it’s about.

Tomorrow I share the final and most complex misconception – Not Therapy, Not Self Improvement. Stay tuned!


Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.



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