I do something I’ve never done before
Did you ever stop talking for five days? In August, I did, for the first time in my life.
For five days, forty of us lived in silence, meditating in the Vipassana tradition. No talking, no reading, no writing, no phone, no internet.
Before this experience, I had never been silent for even one day of my life.
What happened next?
A totally unexpected outcome was that I fundamentally changed how I eat. Mindfully eating in silence for five days allowed me to learn how much my body really wants to eat. It turned out to be a lot less than I’ve been eating most of my life.
When I was younger, I could eat anything and not put on weight. At thirty, something changed, and I gradually became overweight. Over the years I tried various approaches to eating less. Most of my efforts had a temporary effect, but they were essentially efforts of will—always a struggle—and I remained at least ten pounds overweight.
Now, three months later, I am at my lowest weight in thirty-five years. My Smart Body Mass Index is now in the normal range. And, to my surprise, this practice remains easy for me to continue.
What can we learn from my experience?
Experiential learning is the most powerful kind of learning! Five days of mindful eating reprogrammed my lifetime pattern of applying external strictures — eating certain foods, avoiding others, disciplining myself to wait until a set time to eat, etc. — to one where I eat from what Jan Chozen Bays, MD calls a sense of cellular hunger rather than other kinds of hungers such as eye, nose, mouth, stomach, mind, and heart.
Five days experiencing what I mindfully wanted to eat trumped years attempting to teach myself what and how to eat.
What else did I learn?
Prolonged sitting mediation — focusing on my breath for forty-five minutes many times each day — was a new experience for me. I became aware over and over again of the games my mind continually plays. Sometimes I found my thoughts drifting to scenes from the past or imagined situations in the future; sometime I found myself in a blurred dreamlike state. Each time I noticed my mind straying, I brought my awareness back to my breath.
As you might imagine, it’s hard to do this, but the practice has fascinating benefits. Besides the mindful eating outcome, I feel more connected to my experience of the world, more able to flow with what happens, more in touch with the suffering and impermanence in my life. The latter may seem an unlikely benefit, but seeing more clearly what exists (we all suffer, we all die) is transformative.
A lot of people think that meditation is about attaining a blissful state. That’s not the whole picture for me, though there were wonderful moments during my five days, especially while experiencing the beauty around me. Rather, being closer to what life is actually about — both the joy and the suffering — is what the retreat gave to me.
In addition, the retreat reinforced my experience that we are the stories we tell ourselves — further deepened by the observation that we’re telling these stories to ourselves in our own minds all the time!
My retreat experience was fascinating, hard and wonderful, and I now plan to participate in one or two retreats a year. I recommend the experience, even though yours will surely be different from mine.