Why I Volunteered for Two Weeks of Solitary Confinement

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

Okay, so I didn’t actually put myself in solitary confinement.

Prison is the one place where my boyish good looks would not serve me well, so I did the next best thing, I signed up for 5 days of silent meditation. And if that wasn’t enough, I signed up for another 10 days the year after.

If you had asked my 21-year-old self to give up speaking, TV, Internet, reading, writing and meat in order to spend 10 days waking up at 4am to do nothing but meditate, I would have politely asked if you’re having a stroke.

“Blink twice if you smell burnt toast.”

So, what changed? What could possibly motivate someone to willingly embark on what is at the very least 10 days of guaranteed boredom?

My First Taste of Meditation and Psychedelics

Like some, I had preconceptions of meditation as something for smelly hippies to pass the time between smoking pot and asking mom and dad for more rent money. It was hard for me to understand how sitting cross-legged and repeating some gibberish mantra in your head could lead to anything but sore hips.

Then I read a book that changed my tune.

In his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, neuroscientist, Sam Harris addresses the following question:

“Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain? Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?”

If there is something beyond the relentless pursuit of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, I doubt that many have found it. I know I hadn’t, but I could never shake the feeling that there might be something more. And in Harris, I had found someone who was staking a claim that there is meaning to be found and religion doesn’t have to come along for the ride.

Harris offers an alternative to our normal modes of living in the meditative practice of vipassana, which has since been more popularly recognized as mindfulness meditation. He describes mindfulness as,

“…a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.”

Intrigued, I began practicing meditation with the Headspace App. While initially awkward and frustrating at times, meditation at the very least improved my capacity to focus, but I felt that I was miles away from feeling contentment regardless of the circumstances of my present experience.

And then I took LSD.

“Literally me getting high as heck”

Harris makes the case that meditation is one means of realizing the true nature of self — the other being psychedelics. I’ve written about my first experience with LSD previously, so I’ll quickly summarize by saying that it changed my fucking life.

I came away from the experience with a new understanding of consciousness and what can be accomplished through meditation. And since taking a daily tab of LSD is probably not the best means of living a productive life, I sought another path.

The Solitary Confinement Part

On my second reading of Waking Up, I was intrigued by Harris’ claims on the power of meditation retreats,

“I can attest that when one goes into silence and meditates for weeks or months at a time, doing nothing else — not speaking, reading, or writing, just making a moment-to-moment effort to observe the contents of consciousness — one has experiences that are generally unavailable to people who have not undertaken a similar practice.”

Despite the confusion and concern from family and friends, I decided I wanted to test this claim for myself. So, I signed up for a silent meditation retreat at the Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center.

“Not pictured are the rafter of wild turkeys who patrol grounds. And yes, a group of turkeys is called a rafter. Educate yourself.”

Set in the hills of Northern California, Spirit Rock offers willing participants the opportunity to temporarily abandon all traditional means of passing time in favor of dedicating undivided attention to your present experience. In my case, I was to do this for five days straight. Given my previous high score of meditating for a whole 10 minutes, this was going to be a cakewalk.

I’m weary of describing my experience in detail for fear of creating the perception that you should expect the same for yourself, so I’ll add this caveat — there are a wide landscape of experiences to be had at a silent meditation retreat. All I can guarantee is that something will happen.

For my first three days, I fell face first into a valley of incessant neuroticism with a heavy dose of utter disdain for myself. It wasn’t quite the vacation I was hoping for.

With these pangs of despair came moments of insight. The first being that my mind wanders. A lot.

Without the constant distractions of modernity that follow us everywhere, my mind ran rampant. I quickly concluded that since I could not for the life of me break away from the seduction of moments past — I must be horrible at meditating.

During the retreat, we received brief moments of instruction from our teachers. One of these instructions being that the goal of meditation is not to stop thinking entirely. This is impossible. The goal is to simply know you are thinking, and gently return to the breath or whatever object of focus you have selected.

With this new wisdom in my toolkit, I promptly began to shit on myself (figuratively of course) for not being more forgiving when I inevitably returned to being lost in thought.

We were continually given reminders from our teachers that recognition of our wandering minds does not necessarily need to be met with self-hatred. Over time, I began cut myself some slack, and by day four, I felt as present to my moment-to-moment experience as I’d ever been without the assistance of psychedelics.

With this, came an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the unlikely opportunity I’ve been given in simply being alive, and from time-to-time, I’d catch myself grinning like a dumbass upon returning from neurotic worrying with the calm reminder, I don’t have to figure it out.

After spending my first 20 plus years of life stuck in the depths of my unforgiving anxieties, I realized there was another way.

Rather than fighting fire with fire, I could put a stop to the unending thinking begat by thinking. So long as I had enough concentration to realize that I was lost in thought, I could bring myself to a place of ease, a place where our minds have the natural capacity to rest in the awareness of one’s present experience.

Instead of meeting my unwanted thoughts with the stick I met them with a smile, literally. Because with the realization that I don’t have to stop thinking altogether, and I don’t have to be the SS guard of my own mind, I began to understand that I have absolutely no control of the thoughts that come into my conscious awareness. I don’t know when they will come, I don’t know for how long they will stay, and I sure as shit don’t know what insane contents of thoughts will arrive this time.

Thoughts are meaningless, or at least mine are. When I’m not agonizing about how the hottest girl in 3rd grade absolutely disrespected me in front of my boys, I’m generally lost in some equally unimportant reverie. And if I don’t have control over my thoughts, how can I prescribe a sense of self to them? Am I to pick and choose the thoughts that are me from the thoughts that are what, the devil’s work?

I’ve yet to completely grasp the notions that free will and the self are illusions, so I will save you from my attempt to do the same. I will point you, however, to another fantastic book by Sam Harris called Free Will, that does a better job at this than I ever will.

My first meditation retreat at Spirit Rock was one of the most important things I’ve ever done. And like my first experience with LSD, my first meditation retreat was exceptionally important for me, not just for the experience itself, but for the path that it has taken me on since.

Whereas I had previously seen meditation as a box to check off on a list of daily tasks for an optimized wellbeing, like eating breakfast, exercising and flossing (this habit still eludes me), I now see it as the means to true happiness — a happiness that is not governed by the abundance of pleasant sensations and the lack of unpleasant ones.

Does this mean that I wake up smiling from ear-to-ear like an enlightened Pillsbury dough boy? Not even close. I continue to scarf down breakfast burritos as if this is the thing that will finally make me happy forever.

If breakfast burritos aren’t the answer, surely puppy burritos are. Yum, am I right?”

Unfortunately, the work doesn’t end with the intellectual insights that can be had at a silent meditation retreat. In fact, the work has only just begun, and I don’t think I fully came to terms with this harsh reality until my second silent meditation retreat. This time, for 10 endlessly long days.

Round Two

After a year since my first silent meditation retreat, I decide to punish myself further and double the sentence. In searching for a meditation retreat near my new home in Austin, Texas, I stumbled upon a vipassana center near Dallas that recently had the pleasure of hosting Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey at one of their silent meditation retreats.

He also spent some time meditating in Myanmar which got him highly constructive feedback on Twitter.

“This is definitely not a cry for help. 100% here under my own freewill…pleasecallsomeone.”

But anyways, the Dhamma Siri in Kaufman, Texas is part of the group of vipassana meditation centers founded by S.N. Goenka. Unlike most other meditation centers, the Dhamma Siri, and its counterparts spread around the world which you can find at www.dhamma.org, require that you take a 10-day silent meditation course before participating in any courses of a shorter duration.

Frankly, I find this to be a frightening barrier-to-entry. After finishing the course, I’ve come to understand the thinking behind it, but I also wonder if they are limiting their participants to a select few psychos who are ready to dive headfirst into the deep end and pray they learn how to swim.

If I have somehow convinced you that this is something you want to try, feel no shame if signing up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat out of the jump is too overwhelming. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have been able to make it through the 10 days without the five-day retreat under my belt.

Try finding a local meditation group to sit with for an hour. If you like that, see if you can find a day-long retreat near you (I highly recommend Spirit Rock and I’ve heard good things about the Insight Meditation Society.) If you’re still not utterly confused why anyone would willingly decide to sit around and do nothing, try a longer retreat.

As far as I know, most teachers recommend a retreat of five days or longer. While everyone’s experience is different, for many (and this was true of me) it takes a couple days to develop a momentum of focus that will allow you to see your mind as it really is.

Or say fuck it and sign up for 10 days. I’m not your dad.

So, I enroll for 10 days at Dhamma Siri, and I conduct an exceptionally small amount of research beforehand. So little that upon arriving I was surprised to find out that our teacher was dead and that he would be providing his instructions through audio and video.

That minor detail aside, I was aware of the grueling schedule set before us.

“11 hours of meditation per day, or rather, 11 hours of wondering what has possibly motivated you to sign up for this torture.”

Three years ago, if Margot Robbie was pounding on my door at 4am, begging for the most average two minutes of her life, I would have obviously let the poor girl in, but other than that I’m not getting up at 4am for nobody.

And yet, here I was waking up before dawn so that I could sit in a chair and pay attention to my breath. I still don’t know what had come over me, but I at least had some consolation in knowing that there’s 50 other miserable souls joining me to do the same.

Compared to my retreat at Spirit Rock, the 10-day at Dhamma Siri was not only more rigorous in its schedule, but also its instructions. Whereas at Spirit Rock, we were given a variation of techniques to practice, from walking to sitting meditation, at Dhamma Siri, we practiced sitting exclusively and we were asked to only practice exactly what was instructed.

For the first three days we practiced a technique of meditation where we gradually refined the focus of our attention from a section of our face to the tip of our nostrils where the air of breath would gently touch.

After that, we spent the remaining seven days practicing a vipassana technique where we were to slowly scan our attention through the body, paying mind to any and all sensations that arise and pass.

All the while, we were instructed to cultivate a sense of equanimity where instead of unconsciously reacting with craving for pleasant physical sensations and aversion to unpleasant physical sensations, we were asked to notice the physical sensation simply as it is.

The takeaway being that physical pain is not the cause of our suffering. Nor is the lack of pleasure in our lives. The true cause of our suffering is our insatiable pursuit of pleasure and our hopeless wishing that pain will be an unpleasantry of the past in which we can outgrow.

Pain can never be completely avoided (especially when asked to sit absolutely still for an hour without moving), and pleasant sensations will never last. The joy of your favorite foods play upon your tongue for one moment and they’re gone the next. Lay upon the plushest bed with luxurious silk sheets and eventually discomfort will find you. We seek satisfaction in that which can never satisfy, and we run from pain and yet it always finds us.

If there was a goal for the 10 days I spent at Dhamma Siri, it was an attempt to not simply intellectualize the fact that nothing lasts and we can never find permanent satisfaction in temporary pleasures, but to observe this reality within our own conscious experience from moment-to-moment, with a sense of acceptance for whatever comes.

And so, we’d practice this, for 11 hours a day, for 10 days straight. And you know what the worst part is? Even after all of that work, I feel as if I’ve only just put my foot in the door in the meditative journey.

I can’t speak for you, but my internal life has been one wrought with anxiety, self-loathing and fear. I spent the first 20 years of my life seeking escape in video games, TV, porn, sports, girls, food, alcohol and drugs. It may take another 20 years to break the deep habits of mind that are rooted in suffering, but the only way out is through.

I don’t want to scare anyone off from meditation and meditation retreats, as I do genuinely believe that anyone without a serious mental health issue would benefit greatly from this practice, but this is no vacation. I equated this practice to volunteering for solitary confinement, because it truly feels that isolating at times.

There is a reason, however, that I plan to enlist in a silent meditation retreat on a yearly basis.

I wholeheartedly believe that meditation can give you the tools to find peace in life regardless of your external circumstances. The world around us is fickle. I think we have less control of it than people give themselves credit for. Why not learn to find contentment amid chaos?

Thank you for sticking around for this long. If this at all interests you I’d love to chat. Really, if you have any questions at all about meditation or silent meditation retreats reply in the comments or send me an email at jamestitchener@gmail.com. While I’m by no means an expert, I would be happy to point you towards resources that can better help.

And if you liked the post and think some others might dig it, I’d appreciate if you press and hold on that clap button. It helps get more eyeballs on this and it boosts my virtual ego. Everybody wins!

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