November 10-day virtual meditation retreat

So yesterday I finished a 10-day virtual meditation retreat taught by Tucker Peck and Upasaka Upali.

Several people have asked me what it was like, so here are some highlights.

First, a “virtual” retreat means that you spend 10 days doing pretty much nothing but meditation, and also don’t talk to anyone except the teachers, who hold daily lectures and once-every-two-days personal interviews over Zoom. Also, when you sit down to meditate, you are encouraged to do it in front of a camera, so that you can see everyone else who is meditating and they can also see you.

At times it was great, such as when I was mostly just doing concentration meditation and focusing on my breath, and then suddenly memories of playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown together with a friend came up and I just felt a strong sense of connectedness and loving-kindness towards her, even though I hadn’t even been doing loving-kindness practice.

At other times I was figuratively clawing my eyes out of boredom and a desire to just be back on social media and able to talk to people.

In retrospect, it feels odd that the boredom was sometimes so strong as to make it impossible to meditate, since if I hadn’t been bored I could simply have meditated, and I was bored because I couldn’t get the meditation to work… it now feels like what was actually going was some desire to be in control, and that clinging onto the desire to be on social media and check my messages was a way of asserting a sense of control. Or something like that. Something to look into, anyway. In any case, it was a good opportunity to investigate the nature of discomfort, and I got quite a bit of that done.

Things that felt like significant shifts, or at least interesting experiences:

* I went into the retreat with the thought of wanting to give The Mind Illuminated -style concentration meditation another try, since it had worked well for me before, but I had eventually ran into various roadblocks with it. Over the last few years, every now and then I have tried it for a bit, maybe gotten a bit of initial success, and then had it stop working again.

What I noticed this time was that following the breath felt hard because it would bring up unpleasant sensations in my belly – sensations which pretty much only pop up when I’m doing meditation, so have to be psychogenic. So this time I decided to investigate those sensations. Shifting my attention on them caused various kinds of material to come up (including the previously mentioned example of playing XCOM), which eventually led to…

* There was a moment when I heard a voice in my head saying “it is safe to feel loved”. I was a little surprised by that, since I had not thought of myself as someone who finds it unsafe to feel loved, but it felt significant.

* Afterwards there were lots of long-forgotten memories and experiences returning to mind; much of it had apparently been blocked either to keep negative memories out (which also had the effect of blocking positive memories), or because they were positive in the “I feel loved” sense, and that was experienced as unsafe.

Either way, lots of various happy, neutral, and unhappy memories coming up, with an emphasis on the happy ones. And it’s worth noting that the threshold for what my brain considered a “happy” memory was set ridiculously low. There were things like:

  • being picked up by my mom after school and feeling happy to be hanging out with her
  • that time when I was a kid and playing a Nintendo game that wasn’t even one of my favorites, it was kinda hard and I never got very far, but it was still kinda cool and neat even if not the very best
  • that time when I was reading Nintendo magazine and it had this four-page guide to a game which I didn’t even get to play until much later, but from reading the guide I got to *imagine* what it would feel like to play the game and it felt awesome
  • in my hometown there was a particular bus line that would take you from the center of the city to my home, and it departed from a particular stop at the central marketplace, and that one bus stop felt like “my” bus stop because it was the one that took me home and being able to go about town and then ride the bus home gave me a sense of independence and agency and now I just recalled that one bus stop and that memory made me happy

At one point there were so many of these that it became outright painful to feel that happy. Then suddenly some dark and unpleasant thoughts started coming up, which surprised me at first, since I hadn’t expected them to show up when I was feeling so good. But then I got it since

* I had had a bunch of weird uncomfortable thoughts and fantasies that seemed to have at their core a desire to feel loved, while simultaneously finding unsafe to feel loved, and then trying to satisfy the constraints of “feel loved but also do not feel loved” at the same time. At least, that would explain why they seemed to come up at that particular moment, then have the thought of “it’s safe to feel loved” somehow… penetrate through them… for the uncomfortable thoughts to then disappear. For now, at least.

* As I mentioned, we had 15-minute interviews with the teachers every two days. For most of the early part of the retreat, I would spend a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say in the interviews, making detailed mental notes of what had happened in my meditation that I could report on, etc. Whenever this happened, it would always feel like I “fell out of mindfulness” – I identified so strongly with the experience of thinking about what to say that I couldn’t maintain any kind of mindful observer stance at the same time. Thinking about it just felt like something that “I” did – and I kept doing it to an annoyingly frequent extent. (This had also been true before the retreat – “thinking about what to say to people” is the kind of thing that has always caused a lot of identification.)

But over the course of this retreat, it felt like the “shape” of the mental subprocess doing this was starting to become more distinct – as if I could start carving out its boundaries, making it more visible against the backdrop of my mind. When I got it clear enough, I switched to an Internal Family Systems stance and asked it what it was trying to accomplish and why it felt it was so important. As a result, it started giving me lots of memories of times I hadn’t known what to say to people and that had felt like it’d had negative consequences.

I gradually worked on it over some days, eventually managing to drop the process so that it wasn’t as preoccupied with making such plans all the time. As a result, I went into my final interview without much that I’d have had prepared – and I think mostly managed to not embarrass myself anyway. After the interview, I reviewed the conversation, and concluded that I could have said a few things differently in order to make myself appear more impressive or cool, but overall it wasn’t a major difference and probably not worth all the energy that would have been spent on those “minor optimizations”.

Now it feels more that – for the first time in my life that I can recall – I can actually let that planning process work in the background while experiencing myself as separate from it, and for the most part it doesn’t feel the need to pre-plan so many things anyway. (This feels like it saves a lot of mental energy!)

The actual experience of speaking to people also feels different now. “I feel more present” is a boring cliché but also feels somewhat apt; I’m less focused on what I should say next and more aware of what I did just say. This includes being more aware of the “physical” details of my own voice, such as the cadence, volume, and how the individual phonemes and words… “hang together”, for lack of a better description.

The analogy that comes to mind is that previously, most of my focus was on processing the informational level of what I was saying or about to say. Now that I feel more relaxed about what the informational level should contain, there’s spare processing capacity to also pay attention to the “lower levels”, such as the physical properties of my voice.

* Besides TMI-style concentration meditation, my other practice on the retreat was some variety of “do nothing“-style meditation – which in my case felt more like “do anything“, as in “whatever my mind wants to do or think, I let it do or think”. It was this practice that felt most interrupted by the intention to think about what I was about to say, because it did not feel like I was letting my mind do what it wanted, rather I (as opposed to “my mind”) was actively deciding what to think.

There were a few enjoyable experiences where this kicked in pretty strongly. On a few times when I sat down to meditate, it felt like I wasn’t doing anything at all, and rather just letting all intentions to do anything relax and fall away on their own. Then I would become aware of some tensions or discomforts in the body… and it would start feeling like those tensions were also maintained by some kind of an intention, as if my mind was actively creating the tension/discomfort because it wanted to feel discomfort. Then my attention would be drawn closer to the tension, some psychological content would come up, it would either resolve or the timer I’d set for my sit would ring… and gradually the process would continue, until it would run into some obstacle that changed the nature of it.

* I felt like I would get brief glimpses of what you might call the ego – there was a sense of just doing nothing and letting the mind relax, and then a feeling of there still being something that was acting as an active doer, guiding how the meditation process should go or which intention to relax next or even just the fact that this was a process of relaxing intentions… as for on many occasions before, there would be small flashes of it, some of which would bring up some additional content or emotion, but never quite enough to see it clearly.

Overall, I feel pretty good and happy now, on the day after the retreat.

For now at least, that experience of “it’s safe to feel loved” seems to have rekindled something of a core state of love – that is, an experience of love which is not tied to being loved by any particular person, but rather feels like a happy comfortable background state which easily turns into warmth towards people who I think of or interact with. Similarly, some of those feelings of competence and agency that I found in the memories that I connected with, seem to be more naturally accessible now.

Some of Buddhist psychology suggests there are some basic discomforts that sit inside you, and which appear to be caused by external circumstances, when they’re actually internal processes that just happen to grab onto whatever happens to be available in the environment. So if you are feeling mistrustful and run into someone, your mind may grab onto whatever features that the other person has that seem like they could be used to justify the mistrust, and act as if that person had caused it. (This has some interesting parallels to predictive processing models of mind, which I have compared to Buddhist psychology before; you could think of this as there being a high-level prior for “I feel mistrustful”, with any incoming sense data being adjusted to fit.)

The NLP concept of core states seem like they act in a somewhat similar way, but for more wholesome experiences. So if you have a sense of agency or a sense of love as a core state, then the mind’s background assumption is that you are going to experience agency or love, and it will grab onto any opportunity in the internal or external environment – even the memory of a bus stop if it doesn’t find anything else – in order to do so. PJ Eby has suggested (and I previously made a similar suggestion in the context of the IFS concept of “self”) that experiencing those core states is the mind’s basic tendency, and that we only learn not to experience them because we find them unsafe:

… what CT [Core Transformation] calls “core states” are also accessible by simply not activating the parts of the brain that shut off those states. (e.g. by telling us we don’t deserve love)

So if, for example, we don’t see ourselves as worthless, then experiencing ourselves as “being” or love or okayness is a natural, automatic consequence. Thus I ended up pursing methods that let us switch off the negatives and deal directly with what CT and IFS represent as objecting parts, since these objections are the constraint on us accessing CT’s “core states” or IFS’s self-leadership and self-compassion.

Possibly some of those objections are now a little lessened again. At least, for today. :-)

Memory reconsolidation for self-affection

Last Thursday, I realized that none of the people who ever hurt me did it because there was anything fundamentally wrong with me.

I don’t mean that as in “realized intellectually”, I mean as in “realized emotionally so that in any shame-tinged memory that I could think of, the other person decomposed to their inner pain and what they did to me in reaction to that pain and then it became apparent that it wasn’t really about me”.

The way this happened, I had been doing a lot of meditation / parts work and came to an early experience where I thought someone didn’t care about how he made me feel. Then that got juxtaposed with later memories of how he obviously did care and OH at that moment he just didn’t realize how I felt.

Then later I ended up at the memory an unrelated incident where a close friend said something that hurt and then I realized that wait, her words had nothing to do with anything that I’d said in the first place, she was obviously just projecting an unrelated trauma on me.

And then when I saw see her inner pain and words come apart, something clicked and suddenly I could see everyone’s inner pain and words come apart and then that generalized to everything and all kinds of memories started coming up to get reinterpreted.

The process was significantly aided by seeing Nick Cammarata post the following on Twitter:

… unconditional self love is about editing every single memory you have one by one going as far back as you remember to have affection as the principal component. Once you’ve done this, integrating affection into every moment of life going forward becomes effortless. After all, your brain thinks it’s already been doing that for every moment of its life. Why stop now?

It feels like being able to project compassion towards the me in the memories is an important part of the process: first I remember a shameful memory, then I project compassion at the me in the memory, then that kind of shifts into a third-person perspective where it becomes apparent what happened and I can kind of see people’s motivations in my mind’s eye.

And for that, having spent time with children seems to help. There’s a memory that comes up of me as a child or young adult, where it feels like I’m fundamentally bad. And then I kind of ask myself, if this was [some kid that I know and have spent time playing with], would I think of them as fundamentally bad for having screwed this up? Well of course not, I’d just want to comfort them and tell them that it’s alright and they’ll do better next time. And then I just apply that same feeling of affection and compassion towards myself in the memory. And if I’m older and no longer a child in the memory, then I can just think of some adult I care about and don’t feel judgmental towards.

Right now it feels like this particular move – of going into that space where I can see everyone’s motivations in that way, and forgive myself of past shame – isn’t automatic, but neither was it just a one-time thing. I got back to it this morning and worked on some further memories. It requires me to find the original incident that gave rise to the shame, which I haven’t yet managed to do with every variety of shame that I have. But on the flipside, once I started doing this, several incidents that I had previously totally forgotten about came up for reprocessing spontaneously.

I think there’s something really powerful in that “go through all of your memories until you can feel love and affection towards yourself in every single memory” frame. I had previously been doing memory reconsolidation on the model of “seek past sources of trauma and do what you can to heal the trauma”, but the mindset of “change the emotional framing of your memories so that you are no longer traumatized” doesn’t go anywhere near as far as “change the emotional framing of your memories so as to feel unconditional affection towards yourself at all times”.

Things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time

I’ve found it useful to sometimes remind myself that things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time.

Suppose that there was a particular job that I wanted but didn’t get. Afterwards, I find myself thinking:

“Damnit, some of the stuff in that job would have been so cool.”
“But the commute would have killed me, it wouldn’t have been a good fit for me anyway.”
“But some of that stuff would have been so cool!”
“Still, the commute would have killed me.”
“Yeah but…”

It’s as if my mind is trying to decide whether I should be upset at not getting the job, or happy at having dodged a bullet.

And if I pay close attention to what’s happening in my head, I might notice something.

It’s as if my mind is acting in such a way that only one of these options might be true:

Either some of the stuff in the job would been really cool, or the commute would have killed me. When one consideration is brought up, it’s as if it “cancels” the other.

Now if I were trying to decide whether I want the job or not, then this might make some sense: either the work is cool enough to overwhelm the badness of the commute, or the commute is bad enough to overwhelm the coolness.

But I already know that I didn’t get the job, so I don’t need to make a binary decision. And even if I did need to make a binary decision, realistically it’s not that one of the considerations makes the other completely irrelevant. My mind is trying to persuade me that the job is either all good or all bad, and neither of those assumptions is likely to be a healthy basis for a decision.

So there’s a thing where I… let my mind accept that both the good and the bad can be true at the same time, and that that’s all there is to say about it.

Yes, that stuff would have been really cool. And yes, the commute would have killed me. And there doesn’t need to be an “overall goodness” of the job that would be anything else than just the combination of those two facts.

This can feel a bit like there’s an electrifying zap in my mind, the two facts merging together into an overall judgment, and then there’s nothing more to consider. It doesn’t exactly feel good, the way it would have if I’d concluded that I never should have wanted the job anyway. But it also doesn’t feel bad, the way it would if I’d concluded that I actually really would have wanted it.

It just is what it is: a job that would’ve had some really cool aspects, where the commute would have killed me.

And then there’s so obviously nothing else to say about it, and I can move on.

Other uses of the principle:

My friend Marras describes finding relief from chronic pain through a similar dual acceptance: “Yes, my shoulder is in pain. Other parts are not. I can enjoy the other parts while I suffer from the small but upsetting bad aspect. I don’t need to argue for or against either.”

Anders Sandberg notes that this is also a good way for thinking about the state of the world in general: “a lot of things are going really well and a lot of other things are going badly.”

Public transmit metta

Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, involves picking a person and wishing them good things. In the same way as other kinds of concentration practice condition your mind by letting it notice how it feels good to be able to concentrate, I think of loving-kindness meditation as conditioning your mind by letting it notice how pleasant it feels to experience metta.

What is metta? Psychologist and meditation teacher Ron Crouch describes it as follows:

In English “love” is an emotion that comes with attachment built-in. We love another person and we want to be with them. We view our lives, and in some cases even ourselves, as incomplete without the other person. This kind of love is not bad or unwholesome, far from it. Falling in love and being in love is great (if a little crazy). But it is not the same kind of love that is referred to by “metta,” which is love without clinging or attachment. In this sense it is very pure.

The Buddha evoked the image of a mother’s love for her newborn as an analogy for metta. A mother’s love for a baby is completely unconditional – there are truly no strings attached. The baby can be totally cranky and ridiculously self-centered (as babies tend to be), but the mother will still love the baby and expect nothing in return. If the baby does show love in return, well, that’s just a nice bonus but not expected (most people with a kid will know intuitively what metta feels like). With metta there is no sense that the other person needs to do something to fulfill one’s needs or complete the love – this kind of love is complete all by itself.

I generally like how I feel after I’ve done metta “right”, but I find I often have self-centered motives sneak into it that make it hard to reach that attitude of completely unconditional love. For instance, if I’m sending metta to a friend, I might hope that they are happy because I like it when people around me are happy, or even because just imagining someone happy makes me feel safe. Then my focus starts alternating between the feeling of safety – something that is about my own needs rather than about the other person – and the actual loving-kindness. While there isn’t anything wrong about enjoying a feeling of safety, it tends to be conditional on the other person being around and acting in a particular way. As a result, focusing on it usually doesn’t leave me with a more lasting sense of well-being the way that successfully focusing on metta does.

But there’s a fix to this: sitting on public transit and sending metta to any strangers I see. First I’m in all likelihood never going to see these people again, so them being happy isn’t going to benefit me. Also, they usually have basically neutral or slightly stressed-out expressions, and I make it a point of sending them goodwill exactly as they are, without asking them to change. This seems to have the consequence that the actual metta gets easier to tap into.

I have also found it useful to combine metta with an Internal Family Systems style attitude. Anytime I get bored and distracted by the practice, I send metta towards the part of my mind that is making me feel distracted or bored, and give it appreciation for whatever its positive purpose in distracting me was.