Ten days off the grid

Jul 12 2019

The first rule of meditation retreats is, You do not talk about meditation retreats. The reason is that, by and large, people don’t want to hear about them. They don’t want to hear about how beautiful the world started to seem on day three (you had to be there) or about the aches and frustrations of days one and two (first world problems) or about the dark night of the soul toward the end of the retreat (ditto).

Still, I’m going to say a bit about the 10-day retreat I finished this week, because the second rule of meditation retreats is, Meditation retreats are hard not to talk about. A good retreat—and all eight I’ve been on have brought more good than bad—fills you with an urge to rhapsodize, even evangelize.

But don’t worry: I’ll try to repress the rhapsody. Though my retreat had plenty of powerful moments, my aim here is just to soberly make a couple of points about the virtues of staying off the grid for 10 days—and about the added benefits of combining that with the intensive practice of mindfulness meditation.

By “off the grid” I mean no phone calls, no emails, no social media, no Internet—no news about the world whatsoever, unless you count real-time weather reports (that is, the weather itself; and here, since I promised not to rhapsodize, I’ll refrain from doing a play-by-play of Saturday’s mid-afternoon thunderstorm—a storm that, on a typical workday, I’d have barely noticed but that, after five days on retreat, was an arresting, almost overpowering, aesthetic experience.)

In the sixteen years since I did my first retreat, going on retreat has, I think, become more valuable. The reason is that the grid that retreats get you off of has gotten more pervasive, more oppressive, more unsettling. Smartphones didn’t exist during my first retreat, and since they showed up they’ve become increasingly destabilizing. It’s not that they bring more bad moments than good—it’s just that by bringing more of both they’ve turned life into more of a roller coaster. They are the ever more frequent inducers of anxiety and relief, of uplift and downbeat, of antipathy and affinity.

And then, of course, there’s their famous addictiveness—the chronic craving to take a peek at email or social media or news feeds, a craving that carries subtle discomfort and that, when appeased, may bring rewards but may bring disappointment or worse. And, needless to say, in the age of Trump, worse may be much worse.

So, yes, this is a grid worth spending some time off of. But getting you off of it is only the beginning of how a mindfulness meditation retreat addresses the problem. After all, one of the main benefits of mindfulness meditation is equanimity—the very thing that life on the grid directly challenges. So on retreat, as you meditate hours and hours each day, honing your technique and deepening your experience, you’re building skills that can help protect you from the grid’s torments once you’re back on it.

It’s hard to disentangle these two virtues of a retreat—the getting off the grid and the meditation. After all, one reason the meditation can work so well on retreat is that you’re off the grid. It’s easier to focus on your breath when you’re not lamenting a recent Trump political victory or celebrating a recent Trump political defeat or fantasizing about the comeuppance you’ll deliver to some asshole on Twitter or regretting the comeuppance you delivered to some asshole on Twitter.

In the absence of such distractions, and with big chunks of each day devoted to practice, meditative skills can grow fast. When I left for retreat my daily meditation was pretty perfunctory—I did my 30 minutes of sitting each morning, but in recent months that had gotten harder; if I managed to really focus on a dozen consecutive breaths I felt like I deserved to do an endzone dance. But by day five of this retreat, I felt like a maestro of meditation.

When that thunderstorm hit I had just finished with some distracting chore—doing my laundry, I think—and I wasn’t in a particularly mindful state. But I could see that a few other retreatants were deeply engrossed in the storm—sitting on a covered deck, gazing out, soaking it all in. So, in hopes of entering the zone they seemed to be in, I focused carefully on a dozen consecutive breaths. The result was dramatic, as the texture of my perceptions got suddenly finer. Indeed, there was not only a sharpening of my senses but a creative conflation of them; if I closed my eyes I could “see” the thunder unfold toward me, its patterns of sound translated into patterns of form. And encasing all of this was a toddler’s sense of wonder.

Of course, there’s a flipside to the way being off the grid helps heighten your meditative skills. Once you’re back on the grid, sustaining those skills gets hard. There’s more on your mind when you sit down to meditate—not to mention the fact that finding time to meditate is harder. (On retreat, I typically did seven sittings per day, lasting between 30 and 60 minutes each, plus some walking meditation as well as some plain old walking.)

So far I’m handling the challenge OK—my morning meditations are much more productive than they were pre-retreat, and I’m supplementing them with short but effective afternoon sits. Still, “so far” is just three days. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, my answer to a frequently asked question:

What is re-entry like? After 10 days off the grid, isn’t returning to the “real world” jarring, even traumatic? Sometimes it is. Driving home from one retreat, I turned on the radio to hear coalescing accounts of the Sandy Hook shooting in its immediate aftermath—and I happened to be an hour’s drive from Sandy Hook, so I was hearing it reported as a local story. But this time around there was no such trauma. And as I caught up on the news by listening to a BBC News podcast from each day since I’d left, I was struck by how little of great moment seemed to have happened in the world.

I don’t mean that less of moment had happened than in the average 10-day span. I just mean that less of moment had happened than it seems like is happening when you’re absorbing the news on a daily basis. One feature of the Trump era is the chronic sense that a bunch of momentous stuff is happening when, actually, lots of the stuff isn’t momentous, or, in some cases, isn’t even really happening.

A major cause of this illusion is that Trump’s core psychological needs—always staying at the center of attention, always seeming tough, never letting a personal slight pass without retaliation—lead him to say lots of things that turn heads but don’t wind up amounting to much. During my retreat, apparently, Trump indicated that—in seeming defiance of a Supreme Court ruling—he would issue an executive order mandating the inclusion of a question about citizenship on the census. That made headlines. Then Trump said he wouldn’t do that after all. And that made headlines. Well, if you’d missed both headlines, you’d have missed nothing, because they left us back at square one.

You will find, in this issue of the newsletter, no reference to that whole affair aside from the one you just read. It didn’t, in my view, warrant mention in THE WEEK, or even in the BACKGROUND section (though that was a close call). One of the things we try to do in the newsletter is sift out the noise and focus on the signals—give you what you’d need to know if you’d spent the last week on retreat and wanted to catch up.

The reason we do that—even though we know you probably didn’t spend the last week on retreat—is that, as a whole, Trump’s presidency is momentous. Trump does deeply destructive things, like withdraw from the Iran deal and inspire fear in millions of immigrants who have long lived within our borders. His presidency is a serious threat to the nation and the world. So we can’t afford to waste time on distractions, especially the ones Trump self-servingly generates.

I don’t claim that this newsletter is the only way to raise your signal to noise ratio. A diligent mindfulness meditation practice can itself help you do that. And that’s worth underscoring. Being mindful isn’t a way of insulating yourself from reality. It’s a way of engaging reality in a more discerning and hence potentially more effective way.

You can make progress along that dimension without meditating, and this newsletter is certainly meant to help people who don’t meditate. But since at the moment I’m full of evangelical fervor, I’m inclined to suggest that people who have never tried the meditative path give it a shot—and that people who have meditated but never been on a retreat consider getting wholly off the grid for a week or so. You may be surprised by how little you miss and how much you gain.

This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.

Please, consider subscribing.