Many friends and family have asked about the silent meditation retreat I attended last week, and for many days I did not have the words (no irony there!) to describe my experience. Today, I realized this:
This Vipassana was one the hardest things I have ever (voluntarily) done, and yet utterly rewarding on the heels of a challenging Spring. It wasn't the silence, rules on reading or note taking, or even the restrictions on physical exercise. It was the simple experience of seeing that my mind only oscillate between relatively few things, and yet from that such identity - "personality" - and pain/fear is created. To realize that --- have complete awareness of the stories -- and then sit by and watch them for so many days without "taking action" required a discipline I didn't know I had.
One week later, the practice is continuing to unfold and reveal deeper and deeper truths.
The mind is a wonderful tool for thinking, but it has a shadow. There is an aspect of the mind that is not useful but pretends to be useful (the ego). It is the aspect of our mind that chats with us as we move about our day. It is the "voice in our head", and much of the time, this voice dictates our thoughts and actions. We believe it, agree with it, and don't question it. We believe it because we are programmed, or wired, to believe our own thoughts, regardless of whether they are true and helpful or not.
Not only do we believe these thoughts, but we identify with them—we feel they reflect who we are. We don't tend to question our own thoughts, although we readily question other people's thoughts, especially if those thoughts are different from ours. But when we stop and examine what this mental voice is saying, we discover a lot of contradictory advice, misinformation, prejudices, judgments, and other negativity. This mental voice is often unkind, belittling, fearful, self-doubting, judgmental, complaining, confused, and unhelpful.
It turns out that the voice in our head is not a very good guide to life, and yet we tend to accept what it says and do what it suggests. This voice, in fact, is the cause of human suffering. It fights life, rails against it, and is discontent and afraid. It is the voice of the false self — the ego — not the true self. The thoughts that arise in our mind cause every negative emotion we experience: fear, guilt, anger, jealousy, shame, sadness, resentment, envy, hopelessness, worthlessness, and depression. Without these thoughts, we would live in peace within ourselves and in harmony with others. But you already know this, don't you?
The funny thing is that we can see the truth about the egoic mind and still be entranced by it, still be mesmerized by it. This is what I experience during much of my vipassana retreat. The programming to pay attention to and believe this aspect of the mind is very strong, and it takes not only seeing the truth about it, but also a practice of not giving our attention to this mental voice before we gain enough distance from it to experience freedom and the joy of our true self. The true self is the experience of existing in this moment, free of such constructs, stories, and self-images. To have this experience we have to move out of self-images and cyclical thoughts into the experience we are having right here and now, absent of thoughts and self-images, which obscure who we really are.
And this is the truth about the mind that I learned by simply being quiet.