Strictly speaking, “silent meditation retreat” is a misnomer. On my first weeklong retreat, back in the summer of 2003, there were two times when students spoke with a meditation teacher. On one of those occasions, a group of eight or nine of us “yogis” assembled in a room near the meditation hall. There, for forty-five minutes, we could air any problems we were having.
Which was good, because I was having a problem: I couldn’t meditate! I hadn’t yet had my big meditation breakthrough, that moment when I viewed my overcaffeination mindfully and transcended it. All I had done was spend a day and a half failing to concentrate on my breath. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about stuff.
So when my turn came to speak, I gave voice to this frustration. The ensuing dialogue with my teacher went something like this:
So you notice that your mind keeps wandering?
It’s good that my mind keeps wandering?
No. It’s good that you notice that your mind keeps wandering. But it happens, like, all the time.
That’s even better. It means you’re noticing a lot.
This didn’t have the uplifting effect that my teacher had perhaps in-tended. I felt a bit patronized. It was kind of like those times when one of my daughters, back in the toddler stage, would fail abjectly at something and I’d strain to find an encouraging word. Maybe she would fall down while trying to get on a tricycle, and I’d say, “You got back up! What a big girl!”—neglecting to note that, actually, big girls don’t fall down while trying to get on tricycles in the first place.
But I’ve since come to realize that this first bit of feedback I ever got from a meditation teacher wasn’t just strained encouragement. My teacher was right: by frequently noticing that my mind was wandering, I was breaking new ground. In my ordinary, workaday life, when my mind wandered I would follow it over hill and dale, not even aware that I was being led. Now I was following it for only short stretches before breaking free—at least, briefly free, free for long enough to realize it had been leading me, a realization that would then give way to its leading me some more.
To put this in more scientific-sounding terminology: I was beginning to observe the workings of what psychologists call the “default mode network.” This is a network in the brain that, according to brain-scan studies, is active when we’re doing nothing in particular—not talking to people, not focusing on our work or any other task, not playing a sport or reading a book or watching a movie. It is the network along which our mind wanders when it’s wandering.
As for where the mind wanders to: well, lots of places, obviously, but studies have shown that these places are usually in the past or the future; you may ponder recent events or distant, strong memories; you may dread upcoming events or eagerly anticipate them; you may strategize about how to head off some looming crisis or fantasize about romancing the attractive person in the cubicle next to yours. What you’re generally not doing when your mind is wandering is directly experiencing the present moment.
In one sense it’s not hard to quiet your default mode network: just do something that requires concentration. Do a crossword puzzle or try to juggle three tennis balls. Until you get to a point where juggling is second nature, you probably won’t be fantasizing about the attractive person in the cubicle next to yours.
What’s hard is to abandon the default mode network when you’re not doing much of anything—like, say, when you’re sitting in a meditation hall with your eyes closed. That’s why you try to focus on the breath: the mind needs some object of focus to wean it from its habitual meandering.
But even with this crutch available, you may find yourself in the position I was in during the early part of that retreat: being repeat-edly, frequently, helplessly carried away from experiential mode into default mode. Every time you realize you’ve been carried away, it’s tempting to feel frustration or anger or (my personal favorite) self-loathing. But the standard instruction is to not waste time on that; instead just note the fact that your mind was wandering, and perhaps even note what kind of wandering it was doing (dreading work, looking forward to lunch, lamenting a bad golf shot), and then return your focus to the breath. My teacher, in highlighting the silver lining surrounding my cloud of diffuse attention, was no doubt trying to encourage me to do just that.
This turned out to be good guidance. By interrupting the workings of my default mode network, by “snapping out of it” and realizing that my mind was wandering and then returning to my breath, I was diluting the network’s dominance. As I got better at focusing on my breath for longer periods, this network would become less and less active. At least, that’s a pretty fair guess. Brain-scan studies have shown this happening in novice meditators. Such studies have also shown that highly adept meditators, people who have meditated for tens of thousands of hours and are in a whole ’nother league from me, exhibit dramatically subdued default mode networks while meditating.
When the default mode network subsides—when the mind stops wandering—it can be a good feeling. There can be a sense of liberation from your chattering mind, a sense of peace, even deep peace. You may not get this feeling every time you meditate, but for some people it happens often enough that it’s one of the main inducements to get back on the cushion the next day, part of the positive reinforcement that sustains the practice.
But once you get to this point, once you’ve used your breath to gain some measure of escape from your wandering mind, you’re at a cross-roads. There are two different paths you can follow, corresponding to two different types of meditation….