65 Day Solitary Shamatha Retreat: Summary, Learnings and Next Steps

[For more background on this post, see Discovering Shamatha].

Dear friends,

It’s been a few months since I finished my two month solitary retreat. I’ve seen a handful of friends since being back and have loosely been on social media connecting with friends again. One friend, Bengie, said he was waiting for a mega blogpost about my experience when I got back. A few others have also asked for a recap of how the experience was and what I had learned.

I’ve struggled with writing about my experience. It was easy to get into the flow of retreat, but in hindsight, coming out has been a challenge. On the penultimate day of the 10-day Vipassana retreats, noble silence is lifted and you are allowed to speak to other retreatants. Goenka calls this the “shock absorber” day before you head back into the world. I did not have a shock absorber day.

I did try to take a few days before diving back into London – I went to visit Suvajra the following weekend after my retreat ended, but I was already back at work teaching by then. It was my fault for not organising the logistics better, but it’s a lesson to learn.

Anyway, here is what I’ve written so far. There’s probably more I could write. There’s also definitely longer retreats coming in my life. To friends and family – even if we may not see each other for months on end, i’m holding you all in my heart and thinking of you.

Solitary Retreat

In this post I’ll go into as much detail as I can about the retreat. I write primarily with the motivation that sharing in this much detail will be of benefit to those with aspirations to go on long retreat too, particularly other students of Lama Alan.

I began the retreat at Amaravati monastery on a 1o-day course.

I thought being in a group setting would give my solitary retreat a good footing when I started. In hindsight, this wasn’t necessary and even a little counterproductive, so for my next retreat I won’t be doing this.

The next 55 days I spent in solitude in a flat in Hertfordshire.

My friend Anish and I organised to do the solitary retreat simultaneously. He would go to Devon for his solitary and I would do mine in his empty flat. Anish was camping for the entire two months, so his experience was very different from mine, and actually much more challenging. I had all the modern appliances of a flat, like warm showers and a toilet – which he didn’t have! I’d love if he wrote a post sharing his experience too, which I will link here if he does.

This was the longest retreat either of us had done so being able to support each other in this way was incredibly valuable.

Living room of the flat at the end (with a pineapple gift)

I bought food in bulk before starting the retreat.

Several kg of quinoa, mung beans, oats, rice, mixed nuts, teff grain, lentils etc. Also some protein powder, dried fruits, dark chocolate, teas, and dried seaweed. Because I was in a flat in a town I could still go to the supermarket to pick up fresh vegetables and fruits, which I did every one or two weeks while on my walks. Self-checkouts help maintain noble silence ha.

I ate two meals a day, lunch and dinner.

Monastics traditionally would eat one meal a day before noon. Although in many monasteries nowadays there would also be breakfast of porridge/gruel. I have been experimenting with intermittent fasting for about a year and have found a lot of inspiration from the story of Amen-Ra. I won’t go into it here but the video about his diet and lifestyle is fascinating.

I started with 36-minute meditation sessions, doing 11-14 sessions per day. I increased the length by a few minutes every few days and reduced the number of sessions.

In my post, Two Month Solitary Retreat Preparations, I shared a daily routine schedule and some creative constraints (precepts) that I would undertake.  For the first few days I tried to stick to the daily schedule but soon gave up after I remembered this wasn’t how I scheduled my days on my first 13-day solitary. On that shorter solitary I had followed Lama Alan’s advice of starting out with many short sessions, and then with time and practice to extend the duration of each sit by 3 minutes while reducing the number of sessions. In the end a natural schedule emerged from following that advice.

Creative Constraints/Precepts

By and large, I kept to these precepts for the two months. The few exceptions were in the beginning where I ate 3 meals instead of 2 and I broke silence when I attended the weekend workshop with Lama Alan when he was in London, which was already planned before the retreat. I also kept the foundational precepts of doing no harm, not taking the not given and not indulging in intoxicants. The precepts are not laws handed down by a higher moral authority, but as guidelines which can benefit and support the practices.

By the latter half of the retreat, I was sitting 4-6 sessions per day, 120 – 150 minutes in duration.

I would also do a pranayama practice first thing in the morning and a Guru yoga practice usually at night. Every 2 or 3 days I would go for a walk in the nearby country park that was filled with rabbits, dragonflies and dogs with their people.

Even four weeks after the retreat ended I was still meditating quite a few hours per day. On the last week I decided to wind the number of hours I did per day down – just to start cushioning the “re-entry” into society again.

The dip right in the middle of retreat was because of two days spent with Lama Alan when he was in London. And the week before retreat started I got a little cold feet and didn’t practice a lot then – although I was also travelling around Devon that week.

For the first two weeks my main practice was Mindfulness of Breathing

Lama Alan teaches six different shamatha practices. The first four are all variations of Mindfulness of Breathing (MoB) and the remaining two are subtler practices: taking the mind (and space of the mind) as object, and awareness itself.

1. Full Body Awareness: Relaxation

2. Abdomen: Stability

3. Nostrils: Vividness

4. Asanga’s Breath Practice

5. Settling the Mind in it’s Natural State (StM)

6. Awareness of Awareness (AofA)

I would use the first three variations depending on how the mind was and generally as I got better at these practices I would go straight to Asanga’s method which took the object of mindfulness as the energetic fluctuations of respiration – the prana that can be felt throughout the body. This practice would be my go-to practice. I kept coming back to it whenever the more subtle practices of StM or AofA got too subtle.

The analogy of shifting gears also works with this selection of shamatha practices. The foundation always begins with relaxation – and a foundation that is not relaxed means you can’t shift gears upwards. If I shifted up too quickly (for example to StM) without a basis of relaxation, I would usually be forced to downshift or I would burnout and have to stop meditating.

I found it really important to not try too hard when practicing. It really is the strangest thing to unlearn. The more I try, the further away I move from practicing correctly. It’s about releasing releasing releasing. Relaxing relaxing relaxing. Doing less and less and less. Because the nature of these practices is to be able to do them 24/7, the direction is towards effortlessness. Any effort involved becomes unsustainable if you attempt to maintain it for 24/7, hence burnout.

There were some wobbly weeks during the transition from Asanga’s MoB to StM. The latter practice involves having your eyes opened and that took some getting use to. There were a few days where I tried too hard and ended up with bloodshot eyes. At which point I would downshift to Asanga and practice with eyes closed again. This happened about three times before it finally clicked.

I would log the time, length, stage, method and any comments of each of my sessions.

This really improved my introspection skills. Shamatha practices have two elements: mindfulness and introspection (sometimes called meta-cognitive awareness). Mindfulness, as defined by Asanga, is “the non-forgetfulness of the mind with respect to a familiar object, or having the function of non-distraction.” Mindfulness prevents the attention from straying from the object, while introspection recognises that the attention is straying. Shantideva defines introspection as, “the repeated examination of the state of one’s body and mind.”

Log of my meditation sessions

As a strong earth type, my tendency is to fall into dullness and stupor. So I lack vividness and clarity in my practice generally. By deliberately logging each of my sessions it brought a real deliberateness to each practice. It stopped me from spacing out and made sure I had enough clarity to report back on how each session was.

I had familiarised myself enough with the descriptions of the nine stages of shamatha so I could loosely label what stage I was at for each each particular session. This was amazingly useful because it helped manage expectations. Some days I thought, “Lama Alan said when one practices shamatha one loses awareness of the five physical senses completely. But that’s not happening! What’s going on?!” And then I would check and see that I was only on stage 3 when that phenomena would only happen in glimpses on stage 7. Likewise not beating myself up about still having coarse laxity when I learned that coarse laxity is only overcome after stage 5.

As well as logging each session, I was also journalling a little. But in the last 2/3 weeks I stopped doing all of that because it took too much time. The longer in retreat I was, the more I wanted to meditate and so spending 20-30 minutes each day writing didn’t make sense anymore – the meditations were so enjoyable that I didn’t want to do anything else in my day. Plus I was using an offline version of Insight Timer so the time and length of my sits were recorded anyway. The various levels of attentional imbalances were familiar enough by this point that I knew which stage I was working on and which imbalances I had to continue watching out for.

Despite not moving a lot or stretching, I felt more flexible. I could sit comfortably in full-lotus posture for 20+ minutes by the end of the retreat, something I could not do before.

This I found fascinating. I was sitting up to 12 or 13 hours per day. Just sitting. No movement, no exercise, no stretching. Even in the hours when I wasn’t sitting I did not exercise much besides walking. Yet my body felt supple, flexible and so so pliant. It was incredible how evident the physiological changes were.

Another thing I noticed was that when I switched to Settling the Mind (StM) and Awareness of Awareness (AofA) practices, where my eyes stay open – my eyesight started to improve. When I would go on walks I started to notice that my eyesight was dramatically sharper and clearer. And it would stay consistently clear – which was something I had been struggling with on this multi-year eyesight journey that I had started.

Sleep is a mere appearance.

The above statement is still a hypothesis, but the longer I was in retreat, the less I slept. My sleep was also very light and memories of dreams were frequent and much easier to recall. I have a hunch that if I were to spend longer in retreat I might end up not needing to sleep, let’s see ;-).

I hadn’t realised it but I had conditioned myself to go to bed at a certain time, regardless of whether I actually felt tired. When I realised this on retreat I started to sleep only when I genuinely felt tired, and I would then wake up when I was fresh. I also had to break the idea that there was a waking up time. For example there were some mornings when I would wake quite naturally at 4am, but my thought was, “No that’s way too early. You must still be tired.” Even though I wasn’t.

All sorts of nyams, Tibetan for ‘meditative experiences’, came up.

I won’t specify exactly what kinds of nyams I experienced but here is a short list from the book Stilling the Mind:

The advice to work with nyams is always the same – have no hope or no fear about them. No hope that they will continue (if it’s a pleasant nyam) and no fear that they’ll continue forever (if it’s an unpleasant one).

There really was this sense of dredging the psyche. All these memories, ideas, beliefs and patterns that would surface. All sorts of experiences – some incredibly incredibly pleasurable, some the complete opposite. The analogy I love is how no doctor in the world can heal even the tiniest paper cut. Only the body’s innate healing capacity can heal a paper cut. Likewise no psychiatrist can heal a person’s mind. All they can really do is provide the conditions to allow the mind to heal itself. These conditions I believe are not so much external conditions, but rather an internal attitude. And the attitude is this: No Hope. No Fear.

“From now until your realization of rigpa, everything is nyam.”
Stilling the Mind, pg 167

Shamatha is an organic process. It’s nothing special and anyone can achieve it.

This was my genuine sense of the practice. It wasn’t anything esoteric or mysterious. The instructions were straightforward and simple. Not necessarily easy, but certainly simple. It was attention training, that was relaxed yet alert. It was like falling asleep – in the sense of becoming more and more relaxed, but without losing the clarity of awareness.

Lama Alan says that traditionally it takes between three to nine months to achieve shamatha. Three months if the practitioner is particularly gifted, and nine for the less gifted. But he cautions that those estimates were for monastics who had already spent most or all of their life living in a monastery, studying dharma texts and meditating already. So for modern people, it’ll probably take longer.

The biggest hurdle to achieving shamatha I felt was whether I could take such an extended period out of my life to just practice. Enough time to allow the organic process to do it’s thing. A mental and physiological rewiring that would naturally happen. This is primarily what I am working on now that I am out of retreat, and amazingly the conditions are continuing to align.

The Next Steps

I will continue practicing. I am moving towards a radically simple life. A contemplative life that is conducive for the discovery of shamatha. The more I reflect on the preciousness of my human life and the impermanence of it, the more I know this is the path I want to take. There have been big distractions that come up occasionally – a nyam of sorts – that brings up uncertainty. But in the face of death, there is nothing else that I want to do with my life. Whenever I reflect on death, the answer is always the same. It’s this deep pull from my heart that I cannot ignore, even if I tried.

I applied for Lama Alan’s annual 8 week retreat and was offered a spot. So my April and May this year will be spent in Tuscany, Italy on retreat. There I will get to speak with Lama Alan to see whether a longer retreat is the best option for where I am now. There is potentially the option to extend my stay in Italy and continue in full-time retreat for several more months at a friend’s home.

Also the vision for a Contemplative Observatory is underway, with land already bought in Italy and the final paperwork for a change of land use with the Italian bureaucracy being completed hopefully this year. I really am excited about this vision – whether or not I end up being offered a spot is unimportant. The research potential this facility would bring and the conditions for practitioners to fully achieve shamatha would be enormously beneficial for the world.

Concluding thoughts to myself:

  1. Attention is so very precious.
  2. A contemplative life is how I want to lead my life.
  3. Spiritual training is to be able to go to the depths of hell, to hold the suffering of those in hell – whether you believe in an actual hell or a hell of the mental realm – of those suffering from suicidal thoughts, those who have been raped or tortured, traumatised beyond recognition. The training is to be able to bear witness to all of it – to see it’s fundamental nature as emptiness. To hold all that suffering in the vastness of our Heart, in order to be of service to the tremendous amount of suffering in the world.
  4. Almost all my actions in my life has some form of running away. Stop it. Stop running away.
  5. “Change the world? Don’t be so foolish, Liam. Why do you want to change the world? What makes you believe the world needs changing, and that you have the solution?”
  6. Perspective is everything. Sitting in a cave for 40 years can be hell for one person but heaven for another. What is the perspective of a yogi who wants to go on a 40 year cave retreat?
  7. You can lose awareness of the body while still being aware.
  8. Two months is not enough. No where close :-).

5 responses to “65 Day Solitary Shamatha Retreat: Summary, Learnings and Next Steps”

  1. Veerle Wauters says:

    Thank you so much for this deeply inspiring and honest report of your experiences in solitary retreat. You’ve touched a string hre… xxx

  2. k r says:

    Super inspiring. Best of luck for future retreats

  3. Shir dadon says:

    Thank you for sharing this! definitely helps with plans for future Shamatha retreat🙏

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