I spent a week in silent mindfulness meditation only to learn nothing – now I’m going back for more

woman engaged in mindfulness meditation

I recently returned from a mindfulness meditation silent retreat. According to the brochure, this looked to be a peaceful experience of luxurious silence free from the NOISE of everyday life. I spend most of my time listening to others or otherwise silent, so this seemed to be a step further in a direction I already knew.

Boy, was I wrong. Nothing could have adequately prepared me for a week of the silent treatment.

How’s that?

Recall a perfume ad from the 80s that famously claimed, “If you want to capture someone’s attention – whisper.” The corporate equivalent would be, “If you want to make a PR splash -- leak it.” Following a week spent sitting in complete silence with some 40 others, I borrow and amplify this captivating slogan; “If you want to blow someone’s mind – say nothing.”

Nothing. That’s what I learned from dutifully meditating 18 times a day for a week in silent retreat. I don’t mean not just nothing useful. I mean nothing. No, thing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Yep, I graduated, Cum Laude, by learning “nothing,” absolutely.

It was one of the most significant lessons of my life.

Sure, volumes of research support many clear benefits to mindfulness meditation. From weight-loss to stress management, mindfulness meditation has become a near psychological panacea. But my intent here isn’t purely scientific, it’s phenomenological – to describe the psychological experience of mindfulness meditation because sometimes experience IS the best teacher. What follows is my personal account, individual results may vary.

“Nothing” is surprisingly difficult to describe despite its frequent and familiar use. Think about it. How would you describe, “nothing?” It’s not so easy, especially if you’re trying to describe it without resorting to what it isn’t. To define “nothing” requires “something” (e.g., words) that in themselves belie the phenomenon – by definition. Okay, okay – enough of the philosophical dribble. To my own defense, there were a lot of eggheads at this retreat. (“Is that Havarti cheese you’re having?” “Hale, yes!”)

To be honest, I didn’t get all the way to nothing. And I’m pretty sure no one else did, either. But that doesn’t sell the experience short. Getting next to nothing is good enough to render two blades; one that sharpens the senses, another that pares the tenses. (OMG! I’ve become one of them!)

On the first, sensory level, one cannot fully appreciate just how much “noise pollution” there is in our world until going deaf and dumb for a week.

We live in a cacophony of chatter and tempest of man-made sounds. Proof? The cocktail party phenomenon. We’ve evolved to unconsciously register personal information (our spoken name) from the noisy clamor of people and machines competing with pyramiding decibels for our attention. (Ever notice how television ads are louder than the show and frequently use shouting salespeople?)

After a week of sitting, eating, and living with 40 other mutes, where the only noises I heard were footsteps, breathing, coughs (why these happen ONLY when mediating, I don’t know), blinking and even swallowing, (among other gastrointestinal chimes), I’ve developed Extraordinary Sensory Perception. Initially, I chalked this up to simple sensory deprivation, any twitch seems a convulsion after watching a person-statue for ten hours straight. But there’s more. A lot more.

In fact, this wasn’t even simply a personal experience, but rather a group one. But not so fast, not right here right now. For now, let’s stick with my newfound superpowers of observation.

Like anything of real value, the “prize” (i.e., nothing) didn’t come without a significant challenge and some time. I’d never meditated before much less meditated and kept my yap shut for a WEEK! I was so ignorant upon arrival that I did’t even take note of the fact that at least ten other participants exclaimed, “Wow!” when I told them I’d never even sat still for more than ten minutes (and that’s inflated).

By the third day I learned what “WOW!” meant.

It was after three days of forcing myself to sit still, that the witty “sayings” and paradoxical stories were no longer amusing. I winced with every “fortune cookie” cliche, longing only for the cookie and groaned (silently) through circular arguments that would eventually deny, and then justify, themselves. I’d just about had enough of nothing.

I wouldn’t have been the first to check out. This environment was COMPLETELY different from the wild and woolly world of work. I’d become quite comfortable in a world where stopping for a yellow traffic signal is a capital offense and “get to the point” is the refrain of executives who seem to be saying, “I don’t have time for you” (although most really do have the attention span of a flea). We’re all under HEAVY pressure to dump the story and get straight to the chase. What a waste.

The heightened ability to notice what another is thinking or feeling merely by their posture and steadiness is very useful, especially to a guy that makes his career by seeing in people what others don’t. It may be the job applicant who “manages” what they tell me. It may be the individual I’m coaching that feels compelled to point out the errors of senior management. Before this retreat I was pretty good at this. Afterwards, I’m even better. I see, hear, smell, etc., more than ever.

But the experience did more than merely sharpen the senses – even as valuable as that was. Indeed, development of the senses paled in comparison to the {almost} revelation of “nothing”, or more accurately, the state of “nothingness.” (Although they aren’t identical, I use “nothing” and “nothingness” somewhat interchangeably here, let’s not get picky).

Psycholinguistics (aka, psycho-babble) aside, “nothing” is easier to experience than it is to define. But to experience “nothing” is no lay-up. That’s probably why the spiritual retreat used every hour of a full week. (We had seven hours to sleep, but still maintain behavioral and social austerity. (No talkie.)

The journey to nothingness involves managing one’s attention by ascribing more and more of it to fewer and fewer stimuli. A blurring distinction between things previously seen as discrete is the result. Traditional “boundaries” of human-imposed mentality fade away as our man-made words lose their relevance and governance. How does one describe the weight of a kilometer? The thoughts of a rabbit? The self-imposed phenomena of past and future? (neither of which really exist)

It didn’t make any sense at first, and I dwelt in the world I knew at the expense of not recognizing the world around me. How beautiful it is. How balanced. How wonderful.

As I began paring back layer upon layer of denial, assumption, and self-defense that I thought defined my resilience I discovered something radically different, a nonjudgmental curiosity and compassion inaccessible by might. Incredibly, I was becoming mindful all the while finally dropping tons of dull attention I previously thought was sharp.

But here’s the thing. Nothing, it turns out, IS something. It’s just not A thing. “Destination nowhere,” isn’t the goal, it’s the ride, but yet, a ride that actually delivers both along the way and upon arrival, a ride that we need to pay attention to -- If we can. Attention seems to be in short supply in an increasingly distracting world of environmental noise and executives that bark, “get to the point.” To wit, prescriptions for ADHD medications have risen 53% over five years for adults. (Mindfulness is arguably the most useful technique psychology has presented for improving attention and overall concentration. Forgive me for shorting the research, but I’ll stand by that claim.)

Now, I have a job that demands that I be hyper aware of behaviors and attitudes. My value isn’t in seeing what others do, it’s in seeing what others don’t; the person no one else sees in interviews; the you that you don’t know. So far most would agree that I’ve been, “above average.” Now I have a whole new game.

So, what’s the big deal?

Nothing. That’s it. Nothing. It’s amazing what happens when one gets intimate with “nothing.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a bargain, does it? But that’s exactly what I returned with following this week-long silent retreat practicing Zen Sesshin. Nothing. Maybe that’s why the brochure emphasized the silent meditations and lovely surroundings.

Of course, there’s more to the story or else I wouldn’t be writing anything here. As I do write, it was like nothing I have ever done.

It started innocently enough. Along with about 40 other retreatants I checked in and enjoyed a social (and talkative) dinner. Having never “technically” meditated, much less spent a week in silent meditation, I was not surprised that others were surprised at my, virtually absolute, ignorance.

“So, how many times have you sat?” I was asked. “Sat” is an informal reference to the traditional meditations.

“Never.” I replied to about ten individuals during this prelude.“WOW!” was the singular response from everyone that asked me this question. It wasn’t until one of the Sesshin leaders shared that they’d never had a novice complete an entire Sesshin before that I really began to worry (Sort of, I’m experienced being a surviving novice.)

Beyond any doubts related to my capacity to manage so strongly my thoughts feelings and behaviors, the goal was not to survive – but to thrive. I didn’t want to just “make it.” That would be to reduce the experience to an exercise in self-discipline. I wanted to reap the benefits so publicly trumpeted in scientific research. I wanted to feel and be better.

By the end of the week I was exhausted but energized at the same time. I suppose I was experiencing both sensations independently as they pertained to completely different perspectives of the same experience.

Physically I was okay aside from some aches that come from sitting on one’s posterior for a week. Mentally I was overwhelmed. Everything took on enhanced sensations I could barely withstand. (It does get better)

A friend who is experienced in mindfulness and the Zen Buddhism sesshin strongly suggested a gradual reintroduction to the outside world. I needed to manage myself and my surroundings to avoid overstimulation. I tried. (spoiler alert)

If you’ve ever fallen asleep on an airplane to be awakened by the PA system blaring something at you about your seatback you know what overstimulation is about. I just about jumped out of the plane every time that loudspeaker roared.

A regional barbeque was a bad plan. Nevertheless, this is where I had my first real-world experience with my new, “Spidey senses.” As the live band played loud to compensate for "tonal lapses," I freaked out. I found myself staring at folks and not stopping even when they stared back. Compassion and attention merged to heighten my awareness of others along with a steady sense of concern. Everyone was to be accepted as they were, none as a threat. I can still hear the band playing to the crowd, “What song is it you want to hear?” Whew - don't miss it.

After about three days back, I found my “earth legs.” This was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand I was much less jumpy, on the other I wasn’t as much in tune. Have your cake and eat it too? I haven’t gotten that far so as to merge the heightened awareness and nonjudgmental thought of mindfulness meditation into my native life. But I think it’s possible with some consistent effort.

I need to make my meditation less convenient to be more germane. Naturally, this requires practice – a primary pitfall for us "distractibles" (that includes you). The benefits are convincing and real but they don’t come with a “one and done” attitude. Life is a chronic condition of stimuli constantly competing for your attention that never go away. But they don’t need to have constant perceived impact. This is where acknowledgement without capitulation to one’s attentions comes into play. In the balance between attention and obsession and acceptance, mindfulness has its utility. You may not be able to fully control your consciousness, but you can influence it and be satisfied.

The same can be said of your social presence. People with strong mindfulness practices always seem to be interpersonaly gifted. Studies and my personal experience suggest that this is not accidental. Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize and appropriately manage one’s and others’ experience has been credited with more predictive value in nearly any situation than mere IQ. Patience is not only a value, it’s of value.

So, it’s high time for me to re-boost my mindful ways as I prepare for Sesshin II. Now enlightened, I expect to gain even more value from nothing. And you’re welcome to join me!

You just have to sit still.

Don’t think you can control your emotions? You’re probably right – and it’s affecting your “batting average”

baseball striking bat under high velocity to illustrate the placebo effect

When I was about 10 years old, my dad gave me and my brother a baseball lesson. Specifically, we practiced hitting the ball. The lesson Dad gave was the same for my brother as it was for me, but the results couldn’t have been more divergent. From that day on my brother became a “slugger” and I, a “striker.” If you don’t think you can control your emotions, you’re probably right, and you’ll likely become a striker like me. The placebo effect from drug studies may help, though.

A Little Difference with Big Results

What can science tell us about how my brother elevated his game and I tanked mine? (This is the scientific equivalent of, WTF?) All we know now is that something different happened for my brother and me. It turns out that a simple belief is likely to credit for our diverging batting averages – a belief that is within personal control but not fully controllable by everyone. Huh? Why? How?

A significant component of dad’s instruction addressed the bat – or at least implied its role in getting hits.

You’ve got to Believe

“You may be wondering: how are you going to hit a round ball with a round bat?” Dad posed.

“Yeah, Dad, I was wondering that very thing, HOW CAN I hit a round ball with a round bat?”

This turned out to be a key question and, I believe, THE pivotal condition that put my brother on a path to playoff-bound teams whereas I was never able to get my baseball career to first base.

“You don’t. You hit the ball on the flat side of the bat." Dad encouraged us as he guided our fingers over the barrel of the bat.

“Here, feel here. Here you can feel the flat side of the bat. If you swing this flat side at the ball, you will get more hits.”

The Placebo Effect

My dad was counting on a powerful psychological condition well known in the field of pharmacology – The Placebo effect.

It didn’t entirely work out as Dad planned – at least, not for me.

My brother claimed to feel the flat side of our shared Louisville Slugger. Armed with the conviction that bat and ball actually are designed for hits not strikes my brother saw an immediate improvement in his hitting. I, on the other hand, did NOT feel the flat side of the bat, and, did NOT experience better batting. In fact, now convinced that the flat side of the bat (that doesn’t exist) was THE (missing) KEY to getting hits, I was barely able to make ball contact at all. The easiest explanation for the sudden divergence of my brother’s and my batting was that belief that holding the bat a certain way that favored its “flat side” would lead to more hits, or not.

When a Placebo Becomes a Primary Variable -- i.e., a Big Deal

Here we have the experimental design of the placebo effect. By encouraging my brother and me to “feel” the flat side of the bat (which doesn’t really exist) my dad hoped to establish the critical belief that hits were possible if only one swung with the right side of the bat facing the ball. Confidence in this belief (I know – an oxymoron, "confident belief") was figured to cause an increase in hits as a result. Given this was the only identifiable difference between my brother and myself, belief in one’s potential determined hits. My brother prospered in his newfound belief about the difficulty of the task. But what happened to my placebo effect?

The placebo effect is well known in pharmacological research, or drug studies. This is the standard “psychology only” condition for virtually every drug entering the market. To test the possibility that merely believing in the efficacy of a given treatment has a significant effect on its results beyond any biological agent, the new drug is tested against a placebo condition where no drug is administered to a control group. This simple design has arguably yielded more advances in pharmacological and psychological research than just about any other phenomenon. It turns out that the placebo effect is not only present in just about every drug trial, it's strong, rivaling the physiological effect of many new drugs.

Prove It

How important is the placebo effect to psychological research?

Critical. And in more ways than one.

In fact, THE primary question in psychological research is whether or not a treatment condition is significantly more effective than no treatment at all. This is the tested assumption of the null hypothesis which is the bedrock of experimental design. As an inferential, data-driven science, the job of the researcher is to disprove the possibility that nothing happened. Placebos are a staple of pharmacological research aimed at rejecting the null hypothesis that nothing happened in favor of the presented alternative. This alternative account of results isn’t proven true, the hypothesis of no effect is simply proven to be relatively improbable as compared to the hypothesized effect. In this regard, properly scientific psychological research seeks to prove that “nothing” is an inferior explanation to the alternative hypothesis.

Beyond the Placebo Effect

In psychological research, the placebo effect goes beyond the simple issue of whether a given effect is due merely to the non-treatment condition or the presence of some stimulus (e. g., taking a pill). Here the matter applies as much to independent psychological mechanisms (i.e., variables and their nature of influence) as much it does to the simple question of whether or not any effect is present. A placebo effect holds out the possibility that a given variable may have a more insightful role in behavior than serve simply as a placebo.

The possibility THAT something (oftentimes a psychological variable) can influence study results begs the question: “HOW?”

When a placebo advances in research from the fact that it has SOME kind of effect on results to the specific mechanism(s) of the “placebo” the placebo becomes a key variable for study beyond the original focal variable(s). Science turns to addressing HOW the former placebo works instead of asserting THAT it exists. This is when the placebo becomes an independent variable with a specific mechanism of action. This is when powerful psychological insights are made -- insights that aren’t immediately written off to a placebo effect, but rather depend on the main effect of a placebo effect-like psychological condition.

For our hitting practice, belief in a flat side of a bat minimized the negative attitudinal, or motivational effects underlying a known difficult task -- hitting a round ball with a round bat. The change of attitude associated with our evolving placebo effect emulates a well-researched condition known as cognitive reappraisal.

Typically, this emotional motivation is deliberately and noticeably manipulated via an explicit experimental condition in which participants are guided through the act of cognitive reappraisal. Such an act is not necessary in this case because motivation is already provided by the goal of getting hits. The only thing necessary is to manipulate the participant’s belief in their ability to hit the ball.

That’s not funny

The punchline to an old psychology joke goes, … “one, but the lightbulb has got to WANT to change.” The common understanding is that beliefs are precursors to acts and that any change in action requires/carries a change in causal/supporting beliefs. In most cases cognitive reappraisal is triggered directly by asking a study participant to consider the emotions (or beliefs, in our example) associated with the task in a new light. By reframing an emotional state this way an individual can manage the emotional impact of a situation so as to have less of a negative impact on immediate performance. In this case the motivation to perform is assumed rather than directly manipulated. Here, motivation depends upon beliefs about the difficulty of the task. As these beliefs are enhanced, the motivating attitudes are similarly predicted to change.

Reaping value

So – how can one get value out of this insight?

Wanting to change isn’t the same thing as believing one can, but it is a measurable and influential effect strongly predictive of being able to change. In this case, wanting to get hits is a motivational condition preceding the act of hitting the ball AND resulting from the consequence of getting hits. Therefore, managing one’s motivation for a task has the potential to enhance task performance. But how do you do this?

We’ve seen one good example for how to manage your emotions already – cognitive reappraisal. This is the equivalent of hitting the “reset button” to current thinking and concomitant feelings. By changing the emotive nature of a task we change its desirability and increase(decrease) its motivation. Another means of emotions management is via mindfulness meditation. I write about my personal experience on a week-long silent mindfulness meditation here.

In conclusion

  1. Attitudes matter. They influence motivation which has a corresponding influence on task performance by framing expectations/beliefs.
  2. Motivations matter. They are a form of attitude (which already matters) that can be deliberately controlled by adapting and associating various emotional effects/influences from one situation to another. In our batting example this was accomplished by changing beliefs about the probability of a successful/desired performance.

“It” may all be in your head – but there’s no guarantee that you will have control over “it.” However, if you cannot control it, then it will control you.

Psychology at work – it’s more important than you think!