The Ground Beneath My Feet

Notes from 10 days of silent meditation, part IV

“Tom Murphy,” photograph by Minor White, 1947 (© Trustees of Princeton University).

(Part I, part II, part III.)

I dream that I’m on a bus, falling asleep. I awake to the blank confusion of an unfamiliar bed.

Then I understand: I woke the dream, not it.

Couldn’t locate the source.

I see a squirrel drop an acorn in bewilderment, startled by a compatriot. I startle too, because suddenly they are also compatriots — enough mind in each tiny body to see the world with, to lose in thoughts, to find in blank confusion and in the gaze of another.

They chase each other through the treetops, all balance and exhilaration. Before the jump, they accelerate, the springboard-branch bouncing back beneath their feet — and I am almost flying through the air with them.

So this is where I live: in a world sliced into endless points of view, a world of worlds!

“Clearing my mind” had sounded scary, as if my brain would end up bland and empty. But it doesn’t empty; it feels Like a great meadow capable of holding the squirrels and the caterpillars — and, one suddenly-possible day, each one of 7.5 billion people.

Minor White, Empty Head, 1962 (Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum. © Trustees of Princeton University.)

I feel physically lighter, like someone had taken a ton of bricks off my head. Goenka says that there are 99 tons left. I don’t believe him — and yet I didn’t notice the first ton until it was gone either.

Goenka wants us to meditate during every waking moment of the next two days. “When you’re not sitting in the hall, always remain aware of some sensation in your body.”

I am resentful when I hear this. I was going to look at so many squirrels, so many dappled leaves with my new eyes! I can’t do that pay attention to bodily sensations… But when I leave the hall, I try it out anyway: staying inside my body for a moment longer. I take a step.

Minor White, Tom’s Feet, 1947 (© Trustees of Princeton University)

The ground against my foot — the softness of the carpet, the hardness of the floor — is like inheriting some great fortune. Like finding that the shapeless box I have been using as a doorstop is a chest of jewels or a precious book. So this is what it’s like to have a body?

The highest spiritual truth: the ground underneath my feet.

I keep walking. I feel the pendulum swing of my arms, the way my hands brush against my hips.

I remember the branch bouncing back under the squirrel’s nimble feet, and I realize that, rather than a chore, Goenka had given me a gift.

One of the meditation instructions I followed before coming here told me to “pay attention to my body as a whole.” I never understood what that meant.

Now I do. It feels like arrival. It feels like inheriting the earth.

At this thought, my rib cage expands in a storm of vibration, of emotion. I have never felt it like this: a hard tube over a soft inside.


What was that vibration, that powerful feeling? A single gasping sob.

Aged 29, born again.

Each sip of morning coffee whooshes down my throat with astonishing speed, as if I had just poured it vertically down a well. I feel the warmth follow, descending down my gullet and spreading across my abdomen. !

That heavy tome I’d been using as a doorstop? It must have been the instruction manual for this brain.

So I a lawnmower? A lawnmower towards enlightenment?

I suddenly know that my PhD thesis is wrong. I have been like the blind man grasping at the tusk of an elephant, dreaming up an ivory body for it, spending years arguing with other blind men about whether elephants are rough or smooth, sharp or blunt. I thought beauty was an experience, the creation of the sensitive mind. Now I think aesthetic experience leads out of itself, to a land where maybe, just maybe, the Beautiful is the True, is the Good.

I came here to learn better focus, to finish that damned dissertation. Well, I got more than I bargained for.

Everyone in the meditation hall appears to have a cold. The coughs come a dozen a minute, and I feel each one in my body, a startling stab coming from the direction of the cough. How do you not move under such circumstances? Each minute is an eternity.

When the gong finally rings, it too goes on and on. What if no one in the hall is actually sicker than they were yesterday, the sharpness of the coughing caused only by sharper ears?

I spent a year looking at sunsets, and still I’ve never seen it like this: the clouds not just pink and orange, but also swirling and floating. But the real gift comes out of the corner of my eye: the sharpness of each individual feather; flapping that isn’t a blur, but real, blissful motion.

The birds fly across the sky — like something spilling.

The coughing is equally loud this session, but where before I felt a single stab, there are now two sensations: an emotionally neutral bodily tension followed by a flinching away.¹ I stop flinching; the coughing doesn’t bother me anymore.

I sign up for a meeting with the assistant teacher. I want to talk about my doomed dissertation. Not because it hurts to be wrong — it doesn’t — but because my time here is ending and I don’t know how to talk about it to my professors when I return.

Half an hour before the meeting, I am drowning in fear. Why did I sign up for this, ask such a stupid question? What could she possibly know about academic philosophy?

Eight days’ worth of insights vanish into thin air; the world is unmanageable again. So this is how it will be when this is over? Every meeting as terrifying and overwhelming as it’s ever been?

. I take a breath, close my eyes. My heart is a caged bird trying to escape. I observe the feeling. It’s no different, I realize, from the way my heart would thump after a sprint. By itself, the feeling doesn’t mean anything, except that it must continue for a little while, then die down. am not a caged bird.

The teacher tries to be helpful, but — she apologizes — she knows almost nothing about academic philosophy.

It’s exactly as I feared; it isn’t scary at all.

On day 10, we can talk again. But first, a new type of meditation.

In theory, loving-kindness meditation is a balm for the soul. In practice, it’s Goenka’s hopelessly vague instructions (“send out feelings of love and happiness to all beings”) followed by a chant of “Looove” in a terrifyingly crackling voice. In practice, it’s nine days’ worth of openmindedness starting to escape me.

In theory, when we exit the hall, our new love and compassion will shine through our voices. In practice, the first person to use her voice does so to exclaim:

“How the hell am I supposed to send out love to all beings if I don’t know how to even feel love for?!”

We form smaller groups and share our experiences.

My heart sinks — but not because I feel sorry for them, these women whose retreats had been so much harder, so much less joyful than mine.

Photo by Susanne Nilsson

Why, then?

Same reason as that of any sadness: I wanted something; I didn’t get it. I had been hoping to excitedly exchange the joys of the retreat. Instead, they ask me “What was the hardest part for you?” and I frantically search my memory for something that won’t make them feel jealous.

And another thing: I am, apparently, the happiest meditator in the group. I had wanted — but when I get it, the gift turns bitter and lonely.

I am, once again, the most tropical fish.

It’s the last morning, before sunrise. The sliver of a moon is as luminous as it’s ever been — but what really astounds me is the dark side, its edge perfectly set off from the sky, the shape of the dark-light whole visibly spherical.

Inside the dining hall, the air vibrates with kindness and conversation. I join a table, excitedly exchanging the joys of the retreat.

I walk around the parking lot. Another student is circling the lot in the opposite direction. I smile; she smiles; we don’t have to ignore each other anymore.

The smile is like nothing I’ve ever seen. As grand and generous as the sun, it holds nothing back. Her whole unique being is there at the surface, summoned by the smile to greet me.

Bathed in its warmth, I realize: I’d been so afraid, so busy worrying what people thought about me that I never bothered to look up and check. I’d walked the streets with averted gaze, casting glances only long enough to confirm that no one meant too much harm. Extracting the fact of the smile but not its warmth, not its perfect individuality. Leaving the gift unopened; not giving.

Suddenly, I remember. I seen this smile before. Only that stranger had been… a baby.

But then what has this been, if not ten days of rebirth? And who are we, if not two infants on the shore of a new world, trusting?

Photo by Karen Wiltshire.


On the bus ride home, a bleary-eyed woman spills iced coffee at the feet of a fellow passenger. By the time I consider hesitating, I am already handing them a box of tissues. A moment later, the two travelers are night shift workers bonding over their shared experiences.

Would their interaction had gone differently if I hadn’t intervened? That’s not the point. The point is I never used to be the person handing out the tissues. By the time I’d make up my mind whether to say “do you a tissue?” or “would you some tissues?,” they would already be soaked with coffee and dripping with anger and defensiveness.

After nine days of ignoring other people, I have learned to see them.²

Home, I turn on the music player.

Suddenly, I am singing. I startle at the sound of my own voice: deep, confident, powerful.

In first grade, my music teacher had mocked the low tuneless rumble that came out when I tried to sing. Then my dad got me a piano keyboard and I spent hours matching my voice to its tone. The next year, the teacher declared that a miracle had happened: I could hold a tune — and so high, too, like those other girls, the angelic sopranos!

From then on, I squeaked along with my second-hand voice, an alto (if she dared sing at all) playing at a soprano.

As I sing — beautifully imperfectly — I let all that go. I don’t need to be angelic. I don’t need to be musically gifted; I don’t need to sing in tune. I don’t need to be good at everything. I don’t need to be good at .

And so, after ten days of letting go — of any claim to uniqueness, of everything I thought was mine, of the very notion of “mine” — I have found my voice.³

[1] According to Goenka, every perception comes with an associated bodily sensation, and aversion to the perception is secretly aversion to that sensation. This experience made me much more sympathetic to this radical view, as did reading Eugene T. Gendlin’s book , which describes a psychotherapeutic approach grounded in bodily sensations.

[2] It sure like meditation makes it easier for me to do good deeds. But see Scott Alexander’s recent blog post for a more sober perspective.

[3] Thinking about going on a Vipassana retreat? (Note that retreats are free and retreat centers exist across the globe. And if you’re near Massachusetts, you might want to consider the Insight Meditation Society instead.) Some further facts to help you decide:

  • About 10% of participants drop out before the end of the retreat.
  • All of the remaining participants who I talked to (all of them women) were happy to have gone, but most of them seemed to find the retreat more difficult than I did.
  • My partner went to a retreat at the same time as me, and experienced only relatively minor benefits. (The highlight was that he temporarily learned to breathe fully through his nose.)

(Somewhat speculative) signs that a retreat is right for you:

  • Your life/job is very stressful or you have little time for reflection
  • You get easily overwhelmed by your emotions
  • You’re curious about the mind in general and/or your mind in particular
  • You already have some experience with meditation. (This one just makes the retreat easier, and potentially a little weirder/cooler.)

My life 3 months after the retreat (note that I continued meditating for 1 hour most days):

  • My vision is still sharper, i.e. I can still see the things I first saw at the retreat, like individual water droplets bouncing off puddles. But they tend to bring me much less joy than at the retreat.
  • I was shocked at how soon (in a matter of days) thoughts and anxieties came crowding back in.
  • I’m much likelier to wake excited for the adventure the day will bring.
  • I feel more creative, resilient, and sociable, though in ways I find hard to back up with examples.
  • At 2 months in, my happiness level stopped feeling that much higher than it was before the retreat — and I stopped having a grip on the sense I had at the retreat that this baseline state was a form of unhappiness. This was correlated with meditating less regularly.
  • I ended up digging into the belief that my dissertation is “all wrong”… and finding my way to a modified dissertation that feels very right! And my focus and willpower gotten stronger — but less in the “I’ll grit my way through this” way, and more in the “let me figure out if there isn’t an out-of-the-box thing I could do instead” way.

Visual artist following curiosity wherever it leads. I have a Harvard PhD in philosophy. Learn colorful painting with me: