Solitude and Equanimity



Our daily life is filled with abundant sensory information coming from technology, friends, family, and the environment around us. This sensory information is experienced both at the conscious and unconscious levels, and some of it actually shapes the very mechanisms of our thought and cognition. But what happens when we limit as many sensory modalities as possible and go into retreat? What happens when we isolate ourselves from all technology and people, from all talking and reading? In this blog, I will share my experience of going to a 10-day Insight Meditation retreat. I will start by explaining the basic agenda/ disciplines of the retreat and then dive into some of the deeper insights that I gained throughout my stay. At the very end, I will provide resources for anyone who is open to this sort of experience and wants to attend one of these retreats. Please remember that it is always best to go to a retreat with an open mind; my blog only attempts to give a subjective experience that may not reflect everyone's progress.

Vipassana Meditation

I went to Shelburne Falls, MA in the last week of August before my college started for a Vipassana meditation retreat. Vipassana literally means insight, insight into reality as it is rather than as it seems to us based on our habitual patterns. The retreat was non-sectarian and did not promote one religion or the other; instead, it asked us to deconstruct our discriminative tendencies and see all things as equal. The meditation center I visited is the first Vipassana center in the USA, and it has been maintained very well since then. The resources I will provide below have more information about the center, so feel free to check that out.

For the ten days I was there, I had no access to any technology as the courageous managers had taken away all our phones and electronic gadgets. We also had no access to any reading or writing, which may seem strange but the whole point of the retreat was to reduce external tools of stimulation. Readings and writings may seem to be valuable for spiritual or philosophical understanding, but they lack experiential knowledge. Insight refers to very intimate experiences within one's own mind, which cannot be gained from outside sources such as books and videos. Additionally, we were asked to remain completely silent and talk to no other students. If there was an emergency, we were able to ask the course manager and they would provide proper remedies. We also had a teacher, whom we could schedule an appointment with and discuss any problems/ barriers in our practice. The teacher was simply a guide, who himself/ herself had gone through several such retreats and had experienced deeper truths about the mind. The teacher never discussed philosophy or religion, instead, they only gave advice on the practice of meditation. That is, they only talked about how we are supposed to watch the breath and feelings throughout our bodies without holding any attachment towards them. Finally, we were asked to wake up at 4:30 am in the morning and follow all the timetable activities of the retreat. You can see the timetable below, but essentially we had to meditate for roughly 8-10 hours a day, which guided instructions for 3-4 hours and discourses for 1-2 hours. Most of the retreat was just silent meditation, and the instructions were just given to initiate the process of introspection. We were given very simple breakfast and lunch at 6:30 am and 11:00 am respectively and there was no other food provided until later evening at 5 pm. There was no dinner served, only fruits and milk in the evening.

The whole point of this discipline was to detox the body and live a minimalistic life. We had access to very few things, and even the things we had were monitored by the course teachers and managers. But it wasn't just physical detachment, it was also mental detachment. As the days progressed, I could start to feel how I was slowly letting go of all the thoughts and feelings that came up from the past. Minimalism in the physical world is only the beginning, but minimalism at the mental level is what brings great peace. With very little sensory input, my mind started becoming accustomed to living a simple and calm life. We were allowed to walk in the woods behind the center to move our legs and be in nature. I really enjoyed this part because I could see how my meditation practice allowed me to enjoy my time with nature more and more. But in general, the retreat was simple: to sleep, eat, meditate, and walk in the woods. That was how I lived for 10 days, and if there is one thing I learned it would be summed up by Marcus Aurelius's quote:

" Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself- in your way of thinking." Marcus Aurelius.

I had read this quote before, but I never truly experienced it until I went through the retreat. Indeed it is true that all happiness lies within the mind, yet it is only our delusion that keeps us searching outside. When we start to deepen the practice of letting of our outer things and meditate on what's happening inside, we start to uncover profound joy and equanimity.

Practice of meditation

Westerners often have a question about what meditation truly means, and if it is associated with some supernatural or religious practice. Even in the east, few people actually know what meditation means. Meditation can be used for stress reduction or chronic pain management, but it has a deeper purpose. Meditation certainly is not used for a place in heaven or for worshipping a certain God. Meditation's ultimate purpose is the purification of the mind. Our mind is habituated by mechanisms of evolution and the immediate environment, and this leads to very deluded ways of thinking. For example, we know our brains are designed to constantly be on the edge and look out for danger, and that when something pleasant happens, our brains are designed to crave more of it in the future. We know that for evolution to work and our species to survive, our brains must remind and crave pleasure and avoid and be aversive towards pain. This mechanism helps us survive but it does not lead to happiness. The days of living as hunters and gatherers are over, and we no longer need such brain circuitry that is constantly coding for pleasant and unpleasant things. Most mental disorders arise because our brain is unable to distinguish its evolutionary needs from its practical daily needs. Anxiety disorders arise because of our faulty fight or flight system; OCD arises because of our faulty reward circuitry; substance abuse arises because of poor feedback systems, and depression arises because of improper circadian rhythms. Like this, we can see that the pattern is just a faulty mechanism of how our brains evolved. So the actual practice of meditation is to unlearn these faulty habitual tendencies and live more equanimously. When we say we want to purify our minds, we mean to say we want to clear all delusion from our minds. It isn't our fault that we see the world through a very narrow lens (blame our evolution, lol). But we must do something to bring change to our brains, minds, and bodies. And it is through this practice of meditation that we start to learn new ways of adapting to adversity and pain. Purification of the mind has to happen at a very deep level, and this is only possible if we give extensive periods of time to practice. This is why the retreat is designed to be intense, and it only works if we try our best to break away from our old habits of craving and being aversive.

So how does the practice work? It is simple: you start by watching your breath and observing its qualities such as how deep it is, how long it is, how moist it is, etc. The goal is not to look for one quality or the other. Instead, it is to just observe what is happening at the breath level. Once you are able to develop a strong awareness of the breath, you extend this to the body and start to observe what is happening in each part of the body. After you develop a strong awareness of the body, you feel a deep sense of bliss in each sensation, but you continue going to even more subtlety. Next up, is the mind: now that your faculty of awareness has become so sharp that it can feel each part of the body, you turn it towards the mind. You are aware of each feeling and thought that comes up, and with loving kindness you simply watch it arise and fall. Our old physiological and psychological response was to react with craving or aversion towards each sensation or each feeling. When pain arose in the body, we reacted with aversion and did something to change our posture. But this only reinforced the pattern of avoiding pain, and we know the world is constantly in flux and even if we avoid this pain, some other pain may arise. Similarly, when a pleasant feeling arose in the body or in the mind, you start craving for it and becoming attached to it. You start daydreaming about how wonderful this thought would be and how happy you would be if it happened in real life. But here too, instead of being balanced you only reinforce the pattern of craving. The goal of this practice is to use a neutral object such as the breath or the body to develop equanimity. As you watch the breath and body, even if pain or pleasure arises, you have no reaction towards it. This starts to teach the brain that it is okay to let go and just be aware of things as they are. Insight means seeing things as they are: this practice allows us to see our body and breath as it truly is without changing anything. Once the equanimity is built deeply, now you can observe a non-neutral object such as the mind. The mind is constantly searching for something to hold onto and think about something. But because you developed the faculty of awareness from body and breath, slowly the mind starts to let go of holding onto things. Instead, the mind just remains aware of whatever comes and goes into the field of consciousness. Slowly this practice leads to the egoless realm, where there is no 'I' that is seen in the thoughts or feelings, instead, there is the constant flux of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and sensations. 

These are known as the 5 aggregates of being-ness. They are: form, feeling, perception, thought, and consciousness. All these are simply aggregates without agents, and you can experience their separateness only when you develop strong awareness and equanimity. The two markers that are used to see your progress in meditation are awareness and equanimity. As awareness improves, so does equanimity and vice versa.

Morality and Compassion

Meditation is a very useful tool to remove delusion and purify our minds from our craving and aversing patterns. But not everyone can meditate for 10 hours a day. So there are other ways to purify our minds and remove delusion. The major way to do this is to practice morality. Morality strengthens our confidence in ourselves and takes away negativity from our past. As negativity starts to dissipate, our meditation becomes more clear and we start to develop better equanimity. There are 5 precepts that we were asked to take. These precepts were designed to purify our minds and reduce attachment. 

Here are the 5:

  1. To abstain from harming living beings (being vegetarian/ vegan)

  2. To abstain from taking what is not given/ stealing (being minimalistic)

  3. To abstain from sexual misconduct (going into solitude)

  4. To abstain from intoxicants (strengthening equanimity and not craving)

  5. To abstain from telling lies (being honest, being true to oneself)

These help us reduce negativity in our life and intrinsically motivate us to meditate more. They are not factors of control, but rather guidelines to help you improve your own mental health. When we break any of these precepts, it isn't the world or other person we are harming, instead, we are hurting ourselves. The negativity we put out in the world first impacts us before going out. It is difficult to practice these, but with strong determination and tolerance, we can truly achieve all 5 of them. From my experience, I can assure you that when I practiced these precepts, my meditation became much clearer and I was able to stabilize my mental confidence.

Another way to purify our minds is to practice the paramitas, which are 10 perfections of noble beings. If we spend each moment of our lives perfecting these 10 qualities, our meditation is bound to be successful.

Here are the 10: generosity, morality, renunciation, effort, patience, truth, strong determination, selfless love, and equanimity. The 2 most important ones are selfless love and equanimity.

If we start to live our lives with the intention to help others and relieve the suffering of others, we feel the immediate benefits for ourselves. Loving-kindness and compassion are truly the most wonderful qualities of a saint. When we love one another without holding anger and jealousy, we not only make the world more peaceful, but we also make our own minds peaceful. At last, equanimity is the most important factor in all practice. Being equanimous means accepting impermanence in the world and breaking away from the delusion of self. All things are constantly changing, and only one thing can help us navigate through this changing world and that is equanimity.

No Mud, No Lotus

The major theme of practice is always to develop greater awareness and equanimity. But how this happens is different from individual to individual. Each of us has different patterns of conditionality that manifest in thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Some of us have very traumatic backgrounds, while others have very loving relationships. Our past, though it doesn't define us, creeps up on us in various ways. This is why the Buddha taught the Flower Sermon at the very end of his life. He knew that no amount of teaching in words can truly get to the core of the practice. In the end, it's one's determination and karma that will lead to their enlightenment. The metaphor, No Mud, No Lotus, refers to the concept that we cannot uncover our true Buddha nature/ our authentic nature without going through our mud, which is the defilements of the past. When we sit to meditate and focus on the breath or body, our mud from past deeds and thoughts starts to come up. This isn't our fault, but rather just a law of nature, the law of karma. As you sow, so shall you reap. Even if you have taken the steps of purifying your mind now, there are still effects from past deeds that are bound to arise due to the law. But once again, if we apply the principle of awareness and equanimity, we start to see the mud losing its grip on us. I experienced this to great extent in the retreat. Very emotionally charged feelings and thoughts came up when I went into deep meditation, and I didn't know why this happened. At one point, I started crying because of how intense these emotions were. The emotions weren't just feelings, they manifested themselves as pain throughout the body. But the teacher kept encouraging me to develop equanimity. It was then that I realized, that I couldn't get to my true nature without going through all the mud from past conditioning. If I ran away or gave up, the mud would simply manifest at some other time. The mud in our mind actually strengthens our equanimity as we progress through the path, so it is natural that we start to encounter some very charged emotions as we get deeper into meditation. These emotions are only there to strengthen our faculty of awareness and be free from past deeds. Our whole life, we try to run away from our deep-rooted defilements, but in meditation, we apply awareness and slowly become free. Thus, without the mud, we cannot get to the lotus. The lotus blossoms out of the mud, which is needed for nourishment. The lotus cannot shine if it never went through the mud. Similarly, our mind has to go through its defilements of the past and remain balanced. As we apply determination and awareness to the mud that arises, without clinging to or avoiding it, we start to nourish the plant of equanimity and see impermanence in all things. As equanimity is nourished, a pure and bright mind starts to emerge out of all defilements of the past. And depending on each one's history, the mud may take one day or a lifetime to dissipate itself. But rest assured, this practice of equanimity is guaranteed to uplift our minds and blossom them into pure lotuses. I speak from experience, and I can only tell others to stick to their practice regardless of what comes up. 

Nourish the pure mind by developing equanimity and coming out of all the mud that exists in conditioned delusion. 


  1. This retreat taught me how important it is to go into complete solitude. This doesn't just mean physical solitude, but also mental solitude. The mind becomes content when it depends on very few things.

  2. Meditation's purpose is to purify our minds, and this can only be done by removing the delusion of self. But because we have evolutionary habits of craving and aversion, we cannot uncover our true selves. Thus, meditation is the practice of being aware and equanimous and reducing patterns of craving and aversion.

  3. Meditation can be improved and strengthened by practicing morality and compassion. The positivity we spread in the world, helps us become more peaceful. The 5 precepts and the 10 perfections are guidelines to live a more peaceful life.

  4. Equanimity and Awareness are the two keystones of practice. They both get strengthened as you progress through the path, eventually breaking through delusion and self. This then leads to selfless love, which comes naturally. Compassion pours out of the mind with no limit, and we live each moment for the sake of others.

  5. There is no lotus without the mud. It is only when you go through your very deeply charged emotions and remain balanced that you become free of them. The boat of equanimity will take everyone to the other side of the ocean, but the work of rowing has to be done by each individual. And each individual may encounter different things as they cross the ocean. But at last, the end destination of joy and peace is the same for all. 

"At all times and in any situation, how can I make mindfulness my constant habit?" 

"[Good] merit is the true cause of the body's ease, while the happiness of mind is had through understanding, what can sadden those who have compassion, who remain within samsara for the sake of beings?"- Shantideva, The Way of a Bodhisattva