An Unexpected Lesson From Meditation

Derek Everything Else 38 Comments

The unmistakable sound of a gong suddenly rang out over the compound and the chattering among the fifty of us who had gathered for a ten-day meditation retreat immediately turned to silence. And just like that, there would be no more speaking, no more body language, no more reading, writing, music, television, computers or cell phones. There would be no communication or entertainment allowed at all.

It was time to focus strictly on self-reflection and meditation.

I’m sure many of you have probably heard or read about such meditation retreats before, so I’m not going to write about the details of the actual meditation practice that was taught. Instead, I want to write about the other fifty people that I shared this experience with.

During the ten-day retreat, and even though I was fully dedicated to my meditation practice, it was impossible not to notice the other people around me. Despite the vow of silence we all took, we still lived, ate and meditated in close proximity to each other for a week and a half. As a result, I slowly began to notice everyone’s particular habits and mannerisms and as the days passed, I actually began to understand more about the lives each person led in the outside world.

For example, there was the short, pale-skinned man sleeping on the bunk below me. He was a homeless man who used the free room and board that the meditation center provided as a way to stay off the streets for a while.

Also in our room was a very thin, red-eyed hippie, complete with dreadlocks and ragged clothes, a young guy who spent the first twenty-five years of his life doing nothing but partying and was on drugs throughout the entire meditation retreat.

The man assigned to the meditation spot in front of me in the main meditation hall was a rough, mean rancher from Texas, always wearing tight jeans and cowboy boots, and always ready to bash someone’s head in if they looked at him in the wrong way.

There was also the 18-year old runaway who seemed petrified of the idea that one day he may have to eventually return home to his troubled family.

Even though the women were separated from the men for most of the course, I did notice the wealthy corporate executive who was stressed beyond imagination throughout the retreat because she was unable to call and check in with her office every day. And sitting next to her in the meditation hall was a woman in her early thirties who appeared to be one of the saddest looking people I’d ever come across.

You get the idea. Even through silence, I managed to know and understand these other people so well. And when the gong rang out once again on the final morning of the retreat, and we were allowed to speak with each other once more, I felt as if there was nothing else to learn about my fellow meditators.


Well, it isn’t possible. After spending several hours chatting with everyone on this last day of the course, I realized that my assumptions about every single person were one-hundred-percent wrong.

The man in the bunk below me turned out not to be homeless, but a well-known Hollywood film director who participated in a meditation retreat every few months in order to decompress himself from the intensity of life in Los Angeles. The hippie was a graduate student of International Relations at Duke University who wanted to work for the United Nations and the 18-year old ‘runaway’ couldn’t wait to return home and share his experiences with his loving parents and siblings.

And the angry Texan? Well, apart from turning out to be one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met, he was from Ohio, worked as a teacher for students with mental disabilities and spent the weekends working as a landscaper in order to send his daughter to a good school.

As for the women, my assumptions about them were as equally incorrect. The wealthy executive was far from wealthy, and far from being an executive. She lived in a small town in Oregon, scraping by as a waitress while trying to save enough money to take a certification course in massage therapy. And the sad woman was actually quite bubbly and happy as she couldn’t stop talking about her upcoming marriage to her ‘perfect man’ and the exciting plans they had for the future.


Without having spoken to any of these people and without knowing one piece of information about their lives, I had somehow managed to create stories and identities for all of them. Even further, I managed to convince myself that what my mind had created was nothing but the absolute truth.

I really believed that I had spent ten days ‘getting to know’ these people, but in the end, all I had done was allow myself to judge, stereotype and make assumptions and then to fill in any missing gaps with even more of the same.

After making this discovery, I soon realized that this was not some freak incident. We all do this, all of the time.

We have a tendency to create stories out of thin air about so many people that we see, hear about or meet in our daily lives. In most cases, we fill these tales with half-truths or even worse, complete fiction, that we somehow believe to be fact.

And this, of course, isn’t fair to anyone, including ourselves. If we are making decisions in our lives based upon stereotypes and mere assumptions, we are heading down a dangerous path. Respect for first-hand knowledge will be lost and I hate to think of where that may lead.

While I perfectly understand that it is nearly impossible to gain a first-hand education about everyone and everything that comes into our lives, I still feel that it is a goal we must strive for. I firmly believe that every single time we are able to trade a moment of blind belief or unfair judgment about someone, or even someplace, for a moment of actual knowledge, not only do we benefit, but the entire world benefits as well.

Do you find yourself creating stories about other people without really knowing the facts? And have these stories proven to affect some of the decisions you’ve made in life?

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Comments 38

  1. Kristin of Be My Travel Muse

    I did a ten day meditation as well, and it’s crazy the kinds of things I wondered about other people when I let my mind wander away from the practice. Did you do this at a wat? I did mine at Wat Suan Mokkh and I have to admit, it was enlightening but I found it to be extremely difficult!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Kristin – The two I’ve done were at actual Vipassana centers, not at a wat. The first one was in the US and the second one was in India.

  2. Cera

    Wow Earl. This is a great story. I was very lucky to learn not to make assumptions or to have expectations of people. It’s important to realize that the mind makes up a lot of crap, and can come to conclusions that aren’t really there or are completely inaccurate. It’s awesome that you had the chance to get to know these people for who they really were, instead of who you THOUGHT they were. If there is anything that I’ve learned on my own person path to enlightenment, it’s that people can and WILL always surprise you. 🙂

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    1. Earl

      Very true. I’ve noticed that the best relationships are always those where ‘uncomfortable silence’ doesn’t exist. When idle chatter is simply not needed, it is evidence of a much stronger connection.

  4. Shauna

    Beautifully written. I did a Vipassana retreat in Indo and loved every moment of the silence. As much as we aren’t supposed to communicate, it’s nearly impossible. I still held doors open for people, helped an old lady with her giant cockroach assassinations, and made the odd eye contact while we washed laundry in buckets. It seems I didn’t feel the exchanges the way the older students had, but when silence was broken, it was clear I was being watched as one of the only westerners. I was hugged and patted and congratulated with warm smiles and a cheek pinch. I hope the next retreat I’ll be more open to the subtle signals of love.
    .-= Shauna´s last blog ..Moroccan Travel Destinations in a Nutshell =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Shauna – Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your Vipassana experience. It sounds like you picked quite a special place to do your retreat. I do think that the location makes a difference and might help determine the benefits gained. For example, the retreat I mention in this post took place in California, but the second one I went to, which was in a small town in India, was a far more powerful experience for me. Over there I seemed to be in tune with the entire environment and the other participants as well, despite the silence. It was almost as if everyone was helping each other, without actually doing so directly.

      That would be wonderful if you sign up for a second retreat at some point. Hopefully you’ll find another great center somewhere!!

  5. floreta

    Great introspective article! It’s almost like an experiment situation. Prime environment for those judgmental eyes to take root and make stories. A lot can happen from silence! I’d be interested in doing something similar.. I know I’m at a monastery but it’s completely different! I mean come on.. I’m siting here with wi-fi everyday and we still talk. Hopefully, I’ll be doing a more intensive 10 day retreat after this where I’ll be completely unplugged and I’m sure a vow of silence could be useful. I must say though.. you’ve got me curious as to who that homeless hollywood director is ;P
    .-= floreta´s last blog ..I Lost My Muse =-.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Floreta! I imagine it would be quite different from your current situation. There was definitely no wi-fi at the retreat! The participants weren’t even allowed to make eye contact or use body language to express themselves to others. But regardless, I highly recommend these retreats.

      The vow of silence was more than useful. I find it interesting how so many people don’t know how to handle silence and need their lives to be filled with constant ‘noise’ as a result. I probably was the same way until my first 10-day retreat. After that, I learned to appreciate the benefits of silence more than I ever thought possible.

  6. Raam Dev

    Fantastic post, Earl. I’ve had a similar experience when I was younger: During business road trips, my dad would make myself and my brother and sister have “silent sessions” of several hours. We wouldn’t be allowed to talk and had to resort to sign language.

    I remember the first few minutes being tough, but after a few hours, when we were allowed to talk, we couldn’t figure out what to say. We ended up staying quiet even when we were allowed to talk!

    With regards to assumptions: I think another way of avoiding wrong assumptions is to simply not create them in the first place. I have long practiced not judging people or making assumptions about them when I see them. I always remind myself that I know absolutely nothing about them and I try to treat each person as the cover of a book: interesting to look at, but impossible to understand without opening the cover.
    .-= Raam Dev´s last blog ..Discovering the Beauty and Energy of Udaipur =-.

    1. Earl

      Thanks for sharing your story Raam. The silence during the retreat, similar to your “silent sessions”, was definitely addictive and calming. And it always makes me think of the concept of “right speech”, refraining from telling lies, from speech that causes disharmony, from abusive speech and from idle gossip. In today’s world, words just seem to be thrown around without regard to their meaning or consequences. Silence certainly seems more beneficial than that.

      And not judging people at all is surely the ultimate solution, although an extremely difficult one to achieve. But I commend you for being able to remind yourself so often of the dangers of making such assumptions. I’d even go further and say that it is impossible to understand people without reading the entire book, and unfortunately, we rarely have the opportunity to do that with others we meet. And there lies the root of the challenge.

  7. Shannon OD

    This is one of the hardest lessons to take to heart but you are right, it’s just incredibly unjust to those in our lives and everyone around us when we make these grossly wrong assumptions. Have you read The Four Agreements? This is the first Agreement and the one I find I struggle the most to abide by 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Shannon – I have not read the Four Agreements but another friend of mine has also recommended that book to me for some time. Now that you’ve reminded me of it and since I’m back in the US, I’ll go pick up a copy. It is indeed a challenge to avoid making assumptions and I’ve found it to be quite frustrating that the more I concentrate on changing this habit, the more I realize how often I do it!

  8. Suzy

    Dead on. We all do this. I am completely guilty especially when I travel. I start to formulate stories about people I have never spoken to on planes, much like you did in this situation. Perhaps it is the writer, always wanting to create a story, and an interesting one at that. On the flip side, I feel like I have been on the opposite end of judgment and can’t stand it. Being on that other side makes me try and not do the same to others.
    .-= Suzy´s last blog ..Traveling With Full Passion, Easier Said Than Done =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Suzy – Exactly! Your comment makes me think of the times we end up in a hostel or guesthouse and upon meeting other travelers, we instantly decide what kind of person they are and whether or not we want to speak to them or stay away from them. And we often base our decisions on one quick glance of their face or one brief interaction. We might assume that a fellow traveler is rude and unfriendly, and not until a couple of days later do we discover the he/she was just exhausted after a 24-hour bus journey when we met them for the first time!

      And I agree, thinking about being on the receiving end of unfair assumptions should be reason enough to think twice before we put others in the same position.

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  10. rose

    I have recently been coming to an awareness that I do that even about myself: I assume that I can’t do something, that I won’t like something, or that certain activities won’t suit me without even having given them a try. I also have an idea of who I am or want to be that I cling to even though it isn’t always up to date. And I am surprised, in the end, at how much I can surprise myself by trying out new things, new people, new situations, new dreams…

    You’re right about assumptions and preconceived notions – if we don’t learn to recognize them for what they are, they can really keep us from experiencing a lot!

    1. Earl

      Hey Rose – Thanks for sharing those thoughts as I never thought of this post relating to how we view ourselves as well. But you’re absolutely right. Every time we think we’re too young, too old, too inexperienced or lacking a certain ability, we are often assuming that we are unable to achieve something without really knowing if that is the case. And the best cure for that is to do just what you mentioned – surprise ourselves by pushing forward anyway and making things happen!

    1. Earl

      Thanks so much Lisis! And I still haven’t made it up north yet, but it should only be a couple of weeks away…

  11. Jennifer Barry

    Well, I commend you for sticking it out for 10 days. I doubt I could get through one! I would be bored silly in a few hours.

    It’s not surprising that you made up stories about people around you. Our brains are designed to look for patterns and use them to make sense of the world. With a huge amount of time and very little data, it’s no wonder you were so wrong. The longer you have a wrong belief, the harder it is to accept reality too. I have had many experiences where I find out a major fact about someone, and it radically changes my opinion of them.

    It happens less over the internet, but in person most people assume that I am pretty dumb. I guess it’s because I’m a bit shy at first, and also the blonde hair.
    .-= Jennifer Barry´s last blog ..Tigers, Tea and Technology, Part 2 =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jennifer – You may be surprised with a 10-day retreat! I don’t know if you’d be so bored as the schedule is quite intense. And even if you have to sit still for 3 hours at a time meditating, once you begin to observe the benefits, you start to enjoy being able to just sit there.

      You’re right about us having so little data to base our decisions and conclusions on, and so it is natural for us to fill in those blanks with whatever we ‘believe’ to be true even if we have no proof. Your example of shyness and being blond sums it all up. Those are two random things that don’t mean anything but quickly put an idea in people’s heads about who you are. There’s little we can do to avoid that, but we can do our best to be as open-minded as possible in the hopes of limiting such situations.

      1. Jennifer Barry

        That’s interesting that there is a busy schedule at the retreats. I would not have expected that! However, my powers of concentration cannot be underestimated so I don’t know how I would do over 10 whole days.

        We can’t control what others think about us but you’re right, we can stop ourselves from acting on wild guesses when we meet other people.
        .-= Jennifer Barry´s last blog ..Cool People Wanted =-.

        1. Earl

          By ‘busy’ I guess I just meant ‘meditating’! But your entire day is scheduled so you really don’t have any down time to just be bored.

  12. Karen

    A very interesting and thought-provoking story, Earl. I enjoyed reading about your retreat as it’s something that I would love to do.

    As I was reading your first section, it sounded kind of weird with all the people who didn’t seem like they had money and yet they were at a retreat, which I assumed would not have been free. It’s very easy to assume and judge people – we all do it at times – but it’s a strong and aware person who can acknowledge their assumptions and see past artificiality to the person beneath outward appearances. Easy to say, I know, but sometimes you meet the most interesting and wonderful people out of strangers that you would never even think to talk to in the first place.

    Wonderful story and message.

    .-= Karen´s last blog ..50 More Inspirational Quotes =-.

    1. Earl

      That’s another way to look at it Moon, as long as no harm is caused by our assumptions before we realize them to be completely incorrect! But yeah, I had a few moments of laughter after the meditation retreat was over as I began discovering how absurdly wrong I was about everyone. So much for my ability to ‘read’ people.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dina – Haha…I have a feeling that most people’s first impressions of you are overwhelmingly positive!! And I agree, as long as we understand that we may be wrong and can admit that, then we’re in a good position to deal with the sometimes unavoidable assumptions we make.

    1. Earl

      Hey Nancie! Do you know where you’ll be doing your retreat in Chiang Mai? When I lived up there I remember there being several meditation centers. There was an absolutely stunning Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city that offered 3 day retreats that many people spoke very highly of. But I do recommend the 10-days! The rewards are well worth the challenge.

      And I was happy to read on your site that you’re such a big fan of street food. Those egg sandwiches look wonderful!!

  13. Jenna

    Yes, yes, yes. I make assumptions about people and it’s something that consistently bothers me. I am working on it, but they come so quickly, out of “nowhere,” but I think that what I do with them is important. I make an effort not to nurture the assumption and am happy when I am proved wrong. I am a college professor and often make assumptions about my students that most of the time turn out to be dead-wrong. A great post & a great lesson. I really enjoyed it.
    .-= Jenna´s last blog ..Great Art Series: San Francisco =-.

    1. Earl

      Thanks for reading Jenna! I think you have the perfect attitude towards the automatic assumptions that we make. As it’s basically impossible to just stop making assumptions, being aware of what we’re doing and understanding that we may very well be wrong, is the best way to handle it.

      Sounds like your students are quite lucky to have you as their professor!!

    1. Earl

      Hey Brian – If I’m still around at that point, I just may have to join you as I really do want to participate in another retreat. And that’s supposed to be a wonderful center our there in Western Mass…

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