(19 Minute Read)
"A paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them." - excerpt from The Practicing Mind by Thomas Sterner
We experience life moment by moment. You can notice this if you anchor your attention somewhere in your body. You can try it right now if you'd like. See if you can notice the location of the feeling of breathing. It could be your chest, diaphragm, or maybe your nose. Notice the personality of your breath right now. Are your breaths deep? Or rushed? Take a moment to pause and notice any sensations.
If you want to understand the mind, observe it.
December 22, 2015.
My high school friend Johnfavour and I were on our way to our first ten day meditation retreat. The retreat was in Occidental, a two hour drive from our hometown in Fremont. It was cloudy and the sky was grey. Johnfavour's family was from Burma and meditation was something he'd been familiar with as a kid. I meditated on and off for five to ten minutes a day for the last couple of years. We both heard of the retreat from my ex-girlfriend. She said it was one of the most profound experiences of her life.
"So, what do you want to get out of this?" I said.
"I don't really have any expectations."
"That's impossible." I thought to myself.
"How about you?" He said.
"I guess I want to increase my self-awareness and also build momentum for a solid habit of daily meditation."
I slept for most of the ride. When we got there, I looked outside the window. The sun had just set but I could still see the redwood trees surrounding us.
All day long we stir a dirty pool of murky water. When we sit in silence, we stop stirring and eventually the dirt settles and the water becomes clear.
I arrived at the retreat center. We grabbed blankets and pillows from the supply closet and went to our assigned rooms. Each room had six wooden bunk beds, a small heater, and two windows. We unpacked our belongings. Johnfavour and I were assigned the same room. Our bunks were next to each other.
After getting settled in, we turned in our cellphones, watches, and anything else that could be a distraction. The men and women were separated to opposite sides of the cafeteria. We ate a vegetarian dinner.
An old Indian man played an instructional recording on a small portable speaker. The deep voice of S.N. Goenka and his thick Indian accent echoed through the cafeteria. He explained the five precepts for the course:
1. To abstain from killing any being;
2. To abstain from stealing;
3. To abstain from all sexual activity;
4. To abstain from telling lies;
5. To abstain from all intoxicants.
He also explained "Noble Silence". "Noble Silence" meant that all communication with other students was prohibited for the duration of the course. That meant hand gestures, written notes, sign language, talking, physical contact, and eye contact were all prohibited.
The schedule was given to us as follows:
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teachers' instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teachers' instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15pm-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out
The longest meditation session I'd done up to that point was twenty minutes. I thought a meditation retreat to be a peaceful experience. It would turn out be a mental marathon. I heard that some people would leave midway because they couldn't handle it. I was scared.
Some people go fishing just for fun. They call it "catch and release". When you catch something, there's no need to worry, just remember to release it.
After the instructions on the first night we returned to our rooms and instructed to return within fifteen minutes for our first group meditation session. I grabbed a light jacket to keep me warm. I saw Johnfavour grabbing his clothes from the corner of my eye. It felt strange to not acknowledge his existence.
We entered the meditation hall. It had high wooden ceilings and the place looked like a giant triangle shaped wooden cabin. Blue cushions that measured about two square feet were placed in rows like a chess board. They were about two feet away from each other in each direction. Half the room was for the women and the other half was for the men.
We received instructions to meditate from the speakers. Our job was to notice the sensation of breathing, but only on the area above the upper lip where a mustache would be if you had one. Our first session was about forty-five minutes long. I crossed my legs and closed my eyes. The room was mostly silent, but every now and then I heard a sniffle or a cough. I wasn’t sure how to react to the noise. I tried to stay focused but my mind was scrambled with thoughts. After about twenty minutes or so my back started to hurt so I quietly shifted into a kneeling position instead. I probably spent over forty minutes lost in thought with only a few minutes of focused attention on my breath.
After that session, I still felt proud of myself for completing my longest session of meditation. We filed out of the room and walked along a dirt path back to our rooms. I paused and looked up at the stars with a sense of positive anticipation. I breathed in the fresh air and appreciated the nature around us.
Notice your pet dog or cat if you have one. Or notice the birds outside. They don't dwell on the past or worry about the future. See how present they are. We can learn from them.
At the end of each night, we watched a lecture by S.N. Goenka. He talked about the philosophies behind the technique and told parables from Buddhist teachings. He repeatedly reminded us that we didn't have to be a Buddhist, convert to any religion, or even have any religious beliefs to get the benefits of meditation.
On the first night he came on the screen and said, "The first day is now over. You have nine more to go." A hush of laughter sounded through the building. It was a gut response to the insanity that we all signed up for. Meditating for ten hours that day was hard enough. Nine more days to go.
We think about home life when we're at work. Then when we get home, we think about our work obligations. At the movie theater we think about our homework assignment. When it comes time to do homework, we think about the movie we watched. Wherever you are, be there.
For the first three days, we learned to "sharpen our minds" by focusing on the area above our upper lip. We were instructed to breathe in and out through our nostrils and to notice anything we felt as we inhaled and exhaled. He would say, "Notice any sensations: warmth, coolness, prickling, tingling, stinging, itching, burning, throbbing, pulsing...any sensation. Notice any sensation in the area above the upper lip."
I noticed that the air above my upper lip felt cooler on the inhale and warmer on the exhale. It was subtle.
This training brings the focus of your mind to the present moment. This close attention to your bodily sensations forces you to notice and examine what you experience in the present moment. Our body and our breath are tools we can employ for this focused training at any given time.
Clouds are always moving, forming, and shifting. Some are huge and occupy a ton of space in the sky. Sometimes they seem to unravel slowly across the sky. Other times, they seem to flow quickly like a river. Notice the nature of the clouds. It's a constant flux.
It was the third day. The four a.m. wake up bell sounded. I quietly got dressed. Most of my roommates went back to sleep in their bunks. I felt a sense of quiet pride since I had gotten up each day so far and made it to the hall to meditate at 4:30. I was here to work. It was early and the sun had not risen yet, but I was eager to sit and wait. The sky was grey with fog.
This morning felt different. I was getting used to the vigorous schedule. I sat down on the cushion with my legs crossed and settled into a comfortable posture. I noticed my breath. I placed my focus on the area between my upper lip and my nose. I searched for any sensations. Every session felt unique.
I noticed a subtle pulse or vibration of some sort just underneath the surface of my skin. With the attitude of a scientist using a microscope, I noticed and examined any sensations I was feeling in the small area above the upper lip.
The pulsing grew stronger. It felt like layers were peeling away and revealed a vibratory force that seemed to expand through my entire body. I thought I could feel the river of blood flowing beneath my skin.
There were moments when the sensation was so overwhelming, I felt like I was disappearing. In those moments I pulled back, my body shook and I snapped out of the trance, only to return to the peeling away of deeper layers. My eyes rolled back. The sensation was pulling me into a blissful state of hypnotic disorientation.
It felt great. Since then, I've never experienced anything quite like it.
The breakfast bell rung and people around me stood up, stretched, and began to line up for breakfast. I didn't move. I needed some time to process what just happened.
I sat there as a flood of questions filled my mind. I concluded that the I must've experienced what all monks and other experienced meditators feel whenever they sit down to meditate. What a joyous discovery!
I was naive. I didn't realize that I developed a craving towards this pleasant sensation.
Throughout the retreat, they taught us to be mindful by noticing any bodily sensations, pleasant or unpleasant. The voice recording of Goenka encouraged us to, "Remain perfectly equanimous as to not develop any cravings or feelings of aversion. To remain perfectly equanimous."
Equanimity is important.
The key is to notice and observe the mind without getting lost in thought or overtaken by strong emotions. If you felt pain in the body, we were told to examine that pain objectively. Similarly, if you felt pleasant feelings in the body, they encouraged us to remain calm and composed. It was important to not to develop any craving for any feeling.
We took on an objective attitude similar to a scientist observing natural phenomenon. We would ask and examine where the center of the pain was. Was it burning? Was it stinging? Was it a sharp sensation? Where in the body does the pain start and end?
They say that suffering comes from both craving and aversion. When you crave something so bad and don't get it, that creates suffering. Likewise, if you're currently experiencing something, like pain, and you have strong feelings of aversion, that begets suffering too. Craving and aversion translate into being dependent on external circumstances for your well being.
You say, "I wish it was sunny outside! Why can't it be sunny? This sucks!" Craving. Or you say, "I hate the rain. Why does it have to rain? This sucks!" Aversion.
The coin of suffering has two sides.
A monkey grabs a vine in the forest. It swings and leaps onto another vine. Every time the monkey latches onto a vine, it swings forward towards a new one. The forest is thick with vines.
In the afternoon of the third day they taught us the Vipassana technique. Vipassana means "mindfulness" and it's the oldest form of meditation.
For the first three and a half days, we focused on the area just above the upper lip. This was to sharpen our minds. For the next seven days, we were instructed to move our attention slowly from the top of our heads all the way down to the tips of our toes. Our attention hovered over the surface of our entire body.
We focused on one part of the body at a time. We started from the tip of the head, to the scalp, the back of the head, forehead, down to the eyebrows, eyes, nose, cheeks, ears, jaw, upper lip, lower lip, down to the chin and we kept moving our attention slowly throughout the entire body until we reached the tips of our toes. Then we would go backwards from our toes back to the top of the head. We moved in the same order every time.
We were also instructed to not move at all for that entire hour. These sessions were called, "Sits of strong determination" and they were scheduled three times a day for the remainder of our time at the retreat.
Since we were learning the Vipassana technique, the schedule was adjusted and that session would go for two hours. I crossed my legs and closed my eyes. I was eager to experience the state of vibrant bliss I felt earlier that morning. The voice on the speaker came on and started to guide us. The first instruction was for us to place our attention on the tip of our head. I searched for any sensations. It probably took about twenty minutes or so just to move down to our left shoulder. By this time, I was starting to get impatient. Another ten minutes or so passed and we were starting to get to our forearm and still had the rest of the body to scan through. I could feel the pain in my back heat up. The three days of sitting were starting to take a toll on my body.
By the time we were halfway through, my back was burning with sweat and my kneecaps felt like they were going to explode. It was the most painful hour at the retreat. My mind was a flurry of anger, resentment, pain, and rage. I silently cursed at the teacher. I clenched my jaw so hard my head was shaking.
When the session finally ended, I heard people groan and get up to stretch. We walked our of the room in a line and people ahead of me were massaging their backs and knees. At the end of the day, Goenka came on the screen and said, "The third day is now over. You have seven more to go." No one laughed.
If you're washing dishes but thinking about a peach you're going to eat later, when the time comes to eat the peach, you'll be thinking about something else and you won't enjoy it. Be here now.
The only time you are allowed to speak during the course is if you have questions that you want to ask a teacher to help you practice correctly. The teachers were available for one hour during the day, and also at the end of each day. There was always a long line of students.
On the fourth day, I told the teacher that I think I developed a craving towards the pleasant experience I had the previous morning. I admitted that the next meditation session was such a pain.
"It's no coincidence that happened" He said.
I realized that the craving and expectations was the source to my suffering. It felt so profound.
"If we're not supposed to have cravings or aversion, then how do we go about our daily lives and pursue our goals?" I said.
"Great question. There is a difference between a craving and a desire. Let's say you desire a piece of chocolate, but you don't get it. Do you get depressed? If not, then that's okay."
I smiled, said thank you, and left the hall to return to my room. As I walked back, I took my time and tried to notice how every step felt. I looked at the trees along the path and stopped to admire the nature. I walked along the same path a dozen times, but that day things looked different. Maybe I was different.
"Mystery is not about traveling to new places, but looking with new eyes," - Marcel Proust
On the last day of the retreat, the "noble silence" was lifted and we were allowed to talk. Goenka called the last day a "shock absorber" as a cushion before we went back to our normal lives.
When the morning session ended, the teachers quietly got up, didn't say a word, and left.
We looked around the room for instruction. Was it really over? One guy stood up, stretched out his arms and said, "Happy New Year!"
The "Noble Silence" was over. It took me some time to get used to the strange sound of my voice. My vocal cords were dormant for ten days and had just awoken.
We went back to our rooms sat on our bunks and began to share our experiences with one another. The guy to my right said, "They only gave us six hours to sleep and had us meditate for ten hours a day. That's fucked up man!" We all laughed.
I asked my roommates, "Did you guys hear sleep talking too? It was so weird, since we couldn't talk. But you can't really control that"
"Yeah, I heard a guy sleep talking in German!", one roommatesaid. Another guy said, "I heard someone in the middle of the night say, "What do you expect? Heat rises!" We all laughed and continued talking about our experiences. It was refreshing.
One guy told us that his family called the retreat center. He found out that his father was in the hospital.
When the retreat manager pulled him aside and told him he said, "Stop. Now notice any sensations. Take the rest of the day to think about what you would like to do."
He meditated for the rest of the day and decided, "If I never got to see my father again, I would regret not telling him that I love him." So he broke the "Noble Silence" and spoke with his father. He found out that his father was going to be okay.
When a seed is planted, it's just that, a seed. It doesn't wish it were a flower. It's not even aware of what a flower is. All it knows is how to be a seed. When it sprouts, it's just that, a sprout. It doesn't wish it was a seed. All it knows is how to be a sprout. When it flowers, it's just that, a flower. All it knows is how to be a flower. And when it inevitably dies, it settles back into the soil and turns into nourishment for other seeds.
For the very last discourse, Goenka told us that the ten day retreat was our first step taken firmly on the path of the practice. He encouraged us to develop a daily practice, for this was was the most important.
His parting instructions told us to meditate daily for an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening. This was way too much for me. I settled for a thirty minute session to start the day and no evening session.
Last year in 2016 I bought a yearly calendar and for every day I meditated, I crossed off that date with a big obnoxious "X". I stole the idea from Jerry Seinfeld, who famously used this method to start the habit of writing jokes everyday. He said that the key was not to break the chain.
I lasted a month.
In May, there were only three days marked with an "X". I started to realize that any amount of meditation was better than nothing, so I thought about lowering my standard from thirty minutes to just fifteen minutes a day. I settled on an even lower standard of ten minutes. Baby steps. At the end of the year, I saw that I meditated for 154 out of the 366 days. Even though it was less than half the year, I was glad I was making clear progress.
Later that year in September, I went on my second ten day retreat at Twentynine Palms in Southern California. I hope to go once a year.
This year in 2017, I started the year strong. I'm already at 79/81 days for the year. Just a couple weeks ago in March, I broke my longest meditation streak of 93 days. For someone as inconsistent as I am, this was a big deal. I was disappointed and surprised but mostly proud of my accomplishment.
Whenever my meditation streak got to being around a week or two, I noticed that my baseline level of anxiety would drop. In tiny moments when I was standing in line, or waiting in traffic, I would catch myself being more patient than before. I remember Goenka telling us that if you come across ten situations that would make you angry, but only get angry nine times out of ten, that's a huge improvement. It was encouraging.
Every time I sit down to meditate, even for just ten minutes, it's still a challenge. Some days my thoughts are frantic, other days they're calm, and some days I get a taste of that pleasant sensation I felt two years ago. I try to remember that "the goal is the path and the path is the goal."