How did I reach the point in my life where daily meditation and extended silent retreats feel as essential and life-affirming as eating and drinking?
HABIT REVIEW: This year I’m focusing on developing one habit each month. January was meditation month, and this post forms part of my Meditation Habit review. Click here to read about my 12 New Habits for 2016
WHAT IS PAIN?! PLEASURE!!!
My first experience of meditation was as a teenager. For a few years I was a pretty dedicated student of a Korean martial art called Kuk Sul Won, which included meditation as part of its teaching. I didn’t have any lofty ideas about discovering the true nature of reality or delving into the mystery of consciousness, but I was fascinated by two things that meditation introduced me to: concentration and unusual physical experiences.
If you don’t already meditate, just sit down for a while, close your eyes, and count your breath as it comes in and out. How high can you get before your mind wanders off somewhere? Do this to see just how hard it is to sit and focus on something even as immediate as your own breath for any prolonged period of time. I was amazed by this, but also by how quickly this ability improves with practice.
The initial goals of our meditation practice were to calm and quiet the mind through controlled breathing, and at the same time to improve awareness and focus through concentration on breathing. More advanced techniques included maintaining uncomfortable physical positions, and so learning to sit with discomfort, and hopefully to realise that pain was really “just the same as pleasure”, as my teacher used to say. And finally there were some interesting techniques that seemed to be designed to induce physical sensations that were not apparent in normal day to day life, like creating what felt like a field of energy between your hands, so that it felt as though your hands were magnetised and opposing each other through some invisible force. I loved all of it, but I stopped practising when I was 18, which is one of my few regrets in life.
I couldn’t point my finger at exactly when or really say how, but slowly, over a period of a few years, I became interested in meditation again. I think it was mostly a result of being very stressed by my work and feeling as though I wasn’t really in control of my life. Mindfulness was becoming more popular at that time and I was around people who meditated, so it was probably only a matter of time before I began to experiment with it again.
I was looking for a way to relax and deal with my stress, to regain a sense of control, to sleep more easily and deeply, and to find the kind of focus and joy in my work that I used to feel.
My only real barrier to meditation was not feeling confident enough to practice it, not being sure of what to do and perhaps being a bit self-conscious. I also had the misconception that a lot of people have that the goal is to somehow empty the mind of thoughts. One attempt at doing that and the frustration and sense of failure is enough to put anyone off meditation for life.
At some point I began reading Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Williams, and I think that’s when my mind was really turned back onto meditation. It’s an excellent book with accompanying guided meditations that introduces you, step by step, to the theory and practice of mindfulness over a period of 8 weeks. The guided meditations are short (from 3-30 minutes each), straight forward, and you don’t need to sit cross-legged or chant mantras or anything like that. It’s totally devoid of any kind of mysticism, religion, or new age guff, and is written by the previous Director of the University of Oxford Mindfulness Centre. In short it’s simple, easy to follow, secular, and based on sound scientific principles and evidence based testing.
Crucially, the technique is almost the polar opposite of the ‘emptying your mind of thoughts’ misconception that a lot of people have. Without going into too much detail, you learn through various methods to concentrate on your breath or other bodily sensations, and then to simply observe your mind, whatever it is thinking about, and to do so dispassionately, without judgement or criticism. You learn to view your mind and the constant stream of thoughts, plans, worries, concerns, memories and fantasies that it throws at you as separate to you – a stream flowing past you, that you occasionally get swept up in, but not you. As Williams puts it:
“You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting.
You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.”
What this achieves on a day to day level is quite profound. First, it helps you notice with increasing frequency that you have become lost in thought, to recognise that and then reconnect to the present moment and whatever you’re doing at that time. Hence “mindfulness” – you learn to become increasingly mindful of of your thoughts, actions, and moment to moment experiences. Whether you’re speaking to your partner, eating something, or just sitting on a bus on your way to work, that moment is real, in fact everything else is just fantasy, and you learn to be there, moment to moment, more and more.
Second, it allows you to become very compassionate and forgiving toward yourself, because you quickly come to see that the mind is not really you. Your sub-conscious is constantly throwing thoughts, images, memories and fantasies at you, and instead of getting caught up in them you learn to recognise these for what they are, and be dispassionate towards them. It means that you don’t get swept away so easily in your worries, or bad memories, or feelings of guilt for or anxiety for not being productive enough or happy enough, or whatever else it is that your mind happens to be throwing around. It helps you to stop trying so hard to be happy, and to just be happy.
In this way the practice helps to foster a sense of peace based on acceptance of the way things are. It’s also a gateway to understanding your own mind and your experience of consciousness in profound new ways. I’d absolutely recommend mindfulness practice to everyone, and this book is an excellent place to start for anyone interested in trying out this kind of meditation themselves.
Be warned: there’s a lot of crap out there now as people jump on the mindfulness bandwagon, but that doesn’t take anything away from the actual practice. This book is a safe and gentle place to start.
I very quickly became fascinated by the implications of what I was reading and experiencing with regards to the nature of consciousness, reality, and ethics, and I began reading around these subjects. What is consciousness and how does it arise? Does free will exist and how can we know? If it doesn’t, what does that mean for society? What is the true nature of the universe and what is our place in it? If I am as inconsequential as I seem to be, how should I live my life?
These are fascinating questions that had interested me before I got caught up in the immense effort of creating a career, a lifestyle, and a persona in line with the goals, dreams and fantasies that I had adopted as my own. Mindfulness practice started to take me out of that nonsense and gave me space to start thinking about these more interesting things once more.
As I read and explored, my partner attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, something that Sam Harris also suggests in his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I attempted my first 10 day retreat in 2015 but had to leave midway due to health reasons. In January this year I completed a 10 day course, and in my next post I’ll go into some detail about this method and some of my experiences.
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