insight meditation

You are the universe become conscious of itself

Photo by Will Swann on Unsplash

My favorite meditation practice from the Buddhist tradition is also one of the least well-known. It’s a reflection on the interconnected nature of our being, and it’s called the Six Element Practice.

It’s my favorite for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s deeply poetic, evoking our nature as intrinsically part of the universe. For another, it aligns closely with contemporary science, which is a subject I love, and which gives the practice added richness. Lastly, it’s very effective: I and many people I’ve taught this meditation practice to have found that it radically changes our sense of who we are. It gives us a sense of connectedness, of lightness of being, and of freedom.

The meditation involves taking the six elements that make up our being, and seeing how each of them isn’t in any ultimate sense who we really are.

These six elements come from an ancient way of understanding the universe, but although it’s a model of reality that we no longer use, it makes perfect sense on an experiential level. So we have, in the traditional order:

  • Earth, which is anything solid in our being.
  • Water, which is anything liquid.
  • Fire, which is the energy that animates us.
  • Air, which is anything gaseous within us.
  • Space, which is just space — the “container” for the other elements — our sense of being separate from the universe.
  • Consciousness, which is what is aware of the other elements and of itself.

The first four are the four classical elements of antiquity, and are very common-sense. We’re made up of solids, liquids, gases, and energy. This is how we experience the world.

In the Six Element Practice we reflect on each of these elements in turn. First of all we connect with the element within us — which we’d normally think of as being me, myself, or mine. So for the earth element we can experience the solid touch of the body against the floor or our seat. We can be aware of the bones and muscles, and teeth and hair. And what we can’t directly experience, like our inner organs, we can imagine.

Second, we connect with the same element outside of ourselves. So for the earth element we recollect whatever is solid in the world. We can call to mind our experience of walking on solid ground, of picking up a rock, of touching the rough bark of a tree, of holding an apple in our hands. It’s particularly useful to recall experiences of food, like the bread and fruits and vegetables in your kitchen.

This is useful because, thirdly, we reflect that there is in reality no “me” earth element or “other” earth element, but just one earth element. And we can do this by connecting with how the element comes and goes in the body.

Where has all the solid matter in the body come from? All of it, we can realize, comes from the outside world. Your bones and muscles, hair, teeth, inner organs, etc., were formerly soil and rock and wheat and milk and vegetables and so on. And because of the way your body constantly replenishes itself, what was previously your body is now soil and plants and air and animals, and everything that’s presently in the body is in the process of returning to the world again.

And having reflected in this way, we now have a different view of the solid matter in the body. What at first we may have looked at as a “thing,” separate from the world, now is seen as a flow or a process, inseparably part of the world. We see the earth element flowing from the outside world, through this human form, and back into the outside world again.

And lastly, as we observe this flow we say to ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not myself.” Because how can you “own” something that’s just passing through?

So we reflect in the same way for the other physical elements, and see that all the solid, liquid, gas, and energy that’s inside us is really just temporarily passing through.

But passing through what? This brings us to be space element. We think of there being a space — a human form — through which the elements are passing. But what is this human form but the first four elements themselves? Take those away, and what’s left? We come to see that there is nothing at all in our physical makeup that is separate.The elements of the body that came from the outside world never really left the outside world. When you see your body you are seeing nothing more or less than a living, ever-changing part of the universe. Separateness is an illusion.

Lastly, there’s consciousness as an element. The traditional description of this is quite involved, but it starts with a recognition that there are three inter-related things: 1) form (the first five elements), 2) the perception of form in our sense organs, and 3) consciousness of form in the mind. The suggestion seems to be that these three things form an inseparable continuum. We tend to think of consciousness as being something separate from what it perceives, but this practice leads us to let go of identifying any part of this continuum as being either “me” or “not me.” There’s a unified, non-dual phenomenon of the universe perceiving itself — the universe become conscious of itself.

So if even your consciousness isn’t “you” in any real sense, then what are you? I think this is one of the great things about the Six Element Practice — it just leaves you with a sense of mystery. A sense of mystery is a kind of openness. It’s a setting-aside not just of definitions but of the need to define. We no longer, temporarily at least, need to try to pin down who or what we are. We no longer need to separate our experience into the categories of “self” and “other.” There’s no me “in here” experiencing a world “out there.” There’s just a vibrant aliveness, the mystery of the universe become aware of itself, and a sense of liberation — life without boundary.

If you’re interested in the Six Element Practice and want to explore it further, join me for a six-week online course starting July 12.

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What is insight practice?

reality

What is insight practice? Before answering that question, let’s back up a little and ask, “What is the Buddha’s teaching, or Dharma, essentially about?”

Dharma is about attaining freedom from suffering. All Buddhist practice has this aim.

There are of course many different kinds of Dharma practice. To use a classical model, there is 1) ethical practice, 2) meditative practice, and 3) wisdom practice. These all work in different ways to reduce our suffering.

Ethical practice makes us look at what we do and say, with an eye to whether, in the long term, we are causing ourselves and others suffering. So we train ourselves not to cause physical harm, not to deprive others of their property, not to sexually harm or exploit them, not to lie or speak unkindly to them, and not to suppress our ethical sensibility with drugs and alcohol. These are the five precepts of Buddhism.

Meditative practice helps us cultivate the mindfulness we need in order to observe how our patterns of thought can cause suffering—for ourselves, yes, but for others too as our thoughts are expressed in words and actions. It also helps us to develop qualities such as kindness and compassion, which help both to eradicate emotions such as anger and cruelty that cause harm, and to create positive states of wellbeing, fulfillment, and happiness.

For a long time, most of our practice might necessarily be focused on becoming more ethical in our daily lives and on cultivating skillful qualities such as mindfulness and kindness. In general this makes us happier. But there’s a limit to how far we can go in the direction of cultivating happiness through becoming more skillful. There are deeper factors at work than our relatively superficial (and yet still deep-rooted) emotional and behavioral habits. We can knock down weeds, but unless we uproot them they’ll keep growing back.

This is because the very way in which we interpret our experience is flawed, Buddhism tells us. Our perceptions are distorted. This doesn’t mean that we’re literally subject to, for example, optical delusions. It’s not that a person you’re looking at is really a cat or an alien, or that their hair looks brown but is really green. It’s that the way we interpret our experience is frequently mistaken.

For example, we assume that things (ourselves included) are more stable and reliable than they actually are. So we might assume unconsciously that our parents, or we ourselves, will live forever. We might assume that some painful feeling we have is going to be with us permanently. This creates suffering.

We assume that happiness comes from setting up a constant stream of pleasant experiences while keeping at bay unpleasant experiences. And yet since we can’t control the world, this is simply unattainable.

We assume that we are more separate from the world, and from other beings in the world, than we actually are. Thinking of ourselves as separate we may act as if a concern for our own wellbeing can be separated from our concern for the wellbeing of others: that we can be happy by simply focusing on ourselves.

Insight practice challenges the delusion of permanence, the delusion that happiness can be found through grasping after pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experiences, and the delusion that we have a separate and concrete existence. It helps us to let go into freedom; to let go into reality.

You might read the words “insight practice” and think I’m talking about “insight meditation.” But practice is more than just meditation. We can cultivate insight and challenge our misperceptions in our daily activities as well as on the cushion. And so we can do so outside of meditation as well. Additionally, we should pausing from time to tome to focus on non-insight meditations, in order to remind ourselves that the goal of Buddhism is not simply one of attaining insight, but of developing kindness, compassion, and moral excellence.

We’re going to take one of those pauses right now. So to get started with meditation, let’s begin with a simple mindfulness of breathing—something to help us calm, focus, and steady the mind so that we can see beyond our delusions.

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Guided meditation: The six element practice

Here is a recording of meditation Hangout on Google+ where Bodhipaksa leads a session of the Six Element Practice, which is a traditional insight meditation practice taught by the Buddha.

The Six Element Practice is a reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness, and non-self, where we notice that the elements of earth (anything solid that constitutes “us”), water (any liquid in the body), fire (the energy in the body), air (any gases within the body), and space (the body’s form) — that is, what constitutes our physical body — are not in any way separate from the world, but are simply borrowed from what we consider to be “not us.”

Even the separateness of the experiencer and that which is experienced is dropped, so that we can come to a state of pure non-dual awareness.

For more information visit our online guide to the six element practice.

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Upekkha as an insight practice (Day 85)

100 Days of LovingkindnessOne of the things I love is that when you spend some time hanging out with a practice, you often start to see it in new ways. This has happened for me with each of the four brahmavihara practices we’ve been exploring — lovingkindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and also equanimity, which is what we’re currently focusing on. I see each of these practices differently after practicing them regularly and reflecting on them, but I’m also starting to see things about the brahmaviharas as a whole that I’d never noticed before.

I’m noticing a kind of progression, suggesting an underlying framework that crops up over and over again in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this progression, but I’m now seeing it in a new way.

By way of background, many of the Buddha’s overviews of the path can be seen as consisting of two synergistic activities, which it’s tempting to call “stages” although that terminology is a bit misleading, since it tends to assume that the first stage is “lower” and less important than the second. In a synergy, both factors are crucial, and it’s not possible to say that one is more important than the other because each depends on the other for its fulfillment. These two synergistic activities that crop up over and over again are different ways of doing what I call “unselfing” — that is, reducing the sense of separateness that causes us to suffer.

These synergistic activities are found, for example, in the categories of puñna and pañña, or merit and insight. “Merit” is where we “unself” by developing skillfulness. We change our emotional and cognitive habits so that we think, speak, and act more skillfully. We replace greed with contentment, letting go, and generosity. We replace ill will with love and compassion. We become less selfish and less self-oriented, and more in tune with other people. This aspect of practice is like knocking down weeds and planting flowers. Insight is where we uproot the very cause of greed and ill will, by closely examining our experience and realizing that because everything that constitutes “us” is constantly changing, we don’t have the kind of separate and unchanging self that can be defended by ill will or bolstered by greed. So this is a more radical form of unselfing, where we learn to see through the delusion of separate selfhood.

Puñña and pañña — together — help us to abandon selfishness and self-view.

And these two, puñña and pañña, are mutually supportive. We can’t develop insight until we’ve done substantial work on ourselves to reduce our negativity and to become more open and positive. So puñña supports pañña. But as we begin to develop more appreciation into the impermanent nature of our experience, and of our selves, we find that we naturally become more skillful. So pañña supports puñña.

And this pattern of synergy can be seen in the terms samatha (calming) and vipassana (clearly seeing), and in the formula of the three trainings (ti-sikkha), where ethics and meditation correspond to puñña, and wisdom to pañña. And this can be seen in many other teachings as well, where there’s often a pattern of skillful qualities giving rise to concentration, which allows us to make a breakthrough into insight, which is sometimes described as “seeing things as they really are” or simply as “equanimity” (but here talking about the equanimity of the awakened mind, and not as the brahmavihara, although the one can lead to the other).

The brahmaviharas follow the same pattern, but in a particularly interesting way.

Metta and karuna (lovingkindness and compassion) are where we wish that beings be happy and free from suffering. We recognize, though our ability to resonate (anukampa) with others, that all beings wish to be happy and don’t wish to suffer. We all share these deep drives. And when we really recognize the universality of these drives, we find it harder and harder to stand in the way of others’ happiness, or to cause them suffering. Just knowing this intellectually isn’t enough, of course. We have to train our ability to resonate, and we have to train our ability to be kind and compassionate. (And we also have to train to be less selfish, grasping, and antagonistic). So this is a puñña activity, where we’re changing our habits and becoming less selfish.

Then there’s mudita, joyful appreciation. Now this is often described as us feeling joyful when we see joy in others. And seen that way it’s a mirror image of compassion, which is what we feel when we see pain in others. But mudita is far more than being empathetically joyful. It’s appreciating the skillful in others and appreciating the joy and peace that comes from those skillful qualities. It’s recognizing the operation of karma — how our actions affect our happiness, for good or bad — and so it’s really an insight practice. But it’s an insight practice that focuses on the arising of puñña in others. Mudita is when we appreciate, rejoice in, and support the arising of the skillful in others, because we clearly see that these qualities lead to true peace, joy, happiness, and freedom from suffering.

Upekkha is of course an insight practice too. It’s an insight practice where we ourselves cultivate and experience a loving peace. We experience peace as we learn that painful experiences and pleasant experiences come and go. We experience peace as we recognize that selfish clinging and ill will can never bring happiness, and because we’ve recognized that letting go can. We experience peace as we recognize the limits of our own abilities, and so there’s no clinging to unattainable outcomes (“I must save all beings!”) and no despondency and aversion when we’re not able to help others (“Some of those idiots just keep on causing suffering for themselves!”) We experience peace as we recognize that we can do what we can do, but ultimately all beings are the owners of their own karma (actions); ultimately they are responsible for their own happiness. We can help others. We can empathize with them. We can point the way. But as the Dhammapada says, “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.” And to the extent that we ourselves have any skill in pointing toward awakening, we have to recognize that others may not be interested in following that direction.

But we’re also wishing this peace for others. Even if we haven’t developed much peace ourselves, we can still wish that others attain to peace. We can wish that they come to recognize impermanence, and that they come to see the arising and passing of experiences with balance and equanimity. We can wish that they learn to let go of the desire to change that which cannot be changed, and that they increasingly see letting go as the path to peace. So really, we’re supporting the development of insight in others.

So mudita, joyful apprecaition, is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others, as they bring about peace and joy through the cultivation of skillful qualities. On the other hand upekkha, or “closely and lovingly watching over others” is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others as they bring about peace and joy by recognizing and realizing impermanence.

Mudita and upekkha are not just things we feel, however. They are intentions that lead to actions. Mudita leads to our rejoicing in the good we see in others, and upekkha leads to us appreciating and supporting any insight we seen in others, so that we help them to let go whenever we can, of any grasping that causes them to suffer. Having unselfed ourselves, we help others to relax their own sense of self, so that they too can become unselfed. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about putting upekkha into practice in our lives.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Vocabulary refresher course in the language of mindfulness meditation

Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times: The vocabulary of meditation can be a barrier for people who feel that they’re entering a strange world, experts say. Here are some common words.

Buddha: meaning one who is awake, in Sanskrit. The Buddha was a person, not a god, who lived more than 2,000 years ago; from a privileged family, he became a seeker of truth and eventually became enlightened.

Dharma: often used to mean the teachings of Buddhism and meditation.

Mantra: a word — “om” being perhaps the most famous — repeated as a way to keep the mind focused on one spot during meditation.

Metta: loving kindness. In metta meditation, a person seeks to evoke such feelings for oneself or others independent of self-interest. Phrases such as, “May I be safe, may I be peaceful and happy,” can be repeated in the meditation.

Mindfulness: “a receptive attention to present-moment experience or attention to present-moment experience with a stance of open curiosity” (from Diana Winston of UCLA).

Transcendental meditation: a form of meditation using a mantra, introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and popularized these days by such people as filmmaker David Lynch.

Vipassana: another name for insight meditation to cultivate mindfulness.

Zafu: a round cushion used for sitting during meditation.

— Mary MacVean

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Meditation teacher’s practice thrives in Mountain View, California

Daniel DeBolt: Meditation teacher Shaila Catherine once added it all up. It turned out that she’s spent more than eight of her 50 years in meditative silence.

“I love meditating,” she says, calling a limitless source of bliss — if you can stop your busy life long enough to do it.

What could have been a passing interest at age 17 has turned into a thriving practice called Insight Meditation South Bay. Teaching what she calls Vippassana Insight meditation, the non-profit has grown to have more than 1,400 students, and sometimes over 50 at each session. Events, classes and even a monthly day-long meditation are held in several …

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As more people meditate, more realize its benefits

Karen Garloch, Charlotte Observer: If the word meditation conjures images of a Buddhist guru sitting cross-legged in a Himalayan cave, you’ve got some catching up to do.

Devotees of meditation do take time each day to sit quietly, close their eyes and focus on their breathing.

But they could also be practicing while sitting in traffic, standing in grocery lines, or stuck in a contentious meeting.

“It’s available to us in a lot of life circumstances,” said Sharon Salzberg, an internationally known leader of meditation retreats and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. “You don’t have to close your eyes. No one even …

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Vipassana meditation helps addicts stay clean

Vipassana—a form of meditation in which practitioners train themselves to observe bodily sensations without reacting to them—has a growing reputation for helping addicts. “I nearly walked out three times during my first course,” Alex, a former heroin user from England, tells The Fix. “It was so painful to observe all the negativity I had stored away inside me.” But the results were impressive: “Cravings do not effect me like they used to. If I have a craving, I just observe it and it passes away.” Vipassana teaches the mind not to react to the emotions and thoughts that result in harmful behavior; adherents …

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Meditation rescued me from misanthropy

The atheist is an embattled soul. If we think of those proud to proselytise their atheism today – Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins – we find that they are above all polemicists, wearily prolonging a juvenile rebellion. Popes and fundamentalists are their sustenance. And vice versa.Without the quarrel, both parties might be obliged to move on.

My own atheist period lasted the time it took to escape an evangelical family. My father, an Anglican clergyman, had become involved in the charismatic movement. There were exorcisms and a delirium of tongues and prophesies. In the event, it was such a relief to escape into the world of cold reason that the loss of eternal life seemed a small price to pay. For three decades, I have avoided all futile discussion of the existence of God and the place of man in the universe. The only religious ceremonies I attend are weddings and funerals. Last year, when, over the coffin of a friend’s son, the priest announced that the boy was gazing down on us from paradise, it was evident that not a single mourner could take comfort from these ill-chosen words. The old formulas no longer suit.

But life is long and so much of it lies outside the highly verbal environment in which atheists and believers assert their divisive identities. There is also the silence when walking through fields in twilight, or sitting beside a sleeping child; there is the dismay as ageing parents decline; the mad pleasures of physical intimacy; sickness, déjà vu, dreams. Comes the moment when you are no longer afraid to turn and look at all that lies beyond the metalled rails of career and consumerism. In summer 2008, I amazed myself by signing up for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat with the ageing American teacher John Coleman.

I went for health reasons. So I told myself. For some years, an inexplicable condition had walled me up in chronic stomach pains and urinary embarrassments. The medical profession prospected operations to bladder, prostate and intestines, prescribed powerful medications and batteries of intrusive tests. Which turned up nothing. Eventually, and very gradually, I found relief in breathing exercises and shiatsu. It was the shiatsu practitioner who pointed out that the breathing exercises were in fact a form of meditation. Not a word I cared for. “You should go to a Vipassana retreat,” he said. When I objected that this smacked of Buddhism, he laughed. “Just go for the physical benefits.”

I looked it up on the internet: “Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. It is a universal remedy for universal problems.” “Universal” and “remedy”, I thought, were words that, when put together, could only epitomise wishful thinking. Purification, on the other hand, was a concept I couldn’t begin to understand and hence a goal I could hardly desire. As for seeing things as they are, I knew that this meditation was done with the eyes closed.

The retreat was in a monastery-turned-conference centre. After registration, one had an hour to chat before taking a vow of silence. The 70-strong group was a mixed bag: men and women, young and old, New Age and no, posh and rough. As we drank tea together, I found this person was credulous, another sceptical, this boy yearning for mystical experience, that man frightened of losing his mind. When a girl expressed doubts about her ability to sit cross-legged for 12 hours a day, a haggard man in his forties remarked that “the position” was not the problem. It seemed there was a problem, but it was not “the position”.

What then? Not money. These retreats cost nothing. At most, one pays modestly for food and board. In return, you are expected to rise at 4am for a 4.30am start, to accept simple vegetarian food and only two meals a day, to keep silent throughout – in short, to live a monkish life. And to learn this meditation method.

For the first three and a half days, you are instructed to do nothing but sit cross-legged and focus on the breath as it crosses the upper lip entering and leaving the nose. When the sitting position is painful, you are to observe it without thinking of it as your pain; when wayward thoughts disturb your concentration, you are to take note but not attribute them to yourself.

By the evening of day two, I had had enough. Feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips were weld­ed together in a scorching pyre from which my curved trunk rose like the torso of some broken martyr. Round this carnage, thoughts flitted and circled like bats in smoke.

It would be impossible to convey how many thoughts arose, or how systematically they blocked all my attempts to focus on my breathing. Had my mobile phone not been removed on arrival, I would have called my shiatsu man and told him what I thought about the “physical benefits”.

Yet I didn’t leave. I was as much enthralled as appalled. Sitting still, in silence, I found that an astonishing exposure to my thought pro­cesses was going on. How interminably words dragged one away from the here and now of sensation! How tiresomely self-regarding and self-dramatising the thoughts they formed were. In compensation, there was a growing sense of community with those sitting quietly around me hour after hour, some in deep trouble, as I was, fidgeting and sighing and rearranging their mats and cushions, others seraphically still, beautifully erect and fresh. I wanted to be like them.

On the afternoon of day four, Vipassana proper begins. Having learned to focus and free itself from words, the mind detaches from the breath to move slowly through the body from head to toe and back, exploring every sensation, every absence of sensation.

I had just discovered that when one did manage to fuse mind and flesh in the touch of the breath on the lip, the sense of well-being was immediate, the muscles relaxed, the sitting position became not only possible, but pleasant. Moving away from this to explore the body was like stepping from a cool balcony into a burning house. I would never have imagined that the body could provide so much essentially meaningless pain. Nor that I would have been willing to put up with it.

Coleman became important now. His son­orous voice clicked in and out of the silence to guide us round our bodies with a calm and deeply reassuring charisma. “Let go,” he commanded when we arrived at a point of tension. “Just let go.” Towards day seven, I began to get, very fleetingly, a sense of the whole body flowing together in a state of serene, liquid energy. I had stopped waiting for each hour to end.

But the real surprise of the retreat came with the last meditation before the silence was ended – the “metta bhavana”, or meditation of loving kindness. Outside the meditation hall, moving around the grounds, I had noticed as the days went by that the natural world was intensely present to me in a way that was unusual and moving. The absence of input was allowing for a simple sense of pleasure in being here.

When the old man began the metta bhavana, I found an unexpected generosity welling up in me. There is no point in denying it: Tim Parks is a misanthropist, interminably critical of his fellow man. Yet here I was, feeling something suspiciously like love, or St Paul’s charity. It rose from depths I knew nothing of. And to tap in to it, I hadn’t had to surrender my reason to any belief structure. Just by putting the chatter aside and reinhabiting my body, I had experienced a big shift of feeling. My shiatsu man, I realised now, must have known all along, being a holist, that one can’t just take the physical benefits without undergoing a change of heart.

When the atheists take religion to task for its absurd beliefs or for the damage it has done, we have no choice but to agree. They could hardly have an easier target. Yet the intimations that lie behind religions remain and are not going to go away because someone has written a book denying God. They are part of our reality. How we respond to those feelings, individually and collectively, will very largely define the kind of community we become. One can only hope that they do not crystallise in divisive creeds.

“Teach Us To Sit Still” by Tim Parks is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99)

[Tim Parks, New Statesman]
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That misery called meditation

Robert Wright, the New York Times online columnist and author of The Evolution of God, is pretty much what you’d call a cynic. That’s why I was surprised when he spoke with such reverence of the period he spent meditating at a silent Buddhist retreat. “When I came out, I was quite different,” he told me. “It was one of the best things I’d ever done.”

What could bring such joy to a cynic? The way to find out was to go to Barre, Mass., home of the Insight Meditation Society, where Wright went on his pilgrimage many years ago. Founded in the 1970s by a group of Westerners who had spent time as Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia, it occupies a former Catholic novitiate next to a forest in the middle of nowhere. For nearly 40 years, it has been offering, well, silence.

I went for what was technically called a retreat. More specifically, it was seven days of silent meditation on the quality of infinite and unconditional loving-kindness. (Metta in Buddhist parlance.) There were rules: No speech, no hurting any being (including insects), no sexual misconduct, and no stealing. We would eat simple meals, sit in a meditation hall, or walk slowly back and forth with the mind focused on loving-kindness. In theory, it sounded pretty nice.

I was, it turned out, wrong. By Day 1, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. After my initial curiosity wore through, I began (in the parlance) to “notice” something: I was miserable. Sitting silently on a cushion for hours at a time turns out to be intensely boring. Worse, it was also physically painful. You could sit cross-legged, kneel, or even sit on a chair, but it didn’t really matter, because after a while, the same nauseating pain would creep into my right shoulder and scream into my ears. I was bored, aching, and because of the whole silent thing, lacked anyone to complain to. Wright be damned, I’d come to the wrong place.

My fellow meditators (referred to as “yogis”) actually made things worse. They hardly resembled beacons of love and joy. Instead, they walked around slowly, dragging their feet, faces blank. I began to feel that I was surrounded by zombies; I half-expected to see arms drop off. Sitting at dinner, surrounded by drooping humans, hunched over their plates, I imagined that I was at a banquet for the chronically depressed. I began to feel a physical, sinking dread at being around so much obvious misery. To think I could have been lying on a beach; instead I was trapped in a morgue.

In short, I quickly figured out that it had been a mistake to come here, and I still had about 140 hours of unrelenting boredom ahead of me. Think about it: A week of pure vacation is a valuable thing to waste sitting on a cushion. I kept imagining the myriad other ways I could have spent it. Back to Japan? To Alaska, into the wild? Scuba diving? Rock climbing? Anything and anywhere but here.

So my meditation practice became one long battle with regret. It went something like this: The teacher told us to imagine a place that made us feel happy and peaceful. I pictured a mountain. Fine. Then I pictured myself hiking that mountain. Then I said, What I am doing here instead of there? Angrily, I switched to the ocean. Peaceful. Then I thought of fish in the ocean. The fish became sushi and I became hungry. There was a piece of shiny fish sitting on rice, quivering slightly. I opened my eyes; and the sushi disappeared. I saw instead a room full of zombies trying to imagine what happiness felt like.

These thoughts, the teacher later explained, were something called a “hindrance.” The fact that I wanted to do something other than sit in the meditation hall was a desire, and desire leads to suffering. (This is the first lesson in Buddhism.) At the time, it seemed clearer to me that sitting in that hall, bored stiff and with burning shoulders was the very essence of “suffering.” Desire, meanwhile, seemed to have a lot to say for itself: It took you places, like, say, the local bar. Give me sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, I thought. I’d have settled for a sitcom at that point; something, anything. But there was still no one to complain to but myself, so I complained away, and I felt bad about that as I slowly lost the ability to move my neck from side to side.

If I’d had my own car, that might have been it, but I didn’t leave Barre—though I did spot at least one person dragging their luggage to the parking lot, never to return. The days passed, and after a while, something began to change. The regret subsided, and I found myself beginning to find it more bearable, even mildly enjoyable. The teachers encouraged us to be easy on ourselves, and I took the hint. If Phase 1 was regret-filled misery, in what you might call Phase 2, I retooled the experience to amuse myself; to turn the retreat into my own personal playground.

It began when we were instructed once again to conjure up a person or place that brought forth feelings of joy and love. Suddenly, I was a child, and I saw my mother as a young woman, eyes full of love, holding my hand and leading me through the park across from our home. My chest ached with the memory, and hot tears of joy came to my eyes. I refocused and felt on my hands the rough bark of my favorite childhood climbing tree, joined with the smell of summer. I summoned my best friends from second grade, Peter and Eddie, and together we ran off looking for adventure. I zoomed forward a few years and found myself with fists full of grass, climbing the side of a Swiss waterfall with my brother and best friends, my heart bursting with deepest joy.

In Phase 2, I had somehow grabbed control of the DVD player of life, and I skipped to the best scenes, the greatest moments of uncomplicated joy. I kissed my first girlfriend all over again on the porch at midnight. I flew to Mongolia, landed on a galloping horse, and thundered across the plains. I watched myself, at the age of 26, a young clerk at the Supreme Court, clutching in my hand a secret memo with a crucial fifth vote. With hours to kill and the remote control in my head, I went on adventures in memory that brought forth an outpouring of the love and kindness that we’d come to meditate on.

Back in reality, I also began to realize that despite the strict meditation schedule, no one could actually tell me what to do. If I decided to ditch the meditation hall and go off into the adjoining forest, no one was going to stop me. And so, with a stick serving as a sword, I ventured deep into the woods in search of ancient treasures, heading a troupe of heroes and wizards on a quest for the stone of wisdom. As a British commando, I spied on an enemy fortress, gathering intelligence. I became a wandering samurai, shouting challenges in Japanese and chopping the arms off my opponents (trees). After a while, I had to face it: I was having a ball, deep in a second childhood as vivid as the first.

Back at the seminary, meanwhile, my fellow zombies began to serve as a source of amusement. I laughed (silently) at their goofy posture and serious bearing. Knowing nothing about them, I made up nicknames and personalities: A man who snored his way through most of the sittings was Sleepy; the woman with a well-developed musculature was Hard Body. More naughtily, I began to imagine that my colleagues were arranging secret trysts, breaking the rules banning “sexual misconduct.” There was, I decided, a secret form of meditative sex going on, negotiated and conducted in total silence. I found unlimited amusement in that oldest of speculations: trying to guess who was secretly sleeping with whom.

All this made for great fun, but a touch of guilt, as well. It occurred to me that I wasn’t quite following the program. I wasn’t meditating nearly as much as the schedule called for, and at some level I did want to see what all the fuss was about. My daydreams, as vivid as they were, were, in Buddhist terminology, also hindrances, forms of “thinking,” and not what we were supposed to be doing, namely “being” or “abiding.” The teachers had warned us that the mind would do everything it could to avoid pain or discomfort, and it seemed pretty clear that was exactly what was going on. Yes, I had defeated boredom by the force of my imagination. But I sure hadn’t transcended it. Was there more?

It all came to a head in a meeting with Michele McDonald, the head teacher, a woman whose arrival in a room seemed to send invisible shock waves in every direction. She looked at me for a few moments, and then she asked how I was doing. The sound of my voice seemed strange, but I heard myself explaining that, after a rough start, I was feeling a lot of love and having a good time. I referred to an early talk where she warned us about trying to shut the door on pain, and I thought I should address that. I said that while I’d tried to find some pain, I had more or less given up on that and decided to just have fun, and so—

“Sit longer!” she commanded.

I was taken aback.

“Think about it for a second” she said. “What makes you get up? Sit! Don’t move, and you’ll see.”

It is hard to ignore a direct command that comes from a Buddhist master. So began what you might call Phase 3: I went to the meditation hall and sat. Really sat, I mean, without moving, not even to scratch an itch or stretch an ankle. By this time, I’d actually learned to sit in something like a loose, highly undignified interpretation of the lotus position, and there I remained for close to three hours, by far the longest I had ever sat in one place without moving a muscle.

And the master was right—something did happen. As predicted, the pain came. But I didn’t move. Into the second hour, the pain was sometimes excruciating: I could have sworn that live coals were being held to my ankles. But at some level I had decided to sit, and that was it. Yes, I was aching, but it was bearable, and even, in a weird way, sort of lovable. For somewhere within it I was beginning to feel a surrender that was deeply and profoundly relaxing.

After that session, I changed my approach and began to surrender further, relinquishing control bit by bit. I gave up trying to do anything special or different than anyone else. Basically, I became one more zombie. When the teachers said, “Sit,” I sat, and when it was time to walk, I walked. Somehow it didn’t feel boring any more. It was almost as if I’d forgotten what boring was.

At about the same time, a few other strange things began to happen. Once, while eating, my eyes became fixated on a patch of moss, and without warning, time stopped for who knows how long. At other times, colors seemed to be wrong, as if I was wearing tinted glasses. At one point I realized that I had forgotten my own name, the way you might forget the capital of Serbia. And I had begun to find even the smallest thing fascinating. Watching an ant crossing a rock was, for me, like Avatar in 3-D.

And just like that, it ended. Suddenly, we could speak again. I met Sleepy and Hard Body, who had real names and personalities completely different than the ones I had imagined. I hitched a ride back to New York City, where everything looked quite alien. Coming home, I noticed for the first time the sound of the floorboards creaking beneath my feet.

If New York was the same, I was still far from normal, at least for a while. Real life seemed like a big joke—it was far too dramatic, exaggerated, and, above all, comic to be real. A fat man argued with a short man, pointing wildly. Along came a group of girls, dressed for the evening, giggling and texting. And all these people talking to their dogs! Surely I was sitting in a giant theater, and these were paid actors, albeit exceptionally well-cast for their roles.

But over the next few days, those effects slowly wore off. (I did write a lot of kind and loving e-mails, knowing I might not see things so clearly later on.) I began to eat meat again, got on airplanes, and rediscovered what it felt to be rushed. I can’t really say whether the week of silence had a lasting effect, though I’d like to hope it did.

Looking back, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m not destined to reach enlightenment or to be a Buddhist yogi—not in this life, anyway. The retreat helped me realize that I’m full of desire, of longings for raw experience, and unbelievably controlling of how my life is lived. I also know that a taste for adventure is, at some level, why I went to the retreat in the first place; in that sense, the whole thing was corrupted from the start. But I can report that Robert Wright did know what he was talking about. It sounds simple, but one week of silence may give you a hint, maybe more reliably than almost anything else, of who you are.

[Tim Wu, Slate]
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