Learning to meditate
Learning to meditate
This is the third in a series of blogs and newsletters about the different wellbeing courses I’ve attended over the last thirteen years. I’ve picked the courses, teachers and books that have had the most profound impact on the way that I perceive the world. One of the most transformational courses was a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Rocky mountains four years ago.
As I left Vancouver on a rainy Summers day I was filled with uncertainty about the challenge ahead. As the bus snaked through the foothills I was reluctant to leave the misty Pacific and I reflected on the rules that I had agreed to abide by for the next 10 days:
– No communication with anyone on the course. This included verbal and non verbal communication. For example eye contact with fellow participants was to be avoided.
– No communication with the outside world
– No ipods, no music, no books or magazines. Nothing to hear or read or watch for 10 days
– A simple vegetarian diet with no alcohol, no tobacco or drugs of any kind and just two small meals per day
– Complete emersion in the practice. They were to teach us a form of meditation and we were to practice this style only
– Each day started at 5am and lasted until 10pm. 90% of this time was to be spent in a shaded room sitting cross legged on the floor practicing the Vipassana meditation technique. The rest of the time was to be spent taking silent walks alone in the forest or receiving meditation instructions.
So you can understand my concern! This was serious spiritual bootcamp. Why endure this when there was so much to see outside – the beautiful snow capped Rocky Mountains. Why spend time looking inside alone with my hopes and fears for 10 days. Where would the love be, the touch of another, the smile and the loving support that we all need?
The taxi drive from Merritt greyhound station up to the retreat in the mountains only took about 20 minutes. What surprised me most was the electric fence surrounding the centre to keep Grizzlies at bay. Throughout the early part of the course my thoughts kept returning to whether, in the event of a power cut, they had a good backup generator. I didn’t want to be eaten by a bear just as I was on the threshold of enlightenment.
Before dinner on day -1 we met the people on the course and as usual on such things there were people from all walks of life. On this course there were four senior members of Obamas election campaign team. After dinner we received the first of our instructions and from then on we agreed to engage in the practice and not communicate.
We spent the first three days practicing a breathing technique to help make the mind sharp. Over three days we focussed our attention on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose – how warm it felt as it left the body, how cold it felt as it entered the body, which nostril it came in through more strongly etc. 3 days focussing on the sensations felt at the tip of the nose!
After that we were taught to focus our attention at the top of the head and enquire, without thought, what the sensation of observing felt like. As we observed the body did we feel heat, cold, joy, pain, light etc ?
From here we learnt to scan the body from top to toe and back up constantly remaining present to the observation of sensation. Perhaps each scan took an hour to complete. Sometimes it felt excruciatingly painful in my back and knees. Part of the process was to learn to become dispassionate about this discomfort. Sometimes harrowing thoughts and sadness kept intruding. Sometimes the boredom felt crushing and sometimes when you were able to be truly in the moment you felt utter bliss and pleasure.
At the end of each day we received video instruction on how to improve our practice. Many of the key messages that came through during the 10 days have stayed with me:
– The mind is lively and excitable. It’s obvious that we have a brain to think and create with but it’s also clear that having periods in each day where we train ourselves not to think can be extremely relaxing. It also gives you a sense of calm and understanding that you don’t have to clutter your mind with thoughts and clutter your life with so much stuff
– Practicing not thinking helps us become more dispassionate. This does not mean that we loose passion. During the 10 days observing the body mind relationship you realise that pain and pleasure are often self created mind constructs. They ebb and flow. You learn to accept that sometimes there is pleasure, sometimes pain. That’s not to say that there is no real pain in the world. The pain of loss and suffering is real but the scanning practice that I’ve talked about here illustrates to us that pain and pleasure are certain throughout life but that these states are not constant.
– The practice teaches us to be empathetic and sympathetic to the pain of others but not to allow that pain and suffering to affect the balance and equanimity of our own mind. This might sound cold hearted but a loss of hope and negative emotions can be contagious if you let them. You can only be a source for positive change in yourself, loved ones and the world if you engage with the pain of others but not allow it to affect your underlying state. A daily meditation practice helps you do this by reminding you that pain and pleasure states flow.
– Similarly you appreciate that the bliss, joy and ecstasy of deep relaxation is also illusory, ie enjoy it whilst it lasts but don’t crave positive feelings. Craving and desire inexorably leads to pain and suffering because inevitably at some stage in life you wont be able to get what you once had nor do what you once did. The practice teaches you to stay open to new possibilities and not overly attach to one type of pleasure sensation again and again. Pleasure can lead to habits, minor addictions, major addictions and suffering for you and others. Not overly attaching to one pleasure allows the full world of possible sensations to be experienced. As you focus your attention on one thing with your eyes closed it enables you to be present to a stream of endless beautiful possibilities when your eyes are open.
– Lastly towards the end of the 10 days we were instructed in the practice of a loving kindness meditation. This practice teaches us to harness the good will and positive energy that has been accumulated during the previous 10 days and communicate it to all beings. We are reminded that the practice of mindfulness and meditation is meaningless without positive intention. Many people use spiritual practices as a means of withdrawing from the outer world and suppressing emotions. Practicing meditation without developing kindness and compassion has been described as bare attention ( as opposed to bear attention). You do these practices not to become isolated from but to become an active, engaged, positive member of society.
On day 10 we opened our eyes and I felt as though I knew my fellow participants in a very deep way. I felt re wired, buzzing, energised and fully alive. The next 3 weeks were spent with my family camping in the Rocky Mountains with my eyes wide open. The world is so beautiful. Enjoy all it has to offer.
Find out more about Vipassana mediation centres all over the world . This is the one in British Columbia that I went to http://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schsurabhi.shtml
Posted on January 27, 2012, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged Happiness, Life Coaching, Meditation, Mindfulness Coaching, Positive Psychology, Stress Management, vipassana meditation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.