The everyday art of Meditation

For the past twenty one years I’ve practiced Vipassana meditation. There are many other forms of meditation out there many of which I’ve explored, however I keep coming back to Vipassana as I find it works at a much deeper level than any others I’ve experienced.

For me, meditation has helped me understand the nature of my busy mind and to bring myself more into the present moment. It has also enabled a better connection to my body and before I discovered meditation I was often stressed, angry and lost in my thoughts. All of this was what was perfectly normal to me and it had never occurred to me that perhaps I had a choice in what I did with my thoughts or how I reacted. Instead I was a slave to my reactive mind and body and a prisoner of my thoughts. Fantasising and worrying about the future or dwelling in past were states I was very familiar with and alcohol or other distractions being ways I coped with difficult feelings such as anxiety or depression.

Twenty one years ago I was coming to the end of a three month student exchange at a design college in Melbourne, Australia. My plan was to travel around the country before heading back to Manchester in the UK where I was in the middle of a three year design degree. Before leaving a friend, with whom I’d been to see the Dalai Lama give a talk at the Rod Lever arena in Melbourne, suggested doing a ten day meditation retreat outside Sydney in the Blue mountains. She explained that there was no charge and payments were based on donation. She also talked about the wonderful location and the great vegetarian food but beyond that she said very little. As a student with not much money the suggestion instantly appealed. I called the centre and miraculously they had space on the next course so all was set. Doing something alternative, becoming a beacon of calm and tranquility along with attaining the ability to sit in some sort of lotus-type position, I have to admit, where the only thoughts and expectations floating around in my twenty four year old mind.

Setting off from Melbourne I spent a few days exploring Sydney before heading up to the Blue mountains and the small town of Blackheath, which was a quiet contrast to the energy of Sydney. It was early June and so the beginning of winter. At the station I was met by a man in a truck and he drove me and a couple of other prospective meditators up to the centre. I remember that he parked at the end of a driveway and a we walked the rest of the way as snow fluttered in an icy breeze. Winter was not something I’d associated with Australia and so by this stage in the year I was ill equipped but thankfully had remembered to buy a jumper and a beanie hat in Sydney beforehand.

The centre consisted of a series of timber structures nestled amongst eucalyptus trees with landscaped gardens and carp ponds all on an escarpment over looking the Blue mountains and the valleys below. On first sight it was exactly what I’d expected of a meditation centre; peace, tranquility and beauty. This was going to be a great story to add to my experience down under and share my friends and family back in the UK.

After registering I was allotted a room but discovered that I would to be sharing with 5 other men and I would have to clamber up onto a bunk bed. This was the first blow to my idyllic fantasy. Back in the dinning room all 50 or so people who were taking part gathered and waited for the course to begin. Soup was served and we chatted in between uncomfortable silences. It was now dark outside and as the hours ticked by my impatience and uncertainty mounted. Thoughts such as “What the hell am I doing here?” and “This isn’t for me – I’m going to end up in some cult and so better make a run for it whilst I still can” played around in my head. However, before I could do anything about it the course manager came in with a series of announcements and introductions, explained the rules and pointing out various practicalities. The course was due to start at 8pm and he would bang a gong at which point we would enter ‘noble’ silence. By this stage I was feeling very nervous.

Some time after 8pm we were taken into the meditation hall and allotted large square cushions that would serve as our seating position for the duration. Men and women were kept apart with separate sleeping quarters, dining rooms and in the meditation hall men sat on the left and women on the right. As I adopted the Buddha-like position I watched, through squinting eyes, to see what others were doing. Was I doing it right? Suddenly someone, who I thought must be the teacher, entered and serenely positioned himself on an cushion facing us. I straightened my back. Through the ensuing silence and my half closed eyes I could see him fumbling with a tape which he clattered into a machine and pressed play. As he straightened himself I quickly closed my eyes lest he spot my fake buddha-hood and eject me from the course. From the speakers deep guttural chanting that sounded more like groaning filled the room as my mind filled with the idea of a goat being dragged in and slaughtered any minute. This was a weird cult after all but there’s no turning back now I thought. Never mind – what a story! Eventually the voice of the taped teacher, a man called Goenka, spoke, “You have all assembled here to proceed on the noble path of wisdom.” Enter goat! He went on to take the group through five precepts which included; no stealing, no lying, no killing, no taking intoxicants and no sexual misconduct. We all repeated the promise not to do any of these things for the duration of the course and were instructed to ask the teacher for guidance which also repeated in unison, sort of.

A tape recording? I couldn’t quite get my head around it. Perhaps this was just the beginning and the actual person sitting in front of us would impart some instructions tomorrow. At 9pm the introduction was over and we went off to bed in silence to be woken early the next morning.

When the gong went at 4am I was keen to hear the ‘real’ instructions on how to do meditation so quickly got ready in the chilled darkness and eagerly positioned myself in the hall. It was still dark and bitterly cold which added a cosiness to the meditation hall. A silent landscape of blanketed adults began to take shape like soft rocks, which struck me a quite beautiful. At 5.15am the teacher appeared, positioned himself as before followed by the clatter of tapes once again and Goenka’s chanting. Once that had finished Goenka instructed us to observe our breath as it enters our nostrils and as it exits. That was it.

Bewildered, I headed to the dining room for breakfast at 6.30. As we silently ate our breakfast I was wowed by the view from the dining hall. The moon, huge and peach-like, appeared to be setting over a lake of cloud down in the valleys below. It was a striking backdrop to my confusion.

Returning to the meditation hall later the same procedure ensued and then continued for the next 4 days. Observing the breathe as it comes in as it goes out. I couldn’t believe how easy it was yet unbelievably difficult with often 20 minutes passing before I realised I was lost in my thoughts and had forgotten all about my breath. On day four the focus of attention changed. Starting from the top of our heads and slowly moving down to our toes noting all the sensations then back up again. For someone like me who regarded my body as just something that held my head up this was uncharted territory.

By the end of the course any expectations I might have had were obliterated. Becoming all buddha-like was irrelevant and tranquility and peace were bi-products but far from the actual experience of the course.

In fact, by the end of the course everything seemed to have changed. The icy snow flurries had vanished and although we were now further into winter there was a distinct feeling of spring in the air. Flowers seemed to be blooming, the sun shone and animals came into clearings as if out of a scene form Snow White. After 10 days of silence talking was a shock and at the same time a verbal flood ensued as everyone who had taken part for the first time couldn’t wait to share their experiences. Meantime, those who had come back for a second or third time, avoided the chattering masses. At the time I couldn’t understand their need for continued seclusion let alone the fact that anyone would come back to go through the ordeal again, it was mind boggling to me.

Looking back I now understand both. The budding nature of spring that I was experiencing outside was actually inside me as something opened, shifted and was in the process of a major transformation.

21 years on I’ve now completed many 10 day retreats with each experience different from the last despite the instructions and the structure of the course being exactly the same as that first one back in Australia. I continue to get benefits from both the daily practice as well as the occasional experience of spending time in silence. I find that through the silence and the intensity of the extended periods of sitting I get insight and clarity into what direction I want my life to go. Any confusions and internal conflicts seem to get ironed out and I often emerge feeling clearer and refreshed. At other times it’s hell from start to finish but I’ve come to know that this is just as ok as the clarity and openness. It’s the nature of change.

Stepping back into the outside world can be a bit of a shock but on the course silence is lifted on the final day providing the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with our vocal chords. Talking acts as a shock absorber before leaving and re-entering the outside world the following day.

Back in the busy world I recently, watched a documentary film on the artist Marina Abramovic who is famed for her physical installations that explore the relationship between pain, relationships and the body. The film charts her creative life but focuses on a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Central to the show was her most recent piece entitled ‘The Artist is Present’, which was also the title of both the exhibition and the film. Within the piece Marina sits on a chair as visitors queue to sit opposite her. During that time they look at each other in silence for however long the visitor wishes. The show lasted for four months and Marina sat all day for the duration of the exhibition. Marina later described how she’d encountered a broad spectrum of emotions in the faces of her visitors that ranged from anger to sadness and love. She also described the pain of sitting for such long periods and how she’d have to look out beyond her suffering to connect with the other.

I found this film hugely inspiring and whilst it was an expression of the artist’s creative ego it also represented some of the challenges of meditating for long periods of time and the range of experiences that can be encountered during that time from bliss to boredom and depression. In ‘The Artist is Present’ Marina Abramovic turned sitting and observing into an art form. Similarly, I find that meditation provides a space in which creativity takes place and from which inspiration and insights emerge. One of the main aims of meditation is to become present. Marina’s presence beyond the suffering enabled connection with another human being. In meditation we seek connection with ourselves, our truths and the reality of each arising moment within the framework of our minds and bodies. From here, we can move out into the world bringing our presence and inspiration with us in order to be in better relationship, not only with ourselves but also, with everything around us. http://www.dhamma.org

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Insomnia – ‘A rude awakening’

It’s 10 o’clock in the evening you’re tired and having not slept much the night before you’re convinced that you’re going to sleep like a log. You climb into bed but you’re too tired to read so you turn out the light. As you wait for sleep to come and carry you off into oblivion the realisation that it’s not happening slowly dawns and after changing position a few time you’re suddenly wide awake. This can’t be happening – how is it possible?

The following day is a mess. A constant sense of disconnection and tension runs throughout the body combining with total exhaustion to generate feelings of irritation, anxiety and depression. Your mind feels scattered and it takes all your energy to focus on the simplest of tasks. By lunch time you’re at your wits end. It seems that everyone else is full of energy but by late afternoon you’ve found some inner resource and you make it to the end of the day. To your horror the same thing happens again that night and then again, and then again. Eventually you’re convinced you’re losing your mind, that you’re ageing prematurely and the tiredness you feel inside is there on your face for all to see.

In the early hours of the morning when everything and everyone seems to be asleep. Everything that is except you. You believe you’re the only one in the universe unable to sleep and this is a desperately lonely experience. In fact feeling alone is probably the pre-dominant feeling when living with insomnia. If you have a partner chances are they sleep like a baby and this, of course, further amplifies your torment.

At some point you decide to take action and frantic trips to the doctors soon arm you with various pills beginning with ‘Z’ or ‘X’ but you find they make little difference and leave you with side effects that leave you feeling edgy and polluted.

By now everything feels polluted and increasingly stressful. Your work, your family, your relationships. You keep on going through sheer determination but because it doesn’t appear to be an illness and you have no visible injuries you don’t feel you can complain and that keeping it to yourself is the best option. Besides who would understand?

Next stop is the herbalist, followed by acupuncture, massage and hypnotherapy. Each work initially but eventually you’re back to square one. As you hop from therapist to therapist a well-meaning friend suggests it might be best to stick to one treatment at which point you explode and they experience the full brunt of your frustrations.

To the background of whale song and the scent of lavender you desperately search for that hidden pathway into the lost kingdom of sleep. Wearily you leaf, dry and swollen eyed, through the various leaflets you’ve gathered offering numerous techniques that promise to help with insomnia, all of which you’ve yet to try. Money is running low so you need to tread cautiously.

One of these leaflets came through your door years ago and has been en-route to the recycling ever since but some how it managed to avoid the pulping machines and as such has made its way from pile to pile. Smoothing out the crumpled and stained paper you read about an ‘Opening the heart’ workshop held at a local Buddhist centre. Whilst the workshop has long since passed you feel drawn to the theme, particularly since insomnia has left your heart feeling like a bedraggled and frightened bird. You find yourself googling the centre and discover they have ongoing workshops around similar topics at reasonable costs. Something inside stirs and gingerly flutters its tired wings.

Something about the language used in the books you subsequently buy on Amazon tunes you into a different attitude to the lack of sleep you so desperately crave. Now, instead of tossing and turning in the anguished hope that sleep is just around the corner, you break the rhythm of despair with stillness. Just stillness. In the darkness you observe your breath as it enters your body and as it exits. You observe your body as it lies there. You observe the darkness and you notice the thoughts ‘I want to sleep!!’ and then let it go. However, shortly after that you chase after it, grab hold of it and lose yourself in the restless war on sleeplessness. More and more, though, you’re able to come back to detaching from the frustrations and the pain of ‘no sleep’.

Slowly you wake up to the understanding that you are not insomnia. Insomnia is painful and you are not this pain. You become more interested in the Buddhist notion that the purpose of life is to wake up, to become conscious. After another slumber-less night you reason, “If this is the purpose of life you can forget it!!” But eventually you learn to be kinder to your tired body and your weary mind. You notice your clawing mind desperate for sleep and you begin to forgive your unsleepable-self. Sometimes this illuminates the way back to the mysterious kingdom of sleep even only for a brief visit.

It’s an odd parable but could it be that through the terrible and debilitating experience of insomnia we could actually learn how to wake up?

Learning to stay

When our life situations challenge us in ways that are uncomfortable our natural urge is to move towards comfort as quickly as possible. We react negatively to the unpleasant sensations that arise in our bodies as a result of what has entered through our sense doors. By this I mean, what we’ve heard, seen, smelt, tasted, felt or thought. Information that enters these door causes discord and conflict within our internal landscape. This can be a very painful experience and because we don’t like it we fight to return to what we do like and to the comfort of certainty and safety.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable and free of pain. However we all know that discomfort and conflict is part of our lived experience. We can’t avoid it and the more we cling to comfort, safety and certainty the more we’re unhappy when we don’t have it. In other words avoiding the challenges of life is unsustainable. This is not to say that we need to seek discomfort but instead learn to acknowledge it and thus master it rather than the challenging situation master us.
By having an aversion to the discomfort we conversely amplify it. If we can learn to observe it rather than identify with it we begin to build a better relationship with the disquiet of life. Of course this is easier said than done.
One way we can do this is by ‘learning to stay’. This is a very useful tool and is something the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron teaches in ‘Getting unstuck’. Learning to stay literally means waiting. When anguish, stress, illness, anger, fear and all the painful experiences of life appear we can just stay with it and as Pema says, “relax into it and pour some loving kindness into the whole situation”. By this she means kindness to ourselves and the whole human condition.
We spend a great deal of time setting up avoidance strategies. This might mean drinking, taking drugs, watching TV, becoming workaholics etc. The restlessness of loneliness and boredom is a big discomfort in our human experience. To avoid this we may distract ourselves with texting or immersing ourselves in the internet. What ways do you distract yourself from discomfort?
I know I find learning to stay very difficult but the more I practice the easier it gets – for example, I may have a desire to feel good. Therefore, when conflict comes into my life I might have a need to sort it out as quickly as possible. Over the years I’ve learnt to stay a bit longer with whatever the discomfort might be and I’ve found that one of the keys in learning to stay is the understanding that everything changes. When we’re in the grip of difficulties we have the tendency to believe they’re never going to end and nothing is ever going to change. We catastrophise but everything in our lives and in nature is in constant flux.
Staying with it, knowing that everything changes and being kind to ourselves are key to working with discomfort and personal challenge. Learning to stay is something we can apply to all aspects of our life, from the smallest irritation to the greatest trauma, it is a useful tool in the journey through our lives.