I spent the last week of March, much like the last week of December year, at a Vipassana retreat. This was a 3-day retreat, much shorter than the 10-day silent retreat. This too requires complete silence with no contact with the outside world. Every time I come back from these sessions, I am always asked: How was it?
The question baffles me. I always respond with, “Oh! Torturous as usual!”
“Then why do you go?” comes the next question. I shrug. “Why should you go and torture yourself? Why do it if you don’t like it?”
“It’s not a question of liking it. The torture makes me more aware of myself.”
“Why should you know so much about yourself? I mean, you just keep overthinking everything. You should take it cool.”
By this time, I realize that silence is probably the only answer I can give to this.
These questions come from a basic misunderstanding of meditation. These days, you can’t swipe or turn a page without coming across some article on meditation and mindfulness. There are 100s of studies published almost every other day, it seems, that glorify the virtues of mindfulness. New-age gurus sprout almost every day. Everyone you know from the dhobi guy to Michelle Obama is preaching mindfulness. Why not me? you wonder. This blessed relief from all pain and misery? Ah. That packaging of meditation is what is wrong.
Meditation, the truest, deepest form of it, is not bliss. It’s not about listening to the sound of water flowing. That is relaxation. You can take 10 deep breaths any time. That is not meditation. Meditation is hard work. Really hard work. There are days when I meditate when I think I can do three sessions of Shaun T’s Insanity and still not feel as tired as I did while meditating! Sometimes, my friend asks me, “What are you thinking?” when I am quiet for a second. I set out to explain, and I realize that the second worth of thought requires 1 minute of explanation! Such is the furious pace of our mind!
Meditation is an awareness of your self. Your thoughts. And of reaching an understanding of the ceaseless nature of the Universe. This understanding is not easy. This awareness is pathetically hard. Every breath we take, meditation reminds us that it is ephemeral.
Observing the breath can make you calmer. But I can also go running and feel calmer. Do not confuse meditation with a feeling of calm. It’s one of the by-products of being in the flow. Any time we are immersed in something, be it washing the dishes or cooking or writing, we are calm. Meditation is not cessation of thoughts. It can give you calmness, but it’s not calm while you are meditating.
You won’t reach some nirvana where you just see a blank mind. Your mind gives out even more thoughts. But observing the thoughts as they arise, observing the mind in all its changes, and then seeing within that the glorious, vast nature of reality – that jewel within that Buddhism describes as bodhichitta or any other religion might describe as God or divinity – that is meditation. It takes a long while to reach there. I am not even 0.000000000000000001% there. So, I sit, wracked by thoughts, reliving the past, worrying about the future, thinking why my leg hurts so much, and why my mind can’t be still….
This Vipassana was also like that. But there was one infinite second. Just that one second. It was on the 2nd day of the course. “A sensation is just a sensation,” the voice of the founder of this course, SN Goenka, had reverberated in my ears just before the start of this particular one-hour session.
“Do not objectify those sensations. Just observe. Observe its nature. Just that.”
Whenever we feel cramped, we just want to shift our legs. We want to scratch that itch. But Vipassana and indeed, Buddhism urges you to sit with that. Not react. But to just reach that space of knowing that this too will really pass.
“Don’t develop a craving for any sensation. And don’t have an aversion for any sensation.”
In that is the lesson for life. We want more of what we like and develop animosity and hatred for what makes us uncomfortable. Instead, if we were to look all of this as just part of life? How would that be? For that one second during meditation, I felt that. That infinite opening of the mind beckoning you to the secrets of the Universe. One second where I could understand that my throbbing knees were just that. Nothing more and nothing less.
For that, I can put up with the torture.
If you are keen on meditation, here’s what I suggest:
- Don’t start off by thinking you will have a crystal-clear mind. No. Be prepared for an avalanche of thoughts.
- Meditation can sharpen your focus. But that’s not the main focus of your practice. Think of why you want to meditate. I believe the best reasons are that you love yourself, and you want to generate love and goodwill to yourself and to everyone around you.
- Apps like Headspace and my favorite, Insight Timers, can help you with guided meditation if you are a beginner. But use guided meditation only for a while. Find a meditation technique that works for you and stick to that. From a real teacher.
- Avoid any ‘gurus’ unless you are comfortable with religion-based meditation
- Don’t think of 10-minute meditation sessions. Those only help to calm your mind, as I said earlier. Dedicate at least 30 minutes. My own experiences have taught me that it takes at least 20 minutes for my mind to just settle down. Work your way up to an hour.
- Start simple. Just focus on the breath, while realizing its nature. Remember breath without awareness is just breathing practice.
- Sit cross-legged unless you are absolutely unable to. Then, at all times, be a fairly straight spine. Not ram-rod straight, but just so that you don’t slouch.
- Be gentle with your practice. It’s not a game. It’s not about reaching some destination and target you have in mind.
- You will have crappy sessions, awful sessions, and sessions where you don’t want to meditate at all. But you are on the path of becoming a warrior of the self. Use every calamity to meditate.
- If you feel you had a great meditation session, then you need to meditate more.