How do you begin to describe an experience like meditating 10 hours a day for 10 days straight? Intense. It definitely has given me a whole new meaning to the expression, “Know Thyself.” I’m unable to capture it all here, besides Kristin is a much more witty writer, so I’ll just share some highlights of my deep thoughts and experiences. Much of this may seem obvious, and at times trite. Really its all basic wisdom that I have known for years. However, I feel I’m only really “knowing” much of this for the first time. Intellectual comprehension seems superficial compared to the deep visceral experiential “knowing” that you can experience by quieting the mind and sitting with yourself.
MEDITATIONS OF THE MIND
You Can’t Hide From Yourself - When there’s nothing else to do for 10 days except for concentrating on your breath while you sit or walk you quickly realize that you can’t hide from yourself. You are forced to confront all of your insecurities and deepest anxieties face-to-face. Only patience and acceptance allow you to slowly release their grip on your subconscious. We pay people a lot of money to listen to our problems when sometimes we just need to take the time to really listen to ourselves.
Flame of Life - When you eliminate all exposure to mass culture and begin to peel away the layers of conformity, consumerism, and personal insecurities you can distill life down to a pure essence… a quiet “flame of life” that burns inside all of us. Watching the slow involuntary rhythmic pulse of life, the breath and beating of your heart, is indescribably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. It seems that all religious dogmas, moral systems, and human made laws are elaborate structures that we’ve built up around this simple flame. Observing the self evident miracle of life, an ultimate end unto itself, in its purest form makes all of these structures seem irrelevant, even absurd. Experiencing the magnetizing calm beauty of life is so pure that the idea of inflicting suffering on others becomes wholly inconceivable and makes all violence a type of suicide.
You Can Always Return to the Breath - From the moment of birth until your death there is a quiet involuntary “rising and falling” of the breath that happens inside of you. When practicing meditation your sole focus is to aknowledge this slow silent pulse and observe the sensations. Regardless of the other distractions in your mind, pain in your back, or sounds around you, you can always return to the dependable ever present slow pulse of the breath. Even at the pinnacle of stress and despair you can return to this dependable pulse and find serenity. The joke “Serenity Now!” has some truth to it.
“Accept. Accept. Accept.” - This was a monk’s response every time I came to him with a question or a problem. While it was a bit annoying in the end I understood his lesson. There are many things in life that you can’t control: heartbreak, loss, death. Accepting pain and suffering sounds like the saddest depth of defeat but its actually the pinnacle of empowerment. Once you have accepted the truth suffering can no longer control you, and have a power over you. Accept what you can’t control and focus on what you can. To do otherwise is the root of anxiety and suffering. Avoid attachment, desire, and clinging to things because they are impermanent and the inevitably of their end will only bring pain. Acceptance is true freedom.
You Will Die Someday - Accept this truth. The sooner you can accept your mortality and impermanence the sooner you can begin to really live. The story of life: birth, aging, and death. Accept these truths and free yourself from this cycle of suffering. Celebrate every fleeting moment of this existence.
We are Powerful - Each of us possess the power within to free ourselves from suffering. Meditation is empowerment. Realization of your own power and the affirmation of that same power in everyone. Anyone can do it! Just take even 15 minutes a day to sit quietly, watch your breath, listen to your body, and be with yourself.
Recognition of Being - Every moment you are mindful of what is happening is a recognition of being. If you are walking and you think “walking” you affirm your life your existence in that instance. Now I just smile whenever I think “I really wish I was more present right now!” You are always here.
Listen to Nature. Learn from Nature - There is a quiet beautiful truth in nature if we take the time to listen. We have become detached from the inherent peace and truth in nature and therefore from ourselves. We drown out this quiet beauty with super markets and over consumption. By extracting ourselves from the serenity of the web of life we are living well out of balance and our destructive path has only one end, extinction. The term “the environment” is not some arcane political concept but the essence of life itself. Humans are inextricably linked with nature and our separation is suicidal madness.
Here are just a few things that I was awestruck by: birds chirping in the early morning light, ants crawling on damp moss, twist and decent of a leaf falling in my path, golden light slowly sifting through the trees like a slow motion photograph, green fern lightly waving in the low breeze on a sticky day, moss and cold stone under bare feet, and a fly crawling on my neck hairs.
Paradox - Meditation, like life, is rife with paradox. The practice is to find that perfect balance between intense concentration and intention and letting go of everything. When I would try and analyze my experiences or my thoughts themselves, using the same Western logic I’ve known my entire life, I would constantly reach dead ends. Logic seemed to buckle under its own weight and complexity and that real truth was in simply being. Accepting paradoxical thoughts allowed me to laugh at their absurdity and let them pass from my intention.
Yapanaya - This was one of the words we would chant as a blessing before our to daily meals. It’s from the ancient language of Pali and loosely means “For the possibility of simplicity and peace.” I believe this best sums up the purpose of meditation in one word and for me includes greater social implications too. Most of my adult life I’ve dedicated to working tirelessly for peace and justice. (While at the retreat I remembered that exactly a year ago I was working 12 hours a day for Power Shift 2011 and now am meditating 12 hours a day.) When I think about it the root of my social drive is to relieve human suffering. I have a lot more to learn about human suffering both as a lived hardship of people’s everyday lives but also the root cause of suffering. I’m beginning to feel how this pathway to a deeper spiritual understanding will be mutually beneficial for my ongoing commitment to social justice.
“Side-effects” - Towards the end of an intense five hour session on the fifth day I entered a type of mental hypnosis. My body was cramped and painful from the intense concentration and tedious practice of sitting and walking. I finally started to really let go. Sitting in deep meditation everything else faded into the background except my breath, rising. falling. rising. falling, and the slow pulse of my heartbeat. A space opened above me and my head began to float upward like a balloon until it reached the high peak of the Wat’s (temple) ceiling. My limbs inflated and expanded into space until my body had filled the entirety of the huge room. The lines separating internal and external melted away and what I once thought was my body began to evaporate in all directions. But I wasn’t scared because it was somehow strangely familiar and comforting. I was positive that I had been there before. I was floating into space but was still grounded at the same time. I could feel where my “body” was touching the ground and at each point of contact it felt like the creased folds in a piece of paper. I was hyper aware of everything in the room I could hear the fan, feel air, and sense the breathing of my fellow meditators. This entire experience lasted for a couple of minutes, though it felt like an eternity, before I opened my eyes and returned.
Later that day I described the experience to the Abbot, Phra Ajuhn Supan, a aged monk, as part of our daily “report” on our practice. Kneeling before him I felt told his interpretor and when the message reached him a slight knowing smile grew at the creases of his mouth. He slowly put down his pen and leaned forward to look over his wire frame glasses. In his eyes was a aknowleding glint that I had discovered the secret trap door that aesthetics has been known about for centuries. He said simply, “You have experienced a side-effect of meditation.”
Nagging Thoughts - Most of my nagging thoughts where rooted in ego and toward the end turned into appreciation. In order of appearance: what are people saying online, seeking praise from authority figures, how to describe this experience, childhood memories, and intense love for everyone in my life. The ego is a powerful creature that wants fiercely to maintain its grip but I by visualizing each thought as a pebble dropping into a pool of water, I was able to let them ripple away.
Accepting Ants - The entire time my room was crawling with ants. They were literally coming out of the woodwork. I did everything I could to fight back: stuffing the holes with wet TP, sweeping them up, and per the monks recommendation douse them Snake Brand (TM) “Prickly Heat” (a medicated footpowder.) Nothing seemed to stop this colony. I got in the habit of mindfully sweeping them up every time I went in my room. I took the whole thing as a grand lesson in acceptance.
Touching Pain - When we are in pain, either emotionally or physically, our habit is to drown it out, numb it with chemicals and consumption. (I’ve been just as guilty of this as the next person.) But the truth is that we never get at the root source of our suffering. When we acknowledge the source of our pain and sit with it we can begin to ease not only the physical sensation of pain but its grip on our lives. After 5 days of meditation practice my back became extremely painful from holding the same upright posture all day. I discovered that if I acknowledged ”pain. pain. pain” and gently focused my mind on the location I could gradually make it vanish. Towards the end I could focus on single pressure points and release tension in my back and limbs.
The Who? - A week into the retreat the ban on music, dancing, and general outward expressions of life’s joy was gnawing at my energetic spirit. After a particularly intense 12 hour day the Abbot could tell I was straining: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” Ha! That night safe in the darkness of my cell room was the an epic rock concert. I tuned my mental radio to the first emerging frequency that I had just spent the last week intently trying to tune out. The song that was playing was The Who’s “Can’t Explain” - “Got a feeling inside, can’t Explain. A certain kind, can’t explain.” I cranked the dial to 11 and to a live crowd of screaming fans let it all loose. There was bright lights, leaping air guitar, and lots of patented Townsend windmill power cords. After 4 exhilarating encores I calmly picked up my mat headed to the silent garden to meditate.