I have been trying to compose a piece of writing recounting my recent stay at a week long meditation retreat. However, to my great frustration the task has proven near impossible. This shouldn’t be surprising considering that every time I’m asked how the experience was I fall short of words. An appropriate expression doesn’t seem to exist, which is not to say that it was so fantastically amazing that words are not enough to describe; merely that it was unlike anything else, surprising but unsurprising, transformative in some ways but not others.
Purely practically speaking, it was a week spent in silence, sleeping less and eating less than usual. A week that felt like two weeks – paying attention to every minute had the effect of making every moment last longer. Eventually even the constant chatter in my mind quietened down.
Sitting down to meditate, to establish a state of mindfulness is a whole lot easier said than done. The nature of the mind is to be anything but still; it wanders from plans to worries to daydreams, getting agitated by an itch or an ache along the way; making judgements about its own thoughts and feelings, abhorred by the boredom and lack of stimuli that the practice of meditation provides.
It is no wonder that our minds are racing at the speed of light most of the time since being able to multitask effectively is a crown jewel for a successful human being in today’s world. Ironically, we also tend to be deluded to thinking that it is only our minds that are totally chaotic and scattered, and that most other people must only think coherent thoughts and experience nice, neat, medium intensity emotions.
Of course it isn’t quite so; every human being has their own special cocktail of psycho-physical phenomena to deal with, and absolutely everyone sometimes thinks things they don’t want to think and feels feelings they don’t want to feel. Let’s take this moment to dismantle the idea that we are not able to learn mindfulness because our minds are waaaayyyy to busy for that. We can if we want to.
Another related insight that I picked up is that in some ways I have less, but in some ways more control over my mind than I thought I did. In other words (that actually make sense), I have no control over my thoughts or feelings or whether or not they draw my attention; I do however have some control over the way in which I let said thoughts and feelings affect my behaviour.
My most persistent challenge seemed to be tiredness, and for whatever reason I really struggled to stay awake during sitting meditation – in fact, I once nearly fell over since my brain had kindly decided to switch off. I spent a lot of time at a halfway point just outside of sleep but not quite awake either. If you can recollect what it feels like in your body and mind to daydream, that’s the state I was at; just without any actual daydreams.
There were a couple of things that helped keeping me somewhat awake: recalling multiplication tables and steadily moving my hands up and down. As a last resort I would sometimes stand up and continue the session on my feet.
Now a quick interlude to explain a mental noting method which should help clarify what I’m about to say in the following paragraph.
Imagine being able to slow down a cognitive process at will, like a video recording, and observing each individual step from the intention to do something to completing the action. In everyday life these processes are so quick that we don’t recognise them as series but merely as individual actions. Take the act of drinking water from a glass and break it down to intermediate steps, i.e. you lift the glass, drink some water and set it back down.
Or, you experience the sensation of thirst; you perceive a glass of water in front of you; you intend to take a sip from the glass. You move your hand toward the glass until your fingers touch its surface; you wrap your palm around the glass securing a solid grip with your fingers. You feel tension throughout the length of your arm as your muscles engage in the movement of lifting the glass off the table; you bend your elbow and wrist to direct the glass to your mouth, and stop once your lips make contact with the surface of the glass. You open your mouth, tilt your head back in tandem with the glass, which you lean against your lower lip until you feel water dripping onto your tongue. You note the cooling sensation as the water fills your mouth; you swallow as it reaches the upper edge of your throat, … and so forth.
In a nutshell, I was once again hovering at the edge of sleep at a sitting session. I remember thinking that I should stand up as it might help me stay awake – and then I drifted off. I thought about it again with more resolve, but somehow it felt as though I’d hit a dead end, and there was something keeping me from standing up. It’s all a bit of a blur but I know that I tried to make the decision to get up – and failed.
It felt like when your arm goes numb because you’ve slept on it and despite wanting to move it you can’t because your nervous system is all perplexed about the location of said limb. I had that same bizarre sensation of trying to locate the part of my brain that is responsible for making decisions but it just would not respond. This is not about struggling to move, but about an earlier stage of the process – you know, the process that I explained earlier. In the drinking scenario I mainly listed physical acts as consecutive steps but I could have added the intention of doing each thing as separate steps in between those acts.
This may well be total nonsense to some, but to me it was a very poignant lesson indeed. Do you ever walk into a room and then come to a sudden halt because you have no idea why you went there? Breaking everyday actions apart into a multi-stage processes helps understand why we sometimes just malfunction. The brain is a complex machine that runs multiple processes simultaneously. Not being able to do whatever it is you are meaning to do is not de facto a product of laziness or lack of motivation, but a genuine sign that you don’t have enough energy. After all, even the most insignificantly minuscule cognitive processes use up some amount of energy even though we don’t actively pay attention to them. Like apps running at the background on your phone still decrease battery life. Perhaps this is something we all sort of know to be true but it’s a lightyear’s difference to actually witnessing a simple process like standing up downright fail. You can study aerodynamics all you want but even all of that knowledge won’t make you a prodigy at snowboarding; you do actually have to get on the board and feel what it’s like in the real environment.
Calm – a meditation app for your phone. Download from iTunes or Google Play
Sam Harris: Waking Up, chapter 1 – audio of the first chapter of Sam Harris’ book concerning meditation and spirituality in an atheist context
Satipanya Buddhist Trust – the organisation behind the retreat that I went to