Since I began an (almost) daily meditation practise a few years ago I have encountered this, Zen Buddhist, saying (or variations of) on countless occasions:
You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you're too busy, then you should sit for an hour.
So after a week of feeling weighed down with studying, socialising, teaching, and travelling… but above all procrastinating – feeling completely time stretched by the length of my to do list, yet failing to really do anything – I thought I should put this saying to the test.
Last weekend I made a slightly rash, but well intentioned, decision to go and join a local meditation retreat that sits for 8 hours a day one weekend a month. The most appealing thing about this for me? Being in silence for an entire weekend – or at least the 16 hours I was at the retreat centre. Last year I spent a whole week in (near enough) complete silence as I sat among forty others in a secluded Buddhist temple atop of a hill in Thailand. Many people anticipate the silence is going to be the most challenging part, but for me it turned out to be the greatest luxury (in an otherwise completely unluxurious experience of sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut, cold water bucket showers and no food after midday) – because no talking, means no new material for thoughts… and then lo and behold after a few days of (attempting) to watch the mind you manage to take it off auto-pilot repeat. And ahhh, silence, presence.
So I showed up, head jostling with thoughts/fears/anticipation, and slipped into the back of a room to join an already quietly seated room of meditators. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to me that my mind was babbling away, jumping at rapid pace from one thought to the next – as much of my short daily meditations had recently taken a similar tune. So, taking the path of least resistance, I used my thoughts of the object of focus for my meditation, because focusing on the breath for more than 3 cycles of inhale-exhale was an impossibility. A popular meditation technique is labelling – so when a thought, feeling, sensation or emotion comes up in order to create some space and gain objectivity on the experience you label it as ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’ or whatever it is.
So I noted as my thoughts ticked by, ‘thinking’ ‘thinking’ ‘thinking’ – ‘oh, feeling’ – ‘thinking’, just noticing their nature as opposed to honouring their content. And eventually, they began to slow… the next challenge arose about twenty three minutes in (something I know by an impulsively quick glance at the clock): having got used to sitting for around twenty minutes a day anything longer brought on a sense of boredom tinged restlessness. Well, at least this gave me something new to observe: an emotional feeling… and then half an hour or so: ‘discomfort’ ‘pain’ ‘back ache’ ‘owww knees’. Really, I thought, I’m already feeling uncomfortable and I’m not even through the first hour?! I remember the excruciating pain of formal meditations during retreat, but we were at it for nearly 12 hours a day. But there I also learnt a great thing about befriending pain during meditation – it gives you something to stay present with, and after a while the conception of pain falls away, as it becomes a sensation coupled with a psychological reaction. Its definitely an unpleasant sensation, but its made ten fold worse by the mental commentary.
… But the biggest challenge was yet to come, the bell dinged, the monk announced our next sitting would take place in 15 minutes – time enough for a cup of tea or some fresh air. And then, Talking. People began talking. And my heart sank as I was engaged in conversation and new fodder for my thoughts entered in… So I sat (and talked) the day out, with perhaps 4 hours of meditation overall interspersed with a generous lunch and tea break. And as lovely as it was to meet new people – and it always is interesting to experience the eclecticism of a meditation or yoga community – always such diverse groups of people, who I cannot imagine would ever find themselves in the same space except for the common denominator of a practise. Yoga and meditation, for me, are a wonderful amalgamation with the very personal (we all want, need, find something very different from the practise) with community (and we find this in a group setting). However, I had spent so much of the afternoons meditations contemplating whether to just escape (‘thinking’thinking’feeling’feeling’feeling’thinking’), I knew as soon as I left on Saturday afternoon one day was quite enough.
Non-attachment… non-judgement… acceptance… truthfulness… self-study are some of the bed rocks of the yogic system (of which meditation is a central part). So as much as a part of me was disappointed and frustrated at the experience, it actually ended up giving me an opportunity to put these teachings into practise. And I do truly believe there is no such thing as ‘Bad Meditation’, in the same way that there is no one who ‘Can’t do Yoga’. In these situations the fruits of the practise lie not in the ability to empty the mind or physical abilities, but to notice the attitude or belief we are bringing to the practise. After all, if we ‘can’t do’ or are ‘bad’ at one thing in our lives – how many other things do we tell ourselves the same message about. And I have to say, nearly a week later, I am feeling the benefits of the experience – I feel a little more focused, and a little more in touch with what I truly need and am really capable of at this time!