This weekend I was in the Ardennes in the south-east of Belgium for a Vipassana meditation retreat, led by a Buddhist nun named Ajahn Sundara. People with no meditation experience tend to think that meditating is all about being zen and blissed-out; they’re wrong.
From Friday morning on I was a jittery wreck (this despite the fact that I have been meditating for years; albeit generally not for more than half an hour). By the time I got on the train after work I felt like I was being led to my doom. That night I didn’t sleep much, and what little sleep I did get was spent in strange and uncomfortable dreams, filled with chaos and aggression; when the gong rang at 6am (we were allowed to “sleep in” on Saturday) I was relieved.
The day stared fairly innocuously (some pleasant chanting and an hour-long meditation) but quickly started to spiral downhill. I wasn’t expecting the retreat to be easy – after the morning meditation the day is broken up into 3 sessions of three-hour long meditations (consisting of one hour sitting meditation, one hour walking meditation, and then another sitting), with some “meditation in action” in between. Basically a whole lot of meditating. Oh and no talking. Or food after midday. Anyway, Vipassana begins with focussing the mind, or “single-pointed awareness” as it’s called. This requires dis-identifying from the mind, which the ego doesn’t take too kindly to. Result? “Monkey-mind” turns into “monster-mind” and throws everything it can think of at you in order to make you stop trying to annihilate it.
Saturday was therefore spent doing battle with my monster-mind, which was harder than it should have been given my lack of sleep. By the evening meditation I was utterly exhausted, ‘spent’ I think would be the appropriate term, and wanted nothing more than for the day to be over. Then our nun (a wonderful French lady, who has lived so long in England that she kept starting in English, which made me happy) said something that made everything feel a little lighter: “What goes on in my mind has nothing to do with me”.
Our thoughts and emotions come from many different places, often things which have nothing to do with us personally; it does not make sense to identify with them. What we choose to do with them is our responsibility, but their existence is not. This helped me to let go, and I finally had an hour of peaceful meditation. Sunday was deeply calm, and today, Monday, I feel like I’m floating. So yeah, I got some zen, but only after a fair amount of sweating.
People often ask me why I meditate. There are many answers, but the first, most essential is because I am a truth-seeker. It was clear to me quite early on that our minds are often not our friends; they deceive, lead us in circles, present us with false problems, and play with our emotions. Therefore to perceive truth it is necessary to become the master of your mind, so that you control it and not vice-versa. Meditation is the only tool I have heard of that accomplishes this at a deep level. When you start to dis-identify from your mind you become liberated from your story, from your deceiving ego, and this leaves space for insight.
And the zen thing? Perceiving truth is liberating, being in a state of presence is bliss. As you loosen the grip of the mind, you begin, as Ajahn Sundara says “to get a sense for that which is always present in our experiences, yet is not touched by them – this quality of presence is always available, and isn’t really affected by our sensory interactions”. We can experience this state if we go into the observer position. Presence is when we are able to remain there all the time.
I want to end this post with a little line I read in the book of teachings that I was given on the practice, which I somehow found very sweet:
“It waits quietly in the heart for us to choose to make its cultivation the priority in our lives”