Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness – which includes meditation – has become popular. Even basic packages of insurance companies (at least in the Netherlands) now offer a compensation for a course. It has made its way out of the “alternative medicine” corner thanks to numerous studies supporting the psychological benefits of the practice, which include:
- Improved attention, concentration, and memory
- Decreased anxiety, depression, stress, and irritability
- Improved pain perception (i.e. the same pain will affect you less)
- Boost of the immune system
As I’m always open for improving the quality of my life, these health benefits got me interested! Besides, I know I suffer from overthinking and overanalysing. Getting out of your head and habitual thinking patterns and live more in the present is one of the goals of mindfulness.
What else comes to it? A literal definition of mindfulness is to “remind” yourself (constantly) of the present moment. After all, this very moment is the only one you really have. The past and the future are merely in your head. A popular reminder of this fact is what John Lennon said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” But many contemplatives and the central teachings of Buddhism have also already pointed this out for hundreds of years. That’s why you’ll find many meditation retreats in Buddhist countries like Thailand.
I have gained some meditation experience in the last year, mainly by using apps. Apps may not sound serious, but there are some really good ones out there, such as Headspace, 10% Happier, Insight, and Waking Up (by Sam Harris). Also, I finished an 8-week mindfulness course (based on MBSR – you can look it up) leading up to this trip. Then I heard about meditation retreats to deepen the practice. A retreat usually entails:
- Being silent during the whole course (except for your daily 15 minutes talk with a teacher)
- Taking no intoxicants (alcohol, drugs, smoking)
- Doing intermittent fasting (eating only a vegetarian breakfast and lunch)
- Meditate 8 to 12 hours per day
Retreats can last anywhere from a few days (for beginners) up to a number of years (mostly for monks). A popular first time duration is 10 days, which I choose to sign up for at the Doi Suthep Mindfulness Center in Chiang Mai.
My retreat at the Doi Suthep Mindfulness Center
I was welcomed by an assistant at the mindfulness center office and shown my room, which was 3 by 3 meters and contained a bed. No closet, hooks, or anything else. But I was content, because it was going to be my own room for the following 10 days (other retreats have mixed dormitories). There were warm showers and toilets with the usual bum guns – I really like this English word for the hoses used to clean your arse.
The surroundings were prettier than my room, including a view of the city of Chiang Mai in the distant valley, and thick tropical forest with colorful birds singing songs I had only heard before on TV shows narrated by David Attenborough.
I reported back at the office in my obligatory white clothing and started with another Western guy. We got a short meditation demonstration by a monk who spoke English so softly and strangely that it was hard to understand, but I still got the main points.
Then we had our “opening ceremony” with the center’s assistent and the main monk, who was also going to be our “teacher”. It was a ritual for which we got a paper with a script with text in Thai (written in the English way) and I saw the word “prostrate” mentioned several times. It quickly turned out we had to actually chant the words. Chanting is a form of monotonous singing, normally used to prepare the mind for meditation, and our assistent led the way. He sounded robotic, like he had done it thousands of times before (which he probably had with each opening ceremony nearly every day in the main season over several years). He went so fast we could merely mumble along. Then I learned what “prostrate” means: to bow. Even though I’m not into worship and bowing to holy figures, I politely followed along. Of course I couldn’t resist and start my retreat by insulting the holy Buddha, monk, or robocop assistant!
The following days consisted of the following schedule:
- 5.00 – wake up
- 5.30 – dhamma teaching (a monologue lesson about Buddhism by the main monk / teacher)
- 7.00 – breakfast
- 8.00 – meditation
- 11.00 – lunch
- 12.00 – report with teacher
- 13.00 – meditation
- 18.00 – group chanting
- 19.00 – meditation
- 21.00 – bed time
The meditation at this retreat consisted of alternating walking and sitting meditation.
With walking meditation you walk in slow motion and pay full attention to every move. The moves were divided into: raising your heel, raising your foot, moving it forward, putting it down. You have to label these when making the moves: heel, up, move, down. The specific labels you use don’t matter. Every time you notice you are distracted by thoughts, you have to label this, for example with “thinking, thinking”, or “future” or “past”, and then bring your attention back to the walking.
I was familiar with the sitting meditation, where you have to focus on the in and out breath, and when you are distracted by thoughts you label it as well, and gently bring your attention back to the breath. You are supposed to sit in an upright “alert” posture, which comes down to sitting with your back straight (without external support). We could sit with crossed legs or on our knees on cushions, or on a bench or chair – but then not using the back support. Any of these positions with lead to excruciating back and neck pain after enough hours. You’re supposed to go through that as a physical and mental challenge.
At the start of the course, I had to do sessions of 15 minutes of walking meditation, immediately followed by 15 minutes of sitting meditation. This was increased to 30 minutes each. You could have breaks in between the sessions. During these, I went for walks and did much needed back and neck stretching.
So the meditation practice seems extremely simple. But when you start, you’ll notice it’s very challenging to keep your full attention to your breath, or the walking. Meditation is mostly about constantly bringing back your attention to the activity you’re doing in the present. By doing this, you can become (more) aware of the space of your conscious awareness and the thoughts that arise and fade in it, just like sounds arise and fade. You can become (more) aware that you don’t have to follow your thoughts, even when they can be very powerful and convincing. For me, especially after a few hours of meditation, some of these were:
- Why am I doing this?
- I could be doing something more fun..
- This is boring.
- How long have I been meditating in this session? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Is it almost over?
- I could stop right now.
- My neck and back hurts, I should stop.
- It REALLY hurts now, stop!
- Is this actually worth my time?
- I’m stupid for doing this.
During a few sessions I also got intrigued by all the things my mind was presenting as thoughts. The whole process seemed quite random and unpredictable. The thoughts ranged from happy to sad, inspiring to demotivating and questioning, funny to serious, exciting to boring. Sometimes the thoughts were so ridiculous or funny I had an “observing thought” about that thought and myself: “Haha, really mind?”
In any case, there was no telling which thought would be coming next. There may be an illusion that you control your thoughts, for example, when you’re working on something goal-oriented. But I believe – now more strongly – it’s something you have no control over. Note: I don’t mean you have no choice over what you do with those thoughts.
I only went to the first few dhamma talks (teachings about Buddhism) because I couldn’t understand most of what the teacher said. His knowledge of the English vocabulary seemed suffice to give lessons, but he talked too fast and in a peculiar way. Letters were missing at the ends of words, sentence structure and grammar was lacking, words were pronounced differently (e.g. in the least confusing ones he said “chopping” while he meant “shopping”, or “angwee” instead of “angry”), and he made strange noises (somewhat similar to Michael Jackson) – no disrespect intended.
So when I sat there for an hour and the only thing I had understood was “Okay, this was about karma, and we should do good and not bad,” I figured I could learn something more from reading articles or a book about Buddhism or Mindfulness – which I secretly did the other days.
This article is already becoming lengthy, so have I actually learned or “gained” anything? Yes, I would say so.
I have become more aware of the open spaciousness of the mind. That might sound like I smoked too much pot, but I don’t think it’s vague. You have a field of awareness in which mental events arise and fade: raw sensations such as sounds and pressure points (where your body touches the ground), but also thoughts, emotions, and moods. By focusing on this space / field of awareness, it’s possible to become more aware of its spaciousness. In other words, I felt like there was more space in my mind than I had realized before. This can have a calming effect.
I have begun to see thoughts more clearly for what they are: thoughts. They can be very powerful and convincing, and it’s very tempting to identify with them without realizing it, but they are not necessarily or primarily “you”. You can observe your thoughts. And if that’s the case, you cannot be your thoughts. Right? Well, it sounds logical to me now. Now I see it as follows: in a fundamental sense, you are awareness, in which mental events including thoughts pass by – a different one in each moment. This can feel as a relief and make it easier to deal with thoughts you don’t like.
When I consciously recognize a thought as a thought, it already loses some of its power. Then, it’s easier to “let it go” and bring back your attention to what you actually intended to focus on.
Thoughts are out of your control. You can’t tell yourself “I’m not going to think of … [fill in the blanks]” and you can’t predict what your mind will present as the next one. You only have a possibility to choose how to deal with those thoughts.
Holding up proper meditation postures for hours on end is going to hurt – a lot. I can hardly imagine how bad it must be for someone who already has back aches. But you can go through it, and often you’ll even see, that you can kind of come to accept the pain, and that already makes it a lot less bad. This points at the fact that we can feel physical pain, but a large part of the pain we experience can come from the thoughts we have about it.
When really focused on the simple present moment, I could sometimes feel a sense of flow, or oneness with everything around me – just a hint of it.
I’ll substantiate this last point and finish this article with a quote from Einstein:
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and his feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”