I: The Agony of the Breath
I dread committing gaffes. There—I said it! Until a few years ago, I wasn’t even aware of my fears or of the simmering, underlying dissatisfaction that fueled their existence. A surge of awareness has since developed, helping me become increasingly mindful. Today, I acknowledge and accept failures and limitations as a gallant step toward positive mental health. This is just one example of the many gifts vipassana meditation has given me.
To understand how an ancient meditation technique correlates to an individual’s acceptance of their fears, and in doing so, of transcending dissatisfaction, let’s first understand what vipassana is. Vipassana, a mindfulness technique the Buddha practiced nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, is the process of examining one’s mind through silence, breath, and body awareness. The Buddha advocated the three marks of existence: dukkha, or that dissatisfaction is inherent to life and causes suffering; anicca, or that life’s sufferings are impermanent; and annata, or that releasing attachment to worldly pleasures and the ego can help an individual release suffering. Vipassana in the ancient Indian language Pali means “to see things as they are.”
In the summer of 2008, I was among a group of nearly 120 people that attended a ten-day, instructor-led vipassana meditation course offered by Spiritual Master S. N. Goenka. The setting couldn’t have been more picturesque: a quaint retreat center in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. At the time, I lacked even the faintest understanding of just how swiftly this experience would transpire change. The retreat consisted of ten days of breath awareness and meditation, at the rate of ten hours each day. Grueling? You bet! Actually, it was downright brutal. For ten days I spied the vast cosmos of my mind, searching for inner peace and clues to unravel the mind’s myriad mysteries. For ten days I lived like a monk, shunning all luxuries and self-indulgences. Imagine a benign, insipid world of no computers or cell phones, and no texting, reading, writing, praying, listening to music, or watching television. Here’s the granddaddy of all forfeitures—no talking! The only highlights were the food and Goenka’s nightly video sermons.
Notwithstanding the sacrifices, my meditation got off to a roaring start. Just waking up at the crack of dawn was energizing. Experiencing nature amid all of its beauty enthralled my senses. Taking a break from my normal life seemed rejuvenating. Goenka introduced retreatants to a technique called anapana, which consists of observing one’s own respiration. Per the instructions, I watched my breath as it traveled in and out of my nose. Outside, all was quiet but for the minor distractions stemming from fellow meditators’ digestive track faux pas, or the air conditioner’s intermittent drone, or the occasional straggler’s muffled strides. The governing diversion was “inner” commotion. At every meditation sitting, my conditioned mind became readily absorbed in thought, reaction, analysis, drama, and fantasy. At this stage, a meditator has two goals: become aware of a spiraling thought, and restore the mind’s focus to the breath. Simple, right? Not really! The primary hurdle is the ability to recognize a wandering mind. Many minutes would drift by before I would realize that the movie playing on my mental monitor, starring me, was headed to Nowhereville! I would shudder back to the present and return to my breath. Then Mental Films would roll out its next production. Again, the minutes would elapse until the next realization and refocus. Needless to say, this happened over and over. The first day in meditation turned out to be more of a game involving constant pursuit, near-captures, and repeated escapes.
In addition, other sources of external distraction, such as physical aches and pains caused by long hours of sitting, the struggle to acclimatize to a new place, the anger and irritation that arose from people’s insensitive behaviors such as checking out early from meditation so they could make a beeline for meals or trading a sit for sleep also took up a good portion of my attention. My conditioned mind judged their conduct with a roll of the eyes, or a bobbing of the head in disbelief, and even an occasional snort and snicker. It took me many hours to let go of the memory of the woman in the dining hall who sneered upon seeing a grimy plate on the buffet table. All she had to do was pick it up and put it for wash. She didn’t; I did. It took even longer to forgive the woman in the neighboring bed whose constant squirting of a nauseating mist interrupted my sleep.
My awareness and my capacity to observe my mind strengthened on Day 2, enabling me to follow my breath for longer durations. But it had been two days since I had left home. I missed my family. The lack of social interaction sprouted boredom and restlessness inside of me, which was ironic as I was continually amidst people. The lull of the exterior offered a clear contrast to my mind’s chaos; both drove me crazy. That night, the swell of stimulation I had experienced upon arriving at the retreat deflated to a mere ripple, and I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally fatigued.
The third day unraveled a surprise: my mind’s clamor began to fade into a calmness that I never knew existed. I found myself eating meals slowly, mindfully, pausing between spoonfuls of food, and then chewing and swallowing it with a sense of gratitude. Thoughts still dominated during meditation, but my tranquil mind’s focus had shifted from engaging in melodrama to merely observing thought. It hadn’t come easy, but my mind had finally learned how to disentangle itself from thought’s nomadic ways and ease into the oasis of the present moment. During breaks I found myself contemplating on the art of “being with oneself,” emitting compassionate vibes in response to others’ disruptive behaviors, and making a mental list of potential candidates for this course, among other things. I wasn’t just living like a monk; I was beginning to feel like one too! Although I didn’t grasp it at the time, this exercise in honing patience and concentration helped ground me in the reality that is the now, and would remain as an anchor to help endure all future emotional upheavals.