Mindfulness meditation: It may be essential, but, boy, it isn’t easy
On the third day of silence and meditation, I said just 14 words, all of them in the course of chopping vegetables for dinner.
Days two, four and five were not much different.
I’m not the quiet type. But this was my idea. So earlier this year, I drove most of a day to reach Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County to immerse myself in the practice of mindful meditation. To be still, clear of worry over career, my teenage sons’ futures, the renovations of our old house. To see whether I could stop -- just stop -- for five days and perhaps for a little bit each day afterward.
Not talking turned out to be easy.
Meditation, however, is hard work.
In the last decade or so, meditation has gone mainstream -- practiced by buttoned-down professionals, prison inmates, public school students, Hollywood celebrities, even the military and, reportedly, Bill Clinton. It’s being studied by scientists for its effects on blood pressure, depression, pain and attention problems. In our racing-forward lives, we are reaching back thousands of years for wisdom about living.
There are hundreds of forms of meditation, but among the best known in the U.S. is mindfulness meditation, and that’s what I embraced at Spirit Rock.
Diana Winston, who lived for a time as a Buddhist nun and now is director of education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, defines it: “Paying attention to present moment experiences with open, curious attention and a willingness to be with what is.”
It’s spiritual but not religious – the way many people view their place in the universe these days. The idea is to gain clarity, wisdom and freedom, to end up feeling compelled to behave with integrity and compassion.
There were nearly 100 of us, who paid $460 to $885 (on a sliding scale) for the retreat called “Essential Dharma Meditation.” Our days were scheduled from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. with sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, working meditation (chopping vegetables was my daily chore). No reading, no writing, no cellphones.
Mark Coleman, one of my teachers at the retreat, says people typically arrive at Spirit Rock “exhausted [and] burned out.” After a couple of days, “this gets exaggerated, because we start feeling how completely exhausted we are. But “people usually leave feeling buoyant, grounded, more clear. Brightness in their eyes. Body more upright.”
When I checked in, I was assigned to a room with a twin bed, folding chair, bedside table and the smallest sink I’ve ever seen. I zeroed in on the only electronic item in the room and instantly thought to turn on NPR. But then I remembered: silence. It was just a clock, not a radio.
I felt apprehensive. I missed my husband. But I didn’t miss my BlackBerry.
Walking outside, a few minutes before dinner, my worries were calmed by the rolling, grassy hills and the wide-open sky. At least the setting was beautiful.
Meals were vegetarian, buffet style, simple but fresh and delicious. We bused our dishes, lining up two at a time to scrape every last bit for compost. One of the few sounds at meals was that particular clink of utensils hitting Corelle dinnerware. I especially appreciated the silence at this time: no pressure to chat about hometowns, jobs, families.
After dinner, we heard from the teachers at “dharma talks,” lectures on the practice of meditation, the Buddha and the retreat itself. (While we yogis, as the teachers call us, were silent most of the time, the teachers were less so.)
We started our first sitting meditation with the direction to attend only to our breathing. If you lose track, teacher Howard Cohn said, just return to it, without judgment -- one of many easier-said-than-done instructions I heard during my five days of silence.
I breathed in, expanding my chest. Suddenly, I was sorting out details of a dinner I was giving when I got back to L.A. Oops. Back to the breath. One breath, maybe two, and my mind was off again, wondering about my son who was on a trip to Israel.
But I kept at it. After all, we came to tame the wayward children that our minds can often be.
I went to sleep the first night tired, uncertain. But unlike many nights in L.A., I stayed asleep.
Sinking into the slow
There are signs posted everywhere to preempt questions. Signs in the bathrooms about turning lights off, using scent-free soap and shampoo, taking out the trash. Signs in the rooms about how to clean up, closing doors quietly.
We woke up at 6 a.m. One morning, I laced my boots outside under a night sky still full of stars, the clouds almost obliterating a new moon. Wild turkeys gobbled. Another morning, we emerged into cold fog.
In Uggs and Patagonia, sweats and shawls, we proceeded into the hall for the meditation that precedes breakfast. The idea is that meditating together shores up each individual effort. I couldn’t help but wonder whether people were competing to look the most serene.
We meditated on floor mats or straight-backed chairs. Each person customized his or her spot, with pillows or little kneeling platforms. Cross-legged was the predominant position. I looked around and copied other postures to find the right one for me, but no matter how I settled in, at some point, I was itching to move. Was I the only one who could not sit with ease? The silence was intimidating. What if I coughed? Just scratching my arm sounded like screeching cats.
Coleman asked us to concentrate on “just this moment.”
As I said, easier said than done.
Coleman likened the process to puppy training on newspaper. Return to the paper. Over and over, without anger. I liked the comparison. It reminded me not to be so serious as I pursued a serious goal.
We alternated meditations of 30 to 60 minutes with meals and a yoga class. Twice, we met in small groups with a teacher. In those we talked, though not much. Cohn joked that some of us may have been planning our escape. Busted! I thought, wondering how loud my rolling suitcase would be on the walkway to the parking lot.
By the second full day, I was a little headachy, a little foggy. But my sitting – if not my meditation – improved. By the end of the retreat, there were sittings at which the ending-gong startled me.
The advice for our walking meditations was to slowly pace, perhaps for 20 steps, and feel our feet pick up and put down. To me, the chance to walk felt like recess. I walked along the hilly crisscrossing trails, and I spotted deer, hawks and one day, 14 raucous wild turkeys crossing the stream.
Mindfulness in the world
Buddha, Cole said, was a privileged 20-something with time to contemplate the nature of existence, posing a question: “In spite of all my comfort and privilege, I am unhappy. Does that ring true to anyone?”
It apparently rings true to many people. UCLA’s Winston says that meditation’s moment has arrived. The other parents in her child’s preschool were so taken with her parental patience that she was asked to give them a class in mindful meditation.
Opportunities to participate are multiplying. There are hundreds of download-able meditation apps. Headspace, an online subscription meditation service, is opening L.A. offices later this year, in response to “a really sharp increase in demand from the U.S.,” says Andy Puddicombe, who left monastery life eight years ago and founded the company. Mindful, a new magazine based in Nova Scotia, launched last month.
The world is not a quiet place, even when civilization is left behind. Birds and planes, motors and rolling luggage all intrude into silence. But silence is within us, even amid mortgages, children and work.
My spiritual journey was deep enough to hold me through the long drive home on the I-5 and to get me and my family started on a home practice. I plan to keep trying for enlightenment, even if I have to settle for just a slightly tamer mind.