Yesterday I returned from a three-day meditation retreat held in Belgium. People asked me how it was and I was struggling to come up with any explanation going beyond mere descriptions of the venue and the activity of just sitting. This post is my attempt to convey some of what happened in the real arena of activity, in my mind.
A Word on the Technique
The retreat I attended was in the Vipassana tradition as taught by S.N. Goenka. The ten-day, donation-based introductory retreat is a great way to get started with meditation. Without getting too technical about it, the technique revolves around sitting still and simply observing whatever sensations arise on the body, be it gross pain, subtle vibrations, or anything in between.
After the inevitable arrival logistics and introductions on a sunny afternoon in rural Belgium, we took our vows of silence, promising to refrain from any communication with our fellow meditators for the duration of the course. The next days became something of a blur as the 4 am morning bell flowed into the last sitting ending at 9pm. A total of 11 hours per day spent in intense concentration.
Initially my mind was abuzz with thoughts from work, from the Internet, hobbies, summer plans, and everything else. I turned my attention inwards and concentrated on the natural rising and falling of my abdomen. At first a few breaths on, then gone again, I slowly started to build the stability of my attention. Early afternoon on the first full day I was able to maintain fairly constant attention for 10 min.
A Staring Contest with Reality
For those ten minutes, it felt as if I was staring at reality. My aim was to penetrate through what I saw. For the remainder of the day, I entered a staring contest with reality. Time and again my attention would waver, but I kept at it, stubbornly refusing to turn away from the sensation of bare breath.
I had been on this territory before. I knew that if I were to pin down this sensation of breathing and study it closely, it would betray its true nature. And sure enough, as I went at it once more, I suddenly saw the breath vibrate, as if I was sobbing or shivering. But I was doing neither, nor was this experience my heartbeat.
My breath was even, yet I detected a vibration in the experience of the breath. This is what so many books have talked about; the ephemeral nature of our experience, arising and passing faster than we can usually notice. But meditation is not as usual.
Observing Body and Mind
Mid-way through the second day I was able to consistently detect these vibrations in my breath, on a couple of occasions culminating in a state where my mind was effortlessly absorbed into the observation of these vibrations. The closest everyday equivalent to this experience would perhaps be waking up rested and being in no hurry to move from bed; relaxed, yet alert.
The last sit of the second day I witnessed another shift. So far I had been observing my body, but now I felt a shift where my mind joined this field of the observed. The closest I can come to describing this experience is saying that I felt like I was observing myself from above myself, although I didn’t feel like I was higher up in the surrounding space.
Why Should I Care?
What did I gain from thirty hours spent on staring at my own breath? I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you that my ability to focus increased. Increased peace of mind would probably also be easy to understand.
But the real reason I do this is deeper than that; it is to understand the very nature of experience. We spend our lives chasing pleasurable experiences and running away from pain, no matter how lofty words we use to describe our ambitions.
Meditation, to me, is breaking through the surface reality to see what experiences are mere reflections of our habitual thoughts, and what is truly worthwhile. The vibrating breath and altered perceptions are but milestones on a path trodden by many before me.