Why I’m at a meditation center right now
Hello! A common question I get is why I’m volunteering at a meditation center in swampy, southeastern Georgia. Given that “meditation” could be associated with so many different practices, there could also be some misunderstanding as to what I’m actually doing. It’s hard to give a full explanation in conversation so I wrote a thing explaining how I got into meditation, what the meditation I practice is and what it’s about. Enjoy!
How I got interested in meditating
A number of things led me towards meditation and I’ll recount a few here. But before I do,
When looking in retrospect events can appear as though they lead up to a particular moment in time, whereas when those events were occurring their consequences were unknown.
My post-hoc explanation of past events is biased towards how I see it right now, so even though I will recount a couple of experiences, know that it wasn’t a straightforward progression to today despite what a couple neat pages of text may suggest.
Like everyone growing up, I wanted to be happy. In high school I tried different activities, hoping that I’d find an activity and its social group fulfilling. Running cross-country and track, playing music, or any other thing I did was fun and I loved the people I got to do that stuff with, but something was missing.
It seemed as if any single activity was unable to produce the happiness I was looking for. Another theory I had was that maybe the right mixture of hobbies A, B, and C would lead to the optimal satisfaction. I still think hobbies and passions do provide social/physical/mental well-being, but even with my mundane pursuits I was compelled to want something more, to look for other tech that might do the job.
In September 2014, the fall of my senior year of high school, I did a service retreat in Appalachian Kentucky. We spent five days stocking food pantry shelves, helping out with construction projects, as well as experiencing the culture- attending a high school football game, going to a farmers market, or going to a service at a local church. I really enjoyed the break that the retreat offered from the busyness of school and how much time we got to spend outside as the leaves began to turn color.
One night, once the sun went down, we walked up a hill to a graveyard at the top. After we turned our flashlights off, our eyes slowly adjusted to where we could see only with the help of the stars and moon. Here we were invited to spend some quiet reflection time. It was dark, quiet, and surprisingly peaceful.
Sitting in the graveyard, I thought about the dead.
I thought about all the people who had died in Lewis County, Kentucky and all the different experiences and beliefs they had.
And then I extended that out to all the people who have died in the world and the multitude of experiences and beliefs they had.
I thought how their beliefs were true from their experience, yet from an ultimate perspective these beliefs are contradictory. What could I say about my own beliefs, given that so many others believed different things with equal or greater conviction?
Later on that night, we met in a large room and spent some time going around the room sharing what we thought about our time in the graveyard. I was chewing the graveyard thoughts over, but wasn’t really sure what to make of them. I really didn’t know how to encapsulate all of humanity’s beliefs and experiences into some common thread, but I started with what I knew.
– In my head, –
I disproved the existence of the future and then after that disproved the existence of the past.
The only thing that remained was the
> present moment,<
and having realized that I sort of had an epiphany experience where I opened up to the reality that is right now. I knew that despite all the differing beliefs and experiences throughout humanity, the fact that experience is universal and self-verifying was what everyone has in common. We all experience right now, and all the beliefs, ideas, or concepts about the past and future come from that. After that night, I knew that at least the present moment was true, and wanted to explore that line of thinking, but wasn’t sure exactly where to go from there.
A year or so later, I came across an article about a Tibetan Buddhist monk who had brain waves which had never been seen before. I was impressed by this scientific proof that meditation somehow had the ability to alter the brain.
In the summer of 2016 I read Happiness by Matthieu Ricard, the monk whose brain waves were off the chart, and really enjoyed the profound truths which were clearly laid out in the book. It turned out that the meditation he described was similar to what I had found to be true in Appalachia- a practitioner usually rested in the present moment and tried not to stray from what was actually happening.
It made me want to practice meditation and I found a simple booklet online by a Therevada monk named Yuttadahmmo Bikkhu.
For a couple months I practiced on and off for maybe thirty minutes or so a day, but pretty soon I decided I wanted to do a longer retreat. I think it seemed like a better way to really see the effects and to dive into the deep end, cause up until that point it felt like I hadn’t really experienced what it was all about.
I had a couple of weird experiences (perceptual distortions like my body and head seeming really big or wide when my eyes were closed, funny feelings, time slowing down relative to my usual pace of time), but nothing too extraordinary. Looking back, I was probably looking for something incredible to happen which just got in the way of the actual practice.
I researched a number of meditation centers/retreats and ruled out anything too expensive (I was in college and didn’t want to pay much), anything that seemed too out there or too weird (I still enjoy a healthy dose of skepticism), or anything that was less than three days or seemed more geared towards relaxation/vacation than meditation. There was an organization that taught “vipassana” which stood out to me because it was free (someone can only donate after finishing a course), seemed pragmatic, and the technique’s primary purpose was “to see things as they really are.”
I decided it was a good candidate and signed up to do a course in Menomonie, Wisconsin at the end of 2016.
My first vipassana retreat experience
I had never been that far north nor had I ever been in an environment so cold. The lake in Menomonie was completely frozen as I stepped out on it on my way from the bus stop to the meditation center. When I arrived I met Jimmy, the center manager who was from Ohio, and went to OSU for neuroscience. Jimmy asked me to fill out some forms and I remember having trouble reading them because I was nervous about the course.
After unpacking and an introductory meeting, we headed to the meditation hall for our first group sitting. At 19, I was easily the youngest one there and was assigned a spot in the back row of the meditation hall all by myself. Two teachers, a man, and a woman, walked in from separate sides of the room and sat down at the front, elevated on seats higher than the rest of the students.
It was quiet despite everyone present, and I could feel the anticipation building. Then a recording of a deep-voiced male singer in an Asian language started playing. He was all over the place with pitch, vocal fries, and grunt-like vocalizations that all seemed obviously comical to me.
I struggled to keep from laughing in a room full of silent stoic people who either didn’t get the joke or were pretending it wasn’t funny. I was so nervous leading up to this and was completely surprised by this anticlimactic chanting I wasn’t expecting at all. Later on, in the course, I would get used to it and even find it appealing, but initially, it was tacky and broke the mystical impression I had of the retreat.
After the chanting ended and we made a formal request to be taught meditation, we were assigned the task of staying with the breath. Over the next four days, I tried to stay with the breath over and over again as my mind kept wandering everywhere other than what I was supposed to focus on.
It was like my brain kept churning up interesting things to think about, random memories resurfaced, things I hadn’t thought about in years reappeared. At one point I was able to visualize anything clearly; all I had to do was think “red elephant on a yellow tricycle” and bam, I could see it. It seemed like the breath exercise was working though, I noticed finer and finer sensations over the four days as my concentration improved.
From the fourth day onwards we went from noticing breath sensation to noticing sensations throughout the body. Until this retreat I had no idea the sheer volume of and the speed at which sensations are occurring everywhere throughout the body. Instead of seeing myself as a cohesive, stable whole, I directly saw what I understood to be me as constantly-changing collections of feelings and sensations. This perspective wasn’t there all the time but the experiences were enough to make me want to continue meditating.
| There was also the pain. |
I spent a lot of my time devising cushion arrangements to minimize the discomfort I was feeling in my back, knees, hips, and butt. I also spent a fair amount of time changing my posture to ward off potential pangs of pain. None of it helped much.
Looking back, I probably wasn’t ready to spend that much time cross-legged and may have benefited from sitting a bit more in a chair. But when I wasn’t trying to avoid it, I did manage to learn a couple of things about pain.
I learned that there’s a difference between the sensation of pain and the reaction to it. As masochistic as it sounds, pain could also be really interesting, multifaceted with layers of heat, numbness, or stinging. My perception of the pain would swing between
._________”this PAIN is going to kill ME, I NEED to move!!!”
and “there’s an unpleasant pulsing painful sensation in my foot overlayed heat, surrounded by rapid vibrations. My leg tenses up as a result of the pangs of pain but if I stay with it, I relax the tension.”_________.
I also faced some difficulties in simply practicing the technique correctly. We were asked to sweep our body with our awareness, seeing everything ‘as it is.’ But everywhere I looked tension would appear like my attention was causing my body to tense up wherever my mind’s eye happened to be. When I brought this up to the teacher she told me about a metaphor of a string player, and how in order to play in tune a musician would neither tune a string too tight or too loose.[-]
In the same way, she explained. my attention shouldn’t be too tight so as to create tension nor should it be too loose so as to get distracted. I didn’t understand how to soften my attention until months later in my at-home practice. Another difficulty in practicing was at times I was too distracted in my thoughts and feelings for the meditation to be effective.
This dynamic balancing act is still a part of my practice, and I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.
Even with the pain and semi-poorly practicing the technique, the experiences I had during those ten days were sufficient to make me want to continue meditating. The perspective it offered was something that didn’t really go away; it was pervasive in everyday life whether or not I was actively meditating. It was enough to make me want to go back for more, so much so that after I graduated college and continued working at Honeywell Intelligrated for a year and a half.
I left my job and started volunteering at one of the meditation centers!
What is the technique and how does it work?
The meditation I’m doing in Georgia right now is called vipassana and it pretty much means seeing things as they are.
It’s simple, but not easy. For a ten-day course, the most common course that gets offered at this center, the first three days are spent on improving one’s concentration in order to practice vipassana. This is done by focusing attention on the breath and the sensations of breathing at the entrance of the nose.
No matter how many times the mind gets distracted, you just keep bringing it back to the breath. Despite all the laziness, boredom, distraction or doubt that may occur, after three days you get a more focused mind that’s able to stay with the breath for a longer period of time. The experience of breathing also becomes more refined; instead of just knowing whether or not there’s breath, there might be awareness of a pulse near the upper lip, temperature changes between inhalation and exhalation, or increased resolution in feeling the breath flow in and out the nose. These first three days are really important prep work for the remainder of the course which is spent doing vipassana.
This particular flavor of vipassana (there’s other techniques with the same goal that are also considered vipassana) involves scanning one’s body, noticing whatever may come up without getting agitated or overwhelmed. Because of the concentration practice,body sensations are very refined as well as one’s ability to stay with them. The body becomes a safari of vibrations, tensions, knots, tingling, and a variety of other sensations. The task is to systematically examine all of it with open equanimity, neither chasing after or running away from anything.
By doing this, one begins to come out of negative habit patterns of craving and aversion.
To explain how this works, I want to use a model that conceptualizes experience. This model may be wrong, but it is useful:
- Cognition- Some information from the outside world comes in contact with any of the senses (hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, feeling)
- Recognition-the information is recognized as an object (the brain recognizes a particular arrangement of frequencies as the bark of a dog). Previous experiences inform whether or not this sound is pleasant or unpleasant (i.e. you have a dog, a dog bit you as a kid)
- Feeling- there are resulting feelings that occur within the body (like tension or butterflies in your stomach)
- Reaction- there’s a reaction to these feelings/sensations, either a craving for or aversion towards these sensations.
Here’s are a couple examples of experiences deconstructed according to this model:
- You see some bright lights flash on a slot machine
- Your brain recognizes this as landing three lucky sevens- a huge payout!
- You get a big rush of pleasure
- You start craving for the pleasure
- You hear a sound
- Your brain recognizes this screeching as nails on a chalkboard
- You instinctively feel tension in your shoulders
- You have an aversive reaction to the tension
1-3 happen automatically, but what is controllable is whether or not we react to whatever we perceive. It turns out that substituting clear awareness for the fourth step is an extremely effective method for coming out of negative habit patterns. It’s the difference between ruminating about saying something dumb for 30 seconds or weeks.
All these ‘steps’ or ‘phases’ usually happen at the unconscious level and we often blindly react to whatever may occur, but through the practice of vipassana, one sees the stress that this causes and that this stress stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of experience.
An untrained mind ‘leans towards’ pleasantness as though it were worth stable and permanent. It also ‘leans away’ from unpleasantness as though it were stable and permanent. The problem is with this view is that in reality all these sensations are impermanent in nature and the extra reactions only cause more stress/suffering. Directly seeing one’s sensations as unstable, as well as the implicit belief that they will last leads to insight about reality that frees the mind from this wrong view.
Not only is the practice rewarding because it can make you happier, it’s exciting and meaningful to uncover truths that have just been out of the mind’s eye.
This initially might sound like one develops indifference or nihilism toward everything, but this isn’t the case. Equanimity is a spacious, inclusive mind state that really does provide rest to a stressed-out nervous system. In my experience, it doesn’t come automatically but the tastes I’ve gotten so far are really worth it and inspire me to want to develop this posture of experiencing the world more.
All this being said, this isn’t a persuasive argument as to why everyone should meditate. Introspection and days of silence can be potentially damaging to people who have schizophrenia or severe depression. Even without a clinically diagnosed mental illness, retreats are challenging and are definitely not a relaxing vacation. Also, I don’t think one size fits all when it comes to meditation and other practices might work better for other people with different desired outcomes.
My Brand of Crazy
So that’s my brand of crazy! Hopefully, it makes a bit more sense what I get out of it and why I do it. I might be writing letters to people and I didn’t want to write the same letter over and over so it seemed easier to get the redundant bulk out of the way so that individual letters could be more conversational.
I’ve found meditation to be a great combo of interesting, fun, meaningful, and profound that I don’t foresee getting old soon. I’ve wanted to spend more dedicated time getting better at this technique and I’m really glad that I have the opportunity to do that right now! I also see the time I spend here as learning skills I can apply anywhere- diligence, equanimity, and kindness are never in low demand. I’m not sure what’s next, but I know sooner or later it will come.
Eric is the lead pianist and drummer in the band Godzilla’s Thigh. He exists in a dimension of music unknown to most ephemeral beings. And although this guy knows a lot about politics in our crazy world he never gets in fights with anyone. Equanimous? It must be the vipassana.