How Jim Carrey, Roses and the US Foreign Service Convinced Me to Meditate
The first time I heard about meditation, it was in this philosophical film. A pillar in my young life, really.
I spent my life thinking it was mystics, monks, my childhood crush Jim Carrey and kooky creative types like David Lynch and it basically gave you magic power skills. Then some years ago I started hearing about actual people I knew claiming to be doing this meditation business. I had no idea what meditation entailed except mind flying and sitting calmly for a long time. I'm not going to lie, I still wrote it off, thinking meditation was NOT for me. Me? First, I'm not a believer in anything metaphysical. I play sports. I am an extrovert. My hyperactive mind is part of what makes me, me. Plus, it sounded so damn boring.
Then a couple things happened. First, a good friend would not shut up about it. In fact, once we were out in Jakarta he went to look for a rose to buy from some old guy on the street. I thought it was sweet, but unnecessary to buy me a rose because we were just homies, no need to try. I let him know as much.
"Uh, the rose isn't actually for you," he said awkwardly, "It's for my Rose Meditation, a new technique I'm trying out."
What? It took four years from this night in Jakarta to convince me that he wasn't just making that up to cover his wounded ego. But one of my best friends, Justine, explained that there are types of meditation that don't require one to resort to the casuistry of the cosmic believers and zodiac types. The brain and our thoughts can and should be trained for maximum efficiency, like other parts of our body.
My mind creaked open slightly like a vast heavy door, but at least is was open! Prior to this, I had thought of it in the same vain as when someone starts talking about 9/11 conspiracy theories, you know? The final straws to blow my brain door wide open came when first, said Rose friend's father, who was a serious man, diplomat, all round rough, tough American man (not typical hippie) told me that he was convinced by the effects of meditation! It helped clear his mind, calm him down and make him happier. Second, another friend studying a PhD at Columbia told me about a lot of solid research that showed the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Third, another friend, highly academic in nature decided to give it a whirl while he took a sejour in India. He said it was fantastic. Lastly, my little brother did it while he was in Thailand and it changed his life and outlook on life.
The final impetus came when I could feel the shackles of my digital consumption habits. It happens to us all- we say we wished we had more time to read, to play sport, blog (...ahem) etc etc, but in fact we waste so much in microactivities online - a video here, a post there, a tweet there, but in the end we lose all of our "free" time. And I love social media and sharing, but somehow I had lost the motivation to write long-form stuff as much as I used to pre-mobile internet age. I listened to a great London School of Economics lecture that really crystallized my frustration. It said that our attention has become a commodity that is cheaply put up for sale. Jingles touch our ears, flashing banners catch our side vision, even smells pollute public spaces in an attempt to win your attention, that the newest luxury product is not a car or a watch, it's silence.
Silence. It took 29 years of loud, hyperconnected living to finally yearn for the luxury of silence. And discipline. I wanted to take back mastery of my mind. Especially working in marketing and reading about Nudge Theory, the seminal work of U Chicago's Thaler & Sunstein. It highlights how much human behavior is influenced by being absolutely thoughtless, from snacking on a bowl of nuts merely because they are in front of you to the ability to alter opinions by changing the nature of how something is presented or marketed. We make snap decisions in a vaccuum of information, and they don't always serve our best interests. I couldn't cut off the internet or social media, because it is too integrated in social and work life, but I was frustrated with the status quo and of course wanted to become a super human.
So on January 1, 2016 on a Hong Kong rooftop on a cool hungover evening after NYE, Rose Boy mentioned above offered to show myself and our other friend Marco a couple meditation techniques. We lit some candles, ravaged the couch for cushions and moved up to the rooftop for some calm vibes. Being underslept, I was pretty sure my first "meditation" would consist of the special Deep Somatic Technique aka falling asleep. But a miracle happened and I wasn't tired at all.
I was able to succeed at stopping the Blitzkrieg of thoughts assaulting my brain! And in the process of calming the chaos of this melon, I fell into a deep plasma-like river of bliss and calm for a couple minutes. I knew I needed find a way to figure out the meditation practice asap.
Vipassana 10 Day Retreat in Jaipur
There are a bunch of apps that are supposed to be good to get into meditation. Head Space comes up a lot. But I wanted to walk the path of my little brother and do a Vipassana. This is a ten day retreat of absolute silence with no reading, writing, gestures, eye contact and nine hours of meditation from 4:30am to 9pm each day (with breaks in between). It is supposed to be secular, in the sense that it talks about Buddha as a philsopher with a good breathing technique that empowers people with the ability to assess before react. It doesn't tread on afterlife and inane religious rituals. It doesn't even talk about chakras and that other mystic stuff that most yogies and hippies subscribe to when they meditate. It's really supposed to be the Marine forces but for your brain.
So, (big news!) when I left my job of three years this year so I could go back to school, one of the first things I did with my freshly squeezed time was to head to Jaipur India to do the Vipassana Silent Retreat.
How was it?
When friends ask this question, I explode like an insecure chubby kid who wasn't loved enough who finally gets a hug. It was a question I literally cogitated on for ten days, thinking about how I would tell all of y'all. As I had no pen and paper to record the symphony of clear thoughts that bubbled to the top of my clear mind, I apologize in advance for just trying to recall by memory. But one thing is for sure. No one prepares you for how bloody hard it is. And this is the true raison d'etre of this post. So everyone can be mentally prepared better than I was.
It took every ounce of discipline I had in my body to not quit and run out the door. The silence I was prepared for, in fact, it was so beautiful to be alone with an uncluttered mind, I could cry looking at the multitude of shades of green in nature and other cheesy sentimental artsy shit like that. What was hard, however, was how excruciating and uncomfortable your body is. And how boring the actual act of meditation training is.
I thought it would be all plasma-river floating like Jim Carrey and beautiful thoughts when on break! But no, it is 90% of you sitting in a hot room that looks like a bible camp basement and loud fans and grey carpet, shifting positions on your sore ass maybe 5x every 10 minutes, forcing yourself not to keep staring at the clock behind your head. When you have this much time with emptiness, the minutes crawl like a tarantula exploring the bakck of your neck. It's especially hard in the beginning because you're not used to sitting all day. What makes it worst, even perhaps unsupportable, is that they forbid you to do any sports, yoga, situps in room, or fast walking. Your body is literally rotting from lack of stimulus. But that's the point. They don't want any new sensations in your body so you can meditate better. Quell the monkey brain.
Key takeaway here: Mentally prepare yourself to have your body be in physical agony as well and to be bored as all hell until day 3 or 4. It does get better.
The Vipassana TechniqueThey actually teach you two techniques. The first is super lame and ineffective (at first). They tell you to merely breath, but don't visualize or verbalize any mantras or objects. They say that any other techniques are not to be used because it will detract from the efficacy of the practical one. "Observe the sensations of your breath in your nose." You are told to do this from 4:30am-9pm at night. Do you realize how long that is, especially when you can't lean against anything, just sit tall like a Buddha?!
The Practice: 10 Day Breakdown
It was in Day 1-4 that I had my most serious crisis to leave. Here is the breakdown summary.
Day 0: Sign Five Precepts to participate. No intoxicants, killing or stealing - I mean, I guess so. No Sexual Misconduct. A quick glance at the creatures in the room make it clear that there will be no temptation. The group consisted of 47 women, 90 men, made up a majority of Indians with maybe 20% foreigners who all seemed in mid 20s and 30s. The white girls had either bird or star tattoos or dreadlocks. There were a couple vanilla French girls and a ton of Indian ladies, who I couldn't help but think that this was the only way they could escape the materfamilias responsibilities without pissing off the family. Silence and privacy in an Indian joint home must be more precious than gold..
The rooms are made for one-two people, have hot water (but no showerhead), a hard mattress, book shelf and good windows to keep out mosquitoes. Cement walls.
Day 1: Pain and breathing. Sitting for so long is uncomfortable and breathing while focusing on air in and out of your nose. It is boring and your neck will hurt from the multitude of times you try to (smoothly) twist around and peep at the clock.
Day 2: Breaththrough! Moments of nothingness from concentration of the nose and breathing. Can feel nose pulsing with sensations. Boom! Get too excited and unable to find that nothingness for another 8 hours. Create game of guessing the time and turning around to check it. Soccer leg muscles dying.
Day 3: Misery and Sickness, Walking dead, monkeys. Meaning of life? Contemplate leaving. My mind is rushing wildly with miserable thoughts. Contemplate the meaning of life. Why are we sitting here suffering in silence when the world is full of adventure? Start to feel sick. People around me look like zombies walking around the courtyard on lunchbreak. Eyes are black, shoulders slumped. The monkeys that romp around the garden depress the eff out of me with their single mindedness- all they do is fight, fuck and play in between. Isn't that what humans do, but in destructive and more complicated ways? Why do we try so hard to pretend we're more than those goddamn monkeys? I fall sick, start crying about the futility of life and stay in bed for the afternoon.
Day 4: My Way of the Ninja - A New Resolve is Found. Monkey's inspire. Still in bed wallowing in misery and mild fever, I drag myself for a walk in the courtyard. The silence has cleared my mind and I notice the 5 different shades of green of the leaves on the trees, bushes, surrounding mountain forest, flower leaves and more. The layers of beauty dazzle me I hadn't noticed before. The monkeys, instead of pissing me off with their monotony, inspire me. What makes us different from these monkeys, I thought, was a) our ability to appreciate beauty and b) our ability to be disciplined. I resolve to be more than the monkeys, that the best of what humanity is push ourselves beyond our monkey minds. I decide I will stay at the Vipassana and I will be disciplined, because, if I can't push myself and do this hard thing, I won't ever be able to push myself. I will always give up, if I give up now. I make a gang symbol with myself, lest I forget my resolve. It is two fists together over my stomach (or manipura chakra, for those who know what that is).
Day 5: Miracle! Plasma space body. My mind shuts off for more than an hour. I stop looking at the clock, I am perfect blackness, flying through space. I feel like Robin Williams in Hook when he finds his happy place and flies only to wake up and fall to the earth again when he realizes what he is doing. I am careful not to get excited this time. I repeat to myself, "I am nothing. I am nothing." I allow my ears to hear every single bird called, and monkey sound in the surrounding jungle. I feel like a super hero suspended in plasma land with no body, only a gigantic consciousness that could feel everything and nothing. The bell for the break rings, I do not move. I stay deep in this moment for 2 whole hours. My feet start to get pins and needles and I eventually am roused. I am overjoyed that I "got it."
Day 6: Why can't I feel that thing again? Depression ensues. Super excitement reinvigorated my resolve but to my chagrin, I was not able to get to super plasma land again. I could hear my ego ripe with expectations and disappointment but was powerless to shut it up. I sit the day of meditation in thoughts about love and life, sometimes happy, sometimes dark. My mind drifts to the last book I read, Jonathan Franzen's Purity, is replaying in my mind. A difficult time with a past amour, replays over and over too. I cannot concentrate. I start to berate myself as weak minded. I sit there, and allow my thoughts and memory to wash away the time..
Day 7: Vipassana technique and the disciplined mind. I make a new resolve for my mind. I will try to be disciplined for at least 1 hour a day and allow myself to contemplate life and work the rest. I make a deal with myself and sign it off with my gang symbol over my stomach. I AM disciplined. The Vipassana technique is very different from the initial breathing one. This one focuses on scanning the entire body for sensations, and then neutralizing them. Not being excited or disappointed by anything you feel because we want to eliminate craving and aversion from our thought process, and that must start with the physical sensations of our body. Teacher asks us to try to not move our legs, to sit through discomfort of 9 hours a day crossed-legged. I use the pain in my legs as a sensation to study and neutralize. I've also limited my food intake to half a banana and black tea so I could use my hunger as something to practice my discipline as well. I've never been disciplined in my life. I felt a solid strength growing in me.
Day 8: Hyper awareness and the meditation cells. We finally get to go into the pagoda and meditate privately. I am relieved for privacy and decide to lie down (maybe take a nap heh) and practice Vipassana, then something crazy happens. I feel my body alive in sensations! There is a pulsing, vibration all over my body, like it is buzzing in the middle of a church bell. I am hyper aware of everything and I am at a loss to comprehend what is happening. I dismiss ideas of energy flow and I think that it must be how the pagoda is built, channelling sound vibrations or something... I love the pagoda, it allows me to go deeper.
Day 9: Several people have left. I notice that one of the beautiful girls with an intoxicating sexual energy had left too. It is amazing how much is communicated in a language that isn't spoken. The way someone walks, holds their head, catches your eye. We may have been silenced, but we were always communicating somehow. What I learned was how to listen and observe and to feel. To open new sensory channels to understand the world around me. When the dirt of our mind settles, our thoughts and understanding become clear. I felt my internal writer's voice able to sing with the clarity and sharpness of a single trumpet. I had never felt so clear-minded. I also learned how to make deals with myself to concentrate. When a stray thought would wander it, like a bee that slipped in through the open window, I negotiate with it and say, "I will play with you later, thought, but right now I am focusing."And like that I am able to shoo it out the window for a bit. I regret not being able to write. It was one thing my mind was begging for every day. I composed a song in my mind, so I wouldn't forget some of my breakthroughs.
Day 10: It's over. We have a half day of meditation and we are allowed to talk at lunch time. It was the weirdest thing to break the silence for so long inside our minds alone. I almost didn't want to talk. Just wanted to be alone and write and write and write. But in the end, I was excited by the women around me and their journeys. We had to meditate in the afternoon, but disturbingly, that 1 hour of conversation was circling around my mind like an ominous storm cloud. I found it difficult to clear them out. My crystalized mind had begun to be tainted by the real world. I feared it would be a sign of things to come. The 10 days of silence was a luxury. That became evident to me. What I didn't know was, how would this hold up in the real world?