Tomorrow, I will catch a shuttle bus from Central Auckland that will take me to the Dhamma Medini Meditation Centre in Kaukapakapa, about an hour north of Auckland. I have committed myself to a 10-day Vipassana Meditation Course; one of the hundreds run worldwide by Dhamma.org and initiated by S.N. Goenka, who teaches via audio & video recordings. What follows is a description of what's involved, what expectations I have, and of course, why I'm doing this!
Meditation can be generally defined as paying attention in a particular way. Thus, although the word "meditation" often brings to mind a bunch of Buddhists chanting "ommmm" in lotus position, there is actually nothing particularly religious or mystical about simply paying attention. Furthermore, while a lot of the theory for this particular course is derived from Buddhist philosophy, it does not involve religious rites or rituals, or a belief in God, an afterlife, karma, or reincarnation. It aims to be a secular practice that does not conflict with any belief systems. It is simply about paying attention to what's here, right here, right now.
This is the daily schedule.
|4:00 am (!!!)||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break (literally tea & fruit)|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher's Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room--Lights out|
There will be lots and lots of meditation - 10 hours and 45 minutes each day, to be precise! In 10 days, I will have more than tripled the hours of meditation practice I have so far completed in my life.
There will be plenty of silence, a noble silence: "silence of body, speech, and mind…" We are allowed to ask the assistant teacher questions during set times, but are encouraged to keep these contacts to a minimum: "Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation."
There will be two vegetarian meals and tea & fruit in the evening.
I will agree to abstain from: 1. killing any being, 2. stealing, 3. sexual activity, 4. telling lies, 5. all intoxicants.
Men and women are separated, no physical contact is allowed between anyone, whether of the same or opposite gender, and all are required to dress modestly.
There will be no music, singing, technology, reading, writing, or exercise, apart from walking. It will just be me, my mind and my body.
More on the Code of Discipline here.
The short answer: Personal Growth.
This is one of my top values - to work on myself to be the best person I can be, so that I am in a better position to help others, contribute to society and to live an authentic, fulfilling and conscious life.
The long answer: Just how will this help me to grow?
1. To extend my understanding and practice of mindfulness meditation
Towards the end of last year, I attended a 6-week introductory Mindfulness course at the Unimelb Psychology Clinic, facilitated by two prospective psychologists. A brief working definition of mindfulness is "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment." (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, 145). It is derived from the Vipassana tradition.
The course was such a positive, rewarding and empowering experience. At the end of the course, I felt like it wasn’t the end of anything really, but merely the start of a fundamentally new way of seeing the world, a change in mindset, a new way of being. I feel a deep sense of peace and wellbeing. More aware, more alive…more wise. More able to cope. There’s something quite beautiful about being able to wake up in the morning, and just spend 10 minutes simply breathing, or feeling the weight of the body and its presence in space, or listening or noting thoughts. Noticing what’s there, without trying to change it in any way, or evaluating it; instead, embracing what is actually already here. Being able to accept the present and notice everything that’s going on, because there’s so much to experience in each moment, that is often missed when busy thinking, or worrying, or planning, stuck inside my head. It’s very grounding and lovely to be able to remind myself that I'm a human being, not a human doing or a human efficiency machine.
Although I don’t feel like I’ve necessary improved at having a stiller mind during formal practice, I have improved my ability to stick at it, to notice when thoughts arise and to redirect my attention to whatever I choose to focus on. I also no longer feel bored, or feel a need for constant stimulation, because I now am more aware of all the things I can choose to experience in the present moment.
Now that I’ve been practicing mindfulness relatively regularly for over four months, I’ve really begun to notice a difference in the way I approach life. With more equanimity, calmness, acceptance and attention. With a contentment with peace and simplicity. I really believe that I’m getting more out of life; that I'm living. The mindfulness course was definitely one of the most rewarding experiences of 2012, and I'm now so interested in mindfulness and the contributions of Eastern philosophy to Western psychology that it may be one of my research interests in the future.
I am definitely still a beginner, however, and believe that this Vipassana course will be a good way to get some intensive meditation practice in, to further improve my understanding of mindfulness and to bring back some of that acute wakefulness I experienced at the end of my last mindfulness course.
2. Empirically supported benefits
Research has shown that meditation is linked with a range of benefits for both clinical and community populations. Here are just two studies:
Chambers, Lo, & Allen (2008) studied participants who were undertaking one of these 10-day Vipassana courses, and found that compared to the wait-list non-meditators, the meditators demonstrated marked improvements in self-reported depressive symptomatology, mindfulness and sustained attention. They concluded that 10 days of intensive meditation training had benefits for a wide range of emotional and cognitive skills in a healthy group.
Davidson and colleagues (2003) reported significant increases in left-sided anterior activation, associated with positive affect, in meditators compared with non-meditators. Meditators also had significantly higher antibody titers in response to the flu vaccine, and the magnitude of increase in left-sided activation predicted the magnitude of antibody titer rise to the vaccine. Thus, meditation was linked with changes in "positive" brain activation and improved immune function.
3. Personality improvements
As a slightly over-enthusiastic, sometimes excitable and intense person, I have always admired the people in my life who have been calm, grounding and wise. This is an attitude I hope to develop. I would like to be better able to approach all situations in life with equanimity, balance, perspective and a calm attitude. I hope that I will become more compassionate, empathetic, wise and gentle with time.
4. Professional Development
With the increasing interest in mindfulness as an empirically-supported therapeutic tool for a range of psychological and physical issues (for empirical reviews, see Baer, 2003 and Allen et al., 2006), I believe that this course will help me to be a better psychologist in the future.
After all, Kabat-Zinn (2003, 149) argues that mindfulness "cannot be taught to others in an authentic way without the instructor’s practicing it in his or her own life." This authenticity entails that teachers embody a mindful way of being, ultimately teaching out of a personal passion for and belief in the practice. It would seem unrealistic to ask your client to sit down and meditate for 45 minutes a day, if this is something that you yourself cannot achieve. Mindfulness teachers or therapists must "walk the talk". Thus, to become an MBSR-accredited teacher at The Center for Mindfulness, it is a requirement that you have first experienced at least one, and preferably two 10-day Vipassana retreats (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
Furthermore, Dimidjian and Linehan (2003) discuss the idea of being a mindful therapist. That is, to embody the nonjudgment, awareness, nonattachment to outcome and compassion that form the basis of a mindful attitude. This would surely increase empathy and receptiveness to nuances in the clients' speech and body language. This embodiment may also mean that the therapist teaches through actions, body language and responses, just as much as they do through words.
Finally, as a sage, Sayagyi U Ba Khin put it, "A balanced mind is necessary to balance the unbalanced minds of others." I couldn't agree more - you can't give others what you don't have yourself.
I am really curious about a number of things. How will I cope? What's it like to be "alone" for 10 days? Will I go crazy? What's the nature of my mind, and of reality?
I want to know if I can do this!
From a mindful perspective, expectations are an attachment to outcome, a mindset which often hinder progress and the achievement of that outcome (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Acceptance-based therapies are based on the insight that sometimes letting go is the only way to make progress. Kabat Zinn (2003) recognises this as a difficult paradox. Perhaps a partial resolution is that I can have goals and aims for going to this course, but I also need to be able to let them go whilst undergoing the meditation practice.
I expect to be challenged. It is called a course, not a retreat, for the reason that you're not going to relax and rejuvenate - you're going to work. Hence why I've nicknamed it in my head as "Meditation Boot Camp" or "The Meditation Challenge". Perhaps it's a little too achievement-focused to think of it in these terms though?
I expect to be bored. I mean, sitting there in monastic silence for close to 11 hours a day, simply being and observing the breath and sensations, is unlikely to be described as "fun" or "interesting". Yet, I also expect to improve my capacity to be ok with boredom - to remain equanimous in the face of frustration.
I expect to be in a lot of pain. Yoga practice has helped my flexibility, but from I've heard, sitting cross-legged for close to 11 hours each day is going to be painful. Seeing as my legs currently go to sleep after about 25 mins of meditation, having numb legs for about 5 hours each day will be…interesting. It's not so much the numbness that's painful though, but the moments when sensation returns to the legs and cause my muscles to contract/seize up. Yet, I will also learn how to observe these sensations of "pain" as simply more sensations, without amplifying them with thoughts like "this is so painful! etc". Again, with equanimity.
I expect to have lots of music and singing practice stuck in my head!!! I get serious song-in-the-head syndrome, and having a few songs that I'm currently working on, stuck in my head for hours and hours on loop, and not being able to actually sing, is going to be incredibly frustrating. But perhaps, once I hone my attention and calm my mind, I'll be able to finally press the stop button?
In the end, I expect to come out somewhat different at the end, and hopefully in a positive way. I hope I'll gain some insights into reality, my mind and the mind-body connection. I hope I'll be calmer, more equanimous, compassionate, mindful and focused. A better person.
I'm interested in your thoughts.
Does this course interest you? Could you imagine yourself doing one of these?
Allen, N. B., Chambers, R., Knight, W., Blashki, G., Ciechomski, L., Hassed, C., et al. (2006). Mindfulness-based psychotherapies: a review of conceptual foundations, empirical evidence and practical considerations. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40(4), 285-94.
Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 125-143.
Chambers, R., Lo., C., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on executive cognition, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303-322.
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., et al. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
Dimidjian, S., & Linehan, M. (2003). Defining an Agenda for Future Research on the Clinical Application of Mindfulness Practice. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 166-171.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context - Past, present and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.