Saturday 16 March 2013

The Nature of Reality vs The Reality of Real Life

A huge part of Vipassana meditation is the exploration of the nature of Reality, namely the realisation of the impermanency of everything, that will help alleviate personal suffering. Something I've been wondering about though, is whether this works so well with the reality of Real Life. Let me explain...

The past couple of weeks have been tough. The holidays are officially over and university has welcomed me back with a bit of a slap in the face with reading, assignments, a battle with bureaucracy (which I won!) and a new job as a note-taker for disabled students. 

So where does meditation and mindfulness fit into this picture? Well, I made a resolution that I'd try and meditate for 1 hour in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening every day. I thought that was fairly achievable, and so I managed to do that for about a week and a half. However, now that I think I've given Vipassana a fair trial of over a month, where I had consistently meditated for at least an hour a day after the course, I've realised that there is a certain balance that needs to be achieved...a balance between the mindful being mode that cultivates a balanced, attentive and compassionate mind, and the doing of study, work and a social life. 

Both require time and energy, and I think I was investing too much time and effort into the being mode, and that this was actually taking time out of my sleep which I required for energy to do everything else I have to, and want to do (each week: 8 hours of choir, a full study load, 8 hours of work, attending talks on campus, spending time with friends, exercise). I was still sleeping for about 6.5-7 hours a night, but as someone who's used to a full 8 hours a night and has higher sleep needs, being young, I was feeling pretty sleep deprived.

I think proponents of Vipassana, as taught by S. N. Goenka, would say that 2 hours a day is the minimum, and that it's a reasonable amount of time, because you can take an hour out of your sleep and you can take an hour out of other things you might be wasting your time with during the day, or that is gained from improvements in productivity due to improved attention from meditating heaps. 

From my experience these past couple of weeks, though, this hasn't been the case. I think you need to be a super-experienced meditator (which obviously takes hours and hours of practice over years and years) to be able to reach that stage where you have complete clarity and can get by with less sleep. This requires a long, long investment phase with a lot of sacrifices, which I'm not sure I can give at this stage of my life, during semester anyway.

Thus, I would argue that although meditation is important to me and that I have reaped benefits from it and have seen changes in myself, I think that beyond a certain point, the benefits get outweighed by the increased stress that arises from the sacrifices in time, sleep and therefore energy and productivity. I'm not sure where that threshold is, but I think that even 1 hour and 20 minutes a day was too much. Moreover, I wasn't bringing that awareness into my day-to-day life. If the goal is a sense of wellbeing, awareness, emotional stability and compassion, then I think it's time to change to a routine that supports that goal in the context of university life, now that I can see that the amount of meditation I was doing was unsustainable, and actually not working for me.

The logical next step, then, is to perform a personal experiment to test this threshold. The research question would be: What is the minimum amount of meditation each day that will allow me to maintain a balanced mind? From my experiences with MBSR-style mindfulness last year, I hypothesise that 30 minutes in the morning of the sitting MBSR meditations (breath, body, sounds & thoughts), guided or unguided, 10 minutes at night of breath, and more importantly, day-to-day mindfulness, will be enough. It sure was, even during exams last year. One advantage of the amount of meditation I have been doing over the past month or so, is that 40 minutes a day will seem EASY in comparison. I will also do Vipassana for 1 hour each day on the weekend, because I have experienced benefits from this technique, and would like to keep it up.

Tomorrow is a new week, and so the experiment begins.

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