Meditation practice has become something quite normal in todays rhythm and language. Many of us have a regular practice or know someone who does. There are myriad apps encouraging us to give a few minutes a day to this ancient practice. The benefits are broad and deep in terms of personal health, resilience and energy and societally we may benefit from the outcomes of a meditating populace. However, for me meditation sits outside of the measurable benefits, the quantifiable, the outcomes. Meditation is performed without goals in mind; indeed, this is precisely the point of it. Simply to be there with exactly what is in that very moment. We may observe the breath, the wandering ‘monkey’ mind, the bodily sensations or we may visualise a scene to assist us toward a calm state. I fear meditation may be hijacked by the productivity maniacs as simply a tool toward doing more. This may be an outcome but should not be the goal.
Many people feel that they struggle to meditate (I can't still my mind, I can't sit still that long, it's boring). This is the reason meditation is becoming popular- we cannot sit still and simply be with ourselves yet we know that if we do this we will feel better. We are addicted to heightened stimulation. As one of these people I decided to go on a meditation intensive to lean into a deep practice and see what happened when I just sat down with nothing to do for 10-days.
Vipassana is a burgeoning way. There are centres the world over where one can go to dive into meditation for 10-days, with minimal guidance, simple food and no talking for the duration. Most centres function on a 'pay-what-you-can basis. It is intense, with long hours of intermittent fasting and around 10-hours a day of seated silent meditation, with walking meditation breaking up the sitting and an evening video expanding on the concepts and philosophy in the evenings.
I sat my first Vipassana in the mountains West of Madrid, Spain in mid summer. I walked a day to get there, arriving ready for whatever I may face.
Day 2 I decided I had to leave! My legs hurt from sitting, my room mate snored like a freight train and my mind was telling me all the other ways I could be using my time; productive ways, sociable ways, anything but meditation all day long. I walked out of the meditation hall and went to a Spanish summer crunchy meadow to ponder on what I would do when I left; all the options! I watched the grass and realised that I had already reached a place I had been searching for. The grass appeared to be moving in slow motion, swaying in the breeze, unbelievably beautiful. My mind stilled, truly stilled. I felt peace. It was the most present I had felt in my entire life; a place I had not had access to for too long. I stayed for the full 10-days before walking up a river to camp for a further week after the Vipassana ended, swimming in river pools, foraging and enjoying coffees in the villages along the Sierra de Gredos.
My meditation practice has waxed and waned in the time since then but the embodied knowledge has not shifted. Simplifying my doings, my food, my needs and allowing boredom to enter can be profound, life changing, even. Access to seeing the beauty all around us is one of the wonders of being human. If we forget to notice this beauty we are missing out on what life is all about.
One does not need to meditate for 10 hours a day or sit in a retreat to access what is available through meditation. Finding space to do nothing at all, leaving technologies at home while out walking, clearing cluttered spaces, tending to plants to the sounds of the birds and wind. This is the life of voluntary simplicity. It isn’t some caveman existence; it is an empowered choice in knowing that we do not need to fill every moment, to seek bigger houses and faster cars and fancier foods and the newest IPhone to live well. I tend the garden or go foraging, taking time with the plants, using a botanical loupe to briefly inhabit another World. Here I access that still mind.
Personally, I learnt that giving space for silence and nothingness spontaneously births my creative self; poems, ideas, song and access to beauty are all just the other side of boredom. Is it possible that if we stifle boredom we lose access to the profound beauty all around us? The daily news certainly feels like people have forgotten how beautiful this Earth is. I say we empower ourselves by learning the difference between so-called ‘standards of living’ that we culturally obsess over and lean into ‘quality of life’. Beyond a certain point (basic needs) most human wants and needs become quality of life statements, not standards of living.
Let us have the wisdom to live well.