I never thought I’d look forward to brushing my teeth. It’s not a task I consider particularly exciting. But late last November, it came to that. After eating an apple for dinner, I found myself rushing toward the bathroom for some quality dental hygiene time. That’s what happens when you’re not allowed to partake in many activities of ordinary life.
For 10 days this past fall, I subjected myself to a meditation retreat. Along with about 70 other souls, I was confined to a basic compound in the woods along the shore of Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. We were left without the freedom to speak, read, write or exercise, among other things. There were no cellphones, no e-mail and basically no communication allowed.
These are the rules of Vipassana, an ancient Buddhist meditation technique that aims to purify the mind by eliminating the root causes of suffering. I had dabbled in meditation before, but nothing more than a few hour-long sessions, so this was a big leap. I first heard of it about five years ago after meeting someone who described it as a life-changing experience. Other people told me it gave them increased mental clarity, focus and patience.
Since finishing a master’s program in sustainability last summer, I had been in a prolonged and uncertain state of transition. Unemployed and unsure what to do with my life, I decided a Vipassana retreat would be the perfect opportunity to tame my wild mind and have a break to focus. Plus, I always like a good challenge.
Thus started a daily regimen of waking up to a gong at 4 a.m., sitting still for up to 10 hours a day, then going to bed at 9 p.m. The task for the first few days was simple: Focus on your breath and the area between the nostrils and upper lip. I proceeded with diligence, basking in the novelty and stillness of it all. I sat cross-legged, wrapped in a green wool blanket, my eyes closed to shut out the spartan, monochromatic meditation hall.
My early enjoyment of soaking up the solitude didn’t last long. Faced with such a mundane assignment, I quickly grew bored and my mind started to wander to more interesting things. I had to keep reminding myself that the point of meditation is to be present and keep your mind on the task at hand. I eventually decided that counting to 100 was the best way to stay focused. When I got tired of counting in English, I would switch languages or count backward.
From day four on, we were instructed to sit as still as possible during three daily meditations. The idea was to observe sensations objectively and not react to discomfort. I approached the challenge with tenacity, setting goals to move less and less during each hour-long session, counting my breaths to keep track of how long I had stayed still.
There I sat fighting off every small itch and feeling of numbness, trying with all my might to ignore my burning back muscles, which were tiring from keeping proper posture. I counted to 100, over and over, wondering whether this so-called “surgical procedure of the mind” was going to have any lasting effects.
As the days passed I managed to get better at withstanding the discomfort, but still my mind would wander. I found myself creating every possible scenario for how the coming months could play out, or making up life stories for the other participants. I recalled obscure memories and useless knowledge stored in the depths of my brain, from scattered grade school events to plot lines from bad action films. It’s a good thing the teacher couldn’t read my mind, I thought – surely he would not be impressed with my progress.
The days just after the midway point seemed to be the most difficult. I started to crave physical activity and struggled with the mind-numbing boredom. On top of that, the early wakeup left me feeling like a sleep-deprived zombie wandering in a perpetually hazy, dream-like state. In the mornings I’d roll out of bed, sit up with my eyes closed to meditate, then promptly fall asleep again. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if I had been dreaming or daydreaming. I decided I’d be better off if I slept in a couple hours. Maybe I didn’t have to follow every rule to the highest degree of orthodoxy.
Despite the challenges, the process wasn’t all bad. After falling into a routine I started to appreciate the simple things in life more and more. I ate my meals slowly, savouring every bite of food. I started to look forward to my afternoon walk around a patch of green space. I remember crouching down one afternoon, staring in amazement at thick frost growing out of the dirt in crystalline columns. That’s not something I would have noticed under normal circumstances, yet here it was the highlight of my day.
When I left the compound on the last day I felt like I was emerging from a cryogenic chamber – a 10-day time capsule that had left me oblivious to the outside world. I walked out with a new-found sense of wonder; everything seemed to have a special glow to it.
Was it a life-changing experience? Did I get the focus I had hoped for? I’m not sure. It’s too early to tell if the effects will be long-lasting. I didn’t notice any groundbreaking shifts in consciousness, but in small ways my thought patterns changed. Less craving, more patience, more appreciation – and that’s worth a lot.
Maarten Dankers lives in Victoria.