January 9, 2020 · meditation events

My week at the Insight Meditation Society.

Over the new year, I spent 9 days on a meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts at a course run by the folks at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS).

The meditation hall. (sorry I don't have more pictures, we gave up our phones on Day 1 of the course and didn't get them back until the end).

In the past, I have sat several 10-day Vipassana courses with the teachings of S.N. Goenka. The IMS one was taught in a slightly different way, but I expected it to be broadly the same. The two versions were superficially very similar in that the days were structured according so a similar timetable, we spent our time in noble silence, and were served healthy vegetarian meals three times a day.

However, there were some fundamental differences. For instance, the IMS retreat felt much less disciplinarian than the Goenka ones. Here, the sittings were never more than 45 minutes long, with walking meditation built into the schedule in between sits to give our muscles a break - or a different kind of workout. There was also a daily "mindful movement" yoga session which was very helpful on days when I was feeling a little stiff and in need of stretching.

The course also felt much more like it was about the "whole-self", rather than just being about becoming a more skilled observer of the breath. We had small group meetings on alternate days where a group of 8 people would sit in a room with one of the teachers, and we were each given a turn to speak. In these meetings I was encouraged to think much more about the emotional content of what was coming up for me in my meditations and to not try and push things away or disregard them by telling myself that I needed only to come back to the breath.

The lectures from the front of the room also emphasised much more the idea of being "in relationship with" oneself, rather than trying to dominate or be in control of oneself. This was talked about in the language of having a "merciful attention" and of "holding yourself in a compassionate way" (not literally, but figuratively). This essentially means that a big part of the time spent sitting is reminding yourself that it is ok to be distracted, confused or repetitive, and to try to remove some of the harsh judgement towards ourselves that many of us carry around. If it were possible to exercise dominance over our thoughts and feelings, then there would be no need to spend 10 days at a meditation retreat. It is a process.

One thing I didn't like as much about the IMS course was that noble silence was not broken fully until the very end of the course. There were opportunities during the course to speak in a structured way where one person speaks and the other listens, and we did this more frequently on the last day, but there was no opportunity to speak to our fellow meditators in an informal way. Meditation retreats bring together from a wide range of age groups, backgrounds, and perspectives on life so it was unfortunate that we didn't have more time to sit and reflect on our experiences together informally.

Not discipline, but renewed energy

One of the ideas that is regularly reinforced in Bhuddist meditation traditions is that timelines are not continuous, and that each moment is created anew from the previous one. The person I am now is not the same person I was 10 years ago, or 10 minutes ago. The table I am sat at now is undergoing a constant process of change.

Metaphysically, I don't know how much credence to give this idea and I would need to investigate it further (ship of Theseus style), but I like this as a conceptual perspective-shift nonetheless.

In so much motivational talk there is the idea that discipline is a muscle which you need to train in order to improve at. Eventually you will be able to stick to the gym schedule, or have a better morning routine, or eat more healthily. However, what you are training here is the ability to do things that you don't want to do, and so the fundamental problem exists that you don't want to do those things.

Instead, a better notion, I think, is that of renewed energy. Instead of coercing, baiting or forcing yourself to go to the gym every morning, you should instead take up the much more difficult work of proving to yourself every morning that going to the gym is the right thing to be doing. This means that first, you are always doing the thing you most want to be doing at the time, and that you don't blindly stick to something after the circumstances have changed. Maybe that is already what people are saying when they are talking about discipline, but it often doesn't sound like it.

Permission to integrate the teachings into life.

I think the biggest thing I got from my meeting with Catherine was permission to mould the Dharma teachings to suit my - more practical - needs, rather than being told that I would need to change my life to suit the teachings. As a result, I was able to view meditation in a much more utilitarian way. Rather than meditation being something I participate in once a year as a kind of detoxification or relaxation of the mind, I can see it as something to be integrated into my every day life.

For instance, what would it look like to be a more mindful software developer? It would mean having the abilty to sit outside oneself while coding - i.e. to create a separation between me, and the person who is coding. So if I were working on something particularly tedious then I wouldn't need to identify myself with the difficulty, and thereby feel less frustrated about having to go through the tedium. Or if I were going down an unfruitful rabbit hole, hopefully I could recognize the patterns in my mind and take a pause before I was too far gone.

Therefore, integrated here is used not in the sense of passively sitting on a cushion for two hours a day, and hoping that the energy from the ritual will somehow spread into the rest of my life, but actively thinking about how mindfulness can be directly applied: What would more mindful code reviews look like? What would a more mindful workplace culture look like? Can mindfulness improve my reading retention?

A renewed understanding of presence

An idea that comes up a lot in meditation is that of "being in the present". I confess that I believed I had understood what this meant quite clearly, but being on this retreat gave me a renewed appreciation of its significance.

Being in the present is sometimes coupled with being "ok with how things are". On the surface, those two ideas don't seem like they are talking about the same thing, but in fact they are interrelated. Most of us don't spend very much time doing nothing at all and so we have very little appreciation of what this baseline state looks like. In fact, for most of us, it is an anxiety inducing place to be - and we feel compelled to be doing something, whether that is checking our phones,  finding another form of entertainment, or going off into a daydream. Meditating regularly makes this fact very apparent.

However, being in the present means, on a core level, being OK with how things are. It means being OK with just sitting with yourself and expecting nothing to happen (because expectations take you out of the present), and not ruminating on things which have happened in the past.

Spending more time in the present also means that you spend less time planning for the future, which can be very healthy because it means spending less time imagining things that likely won't happen. Of course, strategy, and planning is incredibly important but I know that I myself am sometimes guilty of over-emphasising the planning component. I.e. I can have a whole week's worth of activities scheduled and planned out down to the hour but life almost always has other things in mind.

Presence is also a very interesting way to connect with other people because it means that you are giving them your full attention. When we were sat in small groups it was fascinating to watch how skillfully the teachers were able to treat each person in turn, and address the specific questions and concerns those people brought into the circle. The fact that these concerns were so disparate and wide-ranging made this even more impressive to me.

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