Picking up from where I left off in chapter-2 , sharing some more details about the activities of days 2-7 of the retreat ..
Before I entered the retreat, my knowledge of various types of meditations was limited and I had come primarily to enhance it. Previously, I had been practising only two types of meditations – focused attention and resting awareness. I had been following an app called Headspace, incidentally, whose meditations were based on Buddhist principles. (It was the brainchild of a former Buddhist monk.) But they had been tamped down to cater to the average person looking for some relief. I wanted to transcend that level. Tushita didn’t disappoint. During the retreat, I learnt about the whole arsenal of Buddhist meditations which broadly, are classified into four types :
- Shamatha, also known as calm abiding or focused attention meditation where we bring our focus to any object such as breath, as discussed in chapter-1. This is the most basic meditation and according to me, also the most challenging. That is because when we sit and try to focus, our mind keeps jumping like a monkey from one thought to the next. (The Buddhists call an untrained mind the “monkey mind”) Our mind is all over the place and abhors being still. We have to continuously notice our wandering mind and bring it back to the breath. Sometimes after the meditation, I used to open my eyes and be amazed at all the places my mind went to instead of being focused on the breath. Joyful were the days when my monkey mind would sit still for a while and allow me to experience the bliss of focus. It gets easier with practise, but there is always a session somewhere where the mind goes running off like a wild horse.
- Vipassana or analytical meditation: This was a new one for me. It involved directing the mind to something conceptual. For example: one of the staple meditations in Buddhism is on death. As mentioned in the last blog, there are two facts about death that are undeniable. The first is that death is certain and the second – that we do not know the time of our death. It could be tomorrow or after a long time. We all accept these facts logically. But they haven’t gone deep inside us. In other words, we have not internalised these facts. Hence, we live our lives as if we have infinite time ahead of us. We waste our time and run after silly pursuits. When we internalise facts about death through analytical meditation, we realize the preciousness of life. We get a focus about the important things and start utilising our time accordingly. Vipassana is like a gym for the mind – the concepts and questions we pose to the mind acting as weights so as to strengthen it.
- Visualization: It is a type of analytical meditation in which the natural ability of the mind to think in images is used to create some experiences in the mind. It is a stepping stone to the actual human experience we are trying to manifest. For instance: In his swim career, Michael Phelps used visualization to see himself winning a race with every little detail that went into it before actually getting in the pool to race. It was not that visualization could take the place of hard training and discipline. What it did was prepare the mind to be in step with the body. We can also use visualization to motivate ourselves to do whatever we want by visualizing our desires in as much detail as possible. As part of one of the meditations, we visualized the Buddha sitting infront of us so as to seek his blessings. In another, we visualized walking through a forest imagining it in vivid detail. It was a stimulating experience to make a detailed mental picture. After doing the “walking in the forest meditation” mentioned above, I went outside the Gompa and looked around. It seemed that there were so many details of the surrounding forest which I was noticing for the first time. I wondered to myself things like, “So these tiny purple flowers were here this whole time and now is the first time I am noticing them?” When I went back in, we did another visualization with the forest and this time, I added many new details to it. I realized we miss so many details of our surroundings as we move through life because we are caught up in our thoughts. Since coming back from retreat, I have started noticing myself when I go into autopilot mode, especially while doing something mundane like brushing my teeth…which brings me to the next type..
- Mindfulness: This one means being mindful of the present moment. Our mind has the tendency to relive the past or worry about the future. But the past is gone and the future is not here yet. Because the present is all we have, this is an important meditation as it helps us be fully present in the moment. It further has four types depending on where we direct our attention in the present moment. Mindfulness of
- Emotions : being mindful of what we are feeling.
- Thoughts : being mindful of the thoughts passing through our head. When I mentioned resting awareness in the beginning, I was referring to this meditation- being aware of the thoughts as they come and go without getting involved in them.
- Physical sensations : being mindful of the physical sensations in the body. While sitting to meditate, we can start feeling pain or an itch in some part of body. The aim is to notice it ebb and flow and not really respond to it.
- Phenomena – Umm..I am not sure I grasped this completely. We didn’t use this much in our meditations. It’s something on the lines of being mindful of phenomena happening around us.
The first of the three meditation sessions every day was Shamatha right at the start of the day to build focus. After that, the other two meditation sessions were in the evening. They were meditations based on what was taught in the day. We were taught that the three steps to internalize something are listening, contemplation and meditation. So we listened everyday in our Buddhist philosophy class, then we contemplated on the topics in the group discussion and finally we meditated on these concepts.. For days 2-7, our days were scheduled in such a way that these three steps flowed in this order.
The evening meditations combined all the techniques. A session would usually start with shamatha for a few minutes to build focus, then move on to a topic such as anger. We would analyse the topic – how anger takes away our peace of mind by visualizing a situation in our life that made us angry. Then we would become mindful of the emotion and apply the antidotes to it – patience and loving kindness in case of anger. Similarly, we analyzed other concepts such as death, karma, attachment and its antidotes and so on.
We did a bouquet of meditations and the effect of each meditation varies from person to person. Each person has a unique mind and hence, unique challenges and opportunities. Someone could have a need to find focus in life (though I believe in our mobile phone and social media addicted world, everyone needs to learn the skill of focused attention!), while someone else could want to get rid of procrastination or attachment.
Obviously meditating just once on every topic is not enough, but continuous 10 days of meditations in a retreat do have an effect. The beauty of the retreat is that each person gets to experience all these meditations and can decide for herself which ones she needs to actualize her potential. Meditation is like any other skill that needs practise. The more we do it, the better we get at it. Once we learn how to meditate in retreat, we can build a meditation practise at home on our own. Of course, the meditation apps are just a playstore download away as and when needed!
P.S. Sharing the recordings of some of the meditation sessions :
- Meditation on death
- Meditation on antidotes to anger
- Meditation on developing equanimity
- Meditation on the mind (the one with visualization of the forest)
TO BE CONTD… Chapter-4