The morning schedule is exactly the same up until breakfast (45 minutes of chanting, 1 hour of sitting meditation, 1 hour of physical exercise), so things are feeling pretty mundane, though I have far more motivation than usual. There’s a let’s do this quality to each sit, rather than the usual let’s get through this so that the rest of the day can start quality. It feels exciting, but also peaceful. There’s literally nothing else to do for the rest of the week but get to know my mind better. How cool is that?
Halfway through the afternoon, and I’m getting annoyed. Everyone around me is shuffling around so much. Why are they constantly moving? We’re supposed to sit still. Come on. I have so much motivation. You’re ruining it.
Whoa. Okay. These are just sensory experiences. The shuffling is happening, you can’t change that, but you don’t have to get annoyed by it.
But they should know better! Why aren’t they more disciplined?
These are thoughts. Go back to following your breath. What does it feel like? Where do you feel it?
It’s in my nostrils. It feels cold and sharp and – fuck, I can’t follow my breath when there’s so much noise everywhere!
Why not? If the wind was blowing, would you be annoyed by the wind?
No, but the wind doesn’t have agency. It would be silly to be annoyed by the wind. But people can choose their behaviour. Why are they choosing to shuffle? We’re in retreat!
You are not annoyed by the sensory experience you are having. You are annoyed by the thoughts you’re having around them.
Yes, and they’re reasonable thoughts. Rationally, if these noises weren’t happening, I would have an easier time following my breath and the momentum of my practice would be better.
Correct. And completely irrelevant. The noises are happening, and now you’re creating completely unnecessary misery on top of it. The other people are creating the noise. You’re creating the misery.
It’s much easier to stay with my breath today. I’m experimenting with different techniques. Normally I count to ten breaths and then start again at one. I very rarely accidentally go past ten, which I took to mean that my concentration was pretty good, but today I experiment with it by switching the number to 5, or 7, and I consistently go past it. I guess I just got accustomed to counting to ten, and could start doing it mindlessly.
I think I have to accept that my concentration sucks. I’m not a very good meditator.
Okay, great. Gotta start somewhere. And then re-start and re-start and re-start.
[I’m being facetious about not being a good meditator. There’s no such thing. As long as you’re trying to do a technique, you’re doing it right. And every time you notice you’re not doing the technique, you are strengthening the concentration muscle. That’s literally the point. Sometimes the meditations where you’re most “distracted” are the most useful ones. It’s like doing a rep at the gym.]
I’m also experimenting with counting on the in-breath, or the out-breath, or both. I’m trying to feel my breath in my nostrils, or in my chest, or in my belly. The entire day is experimentation.
I get into a strange daydream during one of the sitting periods, and every time I try to go back to my breath I get pulled back into the daydream, so after a while I let it happen and try to observe it. It combines two of the biggest anxieties I’ve had lately, and it doesn’t take long before I start crying. I cry for most of the period, but when the bell rings the daydream just stops, and doesn’t come back. Strange.
I feel incredibly stiff most of the day. Somehow I didn’t think about the fact that sitting still all day would result in a lot of physical pain. I decide to take one of my walking periods outside, despite the cold, so that I can walk more vigorously than I would be comfortable doing inside. My body feels remarkably better afterwards.
In the evening, I have my interview with Soryu. I tell him about my experimentation. He tells me it seems that I’m starting to notice my breath. He shares the parable of the mustard seed, a story from the Christian Bible – he somehow tends to know many stories from many different religions and schools of thought (spiritual and secular alike). As someone who wasn’t raised with religion and is pretty comfortable with her atheism, I find these stories interesting, but also distant. I listen with curious detachment.
The mustard seed is the smallest seed, he says, but it grows into the largest herb. Right now, with the experimentation I’m doing, with the interest I’m showing towards my breath, I’m planting my mustard seed. “Small is significant,” he says.
I walk back to my cushion, beaming.
I’m going to pause here for a second to explain a little bit about why focusing on the breath is important.
Well, first: it isn’t.
There’s nothing particularly special about the breath as a focus space. Plenty of people use entirely different objects of focus – external sounds, internal talk, the feeling of the palms of your hands, the taste in your mouth, and so on. The type of meditation that’s generally talked about in the western world is, most simply, an exercise in attention. In this, it is twofold: training the ability to sustain attention on an object of focus, and training the ability to notice distractions and return attention to the object of focus when it strays from it.
So, when I say something like “These are thoughts. Go back to following your breath” as I did above, the point isn’t that thoughts are bad and the breath is good. The point is that I have chosen my object of focus for this duration, and anything that isn’t my object of focus is something that I am trying to not put focus on.
Incidentally, thought-space can also be an object of focus. In fact, this is what I’m working toward, but I know that my concentration is not developed enough to be able to maintain focus on my thoughts without getting carried away by the thoughts themselves. The point is to be able to have more control over whether to go down a thought-path or not.
And by the way, I love daydreaming. It’s one of my favourite activities, and I find it genuinely helpful and even healing. I have no intention of ridding myself of daydreams, or of abstract undirected thought. I just don’t want to be a slave to it.
It’s actually pretty odd to me how little focus our society puts on mental training. Sure, we have schools and universities, we have plenty of ways of transmitting information (and that’s awesome) but there is almost no training on understanding how minds work, or what thoughts are, or the relationships between stimuluses and responses inside us.
This is a large part of why I meditate. It’s the most intensive form of mental training I’m aware of.