Suppose you had the opportunity to free yourself from all worldly responsibilities for ten days. You have a room in a quiet, secluded retreat, free from all disturbances. All your basic needs would be met at no cost to you. The only rules you’d need to follow are a vow of silence and spending the vast majority of your waking hours with your eyes closed. Would you accept?
I believe that nourishing the body is fruitless is you don't also nourish the mind. I'd attended many a buddhist retreat as a navel gazing youth, leading me eventually to spending a year's sabbatical in an Indian ashram in my late 20's. If it all sounds a bit Eat, Pray, Love, well, in truth it was.
These days the buzz word is mindfulness. Boardrooms, thought leaders and celebrities all adhere to the mindful mantra.
Meditation can be viewed in scientific terms for its effects on the mind and the body. During meditation, a marked increase in blood flow slows heart rate, blood pressure drops to within normal ranges and recent research indicates that meditation can boost the immune system and reduce free radicals, in effect, a slowing down of the ageing process.
And that's not all. Less stress, better sleep, insight and self-awareness.
Scientists tell us we use only a fraction of the capability of our minds – a mere 10%. The rest they say is hidden under the mysterious blanket of the subconscious. I thought that an experience of 10 days of silent meditation might gift me a peek underneath the covers.
I had dabbled in meditation solely at the end of my trendy yoga classes so choosing a technique was based solely on practicalities. My retreat was called ‘Vipassana.’ It was free, non-religious, it sounded painless and it was said to be the technique used by Buddha to gain enlightenment. Enlightenment seemed too lofty a goal so I opted for “less mind, more soul”, a classic 21st century crisis.
A bumpy journey in a shabby rickshaw took me to a tiny hamlet at the foot the sacred river Ganges. Concrete beds, cold water and sparse food were all part of the experience designed to remove the shackles of the ego. Apparently, behind the sensations of cold, hunger and pain (you try sitting still for several hours) was the real experience of self.
Several days passed; was I losing my mind or meeting it? My image of blissful navel gazing was never more than wishful thinking. The Vipassana technique is designed to guide you towards the observation of the ultimate reality – your reality - but the first days were the biggest feat of endurance I'd ever undergone. Forget marathon training and instead try sitting still eight hours a day. I've done both and I can honestly say, hard as it was, the marathon was a walk in the park compared to doing nothing at all.
On the fifth day of my exile I felt as if my life was turned inside out. In my mind I re-lived my life from the point of view of others, directly experiencing the emotions they felt as a result of my actions. Painful as it was, I had become the observer.
From that point onwards my time was peppered with moments unexplainable in scientific terms - how is it possible to feel the hard ground beneath yet with a certainty that “I” was entirely separate? Visions came that I would later discover had been written about since ancient times as signals that the psychic self has been awoken from slumber.
It was possible for periods of time during meditation to go beyond pain, or somehow it felt more like going through it, and out the other side.
Back in my rational self I reflect that at different moods and emotions affect the brain stem as it has direct links with the part of the brain that is responsible for thoughts, emotions and interpretation. There are certain parts of the brain stem that control the body’s natural pain control system. When activated they produce chemicals (opiates) which can inhibit the pain messages. In other words, it is known that negative mind states can inhibit natural pain control and positive mind states can improve it. But my experience was way beyond this textbook explanation.
I had always thought about meditation as an escape, an indulgent way to withdraw from ‘real’ life. However, my experience was that mediation was a headlong, full-throttle journey towards reality, rather than away from it.
Now, more than a decade on, I still believe however that meditation allows us to feel more clearly what truly matters to us and I consider those 10 days amongst the most important I've ever lived.
The demands and the immediacy of modern technology mean that in so many ways our lives have sped up. Mindfulness and mediation are not simply about slowing down, but about becoming more aware of our own minds and our own bodies and the world around us.
Mindfulness or meditation is simple but it isn't easy, it takes effort and practice. The concept of learning how to pay attention by noticing something as fundamental as your own breathing is incredibly simple but it does take effort and practice to really make a difference.
For me, the all-in approach was the only way to learn the technique. Don't worry, there are plenty ways to go about it. Try the 5 minute routine below for starters.
The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation.
Sit and relax - Choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. You can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If you wish, sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep your back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy – many people just fall asleep when they first try to meditate!
Focus on your breathing - Sit with your eyes partially or fully closed, whatever feels more natural, and turn your attention to your breathing. Breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control your breath, and try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. Odd as it may seem at first, try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
At first, your mind will be very busy. In reality you are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is – probably for the first time! There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but try to resist, even for a few minutes, and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If you discover that your mind has wandered and is following your thoughts, simply concentrate immediately on your breathing. Repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.
Try for 5 minutes to begin with, moving up to a time that feels comfortable for you. When I first studied meditation I did this breathing technique for 8 hours, for the first five days of a 10-day mediation course. It was extreme but I did ‘get it’ in the end. The next 5 days were much easier once I learned not to chase down thoughts or chastise myself for getting it ‘wrong.’ Joyfully, there is no ‘wrong’ in meditation. Just practice.