I was at a silent meditation course recently where one commits to noble silence, i.e. silence of the body, speech, and mind. The goal is to cultivate inward attention so you don’t speak, write, read, touch another human or make eye contact for the duration of the course. The days start at 4am and end at 9:30pm alternating between individual sits, group sits, and breaks to eat and move in silence. A gong is sounded to indicate a break. It’s the purest form of silence possible while being in community.
For the individual sits, one can meditate in their room or the meditation hall. Since this was my second time, I knew individual sits in my room made me sleepy or lax. So I pledged to meditate in the hall even for my individual sits. It was the right call–my focus was better and my practice deepened. Not once did I feel the need to get up before the gong was struck. It wasn’t very hard this time; just hard. I did what I could everyday while paying no attention to others, as was the goal. Until the last day when I heard someone getting up and leaving the hall mid-way. Then another person and then another only to realize that I was the only one left. The hall is relatively empty during individual sits as most people prefer to meditate in their rooms. I had a general awareness but until this day, I didn’t pay much attention to when people came and left. Perhaps a part of me was pleased with how well I’d stuck to my intention so I started noting others. This awareness was top of mind in the next sit and in addition to the mental and physical fluctuations, there was a very clear outward focus on others and when they might leave. When they started filtering out, I noted. I also noted my desire to get up and walk out in the sunshine, to stretch my legs and breathe in the fresh air, just like them. Then the course came to an end and I left with the hope to wake up earlier in my everyday life. I thought if I could manage 4am during the course, I could certainly do 5am when back home. I came home to find a husband who had taxing work week so he needed to sleep in. He slept in and so did I, even though my week wasn’t taxing.
Yes, we are social creatures and this natural osmosis gives us the flexibility to thrive and grow with others. But this strength can become a deficit if we’re not careful; especially when we start anchoring our internal commitments to others’ external actions. We may have clarity around what we want to do in our short life, until we see someone else living differntly. A bit here and a bit there and before we know it, our life feels alien.
The phrase “eyes in your boat” helps redirect attention quickly. It’s a pithy directive I first heard while dragonboating and rowing. In both sports, efficient movement requires a team of people to move in complete unison. Any minor distraction and you feel an immediate impact in the next stroke. So you focus on your own stroke while mirroring the motion of the person right in front of you. When your mind wanders to a competing boat, a beautiful bird, or anything else, the coach will instantly nudge you back with this phrase. It has been helpful to me when I get distracted by worry, fear or judgment. It prevents me from sliding on the slippery slope of mindless imitation. Try it.
“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”— Chögyam Trungpa: Tibetan Buddhist meditation master