This article originally appeared in our November/December 2006 issue, The Present Moment: How Can We Get There & How Can We Stay?
I'm flying from Los Angeles to Boston for a week-long meditation retreat, and I'm feeling nervous. For the next seven days, I'll be sitting in silence with 100 other scientists at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, at an event sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, an organization devoted to the scientific study of mindfulness and compassion. The event is unique: when before have 100 scientists, most of whom specialize in studying the brain, gathered together to sit in silence for a week and learn "mindfulness meditation"?
I know that teaching mindful awareness to people can markedly improve their physical and mental well-being. At the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, we recently conducted an eight-week pilot study that demonstrated that teaching meditation to people, including adults and adolescents with genetically loaded conditions like ADHD, could markedly reduce their level of distraction and impulsivity.
Still, I have no background in meditation, my mind is always busily running on at least 10 cylinders, and I've never been known for my taciturnity.
Scientists in Silence
As a psychiatrist interested in the brain and relationships, I can't help wondering what will take over the language-processing areas of my left hemisphere when they, presumably, become silent during meditation? Words are digital packets of information that convey to ourselves and others our models of conceptual reality---how we see and think about the world. They're part of the brain's top-down apparatus for ordering and making sense of incoming sensory information.
But then I think of poetry---a different use of language, which inhibits the strictly hierarchical, top-down, left-brain processes organizing our raw experience into a preconceived grid. Poetry, like silence, creates a new balance of memory and moment. Our ordinary language can be a prison, locking us in the jail of our own redundancies, dulling our senses, clouding our focus. By evoking imagery, poets and their poetry offer us fresh, novel possibilities for experiencing life.
Perhaps the silence of this week will do the same for me.
I arrive at the Insight Meditation Society, where we'll be spending the week together. After a brief dinner, tour, assignments of daily cleaning duties, and an introductory talk, we've already begun the silence. The form of mindfulness we'll be learning this week comes from the 2,500-year-old Buddhist practice of Vipassana meditation, which is often translated as "clear seeing."
On the first day, we learn to sit in the meditation hall with the brief instructions to merely "watch our breathing." This capacity to focus attention is the first step of mindful-awareness training. When we notice our attention has wandered away from the breath, the instructions tell us, we're to gently return our focus of attention to the breath. That's it. Over and over again. I feel relieved. How hard can this be?
But by the end of the first day of practicing this concentration aspect of the meditation, my confidence level has definitely plummeted. I thought I had what the instructors call "good attention," but, in fact, my mind is repeatedly not cooperating with the instructions to "just focus on the breath." After a few moments, it seems I can barely make it through an entire breath without having my mind pulled toward different thoughts like a dog zigzagging on a walk, drawn this way and that by enticing scents along the path.
The "solution" to this dilemma, once we become aware that our minds have been hijacked by stray thoughts, is to calmly return to focusing on our breath, over and over and over---at least a million times, it seems to me, during the 45-minute session of sitting meditation.
Our instructions are expanded more as this first full day goes on. We learn that concentration on the breath will enhance the first step of mindfulness, which is to aim and sustain our attention. By learning to keep our attention focused, we can prevent the constant stream of wayward thoughts, the concepts that comprise our mental processes and get in the way of truly experiencing sensations.
This first day has been both odd and stressful. Being in silence and out of direct communication with anyone makes me feel a bit stir-crazy. I'm driven to connect, but we're "forbidden" from communicating with anyone, with words or gestures, eye contact or facial acknowledgments of connection. This is the rule that precludes us from joining in any way, and I feel some part of my brain is aching to reach out to the many who are here. I'm beginning to talk to myself, not just in my head, but out loud. I'm even telling myself jokes and laughing. Then I say "Shhh!" to myself, remembering the rule about the noble silence: no communication with anyone. But how about with myself?
During the practice I try to remember what I told myself before this began: make every breath an adventure. Now I say to myself, "Every half breath an adventure."
This blog is excerpted from “A Week of Silence” Read the full article here. >>
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