In my early twenties, I was obsessed with the idea of a regular meditation practice. Trying a different technique every week, I was convinced that it would be the key to a more productive and grateful life. Following months of guided mediation apps, group sittings, and YouTube videos playing tranquil music, I remained unfocused and in physical pain while meditating. The final straw came when I attempted to meditate lying on a yoga mat right before bed, only to wake up around 3am with my face resting in a pile of drool.
Fifteen hours a day
I didn't have the discipline to meditate daily and abandoned all efforts to meditate for years—until 2016, when I attended a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Vietnam practicing Vipassana meditation, a technique focusing on your breath while mentally scanning the sensations in every inch of your body.
Students were prohibited from reading, writing, exercising, speaking, and any other distraction that would take away from our practice. Several people quit within the first three days, as the rigorous schedule consisted of mandatory group sittings from 4am to 9pm, with only short meal breaks in between. During the first few days, I would do anything but meditate. Fidgeting on my cushion for about 15 hours a day, I was in excruciating pain every second I tried to maintain my posture. It was an endless battle that I constantly lost.
Everything comes and goes
One day, the instructor spoke about the law of impermanence: the idea that everything comes and goes, so we should never cling to the highs and lows in our daily lives. I learned how focusing on physical pain during meditation magnifies the pain until it becomes unbearable and we are forced to break our meditative state. But if we acknowledge the pain and let it pass, it will drift away to the point where we don’t feel it anymore.
The instructor said achieving equanimity would require strong determination and willpower. My athletic brain activated and I became determined to maintain my position for the full hour. After feeling the familiar shooting pain arise, I took a deep breath, acknowledged the pain, and let it go. I managed to sit through the entire hour without breaking my meditative state or posture, and it was euphoric! Even for chronic pain sufferers, adjusted seating options can make it possible to maintain a balanced meditative state for hours.
Why I cried
With 10 days of mental solitude, many revelations rose to the surface of my mind. Most importantly, I learned how strong the mind is and how meditating exercises and strengthens the mind. On the final day of the retreat, our vow of silence was broken and I wept tears of gratitude. I cried because I had confronted many of my demons and I now knew that I could overcome them. Although my home mediation practice has been sporadic the past four years, the knowledge and strength that I gained in that mediation hall in Vietnam will stay with me forever. Every time I sit down on my meditation cushion, I am reminded of my mental fortitude and it brings me peace.
In my experience, meditating regularly is key. You can’t expect its benefits to work only when you desperately need it. Maintaining a daily practice will keep the muscle of your mind strong. Here are four tips that help me:
Try to meditate at the same time every day.
Set up a small nook where you can meditate, and decorate it with things that bring you peace, like plants or art.
Use a candle, incense, or essential oil diffuser at the start of each sitting. The scent will act as a mental signal that it’s meditation time.
End each sitting by setting an intention. I like to press my palms together, bring them to my forehead and internally repeat the words, think positive thoughts, then bring my hands to my mouth and say out loud, speak kind words, followed by placing my hands at my heart and saying, love wholeheartedly and compassionately. I end by bowing and saying Namaste before opening my eyes to start my day.
An art, not an escape
S.N. Goenka, a Burmese Indian teacher of Vipassana meditation, believes that meditation is not an escape, but rather an art of living: “Living in peace and harmony with oneself, and generating peace and harmony for all others,” I read in a DIY pamphlet that came along with my Vietnamese retreat. If you’ve ever been curious about meditation, but never felt there was enough time in your hectic schedule, now is as good a time as any to give meditation a shot.
It’s not going to miraculously fix all your problems or put you in a good mood all day, but meditation will bring you valuable clarity and mental strength. During a crisis—like a global pandemic—the knowledge that your mind is powerful beyond measure will secure you through hard times. When so much uncertainty surrounds us, trust in your mind’s ability to achieve equanimity and accept the law of impermanence.
Visit here to learn more about Vipassana meditation and free secular retreats held worldwide.