I started meditation because I felt like I was at a dead-end in my life. I was only twenty-three, but I had no idea why I was doing what I was doing or what I was going to do next, which may seem ridiculous because, at twenty-three, the world is your oyster. However, in my mind, I felt like I was spinning my wheels and had nowhere to go.
On my lunch break from a recruiting job that I saw no future in the February 2014 TIME magazine cover caught my eye: The Mindful Revolution - The science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.
I had discovered my ticket to somewhere. Anywhere.
My meditation journey started small. At home, I would sit on a pillow in my bedroom, listening to a five minute guided meditation from YouTube on my phone. Usually, around the two-minute mark, I would look at my alarm to see if the time was up yet. Silencing my mind did not come easy.
But gradually, I started to feel more comfortable with the silence. And eventually, I worked my way up to thirty-minute meditation sessions.
At work, I would book out a boardroom at lunch and complete my meditation session, hoping that no one would walk in and see me sitting alone in a chair with my eyes closed. The silence and calm over lunch provided the space I needed not only to declutter my mind about my personal life and goals but also energize me for the rest of my afternoon at work.
I started to research meet-ups in Calgary and joined one called Calgary Buddhist Meditation. I didn't know anyone in the group, so I awkwardly entered the room and sat down with a group of friendly people. Shirfu Samanta, a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies who has trained in Buddhism for over 40 years, was our teacher. He led us through the meditation with singing bowls and a very calm voice. It was a great compliment to my meditation experience to be in a room with people who were empowered to achieve a more significant meditation practice. His understanding of Buddhism and depth of meditation through experience were invaluable.
As I continued to meditate at work, my friend Cailen, who owns a yoga studio in Bragg Creek, The Heart, informed me of a one-day silent meditation retreat they were hosting. I eagerly signed up. If I could meditate for up to an hour now, what would a day be like?
With a room full of people, the guide led us through a day of sessions that were approximately an hour long. While my mind would often start to wander, there were periods where I entered very deeply into my meditative state. A place of blankness and thoughtless. But these were fleeting. Not to mention the fact that my knees and back would start to hurt from sitting cross-legged for hours at a time. Others seemed much better prepared with blankets, meditation cushions, and other props to decrease the physical pain of sitting in one position for so long. I knew I had something to learn.
Again, what I found at the end of this session was a clear-headedness and calm that I couldn't find anywhere else in my life. A groundedness that I lacked since leaving home, graduating from university, and trying to find my way in the "real world."
At this point, I had been practicing meditation for at least four months. And if you haven't noticed already, I'm not really a person who just dips their toes in. I'm an extremely curious person, so I have to learn everything about something until I'm satisfied. In this case, I also needed to understand the possibility of my meditation journey. And so, I continued.
Through Calgary Buddhist Meditation, I learned about a three-day meditation retreat they were putting on at a retreat center called Quantum Leaps in Golden. With incredibly nutritious meals and the option to sleep in a teepee by the river and at the foot of the mountains, I was hooked. Instead of going away camping and partying with my friends over the May long weekend, I was going on a meditation retreat.
This retreat was the strictest yet. There was to be no talking as well as no eye contact. Caffeinated drinks were discouraged.
We practiced Buddhist meditation while sitting on zafus with a singing bowl to bring us back to awareness. We also learned lessons about Buddhism from Shirfu. To break it up, we would practice a walking meditation in a labyrinth. Our focus was on our feet, placing one foot in front of the other in succession. It was nice to break up the sitting as my knees and hips would become extremely sore for sitting in one place for long periods.
I learned that for those that sit in chairs for long periods, in school or at work, sitting cross-legged is uncomfortable because the muscles of the body aren't used to it. However, over time and with practice, it was something that I eventually felt more comfortable doing.
Each night in the teepee, I had the most restful sleep, waking up refreshed. My eyes started to look brighter, and my skin more luminous. The mountain air and the lack of stimulation created a restful state for my mind and body to rejuvenate.
When I returned to work after the long weekend, my coworkers took note. A few asked me what had changed because I looked different. Maybe I also seemed mentally or emotionally different, as well.
I started to look at the roots of why meditation exists and why it continues to exist. Five thousand years is a very long time for something to prevail in society and be passed down through and across cultures.
Very quickly, I focused my curiosity on India. The birthplace of meditation. There was so much to learn here. I wanted to understand meditation from its root. Very often, western cultures take something from its root source and bend it to conform to what people here will like. Take HIIT yoga. An interesting concept and something that I'm sure is a great workout and fun to do but removes itself from the core principles of what yoga was initially intended to do for the mind, body and breath together.
I decided to quit my job and go to India for some time. Working in recruiting without any strong direction of where I wanted to go, I saved up money so that I could keep my options open. I chose to enroll at an ashram outside of Madurai in Southern India. I would fly to Mumbai to take the train south to arrive at the ashram in time to complete my Yoga Teacher Training. If I was going all the way to India, I was going all in.
With my life on my back in a backpack, I arrived in crazy Mumbai on Gandhi Jayanti or the International Day of Non-Violence. While I took my tuk-tuk to my hostel, fireworks exploded in the street and children rode with their mother and father on a single motorcycle. I had arrived in an incredibly chaotic place. This did not seem like the place for mindfulness to me!
While numerous adventures ensued on my travels throughout India, this blog is not the place for these stories. So I will skip these stories and fast-forward to my arrival at the Sivananda ashram in the jungle outside of Madurai.
The students arrived from all over the world, with half of the class from across India. We were all there to learn from the traditional yogic school of Sivananda.
I mention the ashram for this post on meditation because we learned several meditation techniques here. Two, in particular, stand out for me.
In one, we sat at 5 am and were instructed to stare at a candle for the duration of our meditation. Initially, I thought this to be strange, as the majority of my meditation experience was with my eyes closed. However, this (Tractaka) proved to be a simple way to calm the mind due to the mesmerizing nature a flame. Even if you've never practised Tractaka, you'll be familiar with the hypnotic lure of staring at a campfire.
The other type of meditation was the focus of repeating particular words or phrases of importance within the yogic tradition over and over again. The one that I remember vividly is the chanting of "om." Om is a sacred mantra in Hindu and Tibetan Buddhism. It is considered powerful; it is because it has 'a,' 'u,' and 'm' - sounds originating in the pit of your stomach, throat and mouth, respectively - and is supposed to be the sound of the Big Bang when the cosmos was created. For some reason, chanting om made me sweat profusely, while none of the other mantras had the same impact. It's not clear to me why this was.
Through practising yoga twice a day, I became quite strong and limber. I began to think about the impact this would have on my long meditation sessions.
Before leaving Canada, I had researched the many meditation possibilities available to study abroad. There were hundreds of options to choose from. I could study with Tibetan monks, at the Osho center in Pune, (which was already a controversial place before the release of Netflix's Wild, Wild Country), or at Amma ashram, home to the Hugging Saint. Among hundreds of others.
But what interested me the most was the Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreat. Throughout India, I spoke to many people who lauded the wonders of Vipassana. Some had uncles devastated by divorce, who returned after ten days of silence looking ten years younger and without the emotional weight they brought into the facility. I was curious as to the power of this meditation technique and length. What would I be like on the other end?
Vipassana is "insight into the true nature of reality." Before starting this journey, I read that Vipassana is the tradition carried down from the Buddha and that it is the technique he used to sit under the bodhi tree to become enlightened. It has been standardized and turned into a non-profit model that has seen meditation centers set up around the world, where payment for the retreat is how much you can donate.
I had read that this meditation retreat would be intense. But I wasn't prepared for what I experienced.
After arriving in a cab from Delhi, I found myself in the middle of the countryside outside of something that appeared to be a prison. It was called Dhamma Sota. Hundreds of people were registering for the retreat outside. To enter, you had to hand over all personal belongings, including all electronics, books, paper and writing materials. Passports were to be submitted to reduce your likelihood of trying to escape.
Once we entered the facility, we were not allowed to make eye contact. We were not allowed to talk. And exercise was not permitted during the ten days. Exercise was a distraction from the inner work that Vipassana would help you achieve. Caffeine was prohibited, and all the meals were vegetarian.
The retreat was standardized for ultimate effectiveness. To achieve this, all recordings were done by S.N. Goenka, the founder of the centers. So the sitting meditation practitioners learn the technique from audio and video recordings.
The practise of Vipassana is a technique whereby you sit in a cross-legged position on a cushion and with your eyes closed, scan how each part of your body feels. Inch by inch, the meditator focuses the mind on paying attention to any sensations felt — for example, an itch or pain. Rather than physically react to the sensation, the practitioner must focus on the pain and analyze it until it goes away.
The meditators wake up every day at 4 am and go to the meditation hall. I found this extremely difficult at first. I kept nodding off while I sat, but over time I found I needed less and less sleep.
What was more difficult was ten hours a day spent in a seated position. Despite my yoga practise, by day five, my body, specifically my hips and knees, were in extreme pain. After every hour or hour and a half, we could have a break for breakfast or supper. Or, we had the opportunity to take advantage of the 15 litres of hot water we were allocated per day to shower. The water was administered from a faucet into a bucket, so you had to wash yourself carefully with a ladle.
The center itself was surrounded by a tall brick wall, which was topped off with broken bottles and barbed wire. Apparently, this was to keep outsiders out. I wasn't so sure.
My meditation experience was intense. While I continually tried to scan my body, my mind would wander. Initially, it was to memories of my trip so far, or to things that I had been doing back home. But over time, the memories started going deeper and deeper. To things I had forgotten from my childhood to fights with friends, to think I wanted to forget. All of it was being dredged up from the bottom of my subconscious. At times I wanted to cry before I would refocus my mind back to the task at hand.
There were times when I thought of giving up and leaving. Was I insane to have chosen to be here? To put myself in this voluntary prison with no one to talk to or even make eye contact with? But I couldn't give up - I needed to see what was on the other side of the ten days.
Around day eight, the silence, lack of eye contact, small "showers," and pain started to normalize. I was becoming accustomed to the daily routine.
On day ten, we wrapped up. All meditators were shown a documentary by two Israeli women about a prison in India that implemented Vipassana with their inmates and saw a profound decrease in violence. The impact this could have for so many individuals who had grown up in traumatic environments was a fascinating and hopefull opportunity to me for society to learn from.
Being released back into the world was like being reborn. Everything was fresh and new. The sounds of driving back into the city. Speaking to the cab driver ever so slowly. Feeling overwhelmed by the volume of traffic and noise. Meeting up with my friends and having a hard time articulating myself because it was hard to put my thoughts into words quickly.
Everything had slowed down.
My mind felt fresh. My spirit felt light. I felt focused and calm. I was able to understand my thoughts as they arose, rather than feel overwhelmed by a thousand passing by at once.
Since my Vipassana experience, I've recommended it to everyone. Not only to calm down the mind and process your thoughts and emotions in an environment without distractions but also from a willpower perspective. Because if you can sit in silence for ten hours a day in pain without breaking away from what may feel like a prison, I think you'll have developed the willpower to do just about anything consistently.
With this mediation journey under my belt, I returned to Canada. It was a hard transition to go from life in chaotic India with spurts of time spent in ashrams and meditation, to mainstream life at home in Calgary.
Today, I don't practise meditation consecutively (although I go through periods), nor do I practise it to the same level of intensity that Vipassana taught me. However, I do use meditation as a tool for when I feel overwhelmed and unable to process my thoughts and emotions. Sitting in silent meditation for fifteen minutes helps to reset the mind as well as priorities and focus.
Since the start of my meditation journey, there have been a proliferation of apps that have made meditation extremely accessible. These include headspace, insight timer and even Spotify. And there are hundreds of methods to practise meditation. There is something for everyone! Whether you need help sleeping, with anxiety, or as a way to calm your thoughts, you can find what you need from the instructor who delivers it.
I want to hear from you! Have you meditated? How far along on your meditation journey are you?