A cynic meets zen

In a moment of foolhardy vulnerability brought on by off-the-chart stress levels, I allowed a psychologist friend to book me and himself into a four-day Buddhist meditation retreat. Normally I’d turn my nose up at anything with the merest whiff of new age or alternative medicine about it, but we’re talking dire straits here.

And besides, recently conventional medicine has looked with greater kindness on the practice of meditation. Articles appear in Odyssey, but now also in New Scientist, about its health benefits.

I reckoned: western science has given meditation a grudging nod. And the meditation crack troops are surely to be found in the ranks of Tibetan Buddhism.

This is how I found myself way out of my comfort zone and two hours outside Cape Town, stuck at the Kagyu Cape Mountain Retreat near Villiersdorp, admittedly a beautiful spot which, with its early spring fynbos flowers and snow-speckled blue mountains, reminded our meditation teacher a lot of Tibet. His name was Clive and he came across more like a daffy English country parson than the mysterious guru of eastern persuasion I’d been imagining, but I reminded myself sternly it was just that kind of un-zen judgemental attitude that had landed me here in the first place.

Not a vacation resort
Lodging was distinctly unglamorous, with ten meditators packed into a small farm building called “The Cow House”; meals vegetarian and teetotal; and the schedule fairly Spartan:

Pre-dawn: woken by gong. Stagger from sleeping quarters through darkness and mud to meditation room. Seated meditation. Walking meditation.

- 7h00: Breakfast and banal conversation with co-acolytes.

- 15-minute walk to boma. Meditation. Tea. Meditation. Walk back to Cow House for lunch.

- 12h00: Lunch. More banal conversation.

- Rest period

- Early afternoon: Walk to boma. Meditation. Tea. Meditation. Back to Cow House.

- 19h00: Supper

- Chanted prayers in meditation room.

- 22h00: Lights out. Scoffing of private stash of snacks. Attempt to visualise a lotus closing as you pass out.

But it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds. And the meditation was, well, pretty enlightening.

The mind is like a monkey
Clive informed the neophytes among us that, when you first start meditating, “The mind is like a monkey.” Actually it is more like a barrel of monkeys on amphetamines. Or a mad bat trapped in a belfry.

This is because the average mind has done pretty much what it pleases its entire life – which generally means orgiastic fantasising, working itself into a lather of anxiety, and trying to soothe or stimulate itself with drugs, carbohydrate overload and mind-rotting television marathons. The unchecked mind is a wilful, over-indulged child, and introducing it to the discipline of meditation is bound to bring on the sulks.

The aim of mindfulness meditation, the type taught at Kagyu, is to still the mind by clearing it of its clutter of intrusive, distracting, stress-inducing thoughts, and focusing it instead on the here-and-now: the intake and release of breath, the dance of dust motes in sunlight, the sound of birdsong outside.

The challenge is to let go of what Clive referred to as the “subjective mental melodrama”, and trade it in for a less obsessively self-involved, less fraught state.

A seemingly simple idea, but less straightforward to achieve. Early attempts by the occidental brain not to think so much feel a bit like seeing how long you can hold your breath.

And it doesn’t help to charge into the challenge of meditation in guns-blazing competitive mode: I will be the best meditator in the class! Followed by self-chastising when you fail. The mental tone to use on yourself as those thoughts intrude is not a bellowed "Stop that!" but more the gentlest of admonishments, as you would use on an unruly, but entirely forgivable and lovable puppy.

Mindfulness meditation 101: getting into the zone
The pose: as you might expect, it’s the classic seated cross-legged one, but you don’t have to do any uncomfortable contortions, and there are cushions available.
Sit up straight, “as if gently tugged at the top of your head by a silken cord”, and tuck your chin in slightly.
Place your hands in your lap, one cradling the other.
Close your eyes if you wish.
Smiling is permitted.

The session’s start was marked by Clive sounding a gong. Then, there were various techniques to get you “in the zone”.

Sound meditation
You simply open your ears to the sounds around you, and even in the quietest retreat there will be plenty, from the gurgles of your own digestive tract to the wind in the grass outside. The beauty of this is you can follow the sounds, but you can’t control them. As thoughts arise in your monkey-mind, you do an internal tut-tut, tell yourself with a mental finger-wag: "Think-inggg…" and then return your attention to a distant hadeda call or the creak of the pine floorboards as your neighbour shifts his haunches.

Picture a river, or a carnival, flowing or passing by. As thoughts - good or bad - enter your mind, visualise them either rising up in the river (e.g. a giant soggy piece of cheese cake) or travelling past in the carnival procession (your boss with a whip). They come, you calmly acknowledge them, and you let them go. You don’t try to suppress them, you merely acknowledge them and just... let them go. You can think about them later, in a comfy armchair with a cup of tea.

Posture variants
Sitting meditation can sometimes be relieved with Lying-Down meditation: every rookie’s favourite. Same procedure as the sitting form, just more comfy. Dangerously comfy. Falling asleep during Lying-Down meditation is pretty much an inevitability for a stressed-out urbanite who has been woken by a gong before dawn. If you do go to sleep, however, try not to do so as I did, muttering and groaning (apparently), and answering the call to “‘imagine the golden ball of light moving down through the top of your head” with a muttered “No. NO!” and some resonant snoring. I woke to the sound of the rest of the class tittering, and Clive exhorting them to "Breathe out the golden light and wish happiness and freedom from suffering for everyone on this course...whether asleep or awake".

Walking meditation is another variant. It involves pacing ve-e-ry slowly around the room, eyes front, taking care not to collide with other walkers. You focus on really feeling every footfall on the floor, as the instructor repeats in a mild, measured, soporific voice: “Each step is like the first step. You’re lifting, placing, shifting the weight. One leg is empty, one leg is full. Lifting, placing, shifting the weight.”

Is it worth it?
There was plenty here to make a jaded sceptic squirm, rebel and give in to sniggering at a 2000-year-old world religion. I flatly refused to join my palms together and intone “may all beings be happy etc” at the end of every session, and baulked at literal praying to multicoloured deities levitating on lotuses (though these are appealingly trippy to visualise).

But in fact these are minor considerations compared with the benefits of meditation instruction. Even done half-heartedly by a black-hearted agnostic, meditation has extraordinary power to tame the gibbering monkey and lower those blood-pressure stats.

And poking fun at Buddhists is a total waste of energy in any case. You can be as sarcastic and irreverent as you like, and they’ll still just find you mildly amusing. (Actually, there’s a risk they might find you hysterically funny.) Anyone who’s heard the Dalai Lama speak will attest to this: he seems to be in on some uproarious universal joke that the rest of us just don’t quite catch.

At the end of the day, there you are with your precious western selfhood intact – as well as your stress levels and sweating the small stuff and wanting to sneak out of the retreat and drive 100km in the middle of the night because you can’t last 24 hours without a drink. And there they are, gently smiling, or chortling even. It may be cloying sometimes; a lot of it may even be complete nonsense, but it’s not a half-bad way to go about things.

Obstacles on the path to enlightenment
A retreat can ironically be fraught with anxieties and irritations that can spoil the experience. Don’t let this happen:

1. Go by yourself or with a companion who is not inclined to nervous giggling. And sit far apart from each other. Otherwise, statements such as "Oh glorious root lama seated on the crown of my head on a lotus on a moon” will lead to that desperate, barely-repressed hysteria last experienced in childhood.

2. Choose a retreat that features Noble Silence. This wonderful invention means NO TALKING in between meditation/prayer sessions, not even "please pass the salt". Otherwise you risk exposure to a lot of tiresome small talk. Also big talk, which can be even worse. Staying too quiet just draws unwanted attention to yourself, so you end up babbling excruciating new-agey things about the stars and rainbows.

3. If you are unaccustomed to a purely vegetarian diet, you need to prepare yourself for an increase in greenhouse gas production and the accompanying anxiety of how to repress this in meditation class. No one embarrassed themselves this way on my retreat (at least not audibly), but the internal struggle was at times a serious distraction.

4. Take long solitary walks. This gives you a breathing space from your fellow-meditators, and is useful for resolving greenhouse gas issues.

5. Take snacks if you think the sudden change to vegetarianism will make you hopelessly tetchy. But if you decide to leave the half-jack and moist biltong slices at home, don’t waste energy fretting about them. Let them go.

What’s the damage?
The retreat was inexpensive (about R500) which reassured me that it was less likely to be a brainwashing cult aimed at fleecing the unsuspecting. And one does not pay for the meditation instruction; there is a locked box called the Dana into which you put a donation commensurate with how much you benefited from the experience.

I did wonder whether disgruntled participants ever removed money from the Dana, but that was a thought that I watched rise up in the murky river of my mind, viewed with calm disapproval, and let go.

Is meditation really good for you?
Over the last few years there’s been growing excitement about meditation’s healing powers, especially as regards heart disease, anxiety disorders and chronic pain.

But the latest reputable scientific paper on meditation was a bit of a downer, to be honest. Canadian researchers at the University of Alberta analysed 813 studies on the health effects of meditation, and came to the deflating conclusion that there was no real evidence to support such claims. It seems that the main problem was that many of the meditation studies were too poorly designed to carry real scientific authority.

But there’s plenty of hard evidence to support the theory that stress contributes to ill-health, and that relaxation techniques are an essential tool in combating this bane of modern life. So any technique that can cause a strung-out urban refugee to fall blissfully asleep in a roomful of annoying strangers is certainly worth a try.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, September 2007

For more information on the Kagyu Cape Mountain retreat, call 021 762 6210. Kagyu also holds retreats and meditation courses in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Groot Marico.

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