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Mindfulness meditation: It may be essential, but, boy, it isn't easy

Facing five days of mindfulness and meditation techniques at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, she's planning her escape. Will bliss be achieved?

March 30, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif., engages participants in the practice of mindfulness meditation. Sound easy? You'd probably be surprised.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif., engages participants… (Spirit Rock )

On the third day of silence and meditation, I said just 14 words, all of them in the course of chopping vegetables for dinner.

Days two, four and five were not much different.

I'm not the quiet type. But this was my idea. So earlier this year, I drove most of a day to reach Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County to immerse myself in the practice of mindful meditation. To be still, clear of worry over career, my teenage sons' futures, the renovations of our old house. To see whether I could stop -- just stop -- for five days and perhaps for a little bit each day afterward.

Not talking turned out to be easy.

Meditation, however, is hard work.

Defining 'mindfulness'

In the last decade or so, meditation has gone mainstream -- practiced by buttoned-down professionals, prison inmates, public school students, Hollywood celebrities, even the military and, reportedly, Bill Clinton. It's being studied by scientists for its effects on blood pressure, depression, pain and attention problems. In our racing-forward lives, we are reaching back thousands of years for wisdom about living.

There are hundreds of forms of meditation, but among the best known in the U.S. is mindfulness meditation, and that's what I embraced at Spirit Rock.

Diana Winston, who lived for a time as a Buddhist nun and now is director of education at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, defines it: "Paying attention to present moment experiences with open, curious attention and a willingness to be with what is."

Defining the vocabulary of meditation

It's spiritual but not religious – the way many people view their place in the universe these days. The idea is to gain clarity, wisdom and freedom, to end up feeling compelled to behave with integrity and compassion.

There were nearly 100 of us, who paid $460 to $885 (on a sliding scale) for the retreat called "Essential Dharma Meditation." Our days were scheduled from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. with sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, working meditation (chopping vegetables was my daily chore). No reading, no writing, no cellphones.

Getting started

Mark Coleman, one of my teachers at the retreat, says people typically arrive at Spirit Rock "exhausted [and] burned out." After a couple of days, "this gets exaggerated, because we start feeling how completely exhausted we are. But "people usually leave feeling buoyant, grounded, more clear. Brightness in their eyes. Body more upright."

When I checked in, I was assigned to a room with a twin bed, folding chair, bedside table and the smallest sink I've ever seen. I zeroed in on the only electronic item in the room and instantly thought to turn on NPR. But then I remembered: silence. It was just a clock, not a radio.

I felt apprehensive. I missed my husband. But I didn't miss my BlackBerry.

Walking outside, a few minutes before dinner, my worries were calmed by the rolling, grassy hills and the wide-open sky. At least the setting was beautiful.

Dear meditation diary: From doubtful to mindful

Meals were vegetarian, buffet style, simple but fresh and delicious. We bused our dishes, lining up two at a time to scrape every last bit for compost. One of the few sounds at meals was that particular clink of utensils hitting Corelle dinnerware. I especially appreciated the silence at this time: no pressure to chat about hometowns, jobs, families.

After dinner, we heard from the teachers at "dharma talks," lectures on the practice of meditation, the Buddha and the retreat itself. (While we yogis, as the teachers call us, were silent most of the time, the teachers were less so.)

We started our first sitting meditation with the direction to attend only to our breathing. If you lose track, teacher Howard Cohn said, just return to it, without judgment -- one of many easier-said-than-done instructions I heard during my five days of silence.

I breathed in, expanding my chest. Suddenly, I was sorting out details of a dinner I was giving when I got back to L.A. Oops. Back to the breath. One breath, maybe two, and my mind was off again, wondering about my son who was on a trip to Israel.

But I kept at it. After all, we came to tame the wayward children that our minds can often be.

I went to sleep the first night tired, uncertain. But unlike many nights in L.A., I stayed asleep.

Sinking into the slow

There are signs posted everywhere to preempt questions. Signs in the bathrooms about turning lights off, using scent-free soap and shampoo, taking out the trash. Signs in the rooms about how to clean up, closing doors quietly.

We woke up at 6 a.m. One morning, I laced my boots outside under a night sky still full of stars, the clouds almost obliterating a new moon. Wild turkeys gobbled. Another morning, we emerged into cold fog.

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