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Vipassana meditation: Refocusing the mind

An insect clung to the top of a blade of grass with six miniscule claws. Its green and white body was the length of my fingernail and barely any thicker. I grinned and my heart beat faster — this was such a find. For days, I had not spoken, written, read, made meaningful gestures or used electronics. Call it heightened senses or lower standards, but seeing that bug made my afternoon.

I was at the Vipassana meditation retreat, a course offered on a donation basis at over 120 locations worldwide, including Massachusetts, where I was. In Buddhist traditions, Vipassana means insight into the true reality of life. Wherever the course is taken, the structure is the same: 10 hours of meditation a day for 10 days. This, I had felt sure, would give me a handle on the ultimate determinant of my happiness: my mind. Vipassana, I had hoped, would give me the control necessary to be confident, productive and peaceful.

On the other hand, the schedule for the retreat was daunting: Wake up at four in the morning, two hours of meditation, breakfast, three hours of meditation, lunch, four hours of meditation, snack, one hour of meditation, taped lecture, one hour of meditation. This could practically give me supe powers, I had thought, but yikes, 10 hours a day?

After about a month of debate, I had said to myself, it’s only 10days. 10 days comes and goes. You get wrapped up in what you’re doing, and then you look up to see the end is alreadyapproaching. Sure it will be hard, but the end will be close as soon as it begins. I signed up.

There was a problem with my calculation: The days I had known were measured in hours or larger chunks. A bowl or two of cereal and some Internet  wandering had regularly devoured my entire morning. A David Byrne CD and Internet backgammon had often made large swathes of afternoon disappear like smoke. If I wasn’t being social on a particular evening, it had been nothing a burrito and a Mets game couldn’t handle. I had been used to time vanishing like thinly spread water.

In silence, however, with no conversation, with no tasks to accomplish, with no television, music or Internet, with the narrowing of my experience to include my own mind and very little else, time barely had any obligation to move at all.

The first third of the course developed awareness for the minutest sensations that exist as background noise throughout our bodies all the time. We were instructed to focus all of our attention on the square of skin between the nose and upper lip. At times, I felt that my entire world existed in the space of a short mustache. I experienced the mustache area as gigantic and all encompassing.

After a few days of silence, my mind became a very peculiar place, an empty warehouse with just a few boxes pushed against a wall. Sensations had room to echo and resonate. Songs got stuck in my head, and I could hear them as vividly as if the song were actually playing. (“Lovefool” by the Cardigans played for most of a day, against my wishes.) Watching flower petals open in the garden outside was like watching fireworks in a suspended explosion.

With no recognizable communication allowed, I became highly sensitized to any transmission of ideas between myself and other students. I loved waiting for the toaster at breakfast, how the cluster of three or four of us with slices of bread on our plates silently knew whose turn it was next.

Once, while waiting in line for a bathroom stall, the person in front of me spotted an empty one in addition to the one he was about to take. He turned toward me and gestured at the stall! It felt a little scandalous, and I wondered what I would have done in his place.

One night my flashlight, one of the only forms of technology allowed, was dying, with barely  enough light to help me find my toothbrush. The next morning, as my tentmate was leaving, he took two batteries and left them on a chair by my bed. The warm feeling from that act of kindness rippled through me for the first part of that day.

After  focusing only on the area between the nose and upper lip for three days, we were instructed to expand our attention to our entire bodies, scanning from head to toe, then toe to head for any blips of sensation — I mentally called this an “up-down.” I wondered if I’d ever reach the free-flowing state of awareness that my teachers spoke of.

After a while, I could tell how long I’d been sitting by the aching in my knees. Then, somewhere in there, everything clicked. Sensations sparkled up and down my body like sheets of rain. The return trip from feet to head, normally more of a struggle, I completed in a one inhale and exhale. Even my knees felt healed. My breath, which had been embarrassingly wheezy at points, cleared up. When the course came to an end, I went outside to see that the sun had conquered the cloak of clouds that had covered it the previous days. I lay in the grass and basked in total peace, my mind isolated by everything but itself.