Nothing during my rigorous training to become a psychologist thirty years ago prepared me to be in the present moment. We focused on anxiety, depression, loneliness, suffering, isolation, abandonment, post-traumatic stress and other disorders. Even back then the emphasis on these words and diagnoses did not quite resonate with me. Alternative therapies began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s.I studied them all and realized that something was still missing.
Although my psychotherapy practice was primarily traditional, out of curiosity, I researched the teachings of Richard Alpert otherwise known as Ram Dass. Ram Dass’s philosophy of Be Here Now intrigued me. For hours I would listen to his meditations on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard and in university auditoriums. The idea of learning to be in the moment, rather than constantly focusing on past psychological hurts and injuries compelled me to learn more.
Signing up for a two week retreat at The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts was the tipping point. There I sat and meditated for ten, sometimes twelve hours in silence daily. There were about fifty of us at this retreat. No one spoke, unless it was to our spiritual guide. It was like a scene out of the book Eat, Pray, Love.
We woke every morning to the sound of a gong before dawn. We ate hot cereal, drank miso soup and tea. Then reluctantly off to the meditation hall. The silence and the pain of sitting for those long hours were daunting.
Everyday I planned my escape. I would leave before dawn, get in my car and go to the nearest cafe. Once I had my caffeine fix, back to my familiar and safe world I went. The truth is I could have left at any time. No one was keeping me there but myself.
The sitting never got easier, but I knew I needed to see the experience through. I broke my silence once and then guilt quieted me for the duration. Tears streamed down my face on a few occasions as did feelings of joy, relief, pain, regret, sadness, jealousy, elation… My emotional world unfolded before me as I continued to sit and sit. Never did I find my mind empty of thought. Instead I learned to observe the rise and fall of everything I felt physically and emotionally.
After fourteen days when I was released from this experience, I hardly recognized the sound of my own voice when I began to speak. All of my senses were heightened and exquisitely tuned in to everything and everyone for weeks, maybe months.
Several times over the next decade I returned for brief visits for the reminder to be still and mindfully observe my thoughts and feelings. The indelible effect of this teaching began to seep its way into my work as a psychologist.
Instead of focusing exclusively on the origins of my patients’ fears, anxieties, loneliness, and suffering, I would sometimes teach them to meditate and to observe the rise and fall of their emotional lives. Sometimes we sat and meditated for a few minutes before the talking part of our session began. This not only fostered a connection between us, but allowed the patient to be more fully in the present moment. Most importantly the meditation gave patients a skill that they could use on their own.
My daily routine includes at least several minutes of meditation. After those two weeks of sitting and meditating for more than ten hours a day, a few minutes is nothing but pure pleasure.
What is your experience with meditation or sitting in silence?