My year of sitting still

Our writer on his commitment to 365 days of meditation

“I wasn’t looking for a panacea; I only wanted something that would help me make peace with my swirling emotional state.”

“I wasn’t looking for a panacea; I only wanted something that would help me make peace with my swirling emotional state.”

Our lives occasionally go sideways. Last year, mine did.

Still reeling from the sudden end of my marriage as the year began, by summer I was living in the spare bedroom of a friend and going to work every day to my job at an Internet startup that was entering its death spiral. What I really wanted to do was pull the covers over my head and make everything go away, especially as painful realizations began to pile upon me in waves.

I’d heard about an eight-week course in vipassana, or Buddhist insight meditation, that was being offered by Sacramento Insight Meditation, a local sangha. The course, taught by SIM’s guiding instructor Dennis Warren, would commence on Monday nights, with the first session at the end of July. I signed up.

“Meditation won’t automatically solve all your problems,” one friend warned.

But I wasn’t looking for a panacea; I only wanted something that would help me make peace with my swirling emotional state, so that my feelings wouldn’t be driving my thinking so often.

Still, I didn’t know what to expect. Unlike some meditation practices, such as Transcendental Meditation, vipassana wasn’t marketed with promises that a practitioner would experience lowered blood pressure, enhanced brain function or the ability to fly; the nonexistent sales pitch went something like, “Try it and see what happens.”

During our first class, we were told the technique dated back to the historical Buddha 2,500 years ago, and that it was as easy to learn as following one’s breath. Which we tried, and then we were instructed to practice meditation at home every day—beginning with 15 minutes and later progressing to double or triple that.

Following the breath is simple. You sit, spine erect, on a chair or on the floor using a zafu (meditation cushion) or bench, and close your eyes. Focusing attention on the point of the nose where air enters, you silently note “in” when breathing in and “out” when breathing out, and then you let your mind unspool, bringing your awareness back to the breath when you realize your mind has moved away toward thinking.

“Putting the puppy back on the paper” is a metaphor that appears in the writings of Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, two of the founding members of the Insight Meditation Society. The mind is like an untrained puppy that continually wanders away, and only by gently placing it back on the paper each time it rambles can it be trained.

But there’s more to meditation than following the breath. In subsequent weeks, we were taught to direct our awareness toward bodily sensations while meditating, then note what feeling tone was arising: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. Then we learned to experience emotions as they arise, and then how to note our thoughts—were we remembering the past, planning the future, picturing images or exercising judgment?—before letting them go and returning to the breath.

Several weeks into the course, I noticed that some of us were diligent about our meditation practice and others less so. Some dropped out, while others would complain that they couldn’t fit a meditation sit into their busy day. Because I came to vipassana desperately wanting it to work, I was willing to sit in meditation daily, until the course ended in late September.

By then, I’d begun to notice changes. For one, there seemed to be a spacious moment between when an event happened and when I reacted to it, and in that moment I realized there was a choice I could make. I also began to be more aware of story—the narratives we often define ourselves by, which lock us into patterns: “I’m just an emotional guy,” “I’m no good at relationships.” But the most startling change was how often I caught myself in the present moment, not ruminating over the past or obsessing on the future, a quality I’d admired in others with a meditation practice.

So I continued. At the end of July 2008, I’d been sitting daily for a year. And while my life hasn’t miraculously transformed, a few close friends who observe me often have commented on the difference a year makes. Going forward, perhaps that difference will become more profound. Or, perhaps, it won’t.