Many people wonder, “What exactly do you do on a meditation retreat?” It’s pretty simple. Let me give you a basic description: You decide to take a few days off to meditate with some other people. On day one, you sit and pay attention to your body and breath for 30 or 45 minutes. Then you walk back and forth, back and forth. When it’s time to eat, you eat in silence. Then, you sit and pay attention to your body and your breath and walk around some more, eat in silence, and so forth and so on. You do that day in, day out. It’s a great time. You really should try it.
OK, I’ll admit: When I put it that way, it’s pretty hard to sell this stuff. It doesn’t exactly sound like a day at the spa, yet so many people who try it keep coming back. Why is that?
If you talk to people at a retreat, they often say things like, “I just sit here struggling to be present. I feel one breath, then my mind is all over the place for I don’t know how long, and then I come back, occasionally. I have maybe a couple of moments of awareness in a 45-minute sitting. When we start walking, I ponder my life while still trying hard to be mindful. When we come back and sit, I continue racing around in my head. At lunch, I think about how little time I spent really meditating that whole morning.
The way we pattern our attention—the paths our attention takes us down, the choices it makes—hugely affects our experience. In a way, it creates our experience.
“But after lunch I go for a little walk, and all of a sudden the world looks really vivid. I notice the stones on the ground, and they really stand out. They’re distinctive. I see beads of moisture on their surface. What a beautiful place!”
It’s not uncommon for someone doing a meditation intensive to feel like they’re not meditating— however they define that—and yet there are these intriguing effects. What’s up with that?
These effects seem to have to do with a shift in the habitual way we use our attention. Our everyday attention has automatic modes to it. It follows patterns. And the way we pattern our attention—the paths our attention takes us down, the choices it makes—hugely affects our experience. In a way, it creates our experience.
How we pattern our attention
We’re generally not aware of the patterns our attention follows, because what we’re mostly aware of is the stuff that’s happening, or not happening, or the people who are coming or not coming, or the way work is unfolding or not unfolding. We rarely notice how our own attention is behaving. Fortunately, meditation enables us to take a closer and closer look at the mechanisms of our everyday thought process.
If you take a moment to notice, there’s a good chance you’ll see that the patterns your attention follows are typically not random. They obey certain tendencies; they habitually operate in very similar ways. They make up your daily grind. One of the tendencies is for our attention to hop around a lot, trying to catch something happening or make something happen. Even a few minutes of meditation will make that apparent. The breath happens, and you’re totally with it for half a breath and then…you move away to something else. It’s very likely nothing super interesting is happening—particularly in the space you’re meditating in (unless instead of a retreat you’re meditating at a rock concert). It’s simply that the attention is habituated to moving around, to seeking after stuff. That is its mode. It’s flighty—plain and simple.
One of the tendencies is for our attention to hop around a lot, trying to catch something happening or make something happen.
One thing that starts to happen, though, as we sit here and practice, moment by moment, is we learn how to attend differently. Connecting with what’s happening now (for a moment or, if we can manage it, a bit longer), again and again, you begin to see that, oh, the attention drifts off or flits away. But it’s the coming back that makes the difference. You might connect with just one breath, or notice just one sound, or a twitch or tingle in your body. But that’s all it takes.
These moments have impact. And indeed over time, in subtle ways, we start to be able to attend differently. The attention learns how to land here, connect with what’s actually happening here, simply by our repeatedly choosing to come back to wherever here may be. We find ourselves connecting not with our thoughts about breathing, or the concept of breathing, but with what breathing is in this moment, as a tangible, complete experience. That’s why even when someone is practicing in a way that makes them feel like they’re checked out most of the time, something deeper happens. Meditation happens.
Usually we need something buzzy or bright, flashy, to connect with, but as attention settles down, we can find richness in ordinary experience…
Why does it happen that way? Again, it is because we are doing something so different from our usual mode. And when we do it repeatedly, our habits of attention begin to shift, and tangible effects creep up on us. The world can be more vivid, even when you’re wallowing in your story of being a shitty meditator. In the midst of your I-am-a-shitty-meditator story, your experience is punctured by moments of vividness.
The simple practice of sitting and walking and sitting and walking on retreat is radically different, an order of magnitude different, from our usual way of attending to the world. Usually, our mind’s rampant hopping around leads us to get lost in thought worlds constantly: experiencing the world as a cascade of stories we’re often not aware of. Intentionally attending for a moment— and repeating this many, many times—will undermine this habit of living lost in thought.
Building stable habits of attention, without trying
After a while, our attention learns to settle, and when the mind can settle, the body can settle. When the body settles, the mind settles more. All from this one little thing. When we train our attention in this very modest, no-big-deal way, stability begins to emerge of its own accord; if you tried really, really hard to be a great meditator, to be really, really stable, it wouldn’t work.
Practicing meditation in daily life is important, but having a chance to do a couple of intensive days is qualitatively a little different. Give it a try, if you’re up for it. When you spend more time coming back, and coming back, and coming back, attention tends to become more stable. It’s not seeking so much. You can be with a sound, without an agenda. You can be with a feeling in your body, like frustration, without habitually reacting to it, without having to be for or against it. Usually if I feel frustrated, I have to doggedly seek the solution. No time to actually feel it fully. Maybe I start chewing, ruminating, munching on things in my mind, chewing them over and over again, anxiously. It gives the mind something to do, to occupy itself. Not so stable. A dog with an endless supply of chew toys.
When we train our attention in this very modest, no-big-deal way, stability begins to emerge of its own accord; if you tried really, really hard to be a great meditator, to be really, really stable, it wouldn’t work.
In meditation, you might get a little of that empty feeling you feel when nothing particular is happening, a kind of blandness or blahness. Usually you’ve got tons of stimulation—internet, TV, phone, the whole package—and here you have a little gap.
So, what do I do with that gap?
Right, I should pick up my phone, check messages, email, make a phone call, push the button, flick the switch, click refresh. Or maybe I could let that gap be here and place attention on something stable, on life. And connect, really connect, not like connecting to the network, but connecting to the network of life. Usually we need something buzzy or bright, flashy, to connect with, but as attention settles down, we can find richness in ordinary experience, in a modest world that is just about breathing, the air on your skin, the sun warming your face, the chirp of a bird, the smell of the earth. And having found something so rich in something so boring as the breath, when you leave your few days of meditation, you pick up just how much is happening around you and in you. You may just have a little more freedom about where to land with your attention.
Back in life, you will likely become obsessed again by the story of me-and-my-life that we’re constantly refining and trying to get exactly the way we want it to be. Always tweaking it and adjusting it in keeping with what presents itself to us. Yet, compared to breath-world, where you connect with what’s actually happening, this obsessive storyline is not very stable.
The more stable, the more unified, the field of attention becomes, the stronger the mind becomes. We can actually be with more and more intense levels of experience, without being thrown. It doesn’t mean you’re never thrown. It’s a general direction, a trend. The greater the stability, the more it takes to unbalance the mind.
At home in your own mind
My four-year-old son was home sick the other day. We had an inside day. My wife was out, so we spent the whole day together. We revisited a game we played a lot when he was younger: the three little pigs. The game unfolds the same way every time. He always wants to be one of the little pigs. Can you guess which one? I get to be the big bad wolf. He gets inside a little fort we’ve built out of couch pillows and a sheet, and as soon as the wolf says, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” he yells out, “House of bricks!” He says this even before he says, “Not by the hair of my chinny, chin chin.” He wants to be sure I know that no matter how much I huff and puff I won’t be able to blow his house down. We play this again and again. We both love it.
Without cultivation, attention is not stable. It doesn’t take much to overwhelm us. We are at the mercy of our thoughts and thought patterns. Training changes that.
It’s obvious why my son wants to be in the house of bricks. And where our attention is concerned we all prefer the house of bricks. When we start meditating, without any cultivation, the attention is not stable. We lack the capacity to simply be with experience. Our attention is untrained. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s like a house of straw. It doesn’t take much to overwhelm us. We are easily blown around. We get caught up in maintaining our big story of who we are, flitting about, seeking one solution after another, always giving more care and attention to the past and the future than we give to the life that is appearing in front of us—the people we are eating breakfast with. We live at the mercy of our thoughts and thought patterns. As we begin to cultivate attention—which requires us to move counter to much of the mainstream direction of our society and economy—maybe we gain a little stability. Then we have a house of sticks. A little more stable.
As greater stability emerges over time, and you are content to let your attention settle, with less of an urge to hop around, maybe you find you are in a house of bricks. I wouldn’t want to take the metaphor too far, though. Unlike a brick house, a stable mind is also amazingly flexible and responsive. But your sense of rootedness may even allow you to feel that it’s OK if the wolf comes around. Bring it on. My son wants the wolf to come when he is in the house of bricks. It can even be fun. The stability that comes with training gives us a sense of confidence—the confidence that we can be with more of what comes up and into our lives, without running off into other thought worlds.
Our meditation practice builds us a proverbial house of bricks, one we can take with us wherever we go. And when the wolf is done huffing and puffing, maybe he will give up and come in for tea. If he’s a wolf like me, he was never all that dangerous in the first place.
This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.