I came to meditation via yoga. I started practicing the hatha variety in my last year of law school way back before anyone knew what “downward facing dog” meant. I got so into the discipline that after graduating UBC I flew to India to be one of the first group of Western students to study with the yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar.
Then in his fifties, and not yet an international yoga celebrity, with a beautiful mane of salt and pepper hair, bushy eyebrows, barrel chest and ferocious energy, he radiated intense charisma.
In the month of training in Pune I experienced peaks of physical flexibility and mental calm. My inner gaze got clearer. For the first time in my life I experienced the big joy of an extended, disciplined practice of tuning inward.
But Iyengar disappointed me. He taught yoga like a sergeant exercising the troops, with a harsh voice, many slaps and even kicks. He was full of himself, temperamental, and often disrespectful to his students. I interviewed him for a publication in Canada, and it amounted to a half hour bragging session about the many celebrities who had sought his counsel—famous artists, gurus, and politicians. He had a huge ego and often bared it. I concluded that though a physical genius, a brilliant artist and performer—like a Nureyev—he lacked the maturity that I thought his yoga mastery should engender. By many accounts Iyengar did eventually ripen into the wise man I’d sought, but too late for me.
At his Institute several of the students told me about their study of a form of meditation called vipassana in Buddhist temples in Thailand and a retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. It required no physical postures and operated solely on the mind, providing a direct route to the same happy mental state that yoga engendered. As I headed out of Pune to tour India and Sri Lanka, I resolved to locate a temple where I could learn this ancient technique.
I found it in rural Sri Lanka. On several acres of rural land surrounded by farms and jungle, Buddhist monks had established a garden, kitchen, dining room, staff residences and several rows of small adjoined rooms each barely large enough to accommodate a sleeping mat. The Kanduboda Temple was my home for the next three weeks. I meditated about ten hours a day, rising at 5 am. Most of the other students were elderly Sri Lankans, who after a lifetime of service to family and community had started an inward journey to find peace and contentment.
Day after day we sat cross-legged on our meditation cushions just outside our cells. At the beginning this tortured me. My knees became clusters of agony. My back muscles ached from hours of holding an upright posture. As the days slowly passed, the pain eventually subsided and my body adjusted to its new reality.
The meditative technique is simple in principle: focus your awareness on the physical sensations of the rise and fall of your breath. Sense the often subtle changes in your belly, chest, and face as the air moves down into the abdomen and then rushes out. This is also an integral part of yoga. In meditation the body remains still. The focus is not on the movements of major muscles but on micro sensual stimuli, such as the feel of air flowing through your nostrils.
Experiencing the mental transition from thoughts to sensations over and over again helped me notice how different they felt. I’d always sensed this implicitly, now it became fully conscious. I could distinguish the experiential signatures of each mental mode. What part of my mind noticed this?
It is a type of meta-cognition, but neither thought, feeling nor sensing, because it stands apart from those modes and observes them. The monks called this meta-mode mindfulness.
We are born with this ability. All of us have had some experience of looking at our own thoughts, emotions or sensations, although we may not do it frequently. Usually we are so absorbed in one mode that we are rarely mindful of it. But like any other mental function, we can develop such awareness. My check-ins are a strain of mindfulness, as I peer inside and look for the feeling of up or down. That ability increased the more I did it.
My mindfulness revealed that merely shifting from one cognitive mode to the other, without any gap, is an upper. My brain appeared not to like getting stuck in one mode, being mentally rigid. Just as my body felt better as its flexibility increased, mental flexibility also lifted me. And meditation enhanced that.
Meditation also exposed a new experience not easy to describe in words, though “cognitive emptiness” is close. As I mindfully observed the different modes of perception, such as thinking or sensing, I often noticed a perceivable gap between them which persisted for a few seconds. I could sense the absence of normal mental processes; still consciously aware, but now my attention focused on a new object: nothingness.
That perception of a void in turn triggered a visceral response, a positive feeling. In the same way that satisfaction can flow from a sip of wine, I felt a lift following my sense of emptiness. As my awareness noted that upper, it lost the sense of nothingness. Then as the lift subsided I again perceived the gap, the void, and got a new lift. Over the course of the retreat I learned to extend the emptiness for longer and longer periods and the resulting sense of peace provided a deeper comfort than I’d ever known. Buddhists had reported for millennia that meditation often produced bliss. Now I experienced it too.
So meditation is a powerful upper. That was the good news part of my time at the temple. But I soon realized that the lift is a relatively small part of each sit. Something much more ominous and dark lurked in my brain.