I was in my first serious ten day long silent mindfulness meditation retreat with a hundred other people. We were supposed to be mindful of our breath and body sensations. The instructor explained what being mindful meant: complete awareness, without judgment, with acceptance, just observing. In spite of being surrounded by a big group of people, we were not supposed to engage in any communication, not even nonverbal, by avoiding any eye contact.
This was an opportunity to completely turn our attention to ourselves, allow difficult physical or emotional sensations to come up without any social interruptions, learn to observe them, accept them, and learn to let go.
Something interesting happened. As we were listening to the instructions and getting ready for the meditation, I found myself noticing others from the corner of my eyes, in spite of avoiding any explicit communication. Most of us were sitting on a meditation cushion on the floor, but a few were sitting on chairs at the back of the room. In my mind I smirked at their lack of devotion. I noticed one attractive young woman sitting in a chair. “Pretty, but unfit” I said to myself. We started meditating with our eyes closed. I was determined to learn to meditate and get all possible insights from the practice, so for a while I was busy bringing my wandering mind back to my breath. I had an excruciating backache, making it difficult not to be distracted. I started noticing an amusing sight of some meditators buried in a pile of cushions to keep them comfortable. I could hear the sounds made by many, coughing, grunting, shuffling, tummies growling, and sometimes loud exclamations. As I was busy keeping my attention on my breath and body, I found my mind parallel processing my judgments against all this.
Then I had my first brush with humility. I wanted to be the teacher’s pet by avoiding any show of weaknesses exhibited by others. After a day of excruciating backache, I could not pretend to be above everybody else. I had to ask the volunteer assistant to give me a backrest, grudgingly letting go of my need to be the “best student.” Around the same time, I noticed how my roommate, who I had yet to exchange any word, was sitting in straight meditative posture for hours at a time. My view of her being yet another older woman with thinning hair and expressionless face changed into feeling some respect towards her.
Then I had my second brush with humility. As I was looking within myself, I was faced with all my buried difficult emotions and self-doubts started surfacing, shattering my own over-confident self-image. For the next couple of days I found myself struggling with these feelings, along with the physical discomfort of sitting in the meditative pose for hours. The assistant had encouraged me to put the backrest away, adding to my struggle. Slowly I started noticing similar pain others in the group were going through.
In my meditations, I experienced fleeting moments of feeling universal connection and an understanding of being in the same boat together in our struggles, with the rest of the group.
Together we all went through three phases of learning, penetrating into the deep level of my belief system. While we were observing our breath and body sensations, we were told to pay particular attention to how sensations keep changing. This was supposed to teach us the message that:
After the struggle to go through the extreme physical discomfort for five days, the teacher gave us the next message. “Mind and body are connected. As you are learning to sit through the physical discomforts, your mind is automatically getting trained to tolerate the emotional pain. You are training your mind not to fall for the craving for comfort, because this craving can lead to misery and also to wrong decisions.” Eventually, in the last two days we did guided meditations on Compassion, defined as empathy and a strong wish that the others’ pain be alleviated. At this point, my experience of others in the group had completely changed. I had sincerely started wishing that our whole group would resolve their pain and experience joy. My heart felt full of empathy.
On the last evening, the silence could be broken. By this time, the group’s feelings towards each other seemed to be turned into that of loving kindness and connections. I felt so free to talk to anyone I wanted to. I found out that the “pretty, but unfit” woman had suffered serious knee injuries in a car accident. Yet, she had managed to progress from meditating in the chair to the meditation cushion on the floor. I felt genuine remorse for my initial reaction to her sitting in the chair. My roommate, the older woman with thinning hair, turned out to be an amazingly strong woman with several years of daily meditation practice, started after a terrible family tragedy. We talked about our stories till 3 am that night. I not only felt empathy, but I was able to listen to her with honest curiosity which I believe gave her a sense of relief.
Next morning, just as we were cleaning up our meditation hall before making a departure, I was very pleasantly surprised to mop the floors with a group of teenagers who were attending the retreat because they wanted to learn how to be even-minded and non-judgmental. There were hugs and goodbyes. I mused over how I had travelled from being judgmental and in pain towards being empathic and joyful.
Right after I left the retreat I had my epiphany. Practicing mindfulness meditations in a group is a special act. Mindfulness Meditation training is not only for getting insights into our own well-being and happiness alone, it also has the power of eventually creating a wonderfully supportive group.
The three phases of learning my group went through were instrumental in creating the magic of the group.
1) Nonjudgmental openness because “everything changes”: Our brain is programmed to make judgments about others for safety reasons, but we don’t have to take them as facts right away. Our view and experience of people changes over time as we learn more about them. Sometimes we change. Be open and wait to find out more about people. This is what nonjudgmental openness means.
2) Training to sit through physical discomfort and emotional pain: When we are learning to do it with others around us – in similar situation at some point or other — it makes us understand the universality of painful experiences. Eventually the competitive spirit retreats to make way for bonding, empathy, and support.
3) Compassion: Mindfulness meditations typically include training on compassion. This primes our brain to wish to reduce the pain of others, either by taking some action to help or sometimes just by patiently being there.
So many magical words come to my mind when I think about meditating in a group: collaboration, support, cultivating goodness, experiencing the best in others, empathy, harmony with the surroundings, and tolerance for social behaviors. If you want to experience this magic in meditating with others, meditate with others. Join a group or create one!
Dr. Swati Desai is on sabbatical from her position as the Director of Integrative Psychological Services at the The Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine, and is currently working on the App 2meditate as a founder. For more, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of gabriella travaline.