Field Report #1: The 24-hour Meditation Marathon
This is the first article in an ongoing series about meditation. The series follows the author through meditation retreats, exploits, experiences had and, hopefully, insights gained. The author has been meditating for about 5 years.
Last month I participated in EnlightenNext’s 24hr Meditation Marathon. It was the second time I’ve done so, to help raise money for an organization that I think is doing good things. As I combed Facebook hitting up friends for pledges I also had a lot of really cool conversations about meditation. Most folks were familiar with what meditation was, and lots had tried it, but just about everyone remarked, “24 hours? Holy shit, that’s a long time!”
It was a long time, but it was also a powerful experience that I’d recommend to anyone reading this. For a taste of what this kind of intense practice is like I’ve transcribed my journals from the past two marathons below. Consider them updates from the field - in the trenches, if you will. I’ve kept the journals as unedited as possible, only correcting grammar and adding a few clarifying sentences where none were before. I hope they convey both the difficulty and the rewards of a dedicated meditation practice.
December 13, 2009 (Marathon #1)
I joined the marathon without giving it much thought and without much intention other than some sort of feat of strength. Until I sat down for the first one-hour session it didn’t really hit me what a unique event this was. I’d be joining over 100 other meditators, across the globe, to meditate at the same time, for the same cause. We were doing it to raise money, but also as a statement of respect and gratitude for our teacher and an organization that meant the world to us.
The schedule for the marathon was tough. Meditation sessions were split into hour-long blocks with short breaks between, lasting from 12am Sunday to 12am Monday. Twenty-four hours total. There’re a few reasons for the demanding nature of the marathon. Like I said, one reason is it helps raise money (nobody’s going to donate unless you do something others wouldn’t want to!). Another reason is the intensity. It brings out all sorts of resistance, fear, impatience, self-doubt, etc. in the same way that any other intense mission does – like climbing a mountain or running a triathlon. A possible difference here is that I’m not moving and nobody can help me. I have to build the strength to persevere on my own. It’s a pretty empowering practice. Finally, it’s just a beautiful thing to do. Meditation can be such a meaningful act. You sit down, decide that nothing else matters in the whole entire world, and just let everything be the way it is. There’s a simple beauty in that act that’s hard to describe. It’s the feeling of coming home.
Meditation, more than just a stress reliever, is an elegant act of deep significance. When practiced with sincerity it’s an expression of our human desire to want to know where we came from and to investigate the question for ourselves, not by looking up at the stars or under a microscope, but by uncovering subtler and subtler layers of our own experience. As we sit very still our quiet ability to perceive unrolls in all directions, expanding and enveloping the many aspects of what we are but never noticed before; waking us up to the richness of reality that’s always been here but we never noticed until we meditated.
I’m not a religious person, but I can tell you that meditating with sincerity is a sacred act. There’s no other word for it. You can feel it.
There’re lots of different instructions for mediation. Andrew Cohen’s instructions are to Be Still, Pay Attention, and Be Relaxed. The instructions are almost painfully simple. They’re basically saying to do nothing. Unfortunately, in my experience the first thing you usually want to do when you sit down for any length of time is to try to do something. It’s subtle, but there’s all sorts of ways we're always trying to control or manipulate our experience. It’s pretty surprising when you start to look at it.
I meditated for the complete 24-hours, sitting cross-legged on a blue cushion, locked inside my bedroom. Coming through the night, after about seven hours meditating, I lifted my head and opened the blinds for some sunlight. Snow had been falling through the night, the first snow this year. Already the ground and trees were white and the streets were still. It’s a special kind of feeling, waking up to the first snow, but today the stillness of the streets seemed all the more appropriate given what we were undertaking together.
About 11-hours in, three friends joined me silently via skype to meditate together (as we had planned). I was surprised at the field we generated so easily between us. Things just dropped. I was struggling in the hours before they got on, but when they joined things changed immediately. There was suddenly a collective field and the ease of it after pushing through the night alone was like falling backwards into a soft bed. The energy and common intention of friends easily lifted me and our meditating together formed a kind of care and intimacy that I have not felt since the Being and Becoming retreat in Tuscany. After about two hours my friends and I wordlessly ended the skype call and I returned to mediating by myself.
Meditating alone for such a long time was a very different experience. Bearing down into this kind of practice is purifying to say the least. I felt stripped down, naked. The intensity and length of the event required a kind of effort not easy to convey in words. It was like bearing into the headwinds of a hurricane, not to resist, but to pass through, not backing off, but leaning forward for more, pushing in while the wind rips by. There was no mystical experience. But what grew in its absence is perhaps more significant. I have discovered a commitment, perseverance, focus and determination that I never knew I could apply. These things don't fade like an experience. They're yours to keep for entering the storm and for taking your own private lessons as you pass through. I didn't expect this from meditation, but in retrospect it makes sense. Commitment, perseverance, and determination are all descriptors of the spiritual life. I see now that making a commitment to meditate (however big or small), must be done and must be followed through on. Because who you are when holding to that commitment is the very person you are trying to become through spiritual practice.
December 12, 2010 (Marathon #2)
Just finished the 24th hour in the meditation marathon. It was different from last year’s marathon, much more difficult. Each hour, with the exception of the first few, was a major struggle. There were a few times there when I wasn’t sure I could make it. Knees were sore, back was stiff, and the thought kept popping into my head “just lie down for one minute, it’ll feel sooo good.” Yeah right, ‘one minute’ means lights out for delicious sleep. What kept me going was honestly just the thought of having to tell people I couldn’t do it. Screw that.
But meditation’s a funny thing. Even when my body’s sore and I’m sleepy and I’m basically just gritting my teeth and getting by on pride, something else is happening under the surface. One moment I’ll be focused on the pain and then, spontaneously, without doing anything at all - - something shifts - - now I’m melting into the peace of perfect Stillness. Sometimes the pain is gone instantly, other times it sticks around, either way it stops mattering. It’s just Still.
But, like i said, meditation’s a funny thing. It’ll eventually shift again to some new experience. Maybe this time it’s a flash of brilliance or an aching frustration. You can't predict it, it just happens on its own. Getting a feel for how quickly your mind flip-flops like this is a big part of meditation. The more I see it the more it clicks that meditation isn’t actually about having any one type of experience; because our experience is always changing. It’s about learning who, or what, we really are.
You can get a bit of a sense for what I’m talking about if you follow the golden rule of this type of meditation: you must remain completely still. Pick a length of time, sit down, pay attention, and do not move a muscle for the entire period. Stillness in the body anchors your awareness and gives you a reference for how much your mind is actually ripping around inside your head. It’s like a game of tetherball. Your body is the sturdy pole and your mind is the crazy ball swinging around it on a string. The ball rips around in every direction, but if the pole is sturdy the ball is inconsequential, it bobs around but doesn’t really cause any problems. Likewise, when you sit as still as a pole you start to notice how much the mind is actually moving around all by itself. And because you're being completely still, you can suddenly distinguish that the movement in your head isn’t really you.
Seeing that all this turbulence isn’t you, its ability to disturb is instantly reduced to zero. It feels like it doesn't matter nearly as much as you thought it did and you can’t remember why you felt otherwise. I think it’s similar to being on a boat in the water. When you’re in a boat, bobbing up and down in the water all day, things can get pretty choppy. Even when the water is calm, if you step off the boat and onto sturdy dry land you can’t help but walk funny. You didn’t realize how much you were actually compensating for all the movement of the waves. Meditation shows you how you’ve been compensating your whole life. We’ve been bobbing around in our heads and never noticed it until we meditated and stepped onto dry land.
- -End of Journals- -
I think the rewards of these marathons came from all the ups and downs. For one, without such an arduous practice I don’t know if I would’ve come to grips with the real gifts of noble effort. As I said above, learning to persevere through something so hard and to trust in my teacher and in the practice, bore a commitment, focus and determination that I never knew I had in me. You might expect to find these things climbing a mountain, but to find them sitting still in a room was quite a gift. As well, I get it now why sitting still is so important. It’s just such a clear reminder that my mind isn’t me. That might sound strange to someone who hasn’t meditated much, but I’ll tell ya, every time you see it it shakes your world in the best way. Finally, I feel the sacredness of this practice. I grew up religion adverse, but there’s something greater than me that’s revealed when I meditate sincerely. I don’t know if it’s God, it has no white beard, but it’s very real and it’s Perfect.