The lamplight is low, and the house is so quiet that the sound of water gurgling through the radiator pipes is all I can hear around me. Even so, I’m not supposed to pay that noise any attention. I am practising a vipassana meditation technique called ‘Hear In,’ in which the only thing I’m meant to focus my attention on is the inner chatter between my ears.
I’m joined in this exercise by a quartet of meditation students and our teacher, Jeff, whose living room has been cleared of furniture. We all sit on cushions, our knees pressed to the hardwood floor. ‘
Jeff has set a timer on his iPod and we are to remain silently in our circle for 10 minutes with our eyes closed, listening to the babble in our heads.
I do mean babble, as opposed to images or emotions. And it doesn’t matter what the babble is, either. It doesn’t have to be ohmmm, which is the kind of meditation technique that immediately makes my mind wander boredly all over the place. As a matter of fact, it happens to be the song ‘Oh, Susanna!’ that I’m belting inside of my skull. Oh, Susannaaa, oh don’t you cry for meeee. I come from Alabama with a banjo on my kneeee.
The point of the ‘Hear In’ meditation is to take note of and stay focused on your inner voice, however it arises, ignoring everything else that lures your attention. If your curiosity drifts to the radiator pipes, you gently tug it back; if you start visualizing a banjo, again, you pull it back.
Vipassana meditation is a technique of self-observation that originated in Buddhist practice in India (I wrote about my first attempt here). You train yourself to break down your thought process, to gain a detachment from your racing brain. Thoughts evoke sensations, pictures, memories and smells. It might be Sunday, and you remember you have an Everest-size pile of work on your desk that you’ll have to face, and this triggers anxiety, which in turn sets your teeth to grinding, and the next thing you know, you’re lost in a whirl of neurotic sentiments.
‘The goal of this meditation,’ Jeff says, ‘is not to get rid of talk’not to eradicate it. Rather, the goal is to see it more clearly, to let it come and go without trying to control or fight it.’
Imagine that your skull is a cavernous room, into which you stroll one day. Imagine calling out your name: ‘Liz!’ or ‘Carole!’ Notice where you ‘hear’ that voice in your head. It will be a different space than where you ‘see’ things. What you are trying to do is to separate the varying streams of your consciousness.
‘Your innermost experience is actually a space,’ Jeff says, ‘with component locations and different sensory qualities.’
After 10 minutes of ‘Hear In,’ the iPod chimes, and he asks how it went. For me, it was fairly easy to listen to myself, because there was little to distract me. I wasn’t hungry, or boiling with fury over something that happened at the office. But for a lanky 30-something IT guy named Ian, the ‘Hear In’ exercise proved to be almost impossible. When he closed his eyes, everything became totally visual.
‘I tried staying with sound,’ he confessed, ‘but all these scenes kept popping up. It’s like I have a movie screen inside my head.’ For Ian, the next meditation technique Jeff introduced us to, called ‘See In,’ was simple’whereas for me it was a non-starter. I tried to ‘take note’ of the mental pictures that bobbed into view behind my eyelids, without deliberately summoning up any particular image. But apparently I have no visual sense. All I could ‘see’ was darkness.
‘Just note that as ‘See Rest,”’ Jeff urged us. ‘Simply rest your sight in that darkness.’
Of course, that is far easier said than done. ‘See Rest’ is a dull place to be, I found. I immediately trotted off, thinking about episodes of Game of Thrones, and wondering what I could make for an upcoming dinner party. I kept trying to pull my attention back to my inner sight’or lack thereof’but eventually I just grew desperate for the iPod to chime.
The third technique we tried was ‘Feel In.’ Here, the idea was to keep our attention focused on our bodies, noticing where we might be experiencing anxiety or holding in anger. For me, there was no question that anxiety felt like a tightening of my torso, kind of a sucking-in of my stomach, as if cinching a belt. I stayed with the feeling, recognizing what it was, until it began to dissipate.
In all, Jeff introduced us to a dozen techniques over a six-week period of two-hour ‘sits’ every Thursday. Each was a variation on this theme of diving down into a single substrate of our minds.
I invariably felt calmer’and lighter’after each session. Meditation, I have found, is really like physical exercise: It can be equal parts arduous and boring in the moment, but the after-effects are increasingly notable.
‘There are specific psychological benefits to this particular practice,’ says Jeff, who studies with a Vermont-based practitioner named Shinzen Young. ‘As you begin to observe your own inner talk with more concentration and clarity and equanimity, you find you are able to get more space around it. It doesn’t trigger you the same way.’
In other words, you don’t think: ‘Holy crap! Everything in my life is going to hell!’ Instead, you think: ‘There goes that part of my brain, freaking out.’ Take a breath; relax. You aren’t what you think.