My first two-hour sit
The first time I sat for two hours was in the summer of 2009, during my first Vipassana retreat in North Fork, CA. The first two days of the retreat, I sat in chairs and then along the back wall. The first day or two I was always falling asleep, having been used to caffeine and now without. My back and neck also hurt a great deal, and I frequently turned my head sharply to the left over and over again to mitigate a recurring crick on the left side of my neck. The loathsome migraines had been so far kept at bay. After the first several minutes of sitting, I would do my best to focus on my breath, but spent a lot of time wondering how much time was left in the hour-long sit. I also made adjustments as needed. I moved my feet when they or my shins or butt bones hurt ‘too much’. I made all manner of adjustments and was still very uncomfortable and always relieved when the S.N. Goenka’s recorded chanting would split the silence...Aneeechaaaaaaaahhh, then continuing in Hindi and maybe Pali for the last 5 minutes. This was the way it was for the first 3 days, though I did become gradually better able to focus on my breath over that time.
On the fourth day, after I had been convincing myself that I basically understood meditation at this point, and might as well head out into the Yosemite woods where I would be able to hike, camp, read and write, we were told that we would be moving to a new kind of meditation. From now on, we would do Vipassana meditation. We had until now been doing Anapana meditation (sitting while focusing on our breath). In preparation for Vipassana, we would do one last Anapana sit, though this time things would be different. First, we were not to adjust our position. Do not uncross your feet (I was sitting cross-legged against the back wall, and many others were sitting cross-legged or in lotus position in the middle of the room, while others were in chairs), nor unfold your hands (this still allowed me to whip my head to the left, I gathered). Second, you will sit for two hours.
Neither one of these things was going to happen. No sooner had the instructions entered my ears than I began an argument with an imaginary volunteer who would, in short order, approach me in response to my movements and whisper passive-aggressively to me that I was not to move. I patiently informed this person that I have a spinal deformity, among other ailments, and I simply cannot sit here motionless for 2 hours. This argument went on for a minute or two, consisting in my rehearsing explanations of why I simply could not do this. Tell you what I’ll do, I said. Here’s all I can do: I will sit here without moving as long as I can. I promise to sit here without adjusting as long as I am able, if you promise to accept that that is what I have done. Ok? Ok.
And so it began. I sat and sat, and attempted to pay attention to my breath as the discomfort mounted. Before long, I wanted to adjust my position. But do I have to? No, I don’t have to. In another 5 or 10 minutes, the question arises again. Things are worse now. To move or not to move? Well, that question is now to be understood as the question whether I have to move. Do I have to? No, not exactly. And on and on like that, until an hour had passed, and then some. I have no clear idea how much time is passing, trying to focus on my breath but always returning to the question whether to move. After something like 90 minutes, I still have not moved. I’m sure I am beyond an hour but no clear idea how much. I have never done this before, not even close. I have already done something impressive, so it’s no big deal if I move now, right? No, it is a big deal because you agreed you would not unless you have to. Do you have to? Goddamnit, no I guess I don’t really have to. And I start to wonder what would have to happen for this question to receive an honest Yes. Well, I would have to not be able to stand it. So: can you stand it?
There is always a momentary disappointment in acknowledging that I can stand it, for if I could not, then I could move. But of course if I couldn’t stand it, then I would already have moved. A distinctly uncomfortable realization sets in that the answer to the question whether I can move will always be No. But after some time, the realization brings a sense of power and release of anxiety. For there is no question whether to move. There is only sitting here until the chanting begins, and there is only the question how difficult and painful that will be, and how successful I will be in keeping my attention on my breath. There is no question whether I will move before then. That is, there is no question whether I will decide to move before then. If I truly cannot sit here any longer without moving, then I will of course move. But if that happens, it will have to happen without my endorsement or will behind it. So now, oddly, the sense of willpower that has been there this whole time starts to fade. There is in a way no more need for the willpower because the sense of having an option to move is fading away. There is no decision to make, and so there is nothing to do but sense my breath as it goes in, as it goes out. It is warm and faint as it goes out, cooler and more distinct as it goes in. When it goes in, it passes over the lip, the area under the nostrils, then inside the nostrils, symmetrically making its way along the inside of the nostrils. I can feel it especially along the outer nostrils, and I can feel it moving with the curve of the nostrils, until it seems like I can feel it behind my eyes. Then it moves out, again following the curves, warm now, passing over the area beneath the nostrils and gently flowing over the lip. Here is another one, cool again, a bit more prominent on the right side…
Aneeee-chaaaaaaahhh…Big breath in, scalp tingling all over with joy and mastery. Even easier now to feel the breath. Now, in the last 5 minutes, when the pain is greatest, it is at its least bad. The ubiquitous identification of more pain (or more intense pain) with worse pain is a false one. The experienced badness of pain is tightly connected to the intensity of the desire for it to go away, and anxiety about when and if it will. Intensity of pain need not correspond to or be accompanied by anxiety. If you are able to be equanimous about pain, then it will not seem bad, though it might seem intense. This is a central lesson of my experience in Vipassana so far, learned at the experiential level.
I have rarely felt as powerful as I did in those 5 minutes of chanting, and for some time afterward. And the sense of power was bound up with a sense of my own weakness. It was a realization that it was my weakness and fear talking when I said I could not sit there for 2 hours without moving. The idea that I can’t do it serves as an excuse for not doing it. But we don’t realize this. We think we really can’t, and this thought, if repeated enough, helps to bring it about that we can’t. Because what you can do is always and necessarily partly a function of what you think you can do. Your abilities cannot be divorced from your belief in and expectations of yourself. This is something that many people would agree with, but I don’t think I have ever moved so quickly from a position in which I was convinced that I could not do something to one in which I was convinced that I could — because I just did. It was a remarkable, real-time lesson in how we tell ourselves stories about the limits of our powers that appear designed to prevent feelings of weakness and failure. Look, I have a spinal deformity, so I can’t do this. It’s just too much pain and discomfort. So it’s not my fault and it’s your problem if you can’t understand that. But of course the reality is that it’s not literally too much pain and discomfort; it’s just that I’ve been using (very real) pain and discomfort as an excuse for not doing things that are hard — perhaps a lot harder than they are for most people who don’t have the kind of pain and discomfort I do. But they are still doable, and worth doing, and I have other advantages, and I can do them, despite all the stories I tell myself to make it less painful to realize that — even if it would have been fantastically difficult — I could have done them in the past and still could today.
Like doing this, writing my first piece for a public audience. I’ve wanted to write for so many years but simply haven’t done it. I get migraines and my back and neck and wrists hurt and I have such terrible ADD and I have so many other things to do and on and on and on. All excuses. Damn good ones at that! But still, all ways of avoiding feelings of weakness at the expense of making me in fact weaker. And they don’t even work at their job — they just postpone those feelings, which come due with interest.
Don’t believe everything you think, so the bumper sticker says. Think of something you deeply want to do but think you can’t. Look at the thought that you can’t. Is it you thinking that? What is it in you? What is the point of thinking that? Might the point be to deflect feelings of guilt or shame or weakness or even heartbreak? What would happen if you made a sacred contract to try to do it until you could not go on any longer? If you did so, how would you 5 minutes ago appear to you 5 months or 5 years from now?