I heard the mosquito’s buzz just after I committed to staying quiet and still, meditating in semi-loto posture until I achieve enlightenment. Well, or at least, until I had a very decent meditation.
It was a beautiful night, not cold, not warm. You could smell the grass and plants, and sense a pleasant humidity in the air.
I was in the ideal place, aisled from the urban noise. The little village was one of those places you remember when you dream to have a good rest.
During that day, we did yoga, little meditations—sitting and walking meditations—, listened to talks on the subject, had a vegetarian breakfast and lunch, tea… everything without cellphones.
I felt my mind and body were in the right state. I was ready for the big and longest meditation of the day.
For me, there is a difference between doing a relaxation exercise and really meditating. I know that we, meditators, teachers, and therapists, are always saying that everything is part of the learning and experience, but actually, any practice to getting calm is just the warm-up to do meditation.
Let me tell you how it is when you are not ready to really meditate.
You set a timer for, let's say, twenty minutes of mindfulness meditation. Then, you spend the first fifteen or eighteen minutes of them just trying to be ready, I mean to keep steady breathing, to be calm, to have a clear mind, to not move, to stop the worries.
It’s the same with any kind of practice. The best part of running is not in the warm-up. Or, let's use a creative activity as an example. You don’t seat and start writing a novel or drawing a masterpiece immediately after sitting to do it.
In any practice, there is a warming up curve before you start to experience the benefits of the practice.
That’s why any meditator recommends you go to a five-days or n-days retreat to really practice meditation. The first days of the retreat you achieve calm. Real meditations begin after that.
And there I was that night, after a couple of days, ready to do a very good and long meditation. All-day was the warm-up. That night was going to be The Meditation.
Then I heard the mosquito buzz coming to my ear.
The mosquito meditation
I listened to the story of mosquito meditation some years before that night. Gil Fronsdal told it in his podcast, one of the first podcasts—about meditation or anything— when podcasts were just beginning to be a thing.
Like many others, I learned about meditation, mindfulness and Buddhism before I practiced it formally. Yes, I sat many times on the floor of my apartment listening to one of Gil Fronsdal’s guided meditations, like we listen today to Headspace, Calm or Waking Up apps.
But for me, meditation practice is like learning to ride a bike: you can’t learn it in books or watching videos on Youtube. You have to ride a bike.
Meditation is an experience: you have to do it with real teachers, those that watch and interact with your progress. I’m old school, I know.
So, when I listened to Gil Fronsdal talking about mosquito meditation, it seemed to me like a good anecdote. Until I practiced it.
It’s very common in meditation and yoga retreats to do meditation at night. And unless you are in a luxury place or in an unfriendly zone for mosquitos, the rooms to do meditation and yoga are kept with the windows open because of the number of people practicing.
If you add to that the candles and incense, you have an ideal place to attract mosquitos.
In almost any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice, you commit to being quiet and steady. You are going to feel uncomfortable, especially if you are a novice, at least until you find the best posture to sit in for long sessions.
Anyway, whatever distracts your mind or body you have to embrace it and make it part of the practice.
The rational self has to be convinced that everything is secure. You can close your eyes with confidence, there is a teacher to watch out for any inconvenience—do you remember the candles?—, you don’t have any urgent task during meditation time, your body can feel uncomfortable for moments but nothing to be hurt.
If you do things right, you may finish meditation with a numb leg or with a little pain in your back, but nothing unsupportable.
And what about the mosquitos? Well, your rational self has to be convinced that a mosquito is not going to kill you. It can bite you and even leave you a little rash, but nothing serious.
The mosquito experience is an ideal example of what meditation practice is for.
One of the goals of meditation is learning, by practice, to separate pain from suffering, what you feel or think from your reactions to what you feel or think.
When you hear the buzz of a mosquito, your reaction is more than the actual danger you are in. It’s ok because it is an instinctive reaction. But it’s a very good example of how your brain and reactions work.
You react to the buzz because your brain knows it comes from a mosquito. It is a top-down process, in neuroscience words. It’s a perception driven by cognition. You do a deduction, in Aristotelic terms.
You even imagine the mosquito just by hearing the buzz. You anticipate the bite, the rash, the scratching. But really, it’s just a buzz.
And if you hear the buzz of a mosquito when you go to bed, you may have a problem because the noise can stop you from sleeping.
But, if you are in meditation there is no reason to react to the buzz of the mosquito. Moreover, hearing the buzz of a mosquito during meditation is a good reason to not react.
The night of the mosquito
That night I remembered Gil Fronsdal’s podcast about mosquitos in meditation. And fortunately, I made a connection to the experience I was having.
I heard the buzz. I tried to be true to my commitment. I confess I moved my body a little more than once. I shook my body by instinct. But I always tried to come back to my posture.
The buzz was getting nearer. I tried to just listen to the sound. To stop any assumption my mind had of that sound.
I tried to change the top-down process to a bottom-up one, where the perception is driven by the sensations. Without assumptions or prejudges. Induction instead of a deduction.
I tried to listen not just to this sound but to every sound around. Just to listen to sounds without their reference or meaning.
And when I felt something in my arm—called a picket by my rational self— I let go of the instinct to react. The picket was not different from other sensations I was having in my body. In fact, I was feeling more pain in one of my feet because of the sitting.
I don’t know how to say it. Every sensation—not just the buzz or picket—were like the other sensations. They were just sensations I was perceiving.
For a moment, just for a moment at least, my cognition, my rational self—whatever you want to call it—was not in the game. I was having pure experience.
As I said, it was just for a moment. Maybe two or three little moments. Every time my cognition returned and started to opinion about the experience.
Step by step
When you give tips or recommendations about meditation or mindfulness, it feels like giving tips or recommendations about learning to ride a bike: good luck if you remember them when you struggle to not fall.
But, if you are lucky and a mosquito comes to your meditation practice (it can be a fly or the neighbor’s music in high volume) this is what you can do.
- First, convince your rational self that you are secure. You set a timer and you are committed to the practice. The mosquito, fly or party’s noise are no danger.
- Reinforce your commitment to stay quiet and fixed. Any movement adds distraction.
- This is the tricky part—and the difficult to explain. Try to feel and sense more than think. Your brain has a database of every sensation you have felt and what they are. Try not to name what you perceive.
- For example, when you hear a bark… that’s it, you already named it. Do you see it? The sound we call barking is already in our brain’s database. Try to ignore the relationship between the sound and the reference of the sound. Just listen without trying to identify it. A sound is just a sound.
Let me tell you something very important. Whatever happens in meditation it is not forever. Not the pain, not the uncomfortable posture, not the unsettled mind, not the buzz.
But there are going to be little moments, just little moments when you are going to attain the pure experience—the non-self, sunyata, satori, that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, nirvana, the here and now… whatever.
That’s it! Enjoy them. Try to prolong them and give them space.
And say thanks to the mosquito.