Monastery Lessons on Caffeine, Music, and Pain

Reflections from my final days at the monastery.

It was about noon and my third day without caffeine in at least six months. With long days and little sleep, I spent my first two weeks at the monastery drowning myself in British black tea to feign energy between the hours of 4:30am and 11pm. But as I attuned to the subtleties of my energy levels, I sensed the erraticism of a body relying on caffeine. My days were filled with moments of blind exhaustion followed by energetic oblivion with little time for vigilant stillness, an essential quality for fruitful meditation. I succumbed to delirium and fatigue in those first two days of abstinence, but eventually the turbulence of a caffeinated mind was replaced by a trustworthy energy. Much lighter and freer was this self-induced flame.

Glowing with a natural vitality on my third day sans caffeine, I relaxed into my meditation cushion and began to eat when I noticed a gentle presence next to me, an older Scottish man whose poise and posture suggested years of dedicated meditative practice. It was a Saturday and visitors traveled from miles away for the weekly meditation class. We watched together as throngs of men and women rushed into the temple with a determination more fit for a courtroom than a meditation hall, their forceful footsteps in jarring contrast to the peaceful ground they treaded on. “All of these people hurrying up to slow down,” he noted.

As a jazz guitarist, Neil often drew parallels between music and meditation. His eyes twinkled as he described the silence just before the first note of a song. Glorious anticipation. Then the silence following the final note. Chilling emptiness. This silence, he explained, is there the whole time, gently resting behind the melody, equally as poignant and beautiful.

And just like the silence behind the music, there is a subtle omnipresent silence within each of us, behind whatever emotion, thought, or drama is played in the forefront. It simply observes when we are anxious, in love, brokenhearted, inspired, bored. Dharma teacher Catherine Ingram eloquently describes this as a sanctuary “not in the circumstances of the world but in the recognition of the silence that contains it.”

To connect with the silence behind my melodies, I began practicing strong determination sits, a form of insight meditation taught by the venerated Burmese meditation teacher S. N. Goenka. During these one-hour sits I refrain from any movement whatsoever. Head, back, arms, and legs remain stone-like, and small nuisances, such as itches, are quickly overshadowed by throbbing pain invading my crisscrossed legs. Within thirty minutes my feet are no longer my own. I am unable to sense their contact with the ground and powerless in even moving a toe. After forty-five minutes the numbing pain crawls up my thighs, and as everything below my hips vibrates with agony, my entire body responds to the perceived threat. Heart pounding, eyes tearing, breath shortening. In the midst of internal chaos and external stillness I am forced to overcome my blind aversion and quietly observe the series of sensations in my body. And through a perspective that generates acceptance of life’s conditions, I notice an emerging capability to peacefully experience both pleasure and pain.

Our natural reaction to pain is panic. But a survival instinct that has served us well throughout evolution causes more harm than good in the relative safety of the modern world. Whether our chests are constricting as we cram for an exam or our stomachs are growling because our schedule excludes an opportunity for lunch, our bodies respond to small struggles as major threats that we reject and futilely attempt to evade. But this rejection, rather than the discomfort itself, is the greater component of distress and anxiety. If we just notice the stress or the hunger rather than fruitlessly fight it, we settle into silence, and our emotional reactivity dissolves.

How liberating it is to view emotional or physical pain as an opportunity to transcend our instinctive conditioned aversions. Behind the melody of frustration in traffic or of boredom in class, we can practice noticing the silence that nonjudgmentally observes and accepts both the conditions of life in that moment and our internal reactions. As the American meditation teacher Shinzen Young describes, each time we rest in silent observation, we are overcoming our emotional conditioning and “are moment by moment tasting purification.”

Gigi Falk, a sophomore at Duke University, is studying cognitive neuroscience with a focus in contemplative sciences. She is interested in exploring the intersection of mindfulness and neuroscience, in order to foster a deep and thorough understanding of meditation as mental training for a more fulfilling life. By exploring happiness and fulfillment as something that is internally driven and supporting such claims with science-based evidence, she hopes to contribute to the dialogue surrounding western meditation with a distinct voice.


Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on August 12, 2016.