Travel Diaries #20 - One Big Long Meditation Retreat

Is it possible to meditate too much? Being aware of yourself and everything around you for every second of the day can get stressful, which is inevitable when you join a retreat within a retreat

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“Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space”

-         Spiritualised – Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

I left the meditation centre in high spirits, but it quickly became apparent that the effects of all my meditating wouldn’t quite wear off.

Chinese water torture works to destroy every last drop of the victim’s psychological defences, not because the steady drip of water is painful or crushes the skull in itself, but because the concentration of one’s attention on one thing alone for an extended period of time tricks the mind into believing that this single steady drip-dropping of water is so monumentally important through its sheer repetition, that the victim begins to believe that the weight of an arctic truck is colliding – or at least fears that it’ss going to – with the centre of their forehead every few seconds. 

The retreat felt somewhat similar. Except instead of a drop of water, you’re forced to focus on your own thoughts and sensations. In the infinite abyss of a day spent meditating where you’re not allowed to speak to the people around you; where even the sensory inputs of food and the stimulation of books are withheld to force your attention inwards and inwards alone, every day feels like a lifetime, or no time at all.

The boredom attacks you and bores a hole through your core, permeating every fibre of your body, which you’ve been instructed to meditate so intensely on that you can actually feel its atoms vibrating as a swirl of energy. Or so they tell you. All the spaces within you, it finds all of the microscopic particles that aren’t rooted in the present moment, filling them with boredom, like the sea rushing in to fill all the space between the rocks on the shore.

You make your peace with it and learn to deal with it, and when you return to your normal life, it washes off you.

In his sort-of travel memoir Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, Geoff Dyer writes about a period he spent in Rome when the whole city slowly shut down for the August holidays. The streets empty and the businesses close and the people disappear, and the effect is that time itself expands to fill the frighteningly vast space of the deserted city. It is “the opposite of an earthquake” – nothing happens.

In a later chapter he describes the effects of the onset of a near nervous-breakdown, wherein, unable to concentrate on his work for any length of time, he realises he’s become acutely aware of every single passing second in each day, in an exquisite passage which I will quote in full as there’s no way I can express it better by paraphrasing it:

“Each day was scattered into a million pieces. A day was not made up of 24 hours but of 86,400 seconds, and these did not flow into one another, did not build as letters do, into words and sentences, so that as a consequence, there was not enough time to get anything done…

Ten hours was not enough time to get anything done, because it wasn’t really ten hours, it was just billions of bits of time, each one far too small to do anything with.”

And so my days went.

After the retreat I spent a week relaxing, writing and surfing (in theory, in reality it’s questionable if I did any of those things) in Ichinomiya, a town south-east of Tokyo and the location for the first-ever surfing contest in the forthcoming (if ever) Olympics. From there I travelled to Kamakura, another beach-side town on the other side of Tokyo, my week following a similar pattern. I went sight-seeing and took photos and relaxed in onsen.

All very lovely – and very passive – activities. But I was just living a purposeless peripatetic existence, killing time by sight-seeing and sitting still, when the reality of it was that I was just utterly and painfully bored out of my mind.

The meditation instructor had taught us how to live a life free from attachments. My problem though was that now I had absolutely no attachments, whatsoever. Nowhere to be, as free as a bird. The immense difficulty of engaging any sort of conversation when nobody spoke English – and maybe more to the point, I spoke no Japanese – cast me into a cycle of becoming uninterested in even bothering to try.

They say the Japanese are polite and reserved, too much so to interact with or really get to know if you’re an outsider, holding little interest in causing a fuss by engaging with strangers. And this is true, as it is of anyone, from anywhere in the world, if you yourself are overly polite, reserved, and hold little interest in causing a fuss by engaging with strangers.

When you have no routine to mentally secure yourself to the passing of time, every day feels like it lasts forever, but it also feels like they last for no time at all. A second feels like a day and a week also feels like a day. It is the effect of intense meditation, and it is also the effect of travelling with no purpose. Time loses its meaning. Similar to our current lockdowns, weeks pass in an hour and days last forever. The resulting chaos is neither good or bad, it simply is what it is. Though normally in times of stress and uncertainty we have things to keep us grounded, even if it is the simple fact of the familiarity of our surroundings and our routine.  

This is how travel works as a means of self-examination, if it is to be used as such at all. Travelling to a foreign land make you hyper-aware of everything about yourself and how you interact with the world. The familiarity of home forms a scaffolding that you guides you through your days.

At home you walk to Tesco in your sleep. There is no mental taxation to the ordinary routine of your life. Or at least, the small things are ordered enough to let you focus on the big things, the bits of novelty scattered throughout the day. While travelling in foreign places, or uncertain and new situations, the order is reversed. With no ‘big’ things to worry about (at least in theory) all of your attention instead is busy with the smaller things, your daily existence. In foreign lands every trip to the supermarket is a travel experience. Every conversation, every interaction – even if enjoyable and interesting and all that – is exhausting. That’s why you usually go home after a week or two. Home to bed and to reorder your frazzled, if somewhat amused, mind.

The further away from home you go, the more the invisible architecture of the world dissolves, and the easier it is to descend into chaos. There is no familiarity to fall back on. It is not just in the shape of their churches or the side of the road they drive on or the funny hats. The differences filters down to the micro-expressions and movements of everyday life. Just paying for something in a shop, something you’d assumed would be universal, becomes something it’s possible to get wrong.

At home mental taxation of existence and novelty is soothed by familiarity. Simple things like conversations. Small-talk in a shop is a salve. Regular conversations with friends give you energy. Your habits revitalise you. Every time you have a meaningful interaction with someone or do something within your comfort zone it restores some of your life force, and the day becomes manageable, as do the longer periods and goals of your life.

This was the effect of the retreat. It stripped away all the psychological lifebuoys which you take for granted every day of your life. Was time moving incredibly quickly, or incredibly slowly? Even time had become meaningless. When there is no time, there is no way of orienting yourself in relation to the objects of the world. The paradox of extreme monotony is that it is extremely chaotic to experience, as we become most in tune to the goings on of our own minds, a constant game of ping pong with no breaks.

All that is left is you reflecting on yourself. An extreme process of mindfulness and self-examination. This would be difficult enough if you could return afterwards to your normal life, your job, your routine, your family and friends. Coming home from holidays always takes a day or too of adjusted, as do Monday mornings following the weekend break.

If everything was just the same as you’d left it, your life would be like a jacket held out by a tailor that you would simply slide your arms back into and it would restore all of your externalities – the suit that is the life you have made for yourself – and your inner being would be supported as you cemented yourself back into your newly awakened form.

Instead I left the retreat and just found myself in the same situation on a larger scale, except with much better food. No attachments. No communication. Always practicing awareness, whether I liked it or not. The world a blank white space, just one big long meditation retreat.

The problem with this purposeless freedom that travel offers, and this endless mental freedom of awareness - detached from all things - is that you must choose to act, every single moment of the day. Freedom comes with a price. You get to choose, but you also must choose. And it is exhausting.

Those last two and a half weeks in Japan were both the longest and shortest two weeks of my life. I remember nothing of it at all, and I remember every second in excruciating detail, a form of information overload. I floated from city to city, going to bed one night and waking up the previous morning, my life defined and recalled not by the linear passing of time but by an irregular scribbling of notes and diary entries and temple visits and photos and booking confirmations. Desperately trying to impose some sort of order on my life by pretending I was living a normal life of routine: going for runs, visiting the same restaurants every morning and night, and giving myself work to do in the form of writing, as if to atone for the fact that I was drifting around so aimlessly.

Practicing awareness. Acutely aware of every atom in my body, aware of every second of the day – all 86,400 of them. Reminding myself of who I was and how to function every time the clock ticked like the steady drip of a tap. Unable to maintain any sort of coherence to my thoughts or actions. Practicing equanimity like I was told to, but secretly wishing I could throw my lot in with one side or the other, to take the good or the bad and be glad with them. Anything just to break the monotony of extreme presence, of total awareness, of this day and the last one and the next, crashing into the centre of my forehead like an arctic truck.

And so my days went.

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