I recently attended my first Vipassana silent meditation retreat and it was both intense and life-changing. What I learnt about myself is far more than I can fit neatly into an 800-word blog post, so I should warn you now that there might be a few.
“Your only job is to activate awareness in the present moment.”
This was the line our teacher used to explain our sole responsibility for the duration of the retreat. It may sound simple enough but believe me it was not.
Activating awareness in the present moment means keeping your mind from dwelling in the past or the future and instead totally focused on the present moment. This, as our teacher said, was my only job from 4am to 10pm every day for 7 days and, despite being difficult, was in many ways a very beautiful and profound experience. Time slows down just enough that you can see things as they really are, which is what Vipassana means – insight into the true nature of reality.
Present moment awareness
Spending this amount of time in silence and focused on the present moment was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The technique we were taught asks you to focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe in and out. If you place your hands on your belly right now and continue to breathe as normal you’ll see that the belly rises when you breathe in and falls when you breathe out. The task for us was to focus on this simple and subtle movement as a way to keep your mind in the present.
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
Of course, in the beginning of the practice this kind of focus can only be maintained for seconds before thoughts arise and distract the mind from following the breath. When this occurs, “Know it, note it and let it go” was the other mantra bestowed upon us by our teacher. Meaning that whatever thought, sensation or emotional state arises we can know it (acknowledge its existence), note it (label it for what is it is, such as thinking or hearing etc) and then let it go (allow it to fall away without attaching to it).
What does this have to do with hill running?
Before I went into retreat, I had been walking/running a 40-minute route of small and not so small hills, every evening around sunset. Because of the hills, I run when I can and walk when I feel on the verge of collapsing from oxygen deficiency. The run starts with a ridiculously steep hill and before I entered the retreat, despite months of trying, I hadn’t yet managed to get to the top of it without running out of breath and stopping to walk the last few metres.
On leaving the retreat, having not exercised for 10 days, I wondered how I would fare. On my second day, I made it to the top of the hill and I did it using what I had learnt on retreat.
When my body started to groan with the pain of the challenge, I knew it, noted it and I let it go. I knew that what was going on in my body, whilst uncomfortable, was not going to kill me and so rather than attach to the sensations of my burning thighs or the breathlessness, I noted them and let them go. That day I made it to the top of the hill. I won’t lie, my legs nearly buckled under me shortly afterwards and it took the rest of the route for me to catch my breath but I did it because I stayed present and refused to become attached to the physical sensations and emotional states that arose.
I also did something else that was crucial to my success. Not once did I look up to see how far I was from the top of the hill – instead my focus remained firmly on what was going on in the present moment and my gaze was cast downward watching one foot fall in front of the other.
Achieving your dreams
One of the biggest problems people suffer when it comes to achieving their dreams is dealing with overwhelm, what I learnt on the course coupled with my experience of hill running has made me realise that I only suffer from overwhelm when I look too far ahead into the future. No one loves to plan and set goals more than me and when it comes to making lists, some might even say I have a problem. On one level this has seen me achieve many things that I never thought possible, but on another it can contribute to a feeling of overwhelm that can prevent me from moving forward. Since I came out of the retreat, I’ve realised the importance of keeping my head down and focusing on the task at hand, rather than gazing off into the distance at some dream future.
“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” ~ Alan Watts
What I’ve realised is that I’ve done the work to sketch out where I want to be in one, two, five years from now but my focus mustn’t remain in the future. My focus must be on the now. Enjoying my life as it is today and taking the small steps that will eventually get me to the top of the hill.
I know now that when I’m living in the future or the past, I’m missing out on what really is.
How good are you at living in the present moment? Have you ever tried meditation? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below and if this post resonates, please do share it by hitting one of the buttons below.