Well I officially survived my second go at ten days meditating alone in silence. This time I went up to the meditation center in Merritt, British Columbia. I gave a bit more of a description of the meditation practice in my blog from last year, fell free to read that here if you are interested: My first ten days of silence.
Here are the basics:
-During the standard 10-day (11 night) course all students have to remain completely silent. Not only is talking not allowed, but reading and writing are also prohibited as well as eye contact and gestures. The idea is to act as if you are completely isolated.
-Both courses I have taken had about 50-100 students. The male and female students are segregated.
-Each day begins with a 4am wake up and ends at 9pm. The vast majority of those 17 daily waking hours are spent meditating with the exception of short breaks for meals.
-One additional challenge for me this time since I was a returning “Old Student” was that I could not eat anything after the 11am lunch. Meaning that from 11am until 630am the following morning I went without food.
-The meditation is called Vipassana, which is based on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha from 25 centuries ago.
-It is a completely universal practice, free from any religious dogma or sectarianism. Any person, with any belief system, can practice the meditation.
-Vipassana has been taught in its pure form since the time of Buddha in Burma and India, and in the last 50 years has rapidly spread to the Western World.
-There are now over 120 permanent Vipassana centers worldwide, spanning many countries and every continent.
-One very unique aspect is that all courses are completely free of charge. Even food and lodging are given freely, and all teachers and volunteers receive zero remuneration for services. All centers are sustained strictly by donations from Old Students. The growth in the amount of centers around the world over the last 50 years shows the strong commitment by those who have received this teaching.
So you are probably asking yourself why would I do such a thing? And maybe even more so why would I do this AGAIN?!
Before my first 10 day course last year I had never meditated in my life. I heard about the teaching and I have always been fascinated with the power of the mind. As an elite athlete I find that in many instances the outcome of races are determined by mental rather than physical strength. In the pro ranks we all have great coaching, great equipment, focus, dedication, talent etc. Yet our two-hour race is often decided by seconds (or in the case of the women’s Olympics race this year a photo finish for the Gold Medal). So at the end of the day what separates this top 1%? I would argue that a huge distinction comes from the strength and power of the mind.
Thus I originally stepped up to this mental challenge last year as a way of learning more about my mind and how to control it. My hope was to find a way during my offseason from training to actively exercise my mind to become stronger just as I do for my body swimming, biking and running everyday. From this mediation practice I have certainly achieved this goal, but the unexpected result is that I have also learned so many even deeper and more important lessons about myself that transcend the realm of elite sport and have positively impacted my personal life.
First I will share with you the lessons that I have learned that directly relate to triathlon and elite sport.
The main component of the meditation technique revolves around becoming aware of all of the physical sensations of your body. This may sound boring, but most the time meditating is spent focusing your awareness on different small sections of the body and training your body to feel the tiniest sensations. The sensations vary from the subtle sensations of air exhaled on your upper lip to an itching sensation on your leg. As you train your mind, you discover that every inch of your body is covered in tiny subtle sensations. At the nuclear level our cells are constantly in a state of change. As my mind became more and more sharp, I was able to feel subtle vibrations throughout my entire body resulting in a very euphoric experience.
There are three, one hour designated times during the day called sittings of strong determination. During these hours I was not allowed to adjust my posture at all. As you can probably imagine sitting cross-legged on the floor for an hour without moving is bound to create some unpleasant sensations throughout the body (back pain, knee pain, etc). With these unpleasant sensations the meditation practice teaches you to sit still and simply observe the sensations calmly, keeping perfect equanimity of the mind.
Of course, this creates the usual dichotomy of our minds; “good” positive sensations versus “bad” unpleasant sensations. However the teaching is based on the idea that everything in life (including life itself) is impermanent. All sensations rise, and at some point pass away. By observing my body on this extremely close level I was able to truly understand the law of impermanence, and begin to observe my body completely detached without craving the subtle vibrations and having aversion to the pain. Keeping in mind that in both instances the sensations are far from eternal. This lesson has great value for me as an endurance athlete. Each day as I attempt to make my body stronger I have to push it to the point where my lungs and muscles ache. Many people use the term mental toughness to describe ones ability to push the body beyond its perceived limits. By simply observing these sensations objectively I am able to push my body much farther without allowing my mind to shut my body down when it begins to hurt. The athlete who is willing to suffer the hardest and longest often wins triathlons. I have already seen my pain threshold increase with this new awareness and I have no doubt that through sustained meditation practice I will be able to continue to make my mind even stronger. It is, of course, easier said than done but my hope is to be able to teach myself to calmly observe my body objectively even in the most stressful moments when my heart is beating 195bpm and my muscles are on the verge of collapse.
The other extremely important triathlon related lesson I have learned has to do with patience and persistence. As a competitive athlete, I want to improve as quickly as possible. If it were up to me I would be the best triathlete in the world right now. However as with any high achieving goals, it takes years of constant hard work and refinement of the process to achieve absolute peak results. This is not a new realization of course, however the discipline required to sit silently and alone for 10 days has a way of showing the merits of patience and persistence.
If you look closely at the careers of the best endurance athletes in the world, all of them have built themselves into the athletes they are today, over years and years of dedicated training. It’s natural to want to win every race I compete in, but I realize to reach the ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics it will take continued deliberate practice, and many losses and hard lessons along the way. The key to success is that with each setback I can respond calmly and trust in the long-term process. I have been guilty of riding a rollercoaster of emotions after each less than favorable result. Building and trusting in the long-term process, rather than impulsively trying to change course with each setback, is the key to success. The meditation has shown me this, as initially my kneejerk reaction to sitting silently for days was boredom and discomfort. But by trusting the process and sticking with it even when times got extremely tough I have been able to see firsthand the fruits of my patience and persistence.
Many more elements comprise the life of a professional athlete than just training and racing. The life of a professional triathlete can be plagued by many inconveniences that can get in the way of the dedicated focus needed to succeed. We are all responsible for finding funding and sponsorship, working out the logistics of constant travel, spending long periods of time away from home, losing past friendships or relationships due to the unique lifestyle that does not mesh well with the typical social life of our peers…the list goes on and on. The introspective nature of this time in isolation has allowed me to see more clearly which of these elements are truly important, and where in my life I am adding superfluous stress. Being able to see this more clearly will without a doubt allow me to streamline my own process, and stay focused on the path toward achieving my goal.
I choose to apply these lessons in my personal pursuit of triathlon, but as I mentioned before this meditation practice is universal. These lessons can be applied to any personal goal. There is no doubt in my mind that this teaching can help many people clear their minds and respond to the world in a equanimous way that will lead to high achievement and success in many realms of life.
The ten days of silence has given me much more than simply a way of controlling my mind as I compete on the stage of professional sport. Although my goal of one day competing in the Olympics is paramount in my mind every day, when I sit back and look deeper I realize that ultimately I have a greater goal. Perhaps it sounds simple or trite, but ultimately my biggest goal is to live a life that maximizes my happiness. I think if you look at most peoples’ goals, happiness is at the root. We want better jobs, “successful” careers, more money, nicer things, etc because of the underlying belief that these things will make us happier. I think the mistake we are all guilty of is chasing certain things that we think will make us happy but at the end of the day are rather empty. For me material gain is not a driving force in my life, as I don’t see it as the ultimate path toward happiness. Rather I find that the relationships I nurture with family and friends are what make me most happy and content day to day.
During ten days of silence and isolation it is impossible to hide from yourself. I couldn’t help but relive both the joys and pains of the past, and think critically about how I want to conduct my life in the future. I recognize that there have been times in my life where I have had a blind dedication to achieving my goal with sport and I have stopped nurturing certain relationships in my life. There is no doubt that high achievement takes a particularly high level of commitment. However, the irony is that at moments where I thought I was dedicating myself 100% at the expense of personal relationships in my life, it actually led me to a place of isolation that was detrimental to my training and racing. I have unfortunately had to learn this lesson the hard way, but I am glad that I have. Standing on the top of the Olympic podium with a Gold Medal around my neck is only a worthwhile pursuit if I am also pursuing my own greater goal of ultimate contentment and happiness. If the cost of being an Olympic Champion comes with the price of isolation and sadness, than the cost is too high.
Jenna, my lovely girlfriend and number one supporter, accompanied me to the ten day retreat. This was her first time and similar to me last year, she hadn’t meditated a single second in her life before this. The men and women are segregated during the whole course, however everyone sits together in the meditation hall. The women and men sit on different sides of the room from each other, but you are all in one room. Jenna and I have known each other for five and a half years. Our romance started when we met on a tiny sand atoll in Fiji. Since then we have shared many adventures and our relationships has taken on many forms. We have experienced our fair share of ups and downs, but overall maintain a wonderful relationship. After five years you think you know most things about someone.
Even though we didn’t share so much as a glace the entire day, the experience has brought us closer than ever. Who knew sitting silently in a room with someone for ten days could have such an effect? The openness and honest dialogue we have shared this week while debriefing this experience has been truly amazing. I am so grateful to have such a wonderful women in my life. Last year I fell out of my daily meditation practice about three months after my first course. I’m hopeful now that Jenna has experienced the merits of meditation that we will be able to help each other maintain a consistent daily meditation practice for years to come. Not only has this strengthened my relationship with Jenna but it has also brought great clarity about the importance of all the wonderful people in my life.
Triathlon success is without a doubt the most tangible goal that I currently have in my life. Each day of my life is structured to maximize my potential for success on that path. I find this to be a worthy pursuit, and I have no doubt that the power I have gained over my mind during this meditation will help me achieve my goals. Overall, however, I am truly grateful that this time of meditation and introspection has brought me more in touch with my ultimate and more abstract goal of happiness. It has allowed me to find contentment in the little things. It has given me a vehicle for expressing my love and compassion in a more meaningful way. There is no doubt in my mind that this practice is something that every person can find benefit from. The challenge of ten days of silence and isolation is no doubt intimidating. But as with most things worth pursuing, the hard work is easily justified when you reach the end and experience the sublime peace that this practice brings. I highly recommend this to one and all.
*Note all pictures were taken after the course as we were not allowed phones/cameras during the course*