Ten thousand breaths and steps at the Staveley Camp

Just returned from a silent insight meditation retreat at Staveley Camp and some thoughts are still fresh in mind, hence this post. I was thinking as the retreat continued with repeats of sitting silent meditation where we watched our breaths (in breath and outbreath) — this was mindfulness of the body (think of the four foundations of mindfulness as The Buddha taught — the mindfulness of the body meaning in this case breath, mindfulness of feelings whether pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral), mindfulness of the mind or mental formations and thoughts, and mindfulness of the phenomena or the theory of the world). Here we were focusing on the breath foremost and then to the feelings mainly whether we felt pleasant at the moment or unpleasant or neutral. It was moment to moment awareness. We were watching breath for 45 minutes altering with slow, gentle pace of walking along a path. The story has it that the Bhikkhus who were trained by The Buddha set a path of 10 paces, walked along the ten paces carefully noting how they walked not so much as where they went with the walking and went back and forth. We do not know how often they repeated this, but several books on The Buddha’s life that I have read mention that they did this repeatedly on all times of the day.

This brings me to the concept I started with. Ten thousand breaths. Each minute we take roughly 20 breaths (anywhere between 12–20 breaths, so say 20 breaths a minute). That would put about 1200 breaths/hour. On a 24 hour day then, we roughly have 24 x 1200 = 28, 800 ~ 30, 000 breaths. If we divide the hours of the day into three, this gives us roughly 10, 000 breaths every 8 hours. In our Southern Insight Meditation retreat (SIM retreat), which was in a spectacular place nested in the Southern Alps (the Mount Sommers region of the South Island of NZ), the retreat was a bootcamp of intense practice, where each of us and our Master meditators (Ven Roshi Subhaba Barghazi and Ven. Julie Downard) spent hours with us, we started the day at 6:45 on meditation (silent breath watching mindfulness of the body meditation) and worked for 45 minutes; then we moved to either stand or walking meditation for another 45 minutes. This continued till an hour break for breakfast at 7:30 AM, after which we had periods of work (different types of work assigned to each one depending on our interest: for instance, I chose to work in the kitchen as helper), and we resumed our practice at 9:30 AM and continued this till 12:30 PM till lunch; we had two hour break at lunch and then we resumed our routine of alternating between breath meditation and walking meditation (where you’d also watch your breath AND your walk) till 5:30 PM when we had an hour of evening tea break (the tradition had it that monks would eat only ONCE a day but we were graciously allowed three meals, a morning breakfast, lunch and evening tea). The food were nutritious and very well balanced given our level of activities (some plant based protein, vegetables, and a right mix of salads and carbohydrates — I’d say if you read accounts of retreat foods that are usually served across the world, this is perhaps the best balanced meal you can get); besides the food was plant based and environment friendly, and very very tasty (this is of course my assessment and subjective: taste varies with people, but I found that in the retreat nearly 100% people (there were about 50 of us) finish off the food without leaving trace on their plate and go for second helping, this should be a signal that people might be hungry, but the food was not also well received and palatable!). After an hour break for evening tea, we went back to the breathing, with an hour of dharma talk in between, we worked till 9:00 PM.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I did the math and I found that we spent roughly 8 hours of mindful breathing. This is enormous and the importance of a mediation camp in Staveley sinks in when you come home all energized and start your practice. At that point the enormity of the opportunity of practicing 10, 000 mindful breaths over and over again every day in the retreat sinks in. Each breath was an opportunity and an invitation to get deeper into reality.

Ten thousand mindful breaths every day in repeat high intensity practice. That opportunity, to me, is the reason I will return to the Staveley Camp again, perhaps every time they offer a meditation retreat if I can get a place. So should you. This was high performance mental activity that we were immersed in while we were all well cared for.

Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outlier about 10, 000 hours of deliberate practice to attain mastery or expertise. People have designed programmes based on this idea. Considering each hour of repeated practice forms the basis of a time based mastery, consider the power in each mindful breath we take in our insight meditation practice. Indeed, as Larry Rosenberg argues in “Breath by breath”, it is each breath that matters. Close your eyes, focus on the breath you take, focus on the in- and the out-breath; the ebb and flow of the breath and train your mind as you do. Now, think about it: we falter the first time; try another breath, and so on. You have 10, 000 chances to fine tune that process. Every day.

Compare that to what happens to many of us at home. If we are dedicated, we we can set our practice for one hour every day, we will manage about a thousand breaths to focus on. In the retreat, that opportunity is magnified 10 times giving us more space.

But why does that training on the breath matter?

Breath matters because focusing on the breath brings you to the present. Being in the present, “here and now” also means that it is easy for you to control and watch your other emotions, and thoughts. It takes time to get to a point where you become consciously aware of your in breath and out breath (“breathing in” and “breathing out”) and focus on your nostrils or tip of your nostrils, or your abdomen or your chest and “feel” the movement of air that flows in and out. That quietening of the mind through the breathing process is important for our practices. Once you are comfortable with the breath, then you can expand the process anchoring on your breath to widen your consciousness to your feelings, your mental state, and to the “theory of the state of existence (in Buddhism, this is the Dharma)”.

So, step by step:

Step 0. Set a timer and give yourself plenty of time, at least 25–35 minutes, the longer the better. It’s a myth that you can meditate for five or ten minutes, won’t work. You can start with say 10 minutes but make sure to increase by at least five minutes till you reach 35 minutes. Anything less is not going to work (well not quite true, they will, but not much fun, you will need to do it mechanically every day and then get up in ten minutes). I use the free “insight timer” and I use two bells: one for starting and one for ending. You can also use a kitchen timer. The timer is not important as time is not important here. You can mark your breath (roughly 20 breaths a minute so you know when it is a minute). Set the timer and forget it. The machine will remind you when you are done.

According to B. Allan Wallace, a daily practice of 35 minutes of mindful meditation for seven years is a minimum you will take to realise the effects. So if you do not get instant results, do not be disheartened. This is not magic. As I feel now, at leat 10, 000 breaths continuous practice will get you to a point where you will start getting to settle with the breath. This is where attending a retreat is an invaluable experience if you are serious about it, because practically at home you can manage say 1000 breaths if you are diligent. In the retreat they will make you work hard and at least expect a minimum of 10, 000 breaths a day. Enough practice even if you can only afford to stay for a short stint, not the 10-day period (the full 10-day period following everything in the retreat is the ideal). If you are based in New Zealand/Australia, I strongly recommend attending the Southern Insight Meditation retreat at Staveley for four reasons:

  • it is nested in a perfect setting, (if they did not have those modern looking accommodations, you could be forgiven for thinking you are in the 500 BC Bodhgaya somewhere in a village; they practically create a monastic kind of rustic life within a 21st century campsite; I am not exaggerating, you have to be there to experience it)
  • the experience is as authentic as it gets, as they follow a 2500 year old tradition sincerely with EVERY aspect of silent meditation gets covered. But no gimmicks, no pretensions, no show-off, and that’s a huge plus for me.
  • and it has that right mix of neither too spartan nor too luxurious;
  • plus excellent nourishment to keep you going for a high performance mental, attentional training, and a camp at Staveley is hard work. You are looking at serious levels of attentional training.

Step 1. Sit upright but relaxed. Think of the pelvis “slightly tilted to the front”, the spine relaxed, head upright. Put your hands together and touch your chin with both hands put together with the fingers, and tuck in the chin a little bit. If you use a cushion and a zabuton to sit, sit on the edge of the zabuton and fold the knees so that the knees must touch the cushion, forming a triangle. So as the zen masters would advise, sit like a mountain. You can also use a seiza bench and support yourself. The posture is important as if you need to sit for a long time, an upright posture that is relaxed is important. If you are in a retreat, you may need to sit for long periods and you can get sore. The more upright and relaxed you can sit, the better it is. If you sit for a long time (say 35–45 minutes at a stretch), you may get “pins and needles” in one of your legs (the leg that supports the other), this is due to pressing of nerves. Relax your posture and switch the posture.

Step 2. Focus your attention to your nostrils or your chest, or your abdomen. It depends where you find your breath flows easiest. For me, it is the tip of the nostrils. Since we do not breathe equally through both nostrils all the time of the day, it is natural and normal to find that at certain time of the day you may feel that one nostril seems to be more open than the other, and that is OK. If you have to breathe through the mouth, then do so. The point here is to note the flow of air through the passages. You do not have to imagine the anatomical pathways through which the breath flows, it is very important to locate where you can feel the breath comes in and goes out. The upper lip, for instance, how does it feel? Does the cold air flow in and warm air flow out? What is the quality of the breath? Is it rough? Is it smooth? Silently note “in” and “out”.

Step 3. Close or half close your eyes. The scriptures advise that you should keep your eyes half closed. See for example, the paintings and portrayals of the Lord Buddha: eyes compassionate but half closed, looking at 45 degree angle front and down. If you keep your eyes half closed looking at nothing in particular in the front, it protects you from falling asleep; this is particularly useful in staying “awake”. After all the purpose of this exercise is to “awaken yourself” or “wake up”. I personally find it easy to close my eyes when I meditate. It helps me to stay focused on my breath for longer period.

Step 4: Watch your breath. Initially, a lot of thoughts will flow across your mind. Keep coming back to the breath. If it itches, watch the breath and then in between the breaths, note the nature of the itch. Does it tickle? Is it painful? Use the itch to detach yourself from your sensation. An itch or tickle is actually a VERY helpful tool to quickly get settled in meditation particularly if you DETERMINE that you are not going to use counter-irritation (this is what we do when we scratch an itch). You will see that the sensation will gradually fade. Continue in this mode till the timer goes off. Very gently, after the final gong or final sound dies off, open your eyes. Very slowly get up from the sitting posture.

That takes care of your 500 breaths.

(This essay/post is not complete; it will continue )

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in: https://refind.com/arinbasu

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