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Mindfulness in the digital age

One man’s search for the off button...

Dec 19, 2016

by Sebastian Gault

13-mindfulness-in-age-of-distraction-story

Vacations used to do their job for me: They vacated stress and recharged batteries. But things have changed. Today, even the remotest cabin by the lake can’t put me beyond the ping of email. The work-life balance seems to have gone the way of the dodo. For many of us, work has swallowed up life.
Last summer was a case in point. It was an anti-vacation where my stress levels trended up, not down. Even on daily hikes and bike trips, I had packed my phone so I could stay connected to happenings in Calgary. I checked in secretly, when the family wasn’t looking. I couldn’t help myself. I felt like an addict.

One poll showed that one in 10 vacationers check their work email once every hour. That’s me. Mea culpa.

Vipassana is supposed to lead you back to the moment. The meditation cushion is supposed to become a charging cradle for the spirit.

My wife has no empathy for phone-OCD. She suggested I try therapy, but it would have to be in a prison or monastery, some place where phones were strictly verboten. She was joking, but it hit home. The more I thought about it, the more she seemed right, so I decided to take action.

I researched a variety of retreats in Alberta from yoga, Christian prayer and Zen to music, writing and tantra for couples. Most seemed to focus on mindfulness, creativity and stress-reduction, but nobody I knew could vouch for one.

Then I received a personal referral from Ed Whittingham, executive director of the environmentalist Pembina Institute, whom I had once interviewed for an oil and gas article. Whittingham told me of his experiences at a meditation centre near Merritt B.C. where you live like a Buddhist monk, but on a short-term basis. The centre offered bootcamp-style training in vipassana, a 2,500-year-old meditation practice.

The clincher for me was that participants are without access to email, telephone, internet, radio and other comforts like meat, alcohol and reading. I told my family about it that evening. The kids didn’t look up from their Minecraft app. My wife rolled her eyes. So I booked a spot and prepared
for adventure.

A few weeks later, in early August, I arrived at the course location just in time to hear the orientation talk before 80 participants and staff. The program sounded grim indeed: Wake up at 4:00 a.m.; seated meditation for 10 and a half hours each day; lights out at 10:00 p.m.; day
after day, for 10 days.

One participant, an RCMP officer, leaned over and explained that he meditated to acquire equanimity. Next to him, a retired Indian gas pipeline inspector and an Iranian engineer were arguing quietly about the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan. A young Japanese man with dreadlocks smiled at me enigmatically. It was an eclectic crowd.

I put my wallet, phone and car keys into a labelled bag and handed them over to the program coordinator. Like everyone else, I signed a formal pledge to stay until the last day. I was surprised how uncannily easy it was to give away these trappings of freedom.

I thought about a documentary I’d recently watched on how India had begun using this exact same vipassana course to address high recidivism rates in its prison system. In interviews, convicts describe the course conditions as tougher than those in the jail. They embraced stern discipline out of zeal to reform themselves. Hardened murderers came out softened. So there was hope for me.

The crowd filed slowly into the meditation hall. “Noble silence” began – there would be no talking, or any other form of communication, like eye contact, until day nine. Inside, a cushion marked the spot where I’d end up spending the longest 10 days of my life. My temporary prison term had begun.

As an active person, I knew meditation, which is essentially doing nothing, wouldn’t be easy. The underlying idea is that we distract ourselves all the time with activities because we’re not comfortable staying in the “here and now.” You often check that email, for instance, as an escape, not out of real necessity. Vipassana is supposed to lead you back to the moment. The meditation cushion is supposed to become a charging cradle for the spirit.

At the first sitting, we learned how to calm the “monkey mind” by focusing on breathing. On day four, participants were instructed to direct attention to bodily sensations, but without reacting to them. In three hour-long sittings each day you were supposed to remain perfectly motionless. Without a doubt, this exercise pushed me to the outermost limits of my endurance.

Despite this masochism, it became clearer that the more you relax, the less the pain. In fact, when you get good at vipassana, you become detached and see pain and everything else going on in your body and mind more objectively. Hence, the famous line about meditation: observation lies between expression and suppression.

After sitting with closed eyes for more than 100 hours, without access to wireless, even diehard workaholics start to show interest in things they usually miss or dismiss. On the last evening before lights out, for instance, all the men (the women were in a separate area) watched in silent awe as the moon glided up between the pine trees.

I was a child the last time I had looked up at the night sky with such wonderment. Would some of this magic persist for longer, even among the usual complications of project deadlines, small talk and martinis? I suppose that was up to me.

From the course pamphlet I learned that only those who had completed a course were allowed to make a payment. If you do pay, your money goes not toward yourself but toward another participant. You literally pay it forward. Evidently, just as the course is based upon a different psychology of experience, so too is it based on a different economic calculus.

From a businessperson’s perspective, of course, the system seems destined to failure. But the undisputable success of centres like this one reminded me of how altruism can work well as a business model, albeit under special conditions.

That might have been one of the greatest lessons from the retreat – that the world offers many other ways of living and thinking and feeling. The occasional break from routine can help to shake us out of our narrow-mindedness. During the eight-hour drive back to Calgary, I decided to keep the smartphone turned off. For the first time in a long time, I felt blissfully relaxed.

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