October 20th, 2021
I have been meditating since high school, which means I started nine years ago. I cannot help but think I am old after that statistic. The lengths of my meditation sessions have been 5, 10, and 20 minutes. For the past two years I have consistently been doing a nice and useful session of 5 minutes every morning, sometimes going to 10 minutes.
I decided I wanted to do a 60-minute session. Since 2016 when a coworker mentioned to me that he did 60-minute sessions, I have been aware of longer practices. There have also been a few recent acquaintances who have told me they do longer meditation sessions. These days I have a lot of free time, being in between jobs and working as an Uber driver. After having the idea that I could do it, I planned to do the 60-minute session within a week. It took less than seven days of organizing the event.
You may be wondering why I did not work up to 60 minutes by doing sessions of 30, 40, and 50 minutes. Perhaps that is smart, but these days I like taking the plunge. I like diving into something new without knowing about it.
First, I want to talk about the meditation technique I use. Vipassana meditation, an ancient technique that comes from India, is about allowing the mind to quiet itself naturally. This is done by identifying every thought that comes up, and then recognizing the thought as a distraction but accepting it, allowing the thought to pass on its own. This is about increasing the ability to be aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. When the thoughts lose power over your mind, the mind becomes a vast sea, quiet and undisturbed. It is fruitful to add and modify custom practices to this technique, which I have been doing for two years.
The day was October 2nd, 2021. I woke up and and did the morning ritual I have been doing for the past 5 months. Sequentially: I read 3 pages of my book, I prayed, but then I skipped the 5-minute meditation session. Then I had my breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios, with pecans, blueberries, raspberries, and milk. This is a delicious breakfast, and I recommend it.
At 11 am I had a call with my family. We did a video call to check up on each other. There were the usual exchanges and sharing. I decided to tell them I will try a one-hour meditation session today. My father asked for the translation of “meditation” to Arabic. My brother looked it up because we did not know. The translation was “amil.” (“A” as in “at” and “mil” as in “mill.”) After the call I was feeling perfectly ready, in good shape to start my mission. I waited for an hour to let my mind shift to other things. I started at 1:30 pm.
The experience of meditating for one hour was almost nothing like doing so for 5, 10, or 20 minutes. It was a different beast, and indeed beast is the right word. It felt like taking a drug more than doing a meditation session. I remember hearing gurus explain that psychedelic experiences can be attained with sufficient meditative practices. I did not believe it, but now, I do believe it. It felt like taking a small dose of a psychedelic drug. It was a trip.
To start, I could not get my mind to quiet. Nothing I was doing worked, and it felt like it increased in gear as time went on. I could not stop it. However, it was not regular thinking. I was in a trance state. My thoughts were more sublime, profound, and it felt like every thought had much more weight on it. Although I kept trying to apply Vipassana techniques, I was not in a Vipassana mode. It was more of an existential mode. I do not know what type of meditation it was. However, I do know that it was doing something, and as time went on and I struggled, it was doing something big.
I remember taking one break to get a quick drink of water at 40 minutes. But before that, at 30 minutes into the session, I remember getting a certain feeling of horror. The feeling was due to the utter largeness of the world around me. As my thoughts continued to become loud and arbitrary, and particular and strange, I realized the helplessness of thinking I have any good model of reality as it is. The thoughts that I was producing seemed so fake and futile compared to the bigness of the world knocking at my feet. This bigness filled me with tangible horror that persisted for the rest of the session as I tried to work through it. The question that I sensed was, “What can I make of the world? What can I say about it that is remotely true, with my very small and feeble mind?” This horror was what I would experience if I were standing off the edge of a giant wall.
As do a lot of millennials, I experience anxiety regularly. The feeling I experienced during this session was different from anxiety. It was more like fear, pure and beastly. The real world, including what was going on in my personal life, was so big and outside my mind, that I could not control it in the slightest, and the vision of that caused me fear.
The reason I felt a loss of control might have been because of the inability to pace myself. When meditating for shorter periods of time, I usually do a little bit of pacing, like so:
“For the first 33% of the session I will allow any thought to come up, I will observe it, and I will accept it as one of the thoughts that constitutes my chattering mind. For the next 33% of the session I will use the increased awareness and control to lower the frequency and magnitude of thoughts, and I will be aware of the emotions that come up below my thoughts. For the final 33%, I will explore where today’s meditation session takes me, allowing it to teach me, while having a greater focus on my body.”
A pacing like this works for 5, 10, and even 20 minute sessions. Since I had an entire hour, I could not stay in one section for that long a time. Therefore I lost structure. I could not find a foundation upon which to build useful practices. My mind became unrestricted, having no guidance for what to do.
Realizing lack of structure may be the weakness, I wondered whether I should impose more control on my session. For example, I could make the next 3-5 minutes about identifying thoughts. That way, I could make progress and not worry about what I will do after that. It will eliminate the fear, by making me hold on to control. I asked myself if I should do that and establish some control and pacing; or if I should use meditation to plunge into the unknown present moment, to surrender to the fear, and to explore the fear in the here and now.
I asked myself what a wise sage would do. The wise sage responded: “Play with both, and do not miss your opportunity to do both!”
The sage’s response made me feel a lot better. With newfound courage, I started listening to what the fear was telling me. I made the fear the object of the meditation session. I explored what the origin was of me feeling this way. It was time to give it all I have, and to remember the insights.
All of my epiphanies had to do with the illusory nature of reality. That does not mean that reality itself is an illusion. It means that what we tend to think and make of reality are illusions. More accurately, they were epiphanies about the illusory nature of our perceptions of reality. Still, it helps to think that reality is an illusion because we constantly experience reality through the lens of our perception. We constantly see illusions.
Also, the key to unlocking each of my insights was to know that feeling fear is okay. To try to not feel it is disastrous, because it will be unaddressed and creep up over time. To feel it is not as big of a scary deal as it often seems, and we learn a lot more by doing it.
A similar observation was shared, I learned after the session, in Bruce Tift’s book Already Free, where he writes, “An important distinction: it’s not our fears that are perpetuating our avoidant strategies but our efforts to not be aware of these fears. If my grief is the problem, then I have to somehow get rid of my grief. If it’s my avoidance of my grief, however, then the grief can remain, and my work is to train myself to have a relationship with that grief.”
The first insight was that the world is indeed big. Though we try, we cannot even pretend to understand it. There are more things happening around us than the mind can contain. It is true: consider one billion people, and that is already beyond what one can imagine. You cannot think about it; you are not able to. This is a fear, yes, but it is also a fact. That comforted me: I became more calm as I realized the limit on my perception was something I shared with all humans.
We see the world as small, but it is bigger than we know. This was an important insight because my limited perception on the big world was now its own object in my mind. I could reference it. That humbled me and gave me perspective. I want to note something. I can still grow in my understanding of the world, even though my belief and my understanding of the world are illusions. I can still make progress, even though I will always have limitations. In fact, recognizing the largeness of the world and my own limitations — that makes me open to considering the world to a greater extent and more clearly, even if my perceptions are still small. I only need to have this openness toward life’s events.
(This is my third rewriting of the above two paragraphs. I had to rewrite it until I figured out what I wanted to say about the topic, and indeed, what I really believe about it.)
The second set of insights related to the uncertainty of me, an agent, within the world. One hour after I finished this meditation session on the same day, the landlord of my apartment was coming to take measurements because soon I was moving out. I thought about this during the session. I began to get anxiety as I thought about all the different ways the meeting could go, and I began to experience fear as I realized the uncertainty of what my actions were going to be. I spent time wondering how I was able to have any successful meetings and interactions with people, given this substantial uncertainty. Noticing this gave me fear, but I could also see that this uncertainty was true.
And yes, this was some ordinary social anxiety as well. The fear was due to not being able to explain, and therefore consistently repeat, how I, as an agent, functioned in the world. To fashion a solution, I came up with a few thoughts. First, when meeting with someone, our brains independently form a list of events that are likely to happen, and they also already form a correct response to each event. When we enter a situation, we all automatically and naturally deploy these models. Not everyone thinks of what we do in this way, but we all do something like this. This allowed me to power through a good amount of my fear as well as anxiety. Second, faced with a circumstance where I had to function, it is helpful to start with one thought or emotion. Just one thought or emotion, even if it is not the best possible thing, often is enough to move forward toward the best and most correct models.
The third insight was about the illusions my mind inhabited with its personal storytelling. I have had similar insights to this earlier in life, but it is useful to experience all over again the error, fear, and lostness so that I can correct myself and live better. With about 10 minutes left in the session, I started thinking about moments in my video call with my family earlier that day. With nothing to do, I started picturing how I appeared. The problem here, aside from me being vain, which I think is not severe, was that I was using my wild imagination to self-narrate. I was not thinking objectively; rather, I was looking at what I did and then my imagination infused it with its own meaning. Let’s say I made a joke that demonstrated my intelligence. Then, out of nowhere, unexpectedly, I fantasized about myself as a deeply charismatic man, who never made a mistake.
I thought about all the people I met who might have this positive image of me. Suddenly I was not thinking about myself but a fairytale character who could do anything with his powers, who happened to be me. When I realized what my mind was doing, and that all of my energy was directed toward this active imagining, I could not tolerate how ridiculous I was being. Even when my thoughts were not so exaggerated, I found that I was looking for a fake story.
Perhaps it was because I could not bear to live with the simple facts. It disappointed me. What I thought was not true, and yet I was using it to inform how I may feel about myself. I decided to stop. I was creating illusions. The advantage of making this choice is that you wake up to reality, you can live in it, and you can act in it. It is fearful to let go of the illusions you put upon your place in the world, but you wake up, and it is priceless to be able to act with unquestionable clarity.
These insights lead to seeing the truth, in a sense. The illusions are unveiled and reality is seen for what it is. This effect is useful in detaching from dysfunctional narratives, and in trying other self-narratives. However, it tends to make one extremely sober. And that takes the zest out of living. I realized no one could live with an indubitable knowledge of the world for long. It is not because illusions are necessary. It is because being inspired with life and about life are important. One can only live like that. One should remember this when one is ‘waking up.’
I shared some of my personal solutions in dealing with these fearful truths, or what I call insights. However, the solutions are not part of the insights by any means. The insights, which are impermissibly horrifying or simply true, depending on one’s level of acceptance, stand on their own, whether one has ‘solutions’ for them or not. My insights were not in solving problems but in seeing the world differently to how I previously did.
I want to finish this essay with a few reflections. It is notable that on the night of my meditation day, I could not fall asleep until 5am. This has not happened in two years, and so it was certainly related to the mediation practice. My world was rocked. I stayed awake absorbing the new perspectives I was shown. 60-minute sessions such as this one are not the meditation I need regularly. However, it is useful to practice on occasion, and it acts as a reset. My plan is to stick to 5, 10, and 20 minute sessions once or twice per day, and that will suffice me. I will not be doing another 60-minute session soon.
Here is an outline of what I experienced in this session: First I encountered loss of control, followed by fear and horrifying emotions. Then I changed strategies and started listening to the fear as a teacher. Fortunately I was wise enough to take on a different perspective: that the fears were true, they could be perceived simply, and I could act in spite of them. As a bonus I gained new understandings and solutions that I carried with me into life.