5 Hours of Nothing

It would be nice in meditation practice if it was easy to see when we make improvements, like adding another 5kg on the weight stack at the gym, but the reality is that we very rarely see the changes happening in real time. In many cases we don’t even realise something has changed for us until we look back after a while and think ‘oh, I don’t do that thing any more’ or ‘actually my sitting meditation has been a lot more settled for a while now’. This is something the Buddha recognised though; in the Nava Sutta the Buddha says that just as a carpenter doesn’t know exactly how much he has worn down the handle of his tool in one day but he will know that it is worn out when it is worn out, we won’t know how much we have worn down our cravings and desires every day until they are finally gone.
We need to keep applying ourselves to the practice over and over again without looking for instant results. We’ve all sat in meditation then at the end thought to ourselves ‘that was a really bad sit’. What we mean by bad sit depends on what we were trying to achieve, if you wanted to do concentration but your mind was all over the place then you might be tempted to say that you have failed in your intention, so you think you had a bad sit. Often you will have weeks and months in a row of sits like this, but you have to persist. As long as you are using your chosen meditation technique properly and are coming from the right place then you are making progress, whether it seems obvious to you or not.
I was inspired to write this post because of an experience I had when I was on retreat a few weeks ago where I thought nothing was happening in my meditation. On some retreats on the last full day of the retreat the Ajahn will sometimes make some space for you to have a longer meditation sit than on the other days. I had been quite comfortable in my sits and I had got to day four without any significant sitting injuries, such as sore knees or back, so I decided that I would make that day my long sit day even if the Ajahn didn’t write it into the plan. If I was comfortable enough I decided, then I would just continue to sit while everyone else went out to do walking meditation, and then keep sitting until the end of the second sitting meditation. This worked out at a little under 3 hours.
So I sat, and sat, and sat. Mostly I didn’t have much pain to contend with, I was quite peaceful, but my mind wasn’t silent and I didn’t drop into deep jhana for 3 hours. I was pretty much just sitting there, dealing with things as they came up, then enjoying it while nothing was coming up, then back to dealing with whatever was coming up again. Repeat for 3 hours. You might think that after 3 hours some kind of insight was bound to come up, but no, I just sat, I breathed in, I breathed out, I watched my mind, I moved my foot a bit, that’s all. I was pretty sure nothing had happened to me during this sit and that I hadn’t gone into any deep states, I did wonder what it would be like to open my eyes again after 3 hours with them closed but other than that I wasn’t expecting anything.
When I did finally open my eyes I was really surprised to find that my mind was completely empty and I was unable to move, not through any kind of paralysis but because there was simply no desire to do anything other than be exactly where I was. I didn’t really know what to do, if I should force myself to get up or not, but we had broken for lunch early and I had about 15 minutes to spare before I had to eat so I just sat where I was not moving a muscle and with my eyes fixed on the Buddha rupa on the shrine. After about 10 minutes some of my senses came back to me and I got up and went to lunch as normal. Nothing remarkable appeared to have changed once I got myself off the cushion, I went about my affairs as normal during the lunch break.
I had the long meditation sessions bit between my teeth though and I decided that rather than join the afternoon session for sitting, I would go out and do walking meditation for the 3 hours of the session. The spot I had chosen for my walking meditation was one that is particularly inspiring to me; in the Buddha Grove at Amaravati an oak tree was planted in memory of Dipa Ma, one of my great meditation heroes. Behind this tree is a nicely worn walking path with a plump conifer tree at the other end, so all I had to do was walk from one tree to the other and back again until my time was up.
The presence of Dipa Ma’s tree was also an inspiration to me, when I looked at it I remembered how people said that when she stood, she just stood, when she walked, she just walked; she kept her mind entirely on the task she was doing and nothing else. I looked at the tree, solid and unwavering like Dipa Ma and resolved to apply myself completely. I also recalled the story of the time she told Joseph Goldstein to sit for two days continuously – not a two day retreat but literally a two day meditation sit – and when he questioned he she simply said ‘Don’t be lazy’. Don’t be lazy was ringing in my head, don’t be lazy, just do it. I’ve never actually done a 3 hour walking meditation before, long sits I have done before but never a long walking meditation, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into, I only knew my feet were likely to get sore.
So I walked, and walked, and walked. People come onto the field at Amaravati in waves, so while everyone else was sitting in the shrine room I pretty much had the place to myself. As people came out and filled the field then went away again, I felt a bit like one of the trees, just watching all this coming and going around me but not being bothered by it. After an hour my feet started to get sore, but they didn’t get any worse. After two hours I realised that I didn’t need to say the Buddho mantra in my head quite as loud as I was. But nothing really happened, I didn’t have any piercing insights or seemingly get any closer to enlightenment.
But as I got to near the end of my walking time something finally did occur to me after spending 5 hours looking for a revelation, I realised that the revelation for me on that day was that I was prepared to sit for nearly 3 hours and walk for 3 hours just to see what happened. I didn’t know what would happen, or if I could do it, but I was prepared to try. I made the intention to use my energy and effort in that way, to apply myself to the practice and not do something else instead, and that was what I gained out of an apparent 5 hours of nothing extraordinary. You might not think much of it as an insight but for me it was a significant one, I have always been a terrible clock watcher when it comes to meditation, my mind always wondering how much time has passed and how much is left, always desperate for the bell to ring. But on that day I was just where I was, doing the thing I was doing and didn’t want or need to be anywhere else, no wondering about how long there was left, and that for me is a big change. Like the handle of the carpenters tool I had no idea that I had been wearing away that habit of clock watching until I applied myself to my long sit and long walk, then I realised I could just be where I was and not need to want to be somewhere else.
I mention this story for two reasons, the first one is to show that even when nothing appears to be happening in practice it always is, and the second one is to show how mundane most practice actually is – you might think that 5 hours of meditation equals guaranteed bliss but in reality it is just your usual ordinary sitting experience but much longer. I’m not recommending 5 hours of meditation as a basic practice though, this isn’t for everyone and certainly not for beginners. This was possible for me because first off I was on retreat, I had 3 days of continuous practice to prepare me for it in an environment that was designed to support meditation and I had nothing else to attend to, no duties or responsibilities. Secondly I’m an experienced meditator, and thirdly I know when I am being too hard on myself, at no point was this a punishing experience. It was often a bit boring, but it was never punishing.
Willingness to practice is often the only attribute we have when our sits are difficult and restless day after day but we continue to do them, and this is all we need. If we are willing to try just to see what happens then in time something will happen. There’s really no way for us to ever really understand just how much we learn from any one individual meditation session, like constantly polishing a gemstone each stroke appears to make no individual difference but without all of them the gem would never begin to sparkle. Keep practicing even when you can’t see where the benefits are coming from because you will only get to see the benefits if you continue to practice.

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