Recently I had the experience of going on my first residential retreat at Spirit Rock with Will Kabat-Zinn and Howie Cohn, two wonderful dharma teachers and kindred spirits. The retreat was called 'Natural Mind' and explored what we consider to be our “natural” states of awareness.
And what exactly is a natural state of awareness? Is that the mind’s tendency to wander, defend itself, escape, and constantly critique, plan, worry, and regret, I wondered? Or to watch in this meditation process, as Will conjectured, as one’s thoughts “get in every car that passes by, willing to trust any driver, head to any destination, even if it's remote, inconvenient or dangerous.” Or is the natural mind something else entirely: a state of ease, stillness, equanimity and loving-kindness? It took me five days meditating with an unrelenting migraine before I knew the answer.
Given these lofty goals of discovering the elusive natural mind and the opportunity to practice for five uninterrupted days and nights with other eager yogis, I was surprisingly undaunted when a massive migraine headache visited me only an hour or so into the first meditation. Not new to migraine headaches (or mindfulness meditation), I did not have to wonder for too long. The room became fuzzy, the otherwise soothing silence was drowned out by the A/C hum like the sound of grinding machinery, and the soft afternoon light filtering through the windows of the retreat hall was blinding me as if it were high noon. Very sensitive to light and noise and smell, I was overcome by the waves of nausea, queasiness and spinning that characterized this “meditation migraine.” Well, I thought, I could crawl back to my bed and be under the covers with a wet compress on my eyes; or I could sit here, back straight on the zafu, studying my symptoms with each breath— breathing in; breathing out. In, then out and just notice the headache inhabit my body and attention. I was not going to abandon myself or the project of finding my natural mind because of the headache.
Though I have studied and practiced meditation for more than 30 years, taught both adults and teens mindfulness techniques, and attended many day longs at meditation centers around the world, I had never actually attended a residential retreat. I always thought: my mind is a dangerous neighborhood where I don’t want to be alone at night. A psychoanalytically-minded talker by nature, I feared I did not have the endurance to face my inner turmoil and quietly withstand the constant barrage of internal mishegas. I dreaded the hours on the cushion, my creaky knees, the silence, the separation from home, my attachment to my beloved and my daily routines—particularly those that allowed me to escape. Would I be able to sleep? As a life-long insomniac, I knew the answer to that question. Yet sleeping through the night was only one of the fantasies I entertained and expectations I would have to manage in the course of the week.
Will I have to share a room? Allegedly I snore. Will I just worry about my roommate, the food, the next meal, my work meditation, that guy with the black socks and sandals sitting next to me? Or will I suddenly, through the sheer force of bliss and the spitfire engine of awareness, find my peace of mind, be able to sleep deeply without pharmaceuticals or bourbon? Will I love my work meditation cleaning the showers? Breathing in, scrubbing, calming my body and mind, breathing out, the-fungus-on-the-shower-tiles making me smile with joy…
Was this the natural mind I was paying for—a searing migraine? Is a migraine the natural state of my mind more so than my cynical self-absorption? And would I ever get it right, this natural thing? Or would it come to me in the silence of my mindful eating experience, each meal a slow motion pantomime of focused mastication and salivation. Each bite an opportunity to practice mindfulness and be with the mind in its natural state. I kept wondering and asking the teachers, but I would actually find out what that meant by the end of the week.
Though the migraine added decidedly more suffering than was required, I was happy to discover that I could not only endure the silence, but I even loved it. Slipping into the vastness, the resounding hum of my fellow yogis in the meditation hall was a pleasure. It certainly surprised me on the third day during one sitting when I felt a sense of sadness (rather than impatient relief) when the bell rang to signify the end of the sitting. I wasn’t ready for it to be over.
In becoming aware of my natural mind as the state of loving-kindness, compassion, calm stillness and balance, it seemed the migraine became my best teacher. Rather than being swept away by and absorbed into the very challenging symptoms, I was soothed by a sense of equanimity and calm cultivated through the intense practice schedule and the kind, astute teachers. My migraine may have started as an uninvited neighbor crashing my fabulous retreat, but ended up being just another yogi in the room.
Susan Charlip is a life long student of Insight Meditation, continually searching for truth, wisdom, and freedom from pain (though she would happily settle for the best punch line). She lives in Berkeley.