One Ten-Day Meditation Course Can Change Everything

Aug 21, 2012 at 12am

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San Francisco is a city of creative escapists. In the '60s, trippers were warping their minds with psychedelics. Now we’re transcending reality through technology. (We’re not really bored at a Muni stop; we’re spiraling through a universe of status updates.)
It’s exciting to roam among the masters of unreality, to rarely touch down into the banality of urban living. But the downside of these cultural revolutions is they can turn us into junkies addicted to dodging the present moment. Of course, those Summer of Love casualties stabbing needles into their veins might have been worse off than FiDi workers stumbling into traffic because they’re fiddling with Instagram, but both obsessions make us manic.

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Until recently, I was living in a technology-fueled panic. I was losing hours scanning social networks for random nuggets of useless information. And I was constantly refreshing my email, like that action alone could help push through responses I was impatient to receive. I started ordering “discounted” expensive crap online because daily messages warned me that the deals were rapidly disappearing as other buyers devoured them. I’d feel conversations with friends splintering as they checked their phones mid-meal. Instead of being in the moment, I was experiencing a very modern San Francisco malady – getting caught in the riptide of always wondering what else is out there.
Luckily, there’s another remnant of '60s living having a resurgence here, one that’s also become an obsession of mine. For every community anxious to tune out, there’s another one practicing to tune in. I’m talking about the age-old study of mindfulness and meditation, and all the trippy, hippie methods that bring our buzzing, wired selves down to a calm hum.

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If 10 years ago, someone would’ve told me I’d be starting and ending my days cross-legged with my eyes closed, I would’ve laughed in their face. I spent my twenties in a punk rock craze, hitting shows and downing whiskeys with a fierceness. I was out six nights a week, chasing every thrill that made it onto my radar. It was all so much fun. But when I hit my thirties, I realized I wanted more out of life. My day job of writing for the music blogosphere really wasn’t grabbing me on the visceral level that shoving my way to the front of the stage had in the past. I wanted to get into something I could feel down to my bones.

So I started with the most far-out experience I could find that didn’t involve a dealer or a card from my doctor. After hearing from friends that sensory deprivation tanks weren’t just devices that turned William Hurt into an animal in Altered States, I decided to give flotation a shot. Signing up for a session was pretty freaky at first. Giving the thing a once-over at Float Matrix in Nob Hill, I got nervous about how still I could stay for an hour inside of something that looked like a sideways washing machine (albeit one that’s filled with warm, salty water and has a blue nightlight in case you get claustrophobic.) Kane, the Float Matrix’s owner, explained that the tanks themselves are nothing to be afraid of. You just have to be good with your mind.

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So I climbed in, floated around, and spaced out, feeling like a giant starfish navigating the galaxies as my limbs brushed against the walls and my mind dropped into lucid dreaming. When I emerged from the tank an hour later, I felt really stoned. I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot, and that deep relaxation lasted over 24 hours. My serenity was so intense, and so opposite of the cracked-out Web-crawling brain I normally experienced, that I wanted to cultivate it further. My doors of perception had floated open. I was curious about what other types of brain bending could have such a strong physical affect. After curating a music event with the SF Zen Center for The Bold Italic, I wanted to know what Zen meditation was all about. I attended one of its free Saturday-morning instructions in Hayes Valley (and also went to its scenic Green Gulch campus near Muir Beach on Sunday mornings) and learned how to sit for 40 minutes and just follow my breath. It was surprising how full those informal classes were, how strong the need to let go was for such a wide variety of city dwellers.

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People often think that meditation means emptying your head, but I’ve learned it’s more of a calming than a clearing of things. One common analogy is that your mind is like a puppy that’s constantly running off. And each time it scatters, you simply pick it up and place it back at its center. The idea is to go from reading your mind to feeling your body. In my case, I stopped cataloging emails and writing texts in my head and returned to focusing on my breath.

I started practicing meditation twice a day, going after work to the Zen Center’s 40-minute public sits. I love the old brick building and the mellow vibe that permeates the place. I also like that I can pop in and collect myself in a room full of mindful neighbors with no further commitment expected.

The Zen Center isn’t the only meditation hub in town. Since I started exploring mindfulness, I’ve gotten suggestions from friends (journalists, hair stylists, artists, music promoters – none of them even vaguely New Agey) about their favorite places to be still. I’ve heard great things about the Tuesday-night Mission Dharma sessions at St. John’s Episcopal Church and Dharma Punx’s Friday-night sits on Geary Street. (The larger Dharma Punx organization also has great Dharma talk podcasts online.)

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Less than six months after I started meditating, I got hardcore and went to a 10-day silent retreat, the boot camp of cross-legged reflection. The Northern California Vipassana Center (which, amazingly, is run by donation only) is purposely located close enough to a city so that urban types can escape there, but far enough away that you’re dwelling among trees and woodsy creatures. I went to its Kelseyville campus, and lemme tell you, that experience was no soak in a float tank. It was like running a marathon in my mind for an hour or two at a time.

Those 10 days became the hardest thing I’ve put myself through – I spent most of my time there wishing I were home. But the sense of peace I returned with made it well worth the pain (and seriously, sitting on your ass for 10 hours a day hurts). The Zen Center’s Tassajara campus, in the picturesque hills above Carmel, offers alternate takes on meditation retreats. Theirs, I should add, aren’t free, but they do come with soaks in hot springs and scenic hikes.

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Doing a retreat gave me further clarity about the importance of meditation in an era that’s all about the rapid response. I get so many messages I sometimes forget it’s OK to sit on them (or even just delete them) rather than become a frenzied reaction machine. My brain still buzzes every time I get a text or an email, but I’m more aware of the fact that constantly checking my devices makes me crazy, while sitting for an hour a day makes me calm. I’m part of a community that’s bridging the flower children and the Facebook generation. And while I still relish the occasional Internet escape, in the end I’ve realized I need my stillness more than my status updates.

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This story originally ran in Volume 4 of The Bold Italic magazine – Obsessions – which is available for purchase in our Shop.

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