Duration Training

By Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA (Mile 25.5, NYC Marathon Uploaded by victorgrigas) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Two questions I frequently get asked are:

  • Is there a way to speed up my growth in mindfulness?
  • How can I maintain the deep place I get to during retreats after I return to daily life?

My standard answer for both of these questions is to suggest that people utilize what I call the Three Accelerators: Trigger Practice, Duration Training, and Challenge Sequences. The Three Accelerators have the effect of “pushing the envelope” of one’s practice.

I’ve described Trigger Practice in this blogpost and Challenge Sequences in this blogpost. I’d like to complete the triad by writing about Duration Training here.

Duration Training refers to learning how to maintain “practice in stillness” for longer and longer periods of time. By practice in stillness I mean formal practice where you don’t move much or at all. One traditional form of Duration Training is known as adhiṭṭhāna (strong determination sitting [which I talk about here] or “breaking through a posture”). In adhiṭṭhāna, you decide to sit for a period of time (1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours, a day, a week…) with little or no voluntary movement. If you’ve never tried this, it may sound daunting if not impossible. But remember you can gradually work your way up to this sort of thing.

“Duration Training” generalizes the practice of adhiṭṭhāna by allowing more leeway for customization. With regard to postures, you can do it sitting on floor, sitting in chair, standing in place, holding a yoga posture, or even lying down. With regard to voluntary motion, the options range from absolutely no voluntary motion at all (not even re-straightening your spine) to allowing for small posture adjustments to allowing for moving just enough to relieve pain or even briefly using the washroom.

For most types of duration training, pain and other types of physical discomfort eventually become a major issue. I’ve spoken extensively on how to work with physical discomfort here, here, here, and here.

If you’re doing duration training in a lying down posture, there may be no physical discomfort but sleepiness and the temptation to move the body in small ways can become issues. If you’re able to avoid sleepiness and willing to keep the body perfectly still, you can do lying down Duration Training for very long periods of time (say, 6-8 hours) with relative ease. The lying down version of Duration Training may seem like cheating relative to the seated or standing version but it can take you quite deep and has a bit of a tradition. Lying down was the posture of choice for meditation in certain schools of Greek philosophy. The technical name for this was incubate.

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when doing any form of Duration Training.

  • Do nothing that would objectively damage the body (if you’re limping for an hour after a sit, that’s a sign you should have allowed yourself some microadjustments or utilized some other posture).
  • You don’t have to push the duration envelope during every sit (or even most sits) but it’s good  to do so (at least occasionally). In other words, don’t never sit past your current comfort point.
  • The goal is to gradually work through all physical, mental, and emotional challenges that might arise as you extend a practice period, i.e., to reach the point where you could (in theory!) maintain the stillness posture indefinitely. (Don’t freak out! You’ve got years, decades, to gradually learn how that’s done.)

Duration training is based on a freeing perspective about how to achieve unconditional happiness. The assignment: “Find happiness independent of conditions!” is a daunting one. Where does one start? What direction do you turn towards in order to make that journey? It’s difficult to get a tangible sense of how to go about getting unconditional happiness. On the other hand, the assignment: “gradually deconstruct all sources of unhappiness!” is tangible. You can do that through experiencing each source of unhappiness so fully that it literally becomes clarified, i.e., transparent and insubstantial. As pain, confusion, fear, and such, become transparent, the light of unconditional happiness, which was always there, can now shine through.

Recently at my retreats, we started designating a 4-hour block in the afternoon for (optional!) Duration Training. Surprisingly, it’s turned out to be quite popular. For years we’ve offered the option to sit part or all of the night. Such extracurricular sitting is called yaza (夜坐) in Japanese Zen monasteries (ya 夜= night; za 坐 = zazen = sitting practice). I wanted to have an analagous term for the duration training option, so I coined a Japanese neologism yūza (yū 雄= heroic; za 坐 = sit).