Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Longest I Ever Sit Still

At the end of 2012, after months of extreme travel, extreme work, and extreme play, I craved balance. When I went home for the holidays I dusted off the copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones pretentious teenage-me had bought and never read. This inspired me check some boxes related to Buddhism and spirituality on Meetup. Next thing I knew, I was confirmed to attend my first meditation sit at the Cambridge Zen Center.

As with everything else in my life, I approached this activity with enthusiasm and inadequate preparation. On the day of, I arrive at the Center a few minutes late for my newcomer orientation. "Hello!" I shout. "Welcome," the instructor replies in a softer, calmer tone. There are two of us starting that day. The other, a good-looking professionally-dressed man some age between 22 and 35, seems to have been there for a while. We are so focused on pretending we have read the preparatory materials (or maybe that's just me) that we do not even look at each other.

The instructor takes us into the room, large with large flat cushions on hardwood floors, and explains the sequence: bowing, chanting, walking meditation, a 25-minute sit, more walking meditation, and a 20-minute sit. The sit occurs on cushions in a cross-legged "lotus" position. He recommends that we meditate by counting our breaths to ten in a continuous loop. We are to notice our thoughts as they "come up" but not to "hold on" to them. I note that this is will probably be the longest I have ever been still.

The veterans join us and we begin. The bowing is fine: like yoga but with less lunging. The group chanting is fine: like middle school music class but without the singing. The walking meditation is even fine, though I keep wondering if I am doing it right. I find all this enjoyable, calming, comforting. Then comes the sit. The first long sit is... intense. Here is are some of the thoughts and questions that "came up" for me, punctuating more serious thoughts about fear, love, and everything else.

"I am terrified."
"What if I fall asleep and fall over?"
"What if I accidentally yell?"
"I can focus on both counting and thinking. Shit, that's not the point."
"How do I know if I'm meditating?"
"My leg is falling asleep. What if I fall over?"
"How do I keep from falling asleep?"
"How should I be feeling?"
"I wonder if other people are falling asleep too.
"I hope this is not a cult*."
"I still don't know what it's supposed to feel like."

Fortunately, finally, the instructor rings the bell indicating the end of the first session. As my legs have fallen asleep, I spend the subsequent walking meditation focused on not falling over. My legs do not fully regain circulation until it is time to begin the second sit. Here are some of my thoughts during that.

"How am I going to do this again?"
"I am less scared now."
"I wonder when this is over."
"If I count more slowly, time will go by faster."
"My leg is falling asleep again. This means this session must be over soon."
"I really want this to be over!"
"I wonder if I fall asleep, this will end faster."

The instructor rings the bell indicating the end of the second sit and I run out the door. It was a strange feeling, the feeling of having accessed thoughts and feelings that in normal consciousness you have pushed away and never expected to see again. If doing yoga is, as my instructor says, like reaching into the "garage of your feelings," meditating is like spending time in the second secret attic of your mind. So this is what I think about when I am not actively thinking: wow; yikes. I felt the way I do after finishing a major deadline: simultaneously drained and hyper-alert.

In the months to follow, as I have gone to meditation more times, I have slowly been able to let go of the meta-thoughts and focus more on settling into my mind. These long sits have become less draining and I would like to think that it has improved my focus and my sense of well-being. During one of my most recent sessions, towards the end of the second sit, I was even able to enter into a rhythm where I did not actively think about anything and simply existed. ("Was this meditation? Is this how peaceful people normally feel?" I wondered.) I have also been working on the issue of falling asleep: when I asked a Zen teacher about how to stop, he said that fatigue is just another feeling that arises, the same way anger may come up for someone else. This has taught me to notice and honor the exhaustion that I thought I could suppress.

My goal is to eventually meditate every day. (If both Zen teachers and CEOs recommend it, there must be something to it.) I am still a long way from my goal, but if there is one thing meditation has taught me, it is to be patient with my mind and not to force anything.

* In a previous attempt to become more spiritual, I accidentally almost joined a cult.