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This is Week 1 of 5 in Shana Lebowitz's #zensperiment series. Catch up on Week 0 (why she's learning to meditate) or skip ahead to Week 1 (meditating in real life), Week 2 (meditation and the self), Week 3 (meditating with friends), or Week 4 (finding a community).
It was a dark and stormy morning.
I was headed to a beginner's lesson in Zen meditation at the Brooklyn Zen Center and arrived downstairs promptly at 7 am. But a walk with my two poodles took longer than I expected and I returned to the house late and hungry. In the meantime my mother had woken up (I recently moved back home) and was now peppering me with questions I didn't have time to answer. Finally, I snapped.Illustration by Bob Al-Greene
“Shut up,” I told her, slamming the refrigerator door closed. “Just shut up,” and threw in an expletive for good measure as I stormed out the front door.
On the walk to the train station, it struck me that I was missing the whole point of this zensperiment. True, I'm saving loving kindness meditation for the last week, but there isn't a single style of meditation that prizes impatience or a lack of compassion. I started thinking more about my conversation with Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist who studies meditation. She'd mentioned that meditation practice literally is “practice” for the rest of your life. The skills I'm supposedly gaining while meditating - self-awareness, a sense of calm - shouldn't just disappear when I get up from the cushion. Instead, they should help me in my daily life.
At the Zen Center, I tried to keep those thoughts in mind. The Brooklyn Zen Center, a Soto Zen Buddhist temple, takes up the second floor of what looks like an office building in Park Slope. A young man named Terrence rounded up the 10 beginners who had showed up for the 9am lesson. I'm not sure whether I expected the Dalai Lama to make a guest appearance, but Terrence seemed like a pretty regular guy and even cracked a few jokes as he led us through the Center's different rooms, including a kitchen and a library.
The actual zendo (the Japanese term for “meditation hall”) is a sparse, spacious room with rows of black pillows and cushions on top. We sat around in a small circle, and Terrence showed us the correct posture for Zen meditation: hips above the knees (that's why we sit on cushions) and hands either on the knees or making an oval shape with the thumbs barely touching in your lap. Several of us in the class were surprised to find out the eyes stay open in Zen meditation (probably to remind meditators not to close themselves off to any experience, Terrence told us), and we we're told to gaze downward at a 45-degree angle.
After a practice meditation session and a Q&A period, a few beginners left, while the rest of us stayed on for the formal 45-minute Zazen, or seated meditation. Two bows and the sounding of a gong and we were off. As I stared at a spot of dirt on the wall (Ha! Not so immaculate after all), I remembered Terrence's advice to count breaths from one to 10 over and over again. Remarkably, the counting practice managed to (almost) divert my thoughts from lunch, the emails I was no doubt receiving that very minute, and the attractive man who had taken a seat next to me.
At one point, someone sounded the gong again and announced the beginning of a five-minute interval where we could get up and shift our position if necessary. (I already had, to my embarrassment; my right leg had gone completely numb and my upper back was killing me.) Really, I thought, that wasn't so bad - halfway through and I was actually feeling a sense of quiet and stillness.
Then suddenly I was struck by the terrifying possibility that the “five-minute interval” meant we'd only been meditating for five minutes, and that there were in fact 40 minutes left. I was feeling peaceful, but it was still hard to keep my leg from falling asleep, my back had started aching, and I was definitely starting to get a little restless.
Desperate now, I waited for the ring that would signal the passing of another five minutes, and felt myself start tearing up when it didn't come. There was no way in hell I was making it through eight times what I'd just sat through; I'd have to humiliate myself and disrupt the rest of the class when I made my escape. It seemed feasible - it was only the attractive man between me and the door and I'd probably never see these people again. Okay, I told myself, just a few more breaths and then it's time. Breathe in, breathe out, one, breathe in, breathe out, two - the gong sounded. The 45-minute session was over.
I left the Center and took a final deep breath in. During the session, a heavy rain had fallen, but now the sun was back out, shining over a wet and humid city. In a sickeningly poetic way, that was sort of how I felt: a little depleted but also a little energized, glad I'd come but also disappointed I hadn't enjoyed the experienced more.
This week I'm back to my practice at home, until Thursday, when I'm bringing some of the Greatist Team to a Transcendental Meditation intro talk. Come back Tuesday for another update and, in the meantime, follow me on Twitter at @ShanaDLebowitz!
Have you tried Zen meditation? What did you think? Share your stories in the comments below.