Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My path starts here

"Meditation practice provides the perfect context for observing our beliefs and recognizing the tug- of-war we have with our own experience. Just sit quietly for five minutes and watch what happens. Unless we have some accomplishment in meditation, we won't know what to do with all the activity. We become overwhelmed by the energetic play of the mind, pummeled by our own thoughts and emotions, bewildered by our inability to sit in peace. We will want to do something. And we really only have two means of escape from all this mayhem: we can either spin out into thought, which is an exaggeration of experience, or we can suppress or deny it.
"Exaggeration and denial describe the dilemma we have with mind, and not just in meditation. Exaggeration and denial operate in conjunction with all our fantasies, hopes, and fears. When we exaggerate experience, we see what isn't there. And when we deny it, we don't see what is. Both exaggeration and denial are extraneous to the true nature of things, the nature we experience when we just stay present."--Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel from her forthcoming book The Power of an Open Question: A Buddhist Approach to Abiding in Uncertainty

I finally went to the Shambhala Center of Boston after thinking about going for months. They have an open house for new people every Wednesday night, but it's across town and Wednesdays I'm usually cranky. I heard somewhere that people's least favorite day of the week is Wednesday. Me and Bob Geldof thought it was Monday. Something about it being a day in the middle of the week makes us enervated.

I was going to hear the author Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel give a talk. But I was also going to try the 1/2 hour sitting meditation beforehand. I was nervous--the most I had ever been able to sit in meditation on my own was five minutes. Possibly three minutes. I could blame the cats or my husband turning on the Celtics game. But the truth is I've never enjoyed it. It's uncomfortable sitting there, trying to focus on my breath. My thoughts competed for my attention like squabbling children. Was I supposed to clear my mind like you'd erase a chalkboard--wiping away all thoughts until all that is left is a blank? Or was I supposed to watch the thoughts like they were soap bubbles, popping each one as it floated around in my head? The stress of worrying about what to do made me want to give up. I'd rather read a book or eat rice pudding--much more gratifying.

But since I started writing this blog I knew I had to eventually try group meditation. It was the only way I could experience firsthand what many of the Buddhist books I've been reading lately were teaching. If I wanted to live in the present, here was the way to start.

I walked into the Shambhala Center and immediately began leafing through pamphlets at the welcome table. There were fliers of various talks happening, some by authors I help promote. There was a membership brochure which I pocketed like a promise. I'm already a member of the MFA and the MSPCA, but maybe my company would give me a discount. It seemed like a logical fringe benefit. I dropped a $5 bill in the wicker donation basket.

There was a greeter standing in front of a table with a sign-up sheet and another wicker basket. All I had left was a $20. I needed some time to warm up to the place, so instead of meeting eyes with the smiling young man with gold studs in his ears, I looked to the right at a circle of chairs and sofas like you might find at a support group. The only person sitting there was a heavyset man with wisps of hair covering a bald crown. I thought I should probably talk to him--after all, this wasn't like riding the "T" where eye contact is for Southern tourists and drunks. Buddhists were supposed to be open and friendly, right?

I once labored under the delusion that I was an "open" person. I considered myself to be kind-- outgoing even--if I was in the right mood or had had a few glasses of wine. That image of myself was shattered a few years ago.

I was new to Boston and determined to get to know some interesting women who might turn into good friends. When I left New York I also left a fun group of women friends I had known for most of my life. I wanted to find their doppelgangers in my new city.

One day at work I overheard this woman, N, mention a wine bar on Charles Street that she'd gone to the night before. It was the same wine bar I had read about on and wanted to try. It was something about the way she detailed the food she ate, with such stunning detail and clarity, that made me think, she's someone I'd like in my new friend pool.

It turned out that lots of other women felt the same because she always seemed to be going out after work, having cocktails, throwing parties to celebrate the Spring Equinox, arranging group lunches. She was not simply a social butterfly; she was a hummingbird.

N took classes in something called Nia. I had never heard of this before but I figured if N liked it, it must be fun. She had mentioned going on weeklong Nia retreats on beautiful islands with her girlfriends. It all sounded exotic. Was there a Nia uniform--maybe a grass skirt and beaded halter? Was it like bellydancing? I asked N if I could tag along with her to her next Nia class.

N, two of her friends, and I drove to the Nia studio one Saturday. It looked very much like a dance studio and I had flashbacks of sweaty dressing rooms and chalk. Our instructor was a young woman wearing cute, black swishy gym pants that stopped at mid calf like abbreviated bell-bottoms. Later I would search every TJ Maxx for a pair, without success.

The theme of the class that day was Madonna's Ray of Light album. It was one of the few Madonna albums I owned, the one she made after her daughter Lourdes was born and she had some sort of epiphany and became Indian. The class was full--about twenty women of all ages and body types were represented. The instructor put on the CD. As the first song began she started moving in place, telling us to let go, to feel the music in our bodies. OK. I had improvised dances in my bedroom before. Yes, I was twelve at the time, but I could still do it.

Then she wanted us to circle around the room, using any movement that felt right to us. Most of the women in the class knew what to expect, and launched into their own unchoreographed dance routine. It was one thing for me to do the Natalie Merchant twirl in the privacy of my own home, but it felt very uncomfortable doing it in front of nineteen strangers, even if most of them were smiling at each other as if to say hello friend, isn't this great? Don't you feel free? I was reminded of a tampon ad.

At one point we were told to roll around on the floor. I started to giggle, then caught myself and pretended I was just so full of joy and freedom that I was giddy with laughter. I looked over at N and saw how fully engaged she was in her dance. This came natural to her; if this was 1969 she'd be traveling cross-country in a van painted with flowers and the words "Make Love Not War." I slipped out of class and went into the women's restroom.

I was having a bad time, there was no denying it. I just wanted to get out of there. I was as reserved as a clam and I had to admit it. At 34, I felt the need to be self-protective. It mattered to me whether or not I looked foolish in front of strangers and suddenly opening up to people I just met felt threatening, false even, like being drunk at a party and spilling your secrets to someone you just met.

Yet when I returned to class and it came time to leave, I approached the instructor in the swishy black pants and told her how much I had enjoyed myself. I wanted to be put on her mailing list. I wrote down her email on the back of a postcard. You'll see me again! I said.

I don't know why I lied. Maybe I hadn't yet accepted that I was not the Nia type and that my new friend N would probably not be joining my fledgling Boston entourage, which had at least four available spots still open. She had other friends, other interests. Her circle of women was closed.

So when I found myself sitting in the Shambhala Center, waiting for meditation class, I worried that this would be just like Nia. I'd have trouble sitting cross-legged in my skirt, my back would ache, I'd start hyperventilating from all that concentrated breathing.

But when the meditation session started, I realized that, like yoga, this was an individual practice. I could sit however I felt comfortable, switch positions as necessary. No one was looking at me and saying hi friend with their eyes. We were all looking straight ahead (or in my case, at a potted plant in the corner of the room.) And yet I wasn't alone. I was among other people trying to find their way, searching for their happiness, their place in the world. It was communal in the best possible sense. We were all being still and silent together, like those times in the car with my husband when we share a comfortable lull in conversation and just enjoy being in each other's presence. Yes, my mind raced with thoughts as usual, spinning like a pinwheel in a hurricane. But I was able to keep returning to my breath. Again. Again. That 1/2 hour felt like 10 minutes.

Will I go back again? Probably, though not every week. Like I said, Wednesdays I'm cranky.


Jason Miller, said...


Seriously. Shamatha/Vipassana is the best thing in the world!


POD said...

This is a great story. I don't think I would have been able to contain myself in the Nia class either. And I had no idea that Buddhists are supposed to be friendly.

1hose韻如ak09r_cruickshan said...
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Jomon said...

Good on you! I have heard that reading about meditation is like reading a cookbook, and actually meditating is like cooking something. I thought I would like Nia, but no. Gosh, no.

Pammer said...

So glad you went, Jen. I need to get back into meditating. I've let it slide in a major way over the years. But Shambhala is great and certainly a welcoming, no pressure kind of place. Let me know if you have questions about the practice or anything else. I can pass them on to my resident expert.