Look at all the meditators speeding to slow down, a friend of mine used to snark as we drove on Sir Francis Drake in Marin County. Long ago I thought of Spirit Rock as a wellspring for well-heeled grown up deadheads. Cloistered pretentious pilgrims seeking fake refuge from the world, a much smaller version of Disneyland where everyone grinned silently, smelling of patchouli. But the earth rotates, years go by, I’ve been meditating for six of them, becoming less judgmental. August 13th 2017, I enter Spirit Rock. Volunteers greet me with smiles that look genuine. Have you been here before? No, I answer. Bathrooms and the bookstore are to the left, the cubby rooms are over there, that is where you can put your shoes and lunch. I find my way to the large community meditation room, a huge expanse that reminds me of a synagogue, large windows on all sides, light colored wood, all recent construction. I don’t feel any of the energy that dwells in old European churches; this building is new, very new. Rays of light from outside bring warmth in spite of the AC that surrounds us. Some individuals sit on cushions up front near the two Buddha statues and burning white candles. The space is mostly populated by women, with a smattering of men here and there, many people are barefoot. I sit in my 4th row chair and watch large blades of grass waving through the window, sunlight reflecting off straw-golden hills in the distance. I see a woman wearing a t-shirt inscribed Every Body is Beautiful, close my eyes and take seven deep breaths. Sharon Salzberg sits in front of the room looking like a cross between Bette Midler, Yoda, and Ray Bradbury. You don’t have to believe in anything to follow your breath. Your breath is portable. You’re breathing and no one even needs to know you are doing it. We sit and meditate for maybe ten minutes. The rest of the day we move in and out of meditation with a focus on understanding Loving Kindness, the giving of compassion to self and others. Love is not a feeling, it is an ability. We can cultivate and strengthen our capacity to love. Interlaced in the day are boundless stories about meditation practice and experiences from Sharon’s life. I find myself laughing and smiling as the hours pass. There was more, much more, learning about mental noting, dealing with our inner critic, really looking at people instead of through them. At the end of the day I thank Sharon then quietly acknowledge my new found gratitude for Spirit Rock.
I never thought I’d be the kind of person who goes to a meditation class. I’d done it before, many times, the breathing in, the exhaling out, but always cloistered away from people, alone. I walk into the Unitarian Church past the security guard who barely looks at me. Large hallways, a courtyard, many rooms. I find my way to Starr King, across from another room where young people are rehearsing a play. I see shoes lining the wall, take mine off, sit in a metal chair. Meditation cushions are strewn all over the floor, some already occupied by shut eyed men and women, angelic looks of bliss on their faces. An older guy with long wavy hair is speaking loudly. When I was on a retreat at Spirit Rock I felt the everything of the oneness, but I struggle with it here in the city. He talks the way I remember early cell phone adopters, hopeful that everyone will notice him, acknowledge his quest for enlightenment. I try to close my eyes, but I’m too curious. The room fills with men and women, mostly older, very few wearing wedding rings. Many look haggard, one woman has a small dog with her, she’s clearly a regular. Some smile brightly, not at me, at everyone. I can’t tell if their joyous contentment is part of the pretense of the evening. Would they be the same on a public bus with a drunk touching their hair? I wonder. The teacher rings a chime, calls us to attention. She looks poised, ready for some serious meditating. The online description said 45-minutes, I try to meet her upright posture with my own, gearing myself up for the quiet communal moments. After everyone shares their name, she gently says close your eyes and start with a body scan, beginning with the top of your head. Body part by body part we are told to bring awareness to our entire anatomy, until we feel our feet rooted to the ground. I’ve meditated 45 minutes before, but never in one sit, 20 minutes here, 25 minutes there, this like a 10k run for a jogger. The first minutes go well, I’m with my breathing, not peeking, not too focused on the honking horns outside. Then my head starts to itch, I want to reach up, scratch, but then see the unimaginable picture of a Buddhist monk clawing his bald head, and think, no, the urge will pass. And it does. Minutes more and I find myself focusing on congestion, not mine, some man on one of the cushions, his breathing is labored, he snorts to clear his nose. I want to look at him, identify him as the guilty party, the disruptive meditator who should have stayed home. Around the 30-minute mark my left eye starts to tear up. Is something arising from within? Why am I leaking? I let the wetness streak down my face; imagine it slowly drying as I stoically sit for many more hours without wiping it away. More breathing, then the chime sounds, we open our eyes. I find myself doing the math, how long was I really meditating for? How long was I just sitting thinking about crap? It is impossible to say, but I feel more relaxed and focused than I did when I walked in. There is a short break before the instructor provides a Dharma talk related to Buddhism. I get tea, meet a woman named Kristin. She looks into me like I’m an ocean, a galaxy, a painting. Her eyes emanate pure love, Mother Teresa I will save you from dying on the streets kind of love. I avert her gaze, look at her cheekbones instead. She tells me that she went on a 6-month silent meditation retreat in India, has been practicing for years. I feel like kid holding a basketball meeting Larry Bird. There is nothing phony or false about her, she stands in front of me like some kind of celestial being. She’s not flirting, not evading, not making small talk, she’s simply present, like she might really be a bodhisattva. The Dharma teaching connects mindfulness to the environment, focuses on interconnectedness, preserve the earth, preserve humanity. 9pm, we walk out, drop a donation in a box. Outside the church ragged men are rolling out blankets, getting ready to sleep in the cold next to the house of worship. I take a deep breath, the guys are homeless smoking cigarettes, but in this moment, I see people struggling to be closer to God.
Meditation, mindfulness, yogic breathing, transcendental meditation, zazen, guided visualization, the breath, mind in the moment, in the seconds really. I’ve read about them all, but I’m absorbing Kabat-Zinn now, his words slowing me down time, as I walk through campus seeing sentences, one by one, as they arrive from colleagues and students. Usually it is a torrent, flooding phrases, mine, theirs, uncontrolled verbal ejaculations, reactive, sometimes rehearsed. How are you? Good. It hasn’t yet occurred to me, to go beyond reading, to actually sit, breathe, listen to my breath. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf, Kabat-Zinn says. Intellectually I comprehend, but don’t yet know about the doing of the not doing, the complicated simplicity that is meditation. The aloneness of my lungs, eyes closed, the stopping, no audience, no tangible reward. As I read, I like to pretend that I’m mindful all the time, that I’m a Zen monk, learned, wise. Fantasy, like when I pick up a Runner’s World in the airport and think, I’m a marathoner, or I can do that, have calves that look like that. Could be mindful all the time, could run a marathon, can’t, won’t, truth. I sell myself the same ideas that are sold to me. But meditation, just breathing, is free. It will be three more years before I begin, really breathe in, breathe out, stringing minutes together, before I learn, that you don’t think about meditation, you do it.