Not many know this about me, but for about six months in my sophomore year of high school, I was a Buddhist. I blame my World History teacher, a combination Philosophy “guru” and football coach. He wanted us to learn about the religions of the world as we were learning about all the wars. Cool guy, actually.
I eventually quit, realizing the same issues I had with Christian religions were true of Eastern ones – I just didn’t buy into it. I found the ideals and values were similar, and believed they were great tools to teach someone how to be a good person. But I just couldn’t find myself seriously worshiping any deity in the company of others. Believing there was an all-powerful Being that watched our every move felt insulting, and working my community through spreading an all-powerful message of God seemed intrusive, and not my way.
Basically, the budding of my issues with organized religion reared their ugly head, and I blamed all religions for it. I decided that the only thing that mattered was I was here, my relationship with my religion was no one’s business, and anything other than knowing that those before me likely knew a lot more about life than I did was just a fairy tale made for grownups.
So I packed up all that I had learned about meditation and enlightenment, and didn’t bring it out again, other than the few times I told people in the Midwest that I had once been a Buddhist to gauge their shock value.
Until last year. I was asked by a very good friend to attend meditation with him at the only Buddhist temple in my hometown. Wanting to share something new with him, and willing to give meditation a try (since I was feeling a lot of unrest), I went.
I know a lot of people like to describe their religious experiences with as much grandeur as they can muster – I’m not one of those people. The meditation was long, and New Agey, not to mention a little uncomfortable, since it had been about 15 years since I had sat on the floor in the lotus position with my back stick straight. Age is not kind, children.
But afterward, I felt – better. I felt the peace, I felt the calm. I felt the breath.
And then I packed up and moved here. Cross-country. To a much larger population and a brand new culture.
Goodbye peace and calm.
After a year of putting it off, I decided to find a new place to meditate in public. All the times I had tried it when I was a teenager were in private, and I usually found my brain easily wandering away from the point of the exercise. The Buddhist temple had taught me how to quiet my mind and body, and feel everything I needed to feel before I could deeply relax. It was strict, and, like I said, painful. But a deep pain, as perfect posture is not often practiced, so your body rejects it almost immediately.
I had planned to attend this group alone, but after being confronted with some news the other day, I realized the source of a lot of my stress and nerves was feeling the exact same toward me. So I figured it would be a gesture of good faith (and a possible chance to condition my body to relax when around her, rather than tense up) to invite her along. She came willingly.
The group definitely had some of the same perks I had experienced in the temple. There were plenty of fresh-faced moonbeam-loving people around, all welcoming and devoted to their faith. The similarities to church community is not lost on me, but I’d like to ignore that for now.
The community was very receptive to new recruits, so my friend and I were made to feel welcome when I raised my hand to introduce us. I listened to their stories of how their meditations had helped their lives – how one woman took the news of her son’s car crash with a level head, and how the leader’s safari trip allowed him to view a bunch of lemurs welcoming the sun in a meditation pose such as the one he was in. I started to wonder what made these people want to share these stories with the group – was it selfishness? Attention? Or actual altruism?
It didn’t matter then, because we began the guided meditation. I settled myself down, ready to relax, until I realized that we were invited to stay in our chairs.
That was new. I had always meditated on the floor. And there were provided mats, of course. But 99% of the group remained in their seats.
I also noticed that the leader allowed us to carry on for ourselves, after only a few minutes of centering us. This is great if you already know how to quiet your mind, but I sought a public meditation group specifically so someone could instruct me to quiet my mind. I need that at this point in my life, and I suspect I always will. My mind whirs at a high speed, and unless there is something telling it to quiet down, it won’t obey.
It helped that he told us to picture a light pouring from the sky into our skull and down throughout our bodies. I was able to engage my mind in this image, and it kept me centered. Again, until he gave us a chant I couldn’t take seriously. Honestly, I am a fan of those foreign words spoken by the monks – I don’t want to chant “Peace” and whatever the other word was.
I know that means I should chant my own words, but left to my own devices, I would probably think of something to chant like “Ice cream Sandwich” and spend the rest of the meditation time outside, because I’m kicked out for laughing.
Anyway, when it was over, the best part of the meeting came. We were reading the Dhammapada, and the verses chosen dealt with some very relevant topics – suffering and stress.
“There are only two types of suffering – what you want that you can’t have and what you push away because you don’t want it. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is voluntary.”
“Stress is the gap between how things are and how you wish they’d be.”
These words spoke to me, especially after experiencing a quieting of my mind, brief as it was. I realized there is quite a lot of suffering and stress in my life. The inevitability of what I am experiencing is not without merit. I need to let myself feel it.
That was when I realized what was most missing from this meeting – the leader had not once told us to feel the pain, the suffering, the things that troubled us. The monks had focused on that, telling us to let these things be felt, thought about, and then let go.
I realized I will probably come back to this group when I have learned a bit more how to work on my own with meditation. But for the time being, I need a stricter experience.
I do feel it was a good thing to experience with her. I hope she will accompany me in the future.