March 1, 2010

sitting practice

On Saturday, I attended my first zen meditation practice. I first became interested in zen back in college, when I was voraciously reading the memoirs of Natalie Goldberg, whose life (both the writing and non-writing aspects of it) was and is profoundly affected by her zen practice. She talks often in her writing of the discomfort of zazen (sitting meditation), of struggling to quiet her mind while in meditation, and of the things she learned from her zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi.

At some point not long after I moved here, I searched for nearby zen centers. I was struggling with my writing (and still do) and I was curious to try it out. But I never pursued it; I was daunted by the unfamiliarity of it, and I was often too busy. Or made that excuse, at least.

I have thought of it on and off in the past few months -- enough to add it to my very small but growing list of things I'll do after my next birthday -- and last week I discovered that Dharma Rain was holding a free "Intro to Zen Meditation" workshop on Saturday afternoon. I often put free events on my calendar with good intentions, and then inevitably I talk myself out of them because I'm busy or the weather's too good/bad, or something else comes up. Or I chicken out. I very nearly stayed at the barn on Saturday (Cookie was being such a sweetheart), but I didn't. I showed up to the zendo 20 minutes early, and though I knew the workshop was being held in the nearby Dharma House, I hadn't written down the address. The DH is really a house, so although I walked up and down the street looking for it, I didn't have any luck. I figured I'd try the zendo, hoping to find a person or at least a sign to help me out. I strolled in only to realize I'd walked in on a silent group of Zen monks seated at a table. I froze and slowly retreated toward the door, feeling awkward and a little terrified, frantically reading the flyers on the bulletin board with hopes that something would direct me. A minute or so passed and one of the monks came quietly over and whispered, "Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for the intro to meditation workshop?" I whispered back. He nodded and directed me to step outside; he was barefoot and in robes, bald-headed. He had the kindest face. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Once outside, he pointed down the street to a nondescript house on the corner. "It's there, in the brown house," he said. "You can go right on in." He smiled.
I thanked him and apologized for interrupting. "It's really okay," he said, and clearly meant it; I believed him. Later I discovered that the monks were in the middle of a silent retreat. I felt simultaneously mortified and grateful for his kindness.

I walked down the street to the house, which was on the opposite side of the road. I was still 15 minutes early so I strolled to the corner before crossing the street; as I stood looking for traffic a woman with flaming red hair called from the house steps to me.
"Hello!" she said. "Yoo hoo!" She was smiling, so I waved. When I crossed the street she asked me if I was looking for the workshop.
"We got here at about the same time," she said, "so I figured you must be coming here too. Go on upstairs! I'll be in in a bit."

I won't bore you with the details, except to say that I was pleasantly surprised to discover a natural physical affinity for meditation: My de facto seated position, in yoga and elsewhere, is typically half lotus (which I find easier on my knees than normal indian-style). Apparently it's uncommon to find many people who are comfortable seated that way. By the end of our 20-minute meditation session -- with eyes open, did you know that? -- the backs of my legs were asleep but I was otherwise OK. I was fascinated to hear feedback from the other attendees, many of whom were fidgety and uncomfortable; some of them fretted to the teachers afterward. Was I breathing correctly? I was focused too much on my stomach muscles. These are people whose main stated goal was to stop being so anxious, to stop overthinking. I had not considered zen practice for that reason, because I viewed it as a religion rather than as an activity.

I did discover that many of the things I do unthinkingly in my daily life have predisposed me towards meditation; early in the session one of the two zen prefects teaching the class said that even after eight or nine years, she still has to remind herself, convince herself, that going to zazen practice will make her feel better. I understood entirely; I do the same thing with running. Running is so much like meditation for me in many ways, as is riding. Learning to push through discomfort; learning to turn off the nagging voice in your mind. I still need help with writing, though.

I may or may not attend zazen on Wednesday. I might ride my horse instead. Who can say. Have I mentioned I'm also reading the Tao Te Ching?

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

-- mary oliver

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