This is Week 2 of 5 in Shana Lebowitz’s #zensperiment series. Catch up on Week 0 (why she’s learning to meditate) and Week 1 (meditating in real life) or skip ahead to Week 3 (meditating with friends) or Week 4 (finding a community).
Greatist founder Derek joined me for a beginner’s lesson in shamatha meditation at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. The floor was dotted with rows of bright blue pillows and cushions, where participants sat cross-legged like a bunch of schoolchildren, heads tilted slightly forward to extend the spine, lips parted just a little to relieve tension in the jaw. Shamatha meditation is about becoming who you really are, said the instructor, Rachel, sitting barefoot atop a flattened pillow as though she’d been sitting there for years.
Then she went on to explain something important, I don’t know what, because I drifted off for at least five minutes to mentally replay a flirtatious conversation from the day before.
When I resurfaced in the real world, Rachel was talking in soothing tones about focusing on the breath. “Breathing,” I heard her say, “only takes place in the present.”
It was a simple statement, but it stuck with me for hours afterward. I’d been talking with some other Greatist staffers recently about all the mysterious terminology that surrounds meditation — concepts like “mindfulness” and “being present.” To be honest, I’ve little notion of what those terms mean, but Rachel’s observation gave me some clues.
Here’s an idea: If we can’t think about the mistakes we’ve made in the past or our worries and fears about the future, we can’t really think about ourselves at all. All that’s left is the pattern of inhales and exhales that everyone sitting down to meditate at that moment shares.
Rachel’s insight reminded me of my experience earlier in the week, at a gentle yoga class led by Debra Blum at the New York Health & Racquet Club. In preparation for what Blum called a “standing meditation,” we wiggled our way into tree pose, with the sole of the foot resting on the thigh of the opposite leg. The point is to balance in that position until you hop and stumble ever so gracelessly to the ground.
As usual, I chose a spot on the wall in front of me to focus on while I channeled my inner ballerina. It was funny: Each time my attention drifted even slightly, from focusing on that spot to thinking about how many drafts I had left to edit that day, my posture would shift similarly and I’d have to re-humiliate myself in front of the rest of the class while I flapped my arms and struggled to regain my balance. The only way I could be sure to stay perfectly balanced was to concentrate on that spot on the wall and not think of anything else at all.
Surely that experience has some metaphorical significance that eludes me, but I think the point is that meditation is ultimately about abandoning yourself.
Friends who know about my meditation project often ask me questions like, “So, are you Zen yet?” I’m not sure. I look up at the trees more often when I’m walking. During my morning meditation practice at home, I’ve discovered the sound of a particular bird chirping that I’d never heard before. Standing on the F train I’ll suddenly lock eyes with a middle-aged woman who looks to have nothing in common with me and wonder what she’s thinking.
A few weeks ago I attended Blum’s meditation class and she led us through an exercise in mindfulness. Over and over again, she repeated the phrase, “Love is the way.” Blum advised us to feel our breath travel in and out of our bodies and reminded us that peacefulness would stay with us even once we left the room. Whenever we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, she said, remember that stillness is “only a few breaths away.”
This week the Greatist Team is heading on a company retreat, which will of course involve visiting North America’s largest statue of the Buddha. (I’ll send him your regards.) Come back Tuesday for another update and follow my Zenventures at @ShanaDLebowitz in the meantime!
Have you tried shamatha meditation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or reach Shana at @ShanaDLebowitz.