40 Days of Meditation #Zensperiment: Bring Friends
This is Week 3 of 5 in Shana Lebowitz’s #zensperiment series. Catch up on Week 0 (why she’s learning to meditate), Week 1 (meditating in real life), and Week 2 (challenges of meditation) or skip ahead to Week 4 (finding a community).
Last weekend the Greatist Team headed to Garrison, NY, for our very first company retreat. Over the weekend I was scheduled to lead the group in a short meditation session. Finally my #zensperiment would go from a solitary activity to an interactive experience with people I really care about. I share pretty much everything with the Greatist Team — headphones, mixed nuts, toilet paper — and sharing these few minutes of soul-searching would really put our bonds to the test.
For four days we took over a gorgeous colonial house — the wood-floored, checkered-tablecloth, tire-swing kind that everyone secretly dreams of living in when they grow up. Friday morning we sat on the floor of the porch, squinting in the mid-morning sunshine. There were silky cushions about a foot apart and I positioned myself to face the group.
Since beginning this meditation project, I’d gone to lessons in Zen and shamatha meditation, both of which involved a single instructor leading a group of relative newbies in the art of mindfulness. Now, sitting cross-legged on the porch floor, still in leggings and a tank top from our morning run, my hair a knotted mess around my head, I thought about those instructors. I knew I wouldn’t be poised like Rachel, at ease like Terrence, and felt more than a little like a Zen fraud.
Quickly, I glanced down at the page in my spiral notebook where I’d jotted down a series of now-illegible instructions about posture and breathing. Start sitting with your legs crossed, I told the team, vertebrae like gold coins stacked on top of one another.
After about 30 seconds, I looked slowly around the room, nodding to myself when I saw everyone looking still and sort of contemplative. I’d meditated in groups before, but I’d always stared at a wall, and seeing what everyone looked like while they practiced felt strange and a little exciting.
We had a brief discussion, meditated again, and I noticed the group was slightly fidgety. Were they getting sick of sitting there, wishing we were doing High-Intensity Interval Training or cooking lunch instead? This time there were complaints: back pain, pins and needles, difficulty sitting up straight for so long.
The truth was, I didn’t know what to tell them. My back also hurt when I sat meditating for a while, and the pain didn’t go away the more I practiced, despite what meditation instructors had told me. Someone raised his hand and said he was getting frustrated trying not to think. I wanted to tell him meditation isn’t about “not thinking,” it’s about letting thoughts pass without judgment, but the words sounded fake and more than a little vague in my mouth. Sunlight was streaming through the glass windows and suddenly the room felt hot and suffocating.
I took a breath in, closed my eyes for half a second, and remembered what one seasoned meditator had told me about observing the sensations in the body as though from a third-person perspective. See if that helps some of the discomfort, I told them. One staffer sitting quietly in the corner said she’d learned to say “thank you” every time a thought pops up while she’s trying to meditate. There were giggles.
I asked if everyone would like to close the session with another minute-long meditation, and they nodded their heads eagerly, yes.
Saturday morning we hiked the South Redoubt Revolutionary War Heritage Trail. It was a gorgeous day and the view was literally breathtaking: From the top of the trail you could see West Point military academy, all stone walls and huge grassy fields. After a few minutes I noticed everyone pointing at the picnic table over in an enclosed spot to our right. There they were, Derek, Kelli, and Laura, sitting like triplet prairie dogs, eyes closed, faces turned to the wind, meditating silently.
“They look like they’re waiting for a bus,” someone said, and I laughed, but not really at anything funny. For the first time since starting this meditation project, I felt perfectly at peace.
Come back Tuesday for another update and follow my journey at @ShanaDLebowitz in the meantime!
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To improve comfort and decrease the chance of your legs and feet falling asleep, it always helps to elevate the hips with pillows or other bolstering devices! I often use two or three pillows to keep the blood flow going.
@dianahuang Another great idea! I'll try the two-pillow technique tomorrow.
The back pain and pins and needles are totally common and likely won't go away until you spend enough time meditating. It's basically our bodies not being used to sitting on the floor in an upright position. We sit in chairs or couches and lean back and are supported, but when you're on the floor, you have to support yourself. It's a completely new thing for your body.
The other thing that my meditation teacher used to say was that meditating on the floor isn't necessary, it's just what position the earliest Hindu and Buddhist meditators were in. Maybe they didn't have chairs? Who knows, but you can still get the same benefits and have your back against a wall if the pain is so distracting that you can't quiet your mind.