A lot of people are meditating now. We’re all very stressed and we just don’t know what to do with all this pent up frustration and uncertainty. As a group, we seem to have decided the best way to quiet our minds is to sit silently for a set amount of time and then tell other people how silently we sat. I’m not convinced people even know what meditation actually is. I mean, some people definitely know, and to those people, I say “Ok, already. We get it. You’re better than us.” On the other hand, I don’t believe that all the men in beanies and women in overalls currently sitting crosslegged and humming in a charming Brooklyn studio have got it figured out.
Admittedly, I’m no expert. My entire experience with meditation consists of an app I once downloaded on my phone and a half-hour session with some very kind monks. I know it’s not the best range, but it feels sufficient enough for me to form a strong and unwavering opinion.
First, I downloaded a popular app. It tried to get me to breath in time with its visual aid, but I couldn’t sync up with the system, so it just turned out to be very stressful and I started to hyperventilate after messing up my natural breathing patterns. Then it kept trying to convince me to buy better versions of the app. That’s when I really started to see the truth in this whole business.
Still though, I was willing to give it a second chance. Last month, Dave and I spent the night at a beautiful Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Japan. As part of our stay, the monks offered to teach us how to meditate. I thought, “Well, a monk has to be a better teacher than a tiny robot computer.” So off we went. We sat on little pillows and learned how to hold our hands, cross our legs, and guide our thoughts. He was a pro and very kind about the whole thing, so I felt like I was in good hands.
Our monk told us we had to keep our eyes half-opened and half-closed, both to represent the space between this physical world and the universe and also to keep us from falling asleep. Because, he said, a lot of people fall asleep. Not a great selling point, sir.
Besides that, there were a few key things that really threw a wrench in my success.
Apparently, I was off on the wrong foot from the start. I was talking to Dave after the experience and sharing with him my disappointment in my own performance. He said, “Yeah, it was really difficult to focus on the letter A the whole time.” I said, “What? What about the letter A?” He said, “The monk told us to think of the letter A. It’s the holiest letter to them and their focal point for meditation. He told us all about it.” I replied, “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.” So I guess I can add “poor listener” to my list of faults.
I also couldn’t keep my eyes in that half-way state. It gave me a headache and that seemed very counter to the goal of the exercise, so I gave up. (Also probably giving up is counter to the goal of the exercise?) Instead, I stared at the fire in front of us. Not because I was trying to find an otherworldly image on which to focus, but because I was just really cold. I was dreaming of making s’mores, grabbing a flannel blanket, and what I would do if the fire started to spread across the room at a rapid pace. The fire inspired a lot of diverse reactions in me, none of them sanctioned meditative thoughts.
Most importantly, it was impossible for me to quiet my mind. At any given point, I have three to seventy-eight thoughts swirling around my brain. It’s not an easy storm to weather, but it’s mine. This is exactly the thing that drives people to meditate. It’s supposed to cure people like me from the harrowing effects of our spiraling minds. But this seems like nonsense to me. Put me in a quiet room with nothing to do and tell me to think about a sound? Does that seem like a recipe for success for someone with my infliction? It’s not. It is a recipe for disaster.
I was an absolute and complete failure. I know, I know, the whole point of meditating is to eventually get to the point where it works, but at what cost? How long must I suffer in order to get there? And is it really worth it? Who ever said a quiet mind is better than a cluttered mind. You can hide a lot of cool stuff that you or someone you know might need one day inside a cluttered mind.
Here are some of the things I thought about while I was supposed to be focusing on the letter A, counting my breaths, and considering my quiet connection to the universe:
- It’s pretty cold in here, right?
- Aren’t all these other people cold? How can they not be cold?
- They’re probably cold and just pretending like they aren’t. Maybe I look like I’m pretending. Ugh, just another example of us all pushing the facade of perfection on one another.
- I wonder what we’re going to have for dinner. I hope there’s soup. Noodle soup would be best, but if it’s just regular soup with rice on the side, that would be fine too. Who invented soup? Probably someone who just accidentally spilled their water glass all in their food but was super embarrassed about it so just pretended like that’s how he wanted to eat it.
- These monks are very good inn keepers. Maybe some of them really just wanted to run a B&B, but they didn’t have the start-up capital, so they’re were like, “Well, guess I better go be a monk at one of the monk inns.” That seems like a big sacrifice for your dreams, but you know what they say—nothing comes between a man and his innate need to provide warm and comfortable lodging to strangers.
- When are we going to walk through the cemetery? It’s probably haunted. Maybe this whole place is haunted. What would a monk ghost be like? Probably super chill. He’d just sit quietly next to you and listen to you sleep. Wait, that’s creepy. I bet he’d respectfully sit outside your door while you sleep. This is definitely the best place to be if you’re going to get haunted.
- Monk would make a terrible monk. He’d be super good at the rituals but super bad at sitting on this pillow forever.
- Is Dave really doing this? He hasn’t moved at all.
- That fire looks a little precarious. What if it falls and spreads? These mats seem pretty flammable. The people in the back seem like panickers. That doesn’t bode well for us all exiting in an orderly fashion. But maybe I could break the paper walls and escape on my own. Would the monks be mad if I ripped their fancy walls? How could they be? The whole place will be on fire. They’ve got bigger fish to fry.
- Is Dave seriously still doing this?
- Someone moved. Ha. At least I didn’t move.
- Someone else moved. These people are so weak.
- I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be comparing my meditative state to these other people. Even though I’m obviously better at looking like I’m meditating.
- Is Dave actually dead? Can you die sitting up?
- If you die sitting up in a room this cold, could you just freeze that way forever? How would they put you in a casket? Who cares. Caskets are really not eco-friendly. Why do people still do that? Who wants to be lined up in the dirt with a whole bunch of strangers. I hate strangers. I don’t even like sitting in a line with these strangers here right now. I am not interested in being stuck next to more strangers for all eternity.
- How long do these monks meditate each day? Do they wish they were watching tv instead? Or eating pretzels? Can monks even watch tv? Do they watch Monk?
- I wonder if I have any pretzels in the room. I should bring them on our cemetery tour.
- Is it disrespectful to bring snacks to a cemetery? It probably is.
And on and on and on. Overall, I would say I failed miserably at meditation. And if I can’t do it at a Buddhist monastery with a master teacher, should I really even keep trying? The monks say, “Yes, you definitely should. You will not master it in one day. That’s why it’s called a practice.” But what do they know.