Thursday, February 7, 2013

my brain is a fishbowl: beginning meditation

   I bow at the door and take off my slippers, lining them up neatly. Sunlight streams through the bank of windows along the room's back wall. On the wooden floor are two rows of pillows, topped with either two smaller pillows or one C-shaped cushion.
    As it gets closer to 8 a.m., people drift in, setting their things down along the walls. One of the longtime students gives me a crash course in proper meditation posture. Shoulders open, head up, half-lotus position with the left leg on top. Hands against your center. Place your gaze about 3 to 4 feet in front of you on the floor, eyelids at half-mast so you don't fall asleep. Most beginners count each breath, 1 through 10, then start the count again. Then we join the rest of the class in some stretches and gentle moves to prepare our bodies for the hourlong session. The teacher reviews proper breathing: in through the nose, over the head, down the spine, to our center, then out. He tells us that babies know how to breathe properly, and that meditation is a way to peel away the layers of the onion, all of the things we accumulate, so we can return to that perfect state.
     It's time to sit. I hang back a little, not wanting to take someone's usual spot. The teacher informs me that we gassho, or place our hands together, palm to palm, at about chest level, bow, and exhale before we sit. This, he says, clears our mind and prepares it for our next experience.
      We sit. The sound of wooden blocks being clapped together cracks the silence. A cup-shaped bell is rung.
     Did we start? There is no bell, no shouted "go," no flags flashing. But this is not a race, I remember. I suppose we've started. I resist the urge to peek at the people to the side and across from me. I focus on my breathing. To be more realistic, I try to. For suddenly, my brain is a fishbowl, and every brightly colored fish that darts and flits by is a thought. I know I should let them be, but they're hard to ignore.
     This way of breathing feels strange. I have the absurd thought that I'm not getting enough air. I have the absurd thought that I'm doing it wrong. It seems my doubting self, the shadow who is so quick to encourage hesitation and silence, has followed me here.
      I keep getting lost among the 1s to 10s. These familiar numbers, once held firmly like a bundle of twigs in my hand, have multiplied into a baffling, shifting forest. Was that my 8th breath? I think it was 8. OK, 9 is next, then. 
      The teacher walks on cat-soft feet, placing each foot as deliberately as someone stepping from  rock to rock to cross a river. He carries a long, thin stick, which he places silently in front of me before circling behind me to correct my posture. My back is gently arched, my shoulders opened, my head shifted. Then he moves on.
      In the middle of the class, we do a brief walking meditation. Hands clasped against our centers, we circle the room. Are we moving faster, or am I imagining things? I try to make sure the gap between me and the person in front of me stays the same.
      We return to our spots. I realize I can't remember the proper hand position - was it left hand curled around right thumb, or the other way around? I choose one. The thoughts return, tantalizing. They have things to do! They are on their way somewhere! Many times, I am lured away by their  flash and glitter. The breathing still feels strange. My posture is gently corrected again by the teacher. 
      But for a few moments, I am justhere, looking at the sun-washed wooden floor, but not tugged this way and that by thoughts of the past or dreams of the future. Justhere. These moments are as small and rough as grains of sand. I wonder whether they are the product of wishful thinking - is that what it is supposed to feel like? Or am I playing tricks on myself?
      The session closes the way it started, bringing us full circle. We stretch our legs in front of us, wiggling feet and toes that were starting to fall asleep. The teacher lets two students try ringing the bell. The sound is not just a sound, it's a vibration I feel in my body. The founder of the Japanese martial art aikido (Morihei Ueshiba) talked about the primordial vibrations. I can't say I understand what he meant any better, but I think I know the feeling he's talking about.
      How to wrap this up? I pause here to celebrate a first step, then prepare to take the second.

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