Published: May 21st 2011May 20th 2011
At my latest work party, my high school's kendo (sword fighting) coach invited me to meditate with the team at a local temple. Twice a month, as part of their training, they practice Zazen medition, which comes from Chinese Zen Buddhism.
At first I was just excited to have such a unique experience, and didn't think about how difficult it might be to sit motionless for half an hour.
But when the moment arrived on Thursday night, with incense burning and monks ringing bells, I started to get a little nervous. We had already been sitting cross legged on the floor for about 15 minutes, which is a long time for someone with poor circulation who's used to sitting on furniture.
We (and by we I mean everyone else in the room except for me) were chanting hypnotically in Japanese to the beat of a drum, in front of the candles and kanji characters of the temple altar. I still had a silent, straight-backed half an hour ahead of me.
At this point, Elizabeth's meditation meltdown in Eat, Pray Love
came to mind. She meditates for five minutes and then has to leave the room because she can't keep her thoughts still, and the total silence of the room is just too much. I thought the same thing might happen to me... in front of my students, a teacher and a tatami room full of other Japanese people.
But, luckily, they weren't as disciplined as the Ashram yogis in the heart of India. Someone's cell phone actually went off, which I'm sure scandalized the monks, but made me feel better about needing to drain the blood back to my numbed legs halfway through, and the student sitting next to me was rocking dangerously towards sleep.
In this relaxed atmosphere, my brain was actually thankful for the rest of silence and inactivity. It wasn't "still," but it wasn't focused on any one thing in particular, either.
Even though I live alone, there's hardly ever a point where everything is just silent. If I'm cleaning, there's music playing; if I'm eating, the TV is on; if I'm doing nothing in particular, I'm probably reading or not at home.
Earlier this year I read a book about Buddhism, and it describes the ultimate goal as a state of awareness, or waking up. If our minds are always busy with tasks, worrying, or whatever else, we don't have a chance to observe ourselves and the world we live in. Sorry to get all flower power on everyone, but the idea of stilling the mind and body as a regular practice is really beautiful, and my first experience was very refreshing.
I also couldn't help thinking, as I was sitting front row center at this temple, how lucky I was to have this experience. The teachers and students of my schools have been so welcoming and open to getting to know me, and have helped me experience Japan in ways I never would have imagined. From the moment I arrived at the temple, they were waiting for me with a tripod set up to take our picture, and they tried to translate what the monk was saying throughout the evening. I've met some really wonderful people.