Blurry people meditating
"Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream." - The Beatles
I am sitting cross-legged in the Grandfather Clock Lounge in Atherton Hall, the scholars' dorm at Penn State University. A circle of fellow students listens attentively to our instructor, including Jesse, a guy I know through a friend at the college radio station. Jesse has severe cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. His girlfriend, a paraplegic, sits next to him.
We sit around the edges of the pale green Persian rug, in this cream-colored, stately room ruled by the antique grandfather clock. It's unusual for this room to be, instead of filled with lively conversation, a place of meditation.
Our session is being led by the first female western Buddhist monk. She is round-faced and smiles easily, her stubbled blonde hair catching the light with gold glints. Sitting easily in her saffron robes, she gives us an introduction, telling us about her experiences with Buddhism.
Then, she teaches us the proper posture: legs crossed, back straight, head tilted slightly down, hands resting on the legs, palms up. With a nod towards Jesse and his girlfriend, she assures us that, more important than imitating the posture is letting the mind grow silent.
When westerners think of meditation, we tend to confuse it with severe concentration, like a mesmerizing stare into the unconscious. But as our smiling gold-and-saffron guide explains calmly, meditation is an opening. It is freeing your mind of the thoughts that inhabit it, allowing other revelations to enter. If we hear a noise, she tells us, we should not try to block it out. We should notice it, simply notice it. Then, let it pass. The mind is empty, the palms are empty, facing up.
We get situated, and she tells us she will hit a bell twice: the first time indicating the beginning of our session, the second time indicating the end. The bell chimes.
At first, my mind races. Like trying not to think of pink elephants, all I can do is think about the minutiae of my life: the paper I've got to write, the friends I want to meet later. Then, I tell myself, "Notice them and let them pass." One by one, my thoughts flutter away, becoming a far-off, faded pantomime.
For a while, the room is silent. Then, we hear footsteps down the hallway, loud voices of people in high spirits on this Saturday. Notice it and let it pass. Outside, more happy voices. Heavy footsteps of someone running. The click-click-click of a bicycle coasting. Hum of far-away cars. Notice them and let them pass. My hands are empty, my palms upward.
Birds chirp. Notice them and let them pass. The calmness of the room: the breathing of our group, the occasional soft flap of Jesse's left arm, over which he has little control. Notice them and let them pass.
At some point it could have been ten minutes, it could have been an hour I feel immersed in a golden cloud, hovering a few inches above the floor. The noises and distractions tuned to a heavenly music. Inside, I feel bliss.
The bell rings.
The monk directs us to slowly open our eyes, look around. Everyone is smiling; Jesse, even more than usual, which is saying something. His girlfriend, who would shortly after college become his wife, puts a hand on his hand, which for once is still. They share a look of peaceful understanding.
I don't know how to contact that monk; I only know her birth name was Diane, though she'd changed it to a Buddhist name. But should she come across this page, I'd like to thank her, to tell her how much that brief moment so many years ago has meant to me. I often find, in the midst of a frantic day, that if I just relax and breathe, if I just clear my mind of all the clutter, I can cope. This even helps sometimes with migraines, which I've found are caused by an inundation of sensation: noise, light, and tension.
It's easy, as a Type A personality, to forget how important it is to stop and breathe. My best ideas come to me when I am quiet and listen. When I don't try to force the thoughts but, instead, clear a pathway for ideas to enter. It might seem ridiculous to say that, in order to have a great idea, you must have an empty mind. Yet, my best ideas have always come that way. They spring forth from the subconscious, a helpful universe, a muse as soon as I get out of my own way.
The same was true when I took an improv class. The first few weeks, I could not stop overthinking everything I did. I was frustrated. But as soon as I just took a breath and stepped out there without a thought in my head, that's when I was brilliant.
In western society, we think of the word "empty" as negative. But negative space is just space to fill. If you never allow any negative space, you don't have room for anything new. You don't have room for any insights or new knowledge. If you spend too much time thinking your own petty thoughts, you can't hear what the universe is telling you.
Breathe. Palms up. Be empty. Be open.
I've learned more from silence than I have from words.