I am no stranger to meditation. The very first yoga class I ever took, over 18 years ago, happened to be a free meditation class on January 1, 1996. I saw a sign and wandered in, hoping for a good omen to start the year. The large studio was packed and the instructor was a pleasant-looking man in his 30’s, wearing a pair of loose pants that did nothing much to conceal his underwear-free massive willie. It was hard not to stare.
But, after the shock of the first experience (I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing) and years of yoga practice, I got the hang of it. Unlike sofagirl, I have a meditation practice that ebbs and flows. In truth, it has been at a pretty low ebb lately, for lack of enough hours in the day, or so I tell myself.
Recently overwhelmed by the amount of things I try to cram into the day, and in the interest of reporting for C&S, I decided to investigate the free 30 minute weekly Mindful Awareness meditations offered by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The lunchtime program is run by UCLA which, unbeknownst to me, has a Mindful Awareness Research Center, proof that meditation is not the realm of flower power descendants alone any longer.
My morning had started with a nail in my tire, forcing me to a detour to a tire shop, and putting a wrench into my carefully crafted schedule. How a propos, I muttered. If meditation is not a complete unknown, I am a stranger to group meditation in large venues. My experience was always limited to the cocoon of the yoga studio, the living room of my yoga teacher or the solitude of my bedroom. To sit in a large auditorium full of strangers, inside a museum, with a teacher on a stage was a tad unsettling.
In very broad and basic terms, most schools of meditation, be they Tibetan, Indian or Japanese, are aimed at quieting the mind, getting rid of thoughts and just be at one with your object of meditation ( a mantra, a sound, your breath etc) until you reach stillness and, eventually, a higher plane. Not that I ever got there. But I have reached a few moments of stillness here and there, which is what I always aimed for.
Diana Winston, our instructor for the day and the Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, was a serene stage presence, with a soothing voice (to be expected) and a welcoming demeanour. She briefly talked about how, in an awareness practice, the goal is to become present, disentangled from the train of thoughts we tend to spend most of the day on. Thoughts per se are not a bad thing – what are we if not the sum of our thoughts? It’s the negative and worrisome ones, the ones which lead us down the dark path of suffering that we need to stay free of. Being fully in the present, with no concerns for the past or for what will happen in the future is a way to achieve such presence and to put a stop to the negative stories we tell ourselves.
After a few introductory remarks, Diana asked us to close our eyes and to sit comfortably while she guided us towards our breathing, asking us to notice our thoughts and to let them go. My first thought was for the guy to my right who, under the cover of our momentary “blindness” might take advantage and lift my wallet from my purse (he didn’t and I have been living in LA too long evidently). That particular worry, that took up quite a lot of my time, was followed by lunch plans and a mental inventory of what was in my fridge (never attend a meditation class on a completely empty stomach). Finally I started to shed the self-consciousness stemming from sitting in a huge movie theater, surrounded by strangers and, when Diana called us back to attention, 30 minutes had gone by. I double checked my watch because it only felt like 10 minutes at most – my stomach had even quit grumbling.
Years ago, after an evening meditation class, I got into my car and backed into a huge column – I was that spaced out. Today I didn’t cause any bodily harm to my car but I did notice that my driving had slowed down (a good thing, in my case), that the city sounds coming from the open windows were clearer and not the usual background blur and, above all, I had no desire to check my phone for e-mails and messages.
Did the bliss last? As soon as I arrived home I got promptly annoyed by the mess my stepson had left in the kitchen but, at least, I took notice of my annoyance and didn’t act on it. Will I go back for more? Trying to keep a weekly appointment in the middle of the day would mean one more challenge to my overstretched schedule; retreating to my bedroom when my mind is racing is a more feasible option (the program also offers podcasts and downloads of the weekly sessions). Sometimes the tools we need are simple and cheap – we just have to remember to take them out of the box.
Images found in the public domain