Saturday, September 20, 2014

First time group meditation

So I joined the gym of my local college campus. Pasted on the entrance one day I happened to catch a schedule for a previously unknown to me meditation hall annex to the sports center. I decided to check it out.

source:; White and Pink Flowers taken by Magnus RosendahlI've been meditating for myself over the previous year. Frankly I would have never started had not physical troubles pushed me to it. Meditation as alternative medicine was frequently mentioned in the books I consulted and decided to give it a try. If nothing else as a way to take over my own recovery. Well, I had been meditating with more or less success in a standing posture, but felt I could do even better with some guidance. My first impetus was posture itself. Though not prohibited by any means, standing straight is not mainstream. Maybe some regular time tested sitting might help.

The first couple visits to the meditation hall were unsuccessful as it was they were sessions already going on (yoga I think) and didn't want to distract the girls there. On the third go, I chanced on a general meditation workshop. Being a slow day, there was only the instructor and a student. As I entered the teacher was explaining the concept of koans to the student. The instructor invited me to join, but startled at the unexpected welcomeness, I decided to let them be and left. Undaunted, I tried yet once more, and finally caught the instructor by himself the following week.

He was sitting there by himself already on meditation with three more unoccupied cushions at his sides. He stopped and kindly asked me to come in. He turned up to be a soft spoken Westerner with 35 years of meditation experience.I explained that I was there to try the cushions out. He said that by all means and promptly proceeded to induct me. He asked me if I already meditated and which meditation school I practiced (makeshift zen). He gave me a crash course anyway: how, to sit,  where to feel the breathing (2 inches below the navel), keep the eyes open, focus on no point, think on nothing (he did say that) and to just return the awareness to it.

With that he told me we would go for 20 minutes. He laughed when I tried to negotiate it down to ten, my then maximum, set some meditation timer app and then we were at it. Before long two more persons came into the hall, one sitting on the line of cushions and the other behind us three.

Well, those twenty minutes were not so bad as I expected. Actually, far from feeling any pressure from the others I felt motivated by them. The practice felt more flowy, easier and at times, deeper. Nothing dramatic, but the momentum did build upon itself.The time for its part flew, but unlike my own practice I wondered from time to time how much we had left, not out of anxiety, but of curiosity. Despite trying to get into a proper posture (Burmese style) at the onset, I still felt my right knee was off the floor. A bit uncomfortable on the whole, but not painful.

So when the digital bowl rang from the phone, the instructor bowed forward, took a silent pause and took a look 'round. One of the latecomers I recognized as the koan guy from before; the other a female student. When I tried to stand up I found that my right leg had numbed over; the koan guy seeing that, good naturedly chuckled and said that it happens but over time it gets better. The girl, I saw, had pulled a meditation bench from somewhere and on the spot I decided to try that next.

The instructor proposed that we now switch to a five minute walking meditation. Same thing, just fist over the thumb on the right, left hand. We went single file behind him round the hall, although I had to stand there for the first few while sensation came back to my leg. On the whole I liked this change, although it was hard to focus on my breathing or on anything for that matter. Just the circuit again and again. Probably that's the point if there's a point at all. Maybe that's how the whirling dervishes, on another scale, get their kicks (Update: from the 3 Pillars of Zen I learn this is called kinhin and its for its own sake, to allow variety and to allow longer sitting periods) .

After another bowl ring, the instructor invited us to another 20 minute sit to close the allotted time. I politely begged off, having had my fill for the moment, but promised to come back next week.

And so I did on the weeks following. Same dynamics: sit around 20 to 25 minutes, walk five, sit another 20. Different persons came and went, but we averaged three or four consistently. The benefits I had noticed on my first try were still there with differing intensity. I tried the bench and found it even better and eventually bought one for myself on an auction site. The teacher gave a few pointers here and there ("your posture is good, but you must let yourself drop"). My own solitary practice has strengthened. If you ever have the chance to try to group meditate with a handful of people, I'd encourage you to to not let the opportunity pass.

(If you are a Catholic, some, perhaps all, meditation practices might be harmful to you spiritual life. Check out Women of Grace or read what Sue Brinkmann has to say by googling her)

More next time


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