Staring at the Wall With Nowhere to Go

It’s 4:30 PM, and I scramble to finish up my work early for this day, and rush over to a little room across campus, where every Wednesday I embark on an adventure in which I don’t know exactly what I will find.

There may be six other people in the room. Or there may be fifteen. Or just three. It doesn’t matter how many. In this room, our main mission is to line up facing the wall and sit down on cushions on the floor and remain silent, and just see what the heck happens.

Franklin's zafu

Welcome to the world of Zen meditation, aka zazen. Carnegie Mellon University is truly lucky to have an arrangement to offer free weekly meditation sessions on campus, held by Rev. Jisen Coghlan of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh. These meditation sessions, offered to all CMU students, faculty, and staff, began in January of 2011, after much positive response to her keynote address in June 2010 at the “Pathways to Health” event offered at CMU to staff.

I have been attending this event since the second week it was offered (I missed the initial meeting because I had not heard about it in time). I have been very grateful for the opportunity to sit with others, since for a couple of years I had periodically meditated privately at home, but never with other people, and felt I missed something as a result.

Typically we have a short orientation for those new to meditation (almost every week someone new joins us to try it out), and then we sit for 20-30 minutes, do walking meditation (aka kinhin) for 10 minutes, then sit for another 20 minutes (prefaced by a short reading from a text), then have a brief open discussion.

We’ve had a good mix of students, staff, and faculty come to the sessions.

It’s hard to describe what happens, for me, when I meditate. First of all, physically, sitting meditation is physically tough for me (I find walking meditation much easier; others find the opposite). I’m perpetually trying to adopt a “relaxed” but upright posture. My legs get sore and used to fall asleep. I wonder whether my arms and hands are in the right place and relaxed. I may feel an itch on my face and wonder whether to scratch it. I may wonder whether my breathing is too loud and annoying my sitting neighbor. Etc.

The physical discomfort is nothing compared to the mental discomfort. I may feel anxious about things I need to do, or conflicts in my life. I may worry about whether other people are sitting better than me. I may have random thoughts about my childhood, or about the future. I may feel very sleepy and start nodding off and slumping on the cushion. We are instructed to observe our thoughts non-judgmentally and let them go. Therefore, the most annoying thought to come up during meditation is the thought that I’m not letting my annoying thoughts go! It’s a riddle. Yet, after a while, things usually do settle down a bit. A bit.

I would never call meditation “fun” or “relaxing”, although sometimes it is calming. Other times it is an ordeal and makes me frustrated or angry. In any case, I keep on going, week after week. I get the sense that it is beneficial for me. But mainly, it is a practice for me. It is something I do.

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