Here Goes Nothing(ness)!
(A Beginner’s Reflections on Meditation)

The Mind   |   Alexandra Gross  |   March 1, 2012, 4:53 pm

When I received an email a couple of weeks ago announcing an upcoming 1-day meditation retreat with Dharma Master Heng Chih, I felt a strange rush of excitement – a question forming in my mind, and almost immediately, an answer.  Should I do this? I am going to do this.  I was a little surprised at myself – six months ago, I probably would have deleted the email without a second thought.

I have only recently started meditating at all, and certainly never for a full day.  For a long time, I was sure I was incapable of it.

I have only recently started meditating at all, and certainly never for a full day.  For a long time, I was sure I was incapable of it.  Though I’ve been interested in Buddhist thinking for a long time, and read a lot of books, and even felt that I could apply many of the concepts and values in my own life, I was happy to pass on the whole meditation thing. Sitting still and trying not to think sounded excruciatingly boring – and for what? I wasn’t sold on the idea that I would understand anything better if I meditated.  I have other habits that could be considered meditative – writing in a journal, taking long walks – and that seemed like all I needed to stay relatively grounded.  I had a lot of respect for people who could meditate, but I figured that they were just constitutionally different from me, somehow.  I had no idea what they were doing when they were sitting there.  I was intimidated.

Then last fall a friend of mine brought me to a meditation class in San Francisco.  It was a friendly, welcoming environment, full of beginners.  I realized that for most people, meditation probably did not involve being immediately whisked away into a transcendental state too sublime for words; rather, it was a constant process of watching the mind, struggling against the tide of thoughts, and struggling not to struggle, punctuated by moments of stillness.

I kept going to the class.  I began meditating at home once in a while, and then, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I attempted to meditate every morning before work.  I was beginning to appreciate it in a different way.  I was beginning to want more of it.  So when I got the announcement from DRBU, though I hesitated for days before actually registering, part of me knew right away that I would go.

Still, I was nervous ….  I felt I had to prepare.

Still, I was nervous.  I was worried about pain in my body and boredom in my mind.  I felt I had to prepare.  In the week leading up to the retreat, I tried to get more exercise.  I rode my bike more.  I sit-ups (well, once or twice). I meditated in my apartment for 45 minutes, my longest sit ever.  I tried to sit in the half lotus sometimes just reading a book or talking on the phone.

The day before the retreat, I made an extra effort to be conscious of my mental states throughout the day, and to catch any disturbances or stresses that might arise while sitting. I rode my bike all over town, trying to tire myself out so I could go to bed early and wake up at an unholy hour the next day. I also memorized two short poems by Wallace Stevens. I was afraid I would I find it impossible to focus on my breath, and be plagued by a stream of mundane thoughts.  In case of a boredom emergency, I planned to recite the poems to myself, which are very beautiful, very deep and also, I think, very Buddhist *.  At least I would be focusing on something.

— — —

The retreat is now over, and I am so glad I went.  I did not feel bored at all, though I did think of the poems a few times, walking and sitting, throughout the day.  As for physical pain – I’ll get there in a minute.

After the first sit, she gave some instructions on meditation, focusing on the physicality of it and the connection between body and mind.

It was a great privilege to learn from Bhikshuni Heng Chih.   After the first sit, she gave some instructions on meditation, focusing on the physicality of it and the connection between body and mind.  In reflecting on the experience, I can see that this mind-body connection – something that I have not generally considered very much – is a good frame for articulating something that I began to understand while sitting all day.

One of the great paradoxes of Buddhism is that for all the teachings, the thousand-page sutras, the questioning and answering and listing and breaking down, the most essential elements cannot be communicated through language at all, but only experienced directly.  The Buddha says this again and again, and Heng Chih also made this point in many different ways.  As I sat there on Sunday, I began to understand how, through the bodily sitting itself, we create conditions in which our mind can directly experience what cannot be articulated.

Take impermanence – one of those huge concepts that we put into words very easily, but rarely experience fully.  Over the course of the day, I was able to observe and experience impermanence – albeit a minor impermanence — very directly.  Thoughts came and went, returned, and left again.  Because I was trying, as Heng Chih put it, to be like a cat at the mouse hole waiting to pounce on any thought that emerged, I was catching them earlier than usual, and they were even more impermanent than usual.  The same was true of my moods.  I began the day feeling energized and excited.  After lunch I was calm and a little sleepy.  At some point in the afternoon I felt inexplicably lonely and disconnected from people; an hour later, I felt a deep sense of care and belonging.  What changed? All day I was in the same place, with the same people, doing basically the same thing.  Even when our external conditions seem stable, impermanence is unceasing.

When my body began to hurt I focused my attention on the place that hurt, and was surprised to find how much movement and impermanence there was in the pain itself.

Or how about the concept of suffering? By the late afternoon, I was definitely experiencing some direct suffering in my knees, in my hips, and in my lower back.  Heng Chih talked about pain as energy that can be transformed – but in order to do that, you have to actually work with it, focus on it, rather than avoid it.  This was a very powerful tool for me.  When my body began to hurt I focused my attention on the place that hurt, and was surprised to find how much movement and impermanence there was in the pain itself.  First it would seem like all the tension was in my left knee and my left knee only – but as I focused on my left knee, the pain seemed to break up, to move, and then it was in my lower back, so I would focus there – and then it would move again, and spread throughout my legs.  I found that my breaths became long and deep of their own accord – if I intentionally tried to take shallow breaths, the pain got worse.  My body seemed to know what to do all by itself.  Now I have never been a fan of pain, believe me, but I really appreciated the way that the physical strain in my body focused my mind.  There was definitely no space for reciting poetry in those moments.

The Buddha taught that to not see suffering is itself suffering.  No matter how content we may feel in a passing moment, we almost always have underlying anxieties or fears or weaknesses.  And we cannot forget that around the world, people are suffering in the deepest ways, constantly.  We need to look at this pain, acknowledge it, and live our lives in awareness of its existence in order to take hold of the energy that is there and transform it.

And finally – bliss. There were many moments throughout the day – feeling the still presence of so many dedicated people, watching the sunlight stream through the stained glass windows in the Buddha Hall, listening to Heng Chih’s teachings, or walking quietly in the cool spring air outside – when I was filled with a feeling of good fortune and gratitude for the opportunity of being there.  In these moments I felt both self-contained and connected to others, free yet taken care of. It’s hard to imagine more perfect conditions to try my hand at beholding, in the words of Wallace Stevens, “Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.”


*The poems, The Snow Man and Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit, are from a collection that was given to me by a poet friend.  Though my experience with poetry is nearly as minimal as my experience with meditation, I am certain that these are great poems, and I highly recommend them. The Snow Man seems particularly Buddhist – it’s such a powerful expression of suffering, patience and emptiness.

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