By Tyson Davis
So, you’ve just RSVP’d to your first Zen sangha meeting via meetup.com.
Unfortunately, statistically, and when I say statistically, I mean judging by the two meditation Meetup groups I run, you won’t show up. You may make multiple false-starts by RSVP’ing many times. You may have the best intentions. But you probably won’t come.
Roughly around 80% of the people that commit on Meetup or via email are no-shows. Don’t be like them.
Okay, so you’ve beaten the odds and are at the sangha location. You’re sitting in the parking lot as you read this. You’re nervous, I know. You got there 15 minutes early like you were asked. And then you freak out and leave. You practically squeal out of the parking lot. Don’t laugh. It’s happened at least once that I’ve seen. That’s okay. Hopefully you will get home, your blood pressure will get back to normal and you will try again next week.
It’s a week later and you’ve decided that this is it.
You’re really going to go, and you’re probably going to actually go in this time. Like, really, you are. Through the front door. Seriously, watch. I see you walking toward it. Look! You’re opening the front door right now and walking in! You did it! Congratulations! As that old Zen master Obi-Wan Kenobi said to his last student, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”
Seriously, it takes a lot of courage to go to a group meditation; at least it did for me, and I’ve somehow managed to hoodwink several friends into going. They were nervous, too. For something that helps alleviate anxiety, apparently it creates a lot on the front-end.
Seven years later the only regret I have is that I didn’t walk through the door much sooner.
Now that you’re in, what can you expect?
All Zen centers are different. Ours is in a yoga studio, so there was already a kind of weird, hippy-ish motif. We didn’t have to add much. Some sanghas actually have their own building (lucky them!) while other sanghas meet in a member’s living room or basement. Don’t worry if that’s the case; they probably aren’t some undercover sex cult. But if they are, would you send me their address?
Okay, now it’s time to begin. We have a small statue of Buddha on top of an altar (old table someone donated) and a couple of candles. Someone opens the altar, which means they light the candles, take a few steps back, and then bow to the Buddha. Don’t let that freak you out though. We aren’t worshiping the Buddha. By bowing we are simply recognizing the Buddha in all of us. Once the altar is opened the fun begins!
We come from a Korean lineage so we start with a couple of weird chants. I didn’t like this at first.
It reminded me too much of my Southern Baptist upbringing where we sang a lot of songs about Jesus and how much he loved me as long as I wasn’t doing a long list of things, and if I was doing those things, there was no hope for me and I was going to burn in eternal Hell.
Buddhist chants aren’t like that. Well, I say that, but one of our chants is not in English, so who knows.
The chanting actually serves a purpose that I wish was talked about more to newcomers; it is the gateway from the outside world with all of its hustle and bustle to the meditation space. It slows down our minds. It also creates “together action” with the other people who also had enough courage to walk through the door that day. We need that together action, because the rest of our time is going to be with ourselves and those pesky thoughts of ours.
After the chanting, it’s time for the good stuff. We are going to sit perfectly still in the Lotus position, not move, and extinguish all of our thoughts. Just kidding! It may look like other people that have been there a few times are doing exactly that, but trust me, they aren’t.
They are moving, although it may be imperceptible, and they are thinking, too. We call this “monkey mind.”
Although their thoughts maybe aren’t as jolting as yours and hopefully they aren’t clinging to them, but they probably are. Some of them may be sitting in the lotus position (full disclosure, I tore my meniscus demonstrating this position to some newbies), some of them may be in the half-lotus, or on a bench or sitting in a chair. Just find a position that you will be comfortable with. I encourage people to sit on the floor in some type of modified quarter-lotus or Burmese position if possible. But the co-abbot of our sangha said I was too militant so listen to me at your own risk.
Our group sits for two 30-minute periods split up by 10 minutes of walking meditation. Pretty intimidating for first-timers I know. Look, I’m not going to blow smoke up your yoga pants—it’s difficult at first. It’s uncomfortable both mentally and physically. Your brain wants you to do anything but sit still and watch your thoughts.
Also, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised how physically demanding sitting still and doing nothing is.
After that first excruciating 30 minutes you will finally be able to slowly (careful, your legs may be asleep) get up and do “walking meditation.” You should treat this just like sitting meditation. It’s a slightly strange feeling walking slowly with a bunch of other people. Our sangha isn’t as weird about that as most though. Most places will make you walk in a line with others and if you don’t keep up you might get run over. I’ve heard stories.
Our sangha lets you walk by yourself at your own pace. Nobody told me that the first time I showed up. I had watched a couple of videos on “kinhin” and just assumed we would be walking in a single file line. I’m sure the lady that I was much too closely following around for 10 minutes thought that I was some kind of bizarre Zen stalker.
After the walking meditation you’re back on your butt for another 30 minutes. If our teacher is there she usually gives her dharma talk during this time. She’s probably going to use some foreign words that you aren’t familiar with. Don’t worry about that too much. You’ll probably understand the overall theme to a certain extent. I’m convinced the dharma talk is for the sole purpose of confusing everyone in the room. So you won’t be the only one that doesn’t get whatever is said.
If you keep at it you’ll quickly learn that being confused is a good thing in Zen. The second 30-minute sitting period goes by slower than the first one. Yeah, yeah, they are both 30-minute periods and 30 minutes is 30 minutes, but somehow in a mediation hall 30 minutes is more like 40 or 50. Just when you think your legs are going to fall off, your back is going to break and your head is going to explode, the timekeeper wakes up from his nap and rings the bell. You’re free!
Way to go! You made it through your first group meditation!
So I’m sure you are now a fully enlightened being, right? No?!? Well, you must have done something wrong then. Everyone gets enlightenment their first time. It’s like an Oprah show, “You get enlightened. You get enlightened. And you get enlightened!” Again, just kidding.
You won’t leave enlightened. In fact, you probably won’t feel any different when you walk out the door as you did walking in. Well, other than your back hurts more. I think a lot of people come to their first meditation session expecting something magical to happen.
It doesn’t work that way: You have to come back next week. And the week after. And the week after that. Oh, and you really need to have a daily practice.
Coming once or twice a month and then meditating once a week at home isn’t going to accomplish much. We really need to meditate at least four days a week for at least 15 minutes a day to see any effects. Oh, and it may take several months to see them. I’m not a great salesman am I? But the more we meditate the better off we’ll be.
Start slow. Work up to daily or close-to-daily practice and work up to 15 minutes. That’s what I did. I started with five minutes a day for a week, then moved to seven minutes a day for two weeks, etc. I now meditate twice daily for at least a total of 40 minutes a day. I also go through fits of masochism where I do this with a group for a whole day, a weekend, or a week. Yes, I’m crazy.
There are a lot of reasons not to meditate. It takes effort and discipline. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve used the word “weird” or a synonym of it multiple times in this post. If you aren’t Asian and Buddhism isn’t part of your culture then all of this stuff is probably really weird. I still think it is sometimes. Also, it really is difficult at first; “at first” is subjective. For me it’s still difficult a lot of times. It took several months before I noticed any real changes. As I said before, I’ve been doing this for a while and I wish I had started much sooner.
Everything in Zen is about experience, so I’m not going to tell you how much my practice has changed me. You have to see for yourself. But it has. And if you have enough courage to keep coming back, I promise it will change you, too. All you have to do is walk through that door.
Tyson Davis is not a Zen Teacher. In fact, his main practice is “don’t know.” So don’t take anything he writes as the proverbial gospel (or sutra as the case may be). He does think he is something of a Zen unicorn though, because he is not a Liberal/Progressive Democrat Buddhist, and he rolls his eyes when American Buddhist teachers and bloggers constantly inject politics into their religion. Because of that he started a blog, Don’t Know Zen. There he does what some would call tilting at windmills but he calls bringing American Buddhism back to the Middle Way.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak