Don’t hate, meditate
Buddhism, Zen gnomes, dead legs and popcorn fantasies
“You have to use your mind to lose your mind,” an irreverent guru once told me. In other words, the only way to still acrobatic thoughts, or what Buddhists call “taming the monkey mind,” is by using the mind as a tool of observation. Hence, the practice of meditation.
I’ve meditated on and off for years but never stuck with it. The very idea of spending 40 minutes “doing nothing” brings on a mild panic—so all the more reason to spend a Sunday evening with the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group, where, as a matter of pride, I intended to hold out for longer than five minutes.
The SBMG was formed in 1991 to create a sangha (spiritual community) for local meditation practitioners. Their Sunday Night Sit consists of a 40-minute silent meditation period followed by a visiting teacher or sangha member’s talk. The sit takes place at Congregation B’nai Israel; they transform the Social Hall into a Buddhist sanctuary.
When I arrived, there were already a couple dozen people chatting and milling about. Some had placed their cushions on a mat, others sat in folding chairs. The speaker, sangha member Cynthia Embree-Lavoie, sat facing the group. At 7 o’clock, she chimed a Tibetan singing bowl, a signal to be seated.
I wasn’t sure where to sit, so I asked a guy who looked like a regular.
“There are very strict rules,” he deadpanned.
“What are they?” I asked.
“You find an open spot and take it.”
I positioned myself on a cushion and waited. Announcements were made, the speaker was introduced, and then the lights went out and Cynthia gonged the bowl. I was ready to sink into a deep, silent, soulful meditation.
I was ready, but my mind wasn’t.
Like an unruly child—sit still and be quiet!—my brain kept spinning. I tried concentrating on my breath and pretending to be a pebble thrown into a river. In my mind’s eye, I imagined a stream I’d visit in San Diego, where my boyfriend and I would cut class and picnic. That was the year I took a course on Zen Buddhism, and on a field trip to a local monastery, a monk told us his teacher would whack students with a stick if they squirmed during meditation.
I gave myself a mental whack: No drifting thoughts!
I tried chanting a silent mantra: “Om namah Shivaya,” meaning roughly “I bow to Shiva,” or supreme reality or inner self. I tried maintaining a half-smile on my face, as recommended by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Then, for no apparent reason, I started fantasizing about popcorn. I shifted a little on my cushion. And then the worst happened.
My left leg fell asleep.
I tried ignoring it, but it felt like a thousand tiny Zen gnomes stabbing needles into my leg. Mind over matter! But the sensation persisted. I poked at my numb calf to wake it up. I followed my breath. I even tried thinking of popcorn—anything to distract from the discomfort. Then I thought of teachings I’d heard to “Go into the pain.”
“I surrender,” I told myself, over and over. I moved my leg to get the circulation running. Almost instantly, my leg came back to life. I’d just started to settle in again when the bell rang.
Blinking, I came back into the room. People were chatting during the break, but I stood silent. I realized in that dark, quiet space, that I somehow felt more connected to everyone in the room than I felt with our eyes and mouths open.
The talk afterward was on “Craving and Attachment.” The speaker shared how she used meditation as an aid to overcome an eating disorder. She said that, as with any addiction, she was trying to fulfill an internal need with something external. Meditation helped her relax and become less judgmental of herself and others.
“I realized I’m not a bad, awful person,” she said. “I’m just a suffering, deluded person.”
Later outside, a warm, tropical breath of night air greeted everyone. I still craved popcorn, but instead of giving myself a whack, I tilted my head to the reclining moon and smiled.