My husband Clancy’s mentor came to town, and after we took her to lunch, we went over to the museum to look at the statue of Avaloketishvara. We call her Avaloketishvara, or White Tara. The museum calls her The Water and Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva. Anyway, he or she is a remarkable, eight-foot, painted wooden statue. She is alone in a room with benches, and people often sit with her for a long time. But not my husband’s mentor.
My husband is a Buddhist. I think it distresses some people who knew him before he was a Buddhist. His mentor kind of glanced at the statue and said, “It must be nice to believe that if you do X, Y and Z, everything will be okay.”
That really isn’t what Buddhism is about. I wish I had said that to her at the time, but I didn’t. I just said nothing, and we left the museum.
It reminded me of another time this came up, over dinner with Clancy and a colleague of his. The colleague, who studied Buddhism in college and practiced a little yoga and meditation, asked me if Buddhism is a religion. It’s an educated question, because many Buddhists say it is not a religion, but a philosophy. I said I didn’t really know, or care, and asked him what he thought. “I think it’s a religion,” he said. “For sure.”
I asked him why, and he said, “Because the Buddhist wants to attain Nirvana—to leave this place for a better place, and that makes it a religion.”
This is not accurate. Well, rephrase: this is not the kind of Buddhism I’ve been taught. The kind of Buddhism I’ve been taught is about being here. Sadly, you hear so much about being here, in this moment, that it sounds trite, and everyone thinks they understand it. I have spent maybe ten years working with this, with being here, and I can say for certain that I don’t have it yet. So I’m dubious when well-educated friends of mine who have seen it in Barnes and Noble or a yoga class feel they know better than I do. But of course, I really don’t know what their understanding is.
In short, I wanted to write about one of the ways I was taught to meditate. There are a lot of techniques. This is just one, that I was taught when I was thirty or so—when I first started trying to practice for two hours daily.
It’s called “just sitting.” I think it’s a Zen technique. I learned it from a Tibetan Buddhist master.
What you do is pick a place to sit—on the floor, on a chair, it doesn’t matter. The only important thing is that you sit with a straight back. Then you set a timer for five minutes. When you start the timer, all you do is nothing. Just sit. If you feel the urge to cough, you don’t cough. You just watch that desperate, panicky feeling. If you can’t resist and feel you must cough, then you stop the session there. If you have an itch, don’t scratch it: just watch. If you’re phone rings, don’t jump to answer it. Just do nothing.
It’s good to do that for five minutes daily.
Usually, people hear that—five minutes, and feel like it’s not enough. I think it’s good to start there, trying to do it each day, and add time slowly as you’re ready.
I was living with my mother when I started sitting like this for two hours daily. She and I had both been meditating for a while. We knew enough to know that this would not be easy, but we were still both surprised by the challenges. The first time we sat together, we set the timer for half an hour. About five minutes in, my foot fell asleep. I was way too stubborn and embarrassed to adjust my posture. The instructions were clear, after all: no movement! But the pain and the fear were astonishing. I sat there wondering sometimes if I would lose the foot. No, I told myself, I wouldn’t lose the foot. But the pain! I wondered how much longer I had to wait. When the timer went off, I was unable to use my right leg, so I pushed up onto my hands and sprung across the room, on one foot and two arms, to turn the timer off.
I want to go on and on about how profound this method is, but I worry I’ll destroy it for other people. Or, realistically, maybe one person who might be inspired by this to try it.
I guess I will say one thing that surprised me over and over again when I used to practice this way: it was the power, the unbearableness, of small things. An itch was like fire. Boredom, unbearable. All these feelings we don’t even consider, were too much for me to withstand. Which is an interesting place to begin.