I started meditating at the San Francisco Zen Center in about 1978 when all the big deals were there who’s been close to Suzuki Roshi. We would sit in the very early morning for 45 minutes on the floor, backs incredibly straight, eyes open, crossed legged, concentrating on our breath. Keeping our minds on our breath and clearing it of all thoughts – those were the instructions.
If you seemed to be zoning out or getting a little sleepy, a monk would come around and hit you with a stick. If a fly sat on your nose, you ignored it. If your knees started to ache, you ignored the pain, rather than shift your position. If you asked for one of those little floor chairs, they’d tell you that you wouldn’t be supported all your life so why not start supporting yourself now?
I failed. Then Baker Roshi, who ran the Center after Suzuki Roshi died, failed too – he slept with too many students.
It was time to leave, but I carried with me the idea that I was a spiritual washout.
Then I met a guy who studied at the Zen Center fairly recently. When I told him when I’d been there, he said, “Whoa, those were the macho times.” I started to put things together – you can’t clear your mind because your amygdala is always scanning – the most you can do is not grab onto an idea.
It’s still hard. So why not make it as easy as possible, especially at first, as you develop some self-discipline – use the little chairs, even tapes (horrors, right monks?)
I’m trying again. I lie on the floor and think of myself as herding the thought-sheep that just keep wandering in, and not riding off one a wild one like ‘did I leave the stove on?’ ‘do we have enough in the account for the rent?’ or ‘oh god, what really happened to those women in Cleveland?’
And I have a new mantra about meditation: anyway you can.
If you’ve got some other ideas, bring them on. Many of us – including me – still struggle with sitting.
Editor, YogaCity NYC