April 4, 2011

Close Your Books and Forget the Thinking: Teaching Meditation in a Community College Lecture Hall ~ Donna Quesada

Encounter reality as it is, at this moment.

“I should tell you from the get-go, this class is going to be a little different,” I said, on the first day, as I scanned the eyes of the 100 slumped bodies that occupied the tiered rows of folding desks in the lecture hall.

Besides piquing their curiosity, I also hoped to banish any idea they might have had of philosophy as a dry and disconnected discipline. The class is called Eastern Philosophy, although a better title would have been Eastern Philosophy and Religion, since the distinction between the two loses its edge in the context of the wisdom traditions we study.

In the West, philosophy has developed on the twin pillars of reason and logic and through time, gave rise to the standards of the scientific method. It takes its identity from that form of knowledge Plato referred to as episteme—the meta-discipline that asks what knowledge is, who gets to have it, how they get it, and what justifies it. Today, known as epistemology, it is at the heart of the discipline. Thus, philosophy may be described as the systematic search for knowledge.

With no expectation of elements like worship, faith or many of the rituals that have typically been sidelined as religious.

However, in the East, knowledge would be better likened to what the Greeks called gnosis or knowledge. Rather than theoretical understanding, the focus is on direct experience, and rather than analysis, on intuitive discernment. It was through this faculty, after all, that the sages and yogis and mystics of old realized the most profound truths of the universe. Through the methods that hardcore science would still knock as religious, they traversed the bridge between the physical realm and the spiritual realm but could only point the way with metaphor, song or like the holy men of the desert, through spinning dance.

Through myriad meditative methods, through devotional hymns, through the adept refinement of the body’s vast vibrational field, through nonverbal exploration of the depths of consciousness and by way of the intimate and wordless discovery of the divine awareness, which, like a chary bride, went veiled in modesty, they came to know. The curtains opened and the mystics were able to glimpse what science is only now confirming, but they could only gift us with a stolen glimpse of their mystical experience. We would have to see for ourselves.

In the East, knowledge is all tangled up with the religious and so it is that the western categories of philosophy and religion don’t quite fit. Knowledge comes via direct experience, rather than cogent arguments. Truth is found in the stillness of the quiet mind, rather than on the pages of competing theories and the very pursuit is to drop the pursuit. We rediscover, rather, what we already know, uncover what was already there—what Zen calls your original face, what Hinduism calls your true self. But we have to get real still, so that we can see without looking and hear without listening.

I explained all of this. Then, I dimmed the lights.

“With your attention only on your breath, jot down, in your project books, each thought you become aware of. But don’t write me a composition! And, as strange as it sounds, don’t try to write stuff—because that means you’re following your thoughts. Just scratch out any key word and come back.”

I tiptoed around and stole glances over their shoulders. Some had no more than five words, even though five minutes had passed, even though we’ve got thousands of thoughts streaming by in the blink of an eye.

I interrupted the silence with two hits of my handheld meditation bell.

“Anybody care to share?” I asked. “Was there some thought you kept coming back to?”

“Yeah, that I can’t wait to eat, after class!” one said.

“Me too–I couldn’t get lunch out of my head,” a girl in the back added.

“Sounds like what we used to call ‘sick dreams’, as kids,” I laughed.

“So, we’ve got burritos on the brain. What kind of thought is that?” I asked.

“A future thought,” offered one quick student in the front.

“Exactly!” I said.

“So, here’s part two of our experiment: Next to each word, write a ‘P’ next to the past thoughts and an ‘F,’ next to the future ones.”

At each moment, we’re awash in a slew of thoughts—criticizing and complaining about what happened yesterday, anticipating what might go wrong tomorrow. We miss the present moment entirely, even though there has never been anything else. We are grasping with the left arm, at the fictional limb of the past and reaching with the right arm, for the tentative, make-believe limb of the future, only to remember it later through the distorted lens of memory. And so it is that, strangely, we invent both the future and the past. Even though the future has never existed, as soon as it unfolds into the present, we hold our gaze on the time ahead, always living for the sake of this imaginary world that has taken on greater meaning than this one. We swing from branch to branch and forget to stop here.

“What if my thoughts weren’t past ones or future ones?” the girl with the tattoos asked.

“Go on,” I urged.

“Like, how the people walking in late were annoying,” she said.

“What kind of thought is that?” I asked.


“A judgement thought!” I said.

“So, write a ‘J’ next to those kinds of thoughts,” I instructed.

The judgment thoughts, like all the past thoughts and the future thoughts, divorce us from reality. As if behind a smokescreen, we’re disconnected from our actual lives, as they are, right now. It’s only when we enter into that stillness that we simultaneously encounter reality as it is, at this moment.

“But what’s so great about ‘the now,’ when everything sucks?” Asked the guy with the baseball cap.

They all looked at me with the what-do-you-have-to-say-about-that look.

Because you won’t be truly free, completely at ease, nor wholly at peace otherwise but the real punch is that you can’t experience joy unless you’re here to experience it. When you have presence of body and mind, and are tuned-in, rather than tuned-out, things like boredom, frustration and worry simply don’t exist; those mind-states aren’t compatible with true, sustained presence.

The next day, we tried it again.

“I found that my mind was busier than ever, rather than at peace,” one student said.

“But no! It’s that you never noticed before! You never stopped to observe it. Once you take a peek inside, you see the never-ending thoughts tugging at you, vying for your attention. Like a fussy toddler pulling at your pant leg, complaining and whining…I don’t want to go there..I want to go here…I don’t like that…I like this.

To test this, I invited them to stand up: “Ladies, if you’re wearing heels, you have permission to remove them. And men, too.”

“Think about what you did over the weekend. Think especially, about something that irritated you. Did you have any arguments with anybody? Replay it! What did they say? What do you wish you would have said?” I cajoled.

I hopped up onto the desk and lifted my right leg into tree pose.

“While re-spinning the drama, lift one leg, and tuck it into the other, like mine,” I instructed.

With some doubt, about my instructions, some managed to hold the pose for a moment but then toppled.

“Now, take a deep breath. The biggest breath ever. As if you could pull that air down into your belly, make it look like you’re pregnant,” I said.

They laughed. We had to start again.

“This time, focus only on that breath. Let everything else go and lift your leg up again,” I instructed. “Keep the focus on your belly—your center of gravity, your source of power.”

The difference was evident.

“Did you feel the difference? Funny how when you do something stupid, people say ‘I guess I wasn’t thinking,’ when in actuality, they were thinking too much,” I said.

By simply observing our thoughts, all that clutter settles on its own, like debris in a pond. Like the water, we become clear. And with practice, it starts to carry over into ‘real life.’ We become more centered, more capable and more balanced, not just on the meditation cushion or in tree pose, but in everything we do.

Donna Quesada is an instructor of eastern philosophy and hatha yoga, kundalini yoga teacher-trainee, Zen practitioner, and author of the upcoming book, Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers.

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