April 19, 2013

Your First Time: Sometimes It Hurts.

Photo credit: Wiertz Sébastien

Something happens and you go from sitting on the couch with your feet up on a littered coffee table to sitting on the floor with your legs knotted like a pretzel twist.

Instead of focusing on the flickering light of the television, you begin to focus on the flickering lights behind your eyelids. How you got here. Why you came. It’s all important.

Over the course of the next year—with the help and participation of at least 51 mature practitioners of meditation—I’ll present here the stories, struggles, and successes of people who have made practice a part of their daily life. Through this, we’ll build an archive, together, of stories and experiences that can be easily accessed for those curious of mediation and/or looking for comfort as they move forward in their own practice.

All of us who continue to practice do so with some determination—something which draws us to the cushion or mat even on those days when we shun it. Perhaps in our stories is a path that may provide that thing for someone just starting out.

We’ll no doubt find some humor along the way. We may even discover some pain. But more importantly, we’ll learn and teach.

So before I get into me, I need to ask of you. In order for this to work, I’m in need of interview subjects. All I ask is that you be an experienced (as defined by you) practitioner of some form of meditation and be comfortable sharing your path. You don’t need to be known—though I wouldn’t shy away if Waylon, Shiva Rea, Moby, or other wanderlust folks felt the need to participate (nudge, nudge)—you just need to recognize the power of sharing and learning from each other.

E-mail me at [email protected].


I’d always planned on opening this series with my own first mediation experience—it’s only fair if I’m counting on others to share theirs.

The only issue is I’m, at heart, a very private person. So it took some reasoning on my own behalf to conclude that I could share what I want, just like I’ll leave it open to each and every other participate to share only what they want. So here goes.

It’s six o’clock in the morning. I’m jet-lagged from the flight into Thailand, wandering around some street; it’s just me and the ever-present sausage looking dogs, who seem to be everywhere.

I’d looked up meditation instruction before I’d left and found a Wat that offered instruction once a week. But it’s much easier to find it online than it is in real life, half-awake, and in a foreign country.

I followed the dogs; they ate scraps outside the entrance while I ventured in. The next moment, I’m in a room full of monks. They’re eating breakfast. Noticing me, they stop. This is one of the many times in my life I questioned how I ended up at a certain place, at a certain time. But before I could delve too much further into my own thoughts, one lone monk stood-up.

In barely understandable English I was offered breakfast. I declined but then quickly grew nervous that in doing so I’d broken some protocol. The monk just smiled and remained silent.

Unsure, I blurted out: “I’m here for meditation instruction.” The monk nodded and left the room, motioning that I should I follow. I could feel the dogs shaking their head at my ignorance as we passed. Quickly we entered another room.

The instruction took all of five minutes; the monk checking my face and watching me mimic the walking practice he’d shown. Nodding again, he smiled, uttered the words “two hours” and closed the door behind him as he left. A click leaving me with the idea that I’d just been locked in.

Resigned, I began to practice; keeping my focus on my breath as I paced the stone floor. It couldn’t have been more than a half-hour before I gave in and tried the door. It hadn’t been locked.

No one was outside. The dogs now lay sleeping; their legs the only things keeping them from appearing to be over-sized rolly poly bugs. I ventured into the room where I’d found the monks before. It was empty. Unsure, and slightly disheartened, I left.

I think of this experience to this day every time a new person arrives during an open sitting at a center I sometimes frequent. They’re offered a few minutes of instruction before entering the sanctuary and generally leave within the first 30 minutes. I wonder if their story ends there. Thankfully mine didn’t.

The same day I left my first instruction, I ventured into another Wat. Seeing others in sitting practice, I sat and joined them. It was there, 12 years ago, that my practice began.

I didn’t let the first experience thwart me; in fact, I took the lesson to heart. I’d been given the basic instruction and the rest was left to me.

Studying the various schools, I found my comfort in the Theravada tradition—a point not lost on me given it’s hold in Southeast Asia. I began reading the texts—the Pali translations by Bhikku Bodhi. I sat regularly. When I discovered the Abhidhammattha Sangaha (Manual of Abhidhamma)—the philosophical psychology of Buddhism—my path was sealed.

Before I’d finished the text—one I have recently returned too—I sought out a place to take refuge and quickly found myself the student of a monk well trained in the Abhidhamma.

Like that first monk, he teaches me and then seems to disappear. We go months without any contact. The last time I heard from him it was via e-mail. He had returned to Myanmar and was living in the jungle. He said he’d be back soon. I asked him a question.

He’s yet to respond, but I’m finding the answer.

E-mail me at [email protected] if you’re interested in sharing your story as a part of my series.

The series so far:

Week 2: What Keep Us Coming Back to the Cushion.






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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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