This is Week 4 of 5 in Shana Lebowitz's #zensperiment series. Catch up on Week 0 (why she's learning to meditate), Week 1 (meditating in real life), Week 2 (challenges of meditation), and Week 3 (meditating in groups).
We hugged, and I felt the softness of her sweater and the strength in her upper arms, smelled the faint odor of shampoo in her curls.
Her name? I have no idea.Illustration by Bob Al-Greene
Aside from embracing strangers, for the past few days I've been thinking a lot about the meaning of community and how meditation is helping me find it. Second maybe to using the bathroom, meditation is pretty much the most solitary practice I can imagine. But as this #zensperiment carries on, I'm starting to realize that meditation is not just about finding yourself, but about figuring out where you fit in the rest of the world.
Last Saturday Jordan, Sophie, and I headed to the Hudson River for Yoga in the Park, an outdoor event led by the husband-and-wife celeb yoga team, Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman. Personally, I was there for the free swag (yoga mat, water bottle, and pedometer!) but Jordan and Sophie were ready to commune with nature and their fellow yogis.
At noon Rodney turned up his mike and told the 300 people lounging on purple yoga mats under a hazy sky to turn to their neighbor and give them a big hug. There was surprisingly little hesitation and awkwardness as we locked total strangers in hearty embraces without so much as introducing ourselves. As the chuckles and chatter died down, Rodney and Colleen invited us to tune into the breeze around us and the grass underneath us as we participated in a five-minute meditation.
Earlier that week I'd gone with Becca to a class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Chelsea. After a silent meditation, the class broke out in a chant that sounded something like asking the Buddha to help us find love, patience, and kindness. I'll admit I was turned off at first - the last time I sang in public might have been during a summer camp play - but after a few minutes I started to feel a little sad. I still don't know why exactly, though I suspect it was the bittersweet realization that the crowd surrounding me was filled with basically good-hearted people who were here to ask for help living in a world that isn't always kind.
It wasn't about the Buddha, or about the man leading the chanting from a cushion up front; it wasn't even about achieving perfect pitch. These people were drawing strength from each other, and from the knowledge that the classmate in the next seat over was struggling, too. Ultimately, everyone there was just looking for peace.
Typically I shy away from vague directions like “feel the energy of the people around you” in yoga and meditation classes. But, at Yoga in the Park, when Colleen told us to notice the energy of all the people on the grass around us, I could almost feel the simultaneous excitement and calm that was sweeping over the crowd at that moment. We were sitting there thinking our separate thoughts but breathing, meditating, and letting go as a unit. The next morning I woke up looking forward to my meditation routine more than usual - at last I'd had the breakthrough I'd (secretly) been hoping for! But when I sat down to meditate, something felt wrong. I started thinking about the work I had to do to prepare for Monday. I opened my eyes, closed them, then opened them again. The magic was gone.
For the rest of the day I felt a little unnerved, and wondered whether I should start meditating exclusively in classes, with a group. After a while, though, I relaxed and started thinking more about our experience in the park. At that moment community hadn't felt like something I'd found, just something that was there. No one could guarantee I would feel like part of a community while sitting by myself in my room, but looking for that sensation and demanding that it appear would definitely ensure that I'd feel more isolated than ever.
Just before Yoga in the Park ended, Rodney spoke and it was like he'd read our minds. “You are not alone,” he told us. And we weren't.
Next week marks the end of the Zensperiment, so come back for a final update and recap Tuesday. Until then follow my journey on Twitter at@ShanaDLebowitz!