From where I sit in the house-turned-Buddhist monastery, I can see through to the kitchen. I watch a cat saunter across the linoleum and rub its neck against a corner of cabinetry. This sight triggers a chain of thoughts: I wonder what it’s like to be a pet among Buddhists. I chuckle at the idea that it pretends to be a regular pet around the monastery but offers spiritual guidance to the neighbor cats in the alley like some feline guru.
My story is interrupted by a mellow-looking college-aged guy walking into the room. I wouldn’t peg him as someone in need of meditation, but he’s followed closely by a frazzled woman I would. She looks stunned to have made it on time, her blonde hair sticking out in all directions.
The two newcomers join me on the folding chairs and the monk begins his instructions. Mostly he tries to undo what might be our pre-conceived notions of meditation. You don’t have to sit top-half ramrod straight, bottom-half twisted up like a pretzel. You should be comfortable, find a position that works for you. That might be cross-legged on the floor, but you can also use a little bench with your legs tucked underneath, or even a chair. Think of your spine more like a stack of coins than a broomstick, and just breathe naturally. You don’t need to take giant, lung-bursting breaths—though if you want to take a few of those, that’s fine. You may also want to focus on your breaths, the gentle inhalation and exhalation of air into and out of your lungs. The fingers of both your hands should come together roughly at your abdomen—ideally, thumb to thumb—so that your arms form a gentle loop, as do your fingers. Ideally, eyes are open, but relaxed—kind of a soft focus into the middle distance.
All of this is preamble to the most important part. Your mind doesn’t have to be “empty,” he tells us. The idea is neither to pursue nor push away the thoughts that arise. He provides an analogy, further elaborated upon in a handout he gives us. Imagine yourself standing on the shoulder of a freeway and the cars that pass are your thoughts. You see them coming, but then you let them go. You may suddenly find yourself riding in one, and that’s okay. Just try not to get too far down the lane. When you notice yourself being carried off, return to your spot on the side of the road.
It sounds a lot easier than it actually is, at least for a beginner. I know because for the next hour or so I try it. Out in the sanctuary, the other newbies and I join several seasoned meditators who have arrived during our orientation. We each select meditation pads. Here, it is customary to face the wall during meditation, not the altar. I settle on a half-lotus, cross-legged but with one foot tucked beneath my thigh, the other resting on top. I wedge a sturdy round cushion under my tail bone until my back feels sturdy. I practice a gentle gaze at the tiny nubs of white stucco. A small cymbal pings.