Tonight I’m participating in a group, or “sangha,” that meets regularly to meditate. Like Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of people coming together to practice. Whether this speaks to the transformative alchemy of multiples or the importance of learning to put up with the guy with sniffles, or both, is hard to say.
Many sanghas are formed by the regular meditation periods held at the various Buddhist centers, but others are less formal groups of ordinary people who assemble on their own. I’m surprised to learn how prevalent these gatherings are—at the coffee shops and Buddhist establishments I visit around campus I pick up half a dozen little flyers advertising the different sanghas in the area. Some groups cater to a specific demographic, or life-experience, such as age range or gender or interest.
Others, like the one I select, are more general. Anyone who wants to meditate is invited to this one. It is held once a week, hosted in the office space of a nonprofit organization during off-hours. When I show up, about 20 people are already sitting cross-legged on the carpet in a big circle. The majority here are males who appear to be in the first few years after college. They have that particular dishevelment of young men newly introduced to the regular work week. A smattering of young women breaks up the monotony of bedhead.
I join them on the floor. For several minutes, as we wait for a few stragglers to arrive, I feel exceedingly awkward wedged shoulder-to-shoulder between two strange boys. I fear that at any moment someone will pull out an empty bottle, place it in center, give it a whirl and I will be forced to endure the most uncomfortable game of Spin the Bottle known to humankind. Thankfully, this does not happen. The facilitator, a young man whose crisp shirt lends him an air of authority, announces that it is time to begin. He claps together two wood rods and everyone settles into stillness.
The soft focus of my gaze falls mid-circle; I can make out my fellow meditators along the periphery. It’s a new challenge to see those bodies, but not let them distract me from the task. I watch my thoughts approach and recede, resisting the urge to let them sweep me away. I start to enjoy the rhythm of my thinking, how the ideas rise and fall, rise and fall, like the surface of water.
I’m so relaxed. I’m floating on the sea. I think of the popular Buddhist analogy of the ocean: each of us is like a wave. We think of ourselves as distinct and separate entities but we come from, and return to, a common source. At this exact second, I understand this sentiment not just as an objective concept; I feel the absolute truth of it at the core of my being.
But it’s too big a thought and suddenly it scares me. A tingle of panic moves from my belly to my chest. It begins to block the air to my lungs. I think I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying. I’m on the verge of grabbing the guy on my left and begging for help. He will understand. He will tell me to lie down and put my feet up. Everyone will stop meditating and come to my aid. One will fetch a cup of water; another will say it’s going be fine. The thought of the aid from my fellow meditators is enough to slow my pulse. I hang on another few seconds and the anxiety eases. I take a deep breath and the lightheadedness lifts. I’m going to be okay. Tears of gratitude come to my eyes; they don’t even know how much they helped me.