Muddling through meditation
“One,” I say inside my head as I lift my right foot up from the carpet.
“Two.” I move my foot forward.
“Three.” I place my foot down.
I continue counting to three each time I take a step as I walk across a small room in a house in Cambridge on a Thursday evening.
When I reach the other side of the room, I can’t help but read the books on the bookshelf as I turn around: topics ranging from Japanese medicine to Eastern philosophy.
But I am not supposed to be thinking about these things, so I quickly return my focus to counting as I walk.
I have come to Cambridge to take a meditation class with Thai Buddhist monk Ajarn Supha Uttho, or Master Sam.
Only minutes before I began this walking exercise, the diminutive, soft-spoken Sam had left his seven other students to practice meditating and brought me into a separate room to offer me some instruction.
The key to meditation, he informs me, is for the mind to focus on the body, ignoring all extraneous details.
I am to perform walking meditation for 20 minutes, and then sitting meditation for another 20. I am supposed to guess when 20 minutes has expired.
With only a few short words, Sam leaves me alone in this small room to try meditation for my first time.
The room has a massage table in the middle, and I notice that on the desk beside it is the same desk lamp I have in my bedroom.
But I catch myself – I am not supposed to think about these things.
“One, two, three,” I begin counting as I slowly take steps across the room, attempting to feel my body from the soles of my feet all the way to my head.
After 10 minutes or so, I conclude that I must be failing.
My mind continues to wander – I think of my personal relationships, about the stress in my life and about how I am going to write this story.
Later, I feel that it has been roughly 20 minutes. I sit in a chair to try sitting meditation.
I am supposed to let my eyes go out of focus and fix my mind on the sensation of breathing through my nose.
I find this form of mediation slightly easier, but my mind is still wandering incessantly.
For a mind that has been taught to think constantly, teaching it to stop thinking is no easy task.
It only feels like five minutes of sitting before Sam knocks on the door of the massage room. Was I really doing walking meditation for 35 minutes? Maybe I was more successful than I thought.
While Master Sam makes tea for the class and sits us down for a brief lecture, I realize that despite my utter failure with meditation, I feel extremely calm and stable.
Sam tells the class that deep states of meditation can cause great happiness, and I have no trouble believing him.
Born in Thailand and having lived in a temple since age 13, Sam occasionally travels to Canada to teach meditation courses. He also studied religion and culture at Laurier for two years.
Every few summers, Sam organizes a trip to Thailand for Canadian students of meditation.
Matt Habermehl, now taking his PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto, met Sam in a philosophy of mind course at Laurier and later went on the Thailand trip with his wife.
He recalls the trip as a difficult and rewarding experience.
“Gradually over time, what began as a very challenging event, which was actually a little emotionally difficult for a while, became second nature,” said Habermehl.
“As any student can attest, especially at certain times of year, it can get pretty stressful,” he said.
“A student’s life is punctuated by stress. And I find that it’s really easy to lose perspective during those times. The meditation does definitely help to bring you back, to center you.”
Sam agrees that the art of meditation can be especially helpful for students who not only lead stressful lives but who come to his classes with open minds.
However, reducing stress is only one of the first goals of meditation.
“The highest goal of mediation is not just to relax the mind, to calm the mind down, but it is to learn the nature of our own consciousness,” Sam explained.
Of course, to reach a state of enlightenment such as the one Sam describes, practitioners of mediation devote their entire lives to its study.
As for myself, I have only meditated once, and poorly no less.
But once I leave the Cambridge house on that humid evening, my state of relaxation extends well into the night.Muddling through meditation.