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I Sat So Quietly My Foot Fell Asleep

by on June 15, 2016 6:00 AM

I meditated for the first time the other day, or tried to. The location was both perfect and imperfect:

Perfect, because it was a rock outcropping on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean in Northern California.

Imperfect, because a rock, even a smooth, butt-contoured one, is not a cushion, which meant it was not an ideal perch if one’s goal was to sit still for 20 minutes.

Indeed, an online meditation guide specifically instructs us to “be seated on a cushion or chair, taking an erect yet relaxed posture. Let yourself sit upright with the quiet dignity of a king or a queen.”

As a member in good standing of the American rabble, I didn’t buy the business about the royals’ quiet dignity, but I definitely saw the wisdom of a comfortable seat. After a few minutes of counting, as instructed, my inhalations and exhalations, the main insight I had achieved was that my left foot was asleep and if I stood up there was an excellent chance I would pitch off the cliff and become food for the fishes.

Concentrate harder, I told myself. I began to hear my breaths as sound effects in a Mad Magazine cartoon (calling all Don Martin fans). Breathe in: Fweep. Breathe out: Hoo…Fweep…Hoo…Fweep…Hoo.

Whatever works, right?

Eventually, though, I had to change my position. The good news is, there is no rule that says you can’t. After all, one of the goals of Insight Meditation is to learn loving-kindness and compassion toward oneself.

In my new position I found a new breathing groove. Palms on thighs, I felt my thumbs pull slightly toward each other on the inhales, and move slightly apart on the exhales. The sensation was of breathing in on a vertical plane and breathing out on a horizontal plane, of pulling in and up, then spreading out and down.

After a second position adjustment, I experienced breathing as catching the wind as it blew past me, then releasing it, of borrowing air, and giving it back.

I was surprised when the 20 minutes were up. Once my eyelids stopped fluttering and I solved the pins-and-needles problem in my foot, I felt like I had gone somewhere for part of the time. Perhaps I napped.

As we walked back to the parking lot on Bodega Head -- keeping well away from the cliff’s edge -- I felt kind of floaty.

A couple of days later and again a few days after that, we went to Spirit Rock, a meditation center north of San Francisco that has been around for almost 30 years. I was there as more of a curiosity seeker than a convert, but both times, I was favorably impressed.

Jack Kornfield and Sylvie Boorstein, two of the sages of American Buddhism, were warm, funny and down-to-earth. Like all good teachers, they confirmed the simple truth of things I already knew.

Kornfield immediately cured me of my misapprehension that these enlightenment-seeking Californians were disengaged from the world by beginning his session with a recitation of the names of the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting.

He then promised not to provide updates on the Warriors-Cavs game in deference to those who were recording it to watch it when they got home.

Kornfield folksily refers to meditation as sitting quietly, which underscores what a sane response it is to the anxiety, busyness and digital addictions that plague us all. Who can argue with setting aside 20 minutes of every day to essentially catch our breath, calm down and relax our tensed bodies?

Kornfield made clear that sitting quietly was not an end in itself, but a preparation for calm action. A person who waits for the mud to sink to the bottom and the water to run clear is less likely to answer anger with anger and hatred with hatred.

Sit quietly, Kornfield said, then stand up for what you believe.

A few days earlier, Boorstein spoke of a gradual shift in emphasis at Spirit Rock from enlightenment – whatever that is – to such old-fashioned values as ethics, virtue and integrity, from compassion for oneself to compassion also for others.

Boorstein and co-teacher Donald Rothberg talked about not doing harm and about avoiding enmity, words that spoke directly to the nastiness of our politics and so much of our digital communication.

The Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness. You got a better philosophy than that?  


A RETRACTION: A couple of my California readers disputed my claim in last week’s column that only 20 percent of the graduates of the high school whose graduation I recently attended continue on to college. (I didn’t name the school.)

I had heard this number from a friend and found information online that confirmed what I had been told, but when I went to retrieve that information after my readers challenged its accuracy, I could no longer find it.

I therefore must retract the claim and apologize for some sloppy reporting.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled ÔÇťAmong the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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