Exploring a Buddhist Meditation
March 9, 2016
When we were encouraged to attend a religious service of a faith tradition different from our own, I decided to attend a Buddhist meditation at Georgetown. It was actually something I had been hoping to do but convinced myself I never had time for. I grew up attending Montessori schools, which place high value on self-awareness and discovery, so I had meditated before, but never in a religious or even particularly spiritual context. I was excited to see how this meditation would differ from my previous experiences.
I arrived early, hoping to introduce myself before joining the meditation. I was concerned I would disrupt the students who normally attend the mediation or that they would be skeptical or offended that I was joining out of curiosity. Turns out, nobody arrives early to the meditation, and I spent a very uncomfortable 15 minutes wondering if I was in the right place or if the meditation was canceled. Finally, another confident-looking student entered the John Main Meditation Center, and I followed and introduced myself. She was not the leader of the meditation, and neither were the next few students who filed into the room. We all sat together, getting comfortable on the pillows, when one of the students sitting in the circle introduced herself as the leader of the group and asked if we could go around the room and say our names and our experience with meditation. To my surprise, most of the students in the room were either new to the center, new to Buddhist meditation, or new to meditation in general.
Suddenly, I felt much more comfortable in the group and was interested in seeing how the meditation would continue. I also could not help but wonder how traditional the meditation could be in a circle full of newcomers. Still, I tried to keep an open mind and settled into my pillow. The leader of the meditation explained that they usually start with a reading and then move on to 20 minutes of silent meditation. This practice was very familiar to me, which was both comforting and a little confusing, as I had never considered the potential Buddhist roots of the mediation I had done daily in middle school.
The meditation leader began reading us a body scan meditation exercise. The concept of a body scan is fairly simple: you focus your attention on each part of the body individually, usually working from foot to head, taking care to pay attention to what you are feeling. An important part of this attention is not judging what you feel, but simply taking in the sensations of your body. The concept may be simple, but the practice is not. While it is easy to think about how your back feels while meditating, it is another thing to think only of that feeling without passing judgment. I was a little disappointed to find my mind wandering during the meditation. I found myself noticing some pain in my back and fixating on noises I heard outside the center. I worked to let these feelings go and not berate myself for having side thoughts, as this is also counterproductive to the purpose of the mediation. I continued to wrestle with my thoughts until I heard the bowl chime, signaling the end of the meditation.
After the meditation, the leader explained that the GU Buddhist Meditation Sangha typically follows more Western Buddhist traditions and teaching. She assured us, however, that the body scan practice in its many forms was deeply rooted in Buddhist tradition. All this made a lot of sense to me, but it also made me wonder what a more traditional meditation sangha, or one outside of a university setting, might be like.
I do not want my exploration of other faith traditions to end with this one meditation. In the future, I hope to attend other types of Buddhist meditations, perhaps a few out in the greater Washington, D.C. area, to see how they compare. This experience has made me more confident in joining a service I am not familiar with and has also piqued my interest in attending more services outside of my own faith tradition. I assumed I would feel anxious in a new experience, but I was able to find comforting similarities in an unfamiliar setting. I think this is important to keep in mind in all situations of religious diversity. Although practices and beliefs may be different, there will always be important, bridging similarities that allow us to relate to one another.