Meditation has been a big part of my life for my entire adulthood, like a personal mountain I have been climbing a step at a time, nearly every day, for forty years.
In the fall of 1982 I was a freshman at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. It was my first year away from home – I was 16. My friend Anthony’s roommate was a rock climber in his senior year who was interested in Buddhism. Jim was a wiry, skinny, intense blond guy with a wispy mustache. I remember the sound of his nasal tenor voice clearly, and the way his startling blue eyes would crinkle in amusement when he talked. He was surprisingly strong – Jim strung up a rope contraption between two trees outside the basement apartment that he and Anthony shared and sometimes when I came by he would be hanging from it upside down, doing climbing exercises. I remember long and far-ranging conversations with Jim and Anthony in their apartment a block from campus, listening to jazz and rock records: we discussed counterculture and literature, philosophy, music, and ideas, late into the night. In the fall of 1982 and the spring of ’83 I tagged along with Jim and his climbing buddies on several weekend trips to climb in the nearby mountains and spent days alone hiking and communing with nature in Linville Gorge while they scaled the rock walls on Table Rock Mountain. Jim introduced me to a few things which became lifelong preoccupations: Linville Gorge, Buddhism, and especially meditation. After some of our talks about Buddhism he gave me a copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: my introduction to Buddhism. I read it then, that fall, and it made no sense to me – I couldn’t understand what Suzuki was talking about, but I liked it anyway. There seemed to be something to it, something important about whatever it was he was getting at in that slim, confusing book. I kept it and returned to it from time to time, and then like a time capsule I reopened it years later, when I was in my thirties, and became a formal Zen student.
At the end of that school year there was intense drama in Jim and Anthony’s apartment as Jim broke up with his girlfriend and left to attend Naropa University in Boulder to do graduate work in Buddhist studies and perhaps, ultimately, in search of some kind of monkhood. At that time Naropa was only 8 years old, and Trungpa was still alive. We did not stay in touch. I am forever indebted to him.
Shortly after I met Jim, in the fall of 1982 forty years ago, he told me about a weekly group meditation meeting held in the Anthropology department at ASU on Thursday evenings, and he invited me to attend if I was interested. I went.
It was unlike anything I had encountered before. Neither my Presbyterian upbringing nor the few other religious experiences I had accumulated by that time had featured or included anything like this: sitting still in absolute silence for an hour with a group of strangers.
I know it was fall because I remember the wind and the piles of dry brown leaves swirling in the doorway and window wells of the university building as we entered. The sun had set and it was nearly dark outside.
There were about fifteen people gathered for this weekly group meditation period, mostly students a few years older than me, but a few older people who I assumed were professors, gathering in a dimly lit room in the social sciences wing. It looked like a former biology lab with the cabinets high and low painted black and sinks waist high across the walls on two sides of the rooms. It was a large lab room, with low wooden tables scattered around featuring exhibits of artifacts from human cultures around the world displayed in various arrangements, some like museum exhibits, some like altars. It was night and it was dark outside, and everyone was quiet.
I don’t remember if there were cushions or not – I do remember that I was wearing jeans and boots. I had never done this before, it was almost like doing a dare, to see if I could endure it. I think I had a cushion to sit on, but I’m not sure. Some sat on chairs and some sat on the floor. I sat on the floor.
There were candles burning on several of the tables. One of them had a human skull on display. Several had bones, pottery shards, arrow heads, other remains. There were little placards next to the exhibits on the tables, typed in Courier on index cards, describing the origins of the artifacts in black and white. The candles flickered.
Jim and I arrived shortly before the hour. He nodded at me silently, then went to find a place to sit. I looked around, took off my coat, then found a place to sit also. I kept to myself, watching the room quietly. After a few minutes and some others had arrived, a young man, an older student or graduate student I guess, whom I did not know, repeated what Jim had told me beforehand – we would sit silently together for an hour – and that he would tap together the two rocks in his hands to begin and end the period of meditation. He said a few other words else that included something about “following your breathing” but I remember no details now, forty years later. Then he tapped the rocks together twice “click click”, and we sat in silence for an hour among the flickering candles and the ancient human remains and artifacts.
We sat for an hour. The candles burned down. Sometimes people stirred but for the most part, it was deathly quiet and still to me: the virgin meditator. I do not remember anyone else moving or getting up during that hour, nor did I, though it became uncomfortable indeed to sit there in my boots and jeans on the wooden floor in the dim light, without moving, for an hour. I tried to “follow my breathing” but it was painful for my legs, which have never stopped falling asleep after forty years of sitting, even now. My mind wandered. Occasionally I would look up and see the calm faces of those across the room from me who weren’t sitting in shadow. There was a serenity in their expressions that did not correspond to how I felt, inside. My jeans and boots were binding, and it became more uncomfortable the longer I sat there, not moving. My mind wandered. Sometimes I remembered that I was breathing, and I paid attention to the flow of air in and out of my body for a few inhalations and exhalations, but soon my thoughts would intrude and take me away. This happened repeatedly (it still does). It went on for an excruciatingly long time. My mind wandered.
Somehow, I sat through it, without moving. Eventually an hour elapsed, the leader tapped his two rocks together “click click”, and slowly those gathered stirred, and stretched, and stood, said goodbyes quietly, and took their leave. As I left, I thanked Jim and said goodbye, and we walked out into the night and went our separate ways. I had no idea that I had just taken the first step on a path I would walk for the rest of my life.