When I finally get quiet time, I don’t usually want 200 other people there. But that’s the irony of meditation, which I’ve been trying to learn (again). It’s an inner-life practice that for some reason works really well in groups. Even groups of depressive, subway-seat–grabbing, ambitious New Yorkers, whom, when I open my eyes just a bit, are being still, silent, and calm, at least for one goddamn minute. It’s miracle on 34th Street. Well, 15th.
We’re all here at the Tibet House learning to meditate with Sharon Salzberg, one of the country’s leading Buddhist teachers. The author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness has been leading drop-in classes on almost every Tuesday night this winter—and there are nine more left. Even more excellent: it’s donation-only ($10).
By the looks of things, New Yorkers are desperately appreciative. When I arrived just before 7:00, I was able to grab one of the several dozen (wobbly) folding chairs. By the end of class at 8:30, a couple hundred Manhattanites in search of inner peace occupied every one—and every square inch of the floor.
Salzberg, an affable redhead with a Jewish grandmother vibe, starts class with a lecture, then leads the group in a 20-minute guided meditation. The class is intended for beginners, though experienced meditators also turn out for a mantra reboot. Next, Salzberg fields questions, parsing for us what went on in our heads—so the next meditation, a silent one, is easier.
Maybe Salzberg is like other professional Buddhists in that she doesn’t teach Buddhism. Instead she relays it through personal stories and anecdotes, and she’s a charmer. There was nothing inaccessible or strictly philosophical about how she came to meditation—“I went to India at 18 in a lot of emotional pain, instinctually knowing it would help.” And she drew sympathetic laughs from the crowd describing how she quickly became disappointed with the method when it was revealed to her: “I came all the way to goddamn India to learn how to watch myself breathe??”
You could spend a lifetime on the two practical steps of meditation: practice concentrating on the object (the breath, or a mantra, for example) and coming back to it when your mind wanders, says Salzberg. “The mind will always wander, so it’s about what you do then.” Although some people get totally blissed out. Even so, Salzberg says they too have to come back to the breath.
I don’t know about my fellow meditators, but I left last week’s class with a break-through trick from Salzberg for swatting away distractions. I’m going back tonight for some alone time to practice it. See you there?
Sharon Salzberg teaches at the Tibet House, 22 W. 15th, btwn 6th and 7th Aves., tonight at 7:00 ($10 donation), and for several Tuesdays through spring, www.sharonsalzberg.com
Got any meditation tips or experience? Tell us, here!