I walked up the decorative red carpet that led up the flight of stairs. There were beautiful paintings staring back cast in a soft light when I reached the top, and unexpected hallways and side rooms that ducked off into other parts of the creative space. I was at The Spirit Room in downtown Fargo, North Dakota to attend a meditation session for my class, religions of India.
Peeled off my dad’s boots, the ones that my mom would slip on for 2 minutes every Sunday to retrieve the ads in her nightgown at the end of our driveway, and followed an older woman to retrieve some meditation cushions as if she were giving me a tour of her house. I looked through a door on my right and found a polished wood desk covered in a combination of neat and disordered stacks of papers and letters that made the room look like another piece of art. Through a door on my left was a kitchen with big wash tub sinks. Everything was red.
I was given one of those big square cushions, also red, one might see featured in an LL Bean catalog, you know, next to a roaring fire on Christmas Eve with a chocolate lab on top, and a matching red cushion, spherical, and followed the meditation teacher back to where I left my dad’s boots. We entered a large ballroom-esque space with red walls, hung with more artwork, large, elegant circular lights hanging from a decorative cream-colored ceiling with artistic impressions that looked like snaking vines and cubes. The floors were wooden and polished.
The ball was placed on top in the center of the cushion, and my butt on top of the ball. I crossed my legs, right over left, always, and placed my palms on top of my knees. That was comfortable for the first five minutes, perhaps. The meditation session lasted for thirty minutes. There were many other positions as well, comfortable for five minutes.
Across from me, not directly but a little too the left, sat the meditation leader. She would be a black-rimmed glasses and mouth kind of caricature. Small eyes and a thin smile that rested comfortably across her face, she wore an overly-large denim-colored top with horizontal stripes and buttons. She is the sort of person one might always remember but not understand why their mind chose to do so.
She sounded the gong after a brief introduction, and we went into focused meditation for the next thirty minutes. breathe iiiiinnnnn 1, 2, 3, 4… breathe ouuutttt 1, 2, 3, 4…, and so on and so forth. I could hear the wheezy breathing of the boy to my left, and I could not hear my religion professor breathing next to me, which was equally as distracting. A girl at my 2 o’clock kept coughing, and I was still thinking about the fact that she had brought hard candies with her to meditation. At my midnight was a girl who had been hit by a car, and was somehow making it around with a torn something-something ligament in her right leg and a broken clavicle.
My left flank itches. Don’t move. There’s a spot on the right side of my face that itches near my hairline. Don’t move. My back hurts. Okay, time to move. But stay focused.
I opened my eyes. I had to. It was not that I was uncomfortable readjusting my body with eyes closed, just curious to see how the meditation teacher was getting in the zone, and also the serious looking shaved-head guy sitting next to her with a blanket over his lap. The teacher had her hands near her navel in the shape of an O, and the bald guy did not have his eyes entirely closed, but three-quarters closed staring at, what looked like, a spot on the floor before him. I shut my eyes and imagined my breath coming through my nose and nestling comfortably in my lower abdomen.
Towards the end, something strange and unexpected happened. Breathing became more natural, deeper, and there was a pleasant sensation accumulating somewhere on my forehead between my eyes. I forgot about the raspy breath to my left, hard candy girl at 2 o’clock, even the meditation teacher and the guy with partly-open eyes. An image of a close friend came into my head instead, and our time in France together began replaying itself in my head.
With each breath came a new, vivid memory—moments when we were on the bus together on our way to class, studying our notes before a castles test, the last night we were together in France, going out to the bars with a mixture of Italian, German, and American friends. I remembered Rue Nationale so well. Every night, the sky looked so dark if you just looked up, darker than a sky here in the United States has ever looked to me. And with all of this came an overwhelming urge to smile, so I did. A yoga teacher at the University of Minnesota once told me that ours souls, in their natural states, are happy.
The gong sounded, and then it was over. I wanted to continue breathing the way that I was, and it was nice. When I looked at the meditation teacher, it was if everything in the room had softened, the entire place had taken on a new mood that felt like you were dreaming without being asleep. The difference, I guess, is that you were acute to everything at the same time.
We had a debriefing session at the end, and it turns out that there were a number of Buddhists present with us, living in Fargo, ND, the last place I would imagine having even a small community of Buddhists. A meditation professor from North Dakota State University shared with the group that she considered meditation to be like a microcosm for the discomforts of life. If your left flank itches, or that spot on the right side of your face near your hairline is bothering you, try not moving. Just sit with it, be aware of it while at the same time not paying attention to it. She said that this has helped her get through the day-to-day. Instead of becoming absorbed in discomfort, wasting our energy by focusing on it, meditation can help you to more easily manage those situations by allowing you to acknowledge their existence and continue on with what you were doing.
Sending merit your way,