Last night, J and I attended a meditation sitting group. Neither of us had any real experience with insight meditation (also known as Vipassana in the Buddhist tradition), but we were interested in trying it out--J mostly for stress-reduction reasons, and I for a multitude of reasons, including gaining a better understanding of the connections between meditation, zen, neuroscience, and emotion (read more about that here, here, and here).
Vincent, one of the "leaders" of the group (I put that in quotes because from the little I know it seems inappropriate to refer to anyone as a leader in this context), agreed to meet with us prior to the sitting group meeting to give us a little bit of beginner instruction. The meditation practice is very simple, in theory. You sit for a designated period of time, and focus on breathing. When your mind wanders, and it will, you gently refocus your concentration on the act of breathing and nothing else. You can focus on the feeling of the air moving past your upper lip, or--as I chose to do--focus on the way your chest expands and relaxes as you take each breath. I found myself having to picture fat pink lungs and moving ribs as I breathed, which I hoped was acceptable, at least for a beginner.
Vincent led us through just a few minutes of this, and then we joined the group for their half hour meditation. We got settled on our cushions, a candle was lit in the middle of the room, and Vincent gently sounded a small chime to let us know to begin. The room was small, and very quiet. In addition to the sounds of your own breath, you could hear other peoples' stomach noises. For some reason I felt myself needing to swallow often, and was very conscious that other people could hear it. Obviously I was having trouble not thinking of anything but my breath. Then, maybe 5 minutes into the half hour session, it happened. I swallowed, and some of my spit tried to make its way down the wrong pipe. I had no idea whether coughing was acceptable. I mean, people were trying to *concentrate*, for Buddha's sake! So instead, I swallowed many times, rapidly. I am fairly sure the girl next to me probably thought I was about to vomit, because to me, the swallowing noises sounded a bit like my cat before he hacks up a hairball. At this point, concentrating on breathing was a joke. I was too worried about choking to death, but more so about disturbing the others in the group. Finally, it became too much and I had to cough. Several times in a row. I think someone felt sorry for me because shortly afterward there was a throat-clearing noise in the room, as if to say "it's OK, it happens to the best of us". Someone else coughed once later on too. I should have just coughed right at the beginning and not put myself through the torture of trying to hold it in, because once it was over, everything was fine. (Except for the minor distractions of worrying whether or not the people closest to me could smell my bare feet, wondering if I was allowed to shift positions during the session, and hoping that when my spine cracked during an attempt to sit up straighter, it didn't reverberate throughout the room).
After the meditation, there was a lesson. I won't get into it here, because I don't even know if I could do it justice with my limited understanding. However, I would like to mention that there was one member of the group we found particularly amusing. Apparently he was also new (he'd been there the week before), and he liked to ask a lot of questions during the teaching portion, our favorite of which was (asked in a slightly concerned voice), "so, you don't think it's possible to reach enlightenment in this lifetime?" I think his ego may get in the way of his practice.
As for us, we really enjoyed the meditation and the teachings, and it looks like we'll be going back. However, seeing as J's state of mind went from calm to fury in about 4 seconds upon confronting an asshole driver on the road after the meeting, I will be driving home from now on, lest the experience be a complete waste of time...