The Big Man meets The Buddha

by Peter B. Brace, The Nantucket Independent, May 22, 2007

Nantucket, MA (USA) -- We are, as the instructor tells us, sitting for a very good reason with our legs crossed and our knees pointing down below our hips to straighten our spines.

<< Brace, in deep thought. MICHAEL GALVIN/The Independent

Some of us are perched on padded rectangular blocks, others on firm round pillows and even one maverick on his own homemade bench. We hold our postures for about 20 minutes with the tips of our tongues resting on our palates, eyes focused about four feet in front of us and our thoughts pared down to just the gentle in and out of our breath.

"Calgon, take me away!"

Sorry. Alittle levity never hurts when one is seeking enlightenment through meditation and leg cramps.

If I can sit without discomfort for those 1,200 seconds, Elisabeth Hazell, our Shambhala meditation teacher informs me, I'll really get into that zone of repose and transcend from the harrowing deadline stress of the day's newswriting preceding this quiet time. Actually, I'm already halfway there. Having valiantly made it through another one of Susan Brown's grueling "mixed" level yoga classes just before this, my first brush with true meditation and her wonderfully long savasana (a meditative cool-down at the end of yoga class), embracing more relaxation as the unsalted pretzel of my day actually appealed to me.

Weekly for the last two years, Elisabeth has led this cult of meditators at the Yoga Room, which is owned and run by Shannah Green. Unlike yoga, it's free-form relaxation. There is just a hint of structure to get one elevated into nothingness, but the rest is up to you in the control of your mind. Forget what you couldn't get done at work that day and what your manic schedule holds for you tomorrow; ignore that scrumptious Pi Pizza you're assembling in your mind for an after-class dinner; pay no attention as your lip ferret of a mustache tickles your face; deafen your ears to the guy revving his motorcycle next door and hear only your breathing.

Imagine the oxygen coming into your mouth, flowing down your esophagus, into your lungs and trading places through your capillaries in the walls of your alveoli with carbon dioxide and then gliding up your esophagus and out through your mouth. All other thoughts Elisabeth wants us to tag as thoughts to be ignored.

Wax on, wax off! That's it!

For some, I'm sure that sounds a little too airy and new-age hippy-like to grasp, especially some of you super aggressive power worker bees out there who need a 10-mile run, a 50- minute spinning class and two hours on the free weights just to decompress from a stressful day. But I'm telling you, this stuff is for real. And no, you don't have to sit around in a circle holding hands and chanting Kumbaya. There's no touching, no chanting, just sitting and breathing.

Why does it work? Why did I sleep eight hours straight that night? I can't explain it. Talk to my legs, which were screaming to be unraveled. Boy, did I ever want to get up and stretch, but something held me there breathing… focusing on the breath in and out…just breathing.

Well, to be fair, I didn't make the full 20 minutes. About three minutes before Elisabeth banged her little brass gong with a stick to let us know of the next phase of the meditation, my right leg shot out erect in front of me probably thinking it was time to go. I didn't do it on purpose, but I think my leg had had enough enlightenment for one night.

That's what we're after in Shambhala meditation. It is a Sanskrit term translating into "place of peace/tranquility/happiness," according to A Buddha called Shakyamuni is believed to have taught the Kalachakra tantra at the urging of King Suchandra of Shambhala and the actual written instructions are said to be preserved there in this Tibetan city.

What Elisabeth is providing for us is a place to reacquaint ourselves with our basic human goodness in its purest and strongest form. Shambhala meditation allows the student to harmonize mind and body in order to discover that essential goodness inside.

Following the sitting is walking, thank God, or Buddha! Not outside, but in the room. We are told to walk with our left fists resting on our chests just below our sternums with our right hands covering that fist. Not a competition to see who can leg it around the Yoga Room the fastest, we are told to pace ourselves in this bipedal form of meditation, a practice that Elisabeth said I should apply whenever I'm walking anywhere outside of this class to obtain that connection with my inner goodness.

There are four of us that night, so we space ourselves accordingly, gaze blankly ahead like gleeful Krishnas about to receive illumination from their Hindu god and take slow, methodical steps in time with each other for about 10 minutes so as not to break from our meditative states. Okay. This is good. I can do this; but after five minutes of striding in unison, I wanted to sit down again, to get back into that nirvana I had barely tasted while sitting and cramping.

And that's what we get to finish the class. Again, Elisabeth strikes the gong lightly, the slight sound banging off my eardrums and breaking me out of a walking trance.

Back on my cushions I experience one of the reasons for walking: looser legs for more sitting, but this time only about 10 more minutes. We end with a tonglen, a thought exercise that Elisabeth describes as sending and taking. We are sending our positive thoughts out to a Yogini (a female yoga student) and taking away her pain and suffering leading up to and during an impending surgery she experienced on May 16. Apparently we sent and took enough, as the surgery went well.

Meditation rocks!