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  • Karl Thunemann

3 Views of Meditating with Others

A member of our little writing group shared a chapter of a book she is writing about meditation. When she had finished, one of our number lamented that meditation could only be practiced in solitude: Alone.

Several of us were quick to correct this impression, as meditating in groups is critical to many spiritual practices. The moment has stayed in my mind for several weeks, as I pondered my experience meditating with other people. I usually meditate alone, but I never pass up a moment to join others. This epistle is about three kinds of meditating together.

1. When the Dalai Lama visited Seattle

I cannot recall the actual year that I joined a huge crowd in the convention center, gathered to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s visit to Seattle, which included the consecration of a new Tibetan Buddhist temple. Maybe it was 1993, but as my friend Gertrude points out, he has visited Seattle a few times.

My memories begin with our tardy departure for the event, and my rising anxiety as we got caught in traffic on one of the floating bridges. Would we arrive in time to be admitted? Would we find decent seats, or be relegated to a far-flung corner of the vast meeting hall? But then, while waiting impatiently at a traffic signal, I realized I was caught up in destructive thought patterns. The whole point was to share space with a person who might be the most enlightened person in the world.

the Dalai Lama

So by the time I reached the venue, I had begun to relax. The Dalai Lama and his entourage were a bit late, so I imagined that the room was full of people going through a process much like mine. We were sitting in a remote corner of the huge space, but at least I could use my time to start meditating. Really.

The strange thing is that I do not specifically remember anything the Dalai Lama said. He spoke—quite intelligibly—of his difficulties with English. He offered a little homily, informed by humor and insight, but I cannot recall it. And then we meditated. We chanted … transformed by the deep, guttural sound of monks singing and chanting. That huge room felt transformed, all of us transfixed by the experience of the mystery we were sharing. And when it was over, everyone departed leisurely. The outside world seemed lovely and beautiful, not as bustling and competitive as when we had arrived. This shift stayed with me for a couple of days. It did subside, but for several days I kept that feeling of elevation. And even now, when I read about the Dalai Lama or see him on television, the spark is relit.

2. O, Let me Ride Your Magic Carpet

My brother moved into Ramakrishna Vedanta Center in Seattle as a young man, where one of his first tasks was attending to his teacher—an Indian swami who had suffered a disabling stroke. My brother meditated in groups there, of course, and eventually was ordained as a monk, a calling he sustained for ten years. In the meantime, I took up meditation, and we often sat together when he stayed overnight with us.

My wife, who often joined us, remarked that meditating with John was akin to riding on a magic carpet. He would start meditating (as we presumed to do as well) and we would step onto the magic carpet at its first station. It was exhilarating. Should that have moved me to doubt? It never occurred to me, for I felt as if my own benefit of meditating with him was palpable.

Illustration for The Arabian Nights, by Soper (1900)

But I haven’t meditated with John in ages, not even during our retreat to the California redwoods last year. His practice seems to have turned nocturnal. We look to different traditions in our meditation. His tradition is Hindu, mine is Taoist—or? What else appeals today? —but this has never seemed an obstacle to our practicing together.

I had a similar experience meditating with a friend—let’s call him Tor—who called himself a Buddhist psychologist—and had the training to prove it. Joining Tor for meditation had an effect very similar to that of joining my brother. Tor was teaching classes at the local university specializing in an Eastern approach (its offerings run from naturopathic training through more clearly spiritual matters). He invited me several times to speak to his classes on such topics as dreams and Taoism. In those days I viewed myself strictly as a Taoist—as if virtue lay in keeping these traditions wholly separate. Now I don’t see that necessity. I like the saying whose source I have been unable to authenticate—that in traditional China practitioners would be Taoist in the morning, Buddhists in the afternoon, and Confucians in the evening—in whatever sequence suited them.

I’m not very good at drawing these boundaries. I love such Taoist meditations such as the microcosmic orbit (also called the little circle of heaven) and the healing sounds of the Shaolin Temple, but I find them difficult to sustain without belonging to a cohort. Buddhist meditations are easier to study and practice. So I mix them up. If you called me a Buddhist now, I wouldn’t think of correcting you. I would hate the thought that Kwan-Yin’s feelings might be injured!

Anyway, Tor moved to Canada several years ago, and we have fallen out of touch. I started to think of him as a former friend, but my friend Gertrude queried me on the subject and pronounced that we are still friends. Sometimes I argue with Gertie, but not over this. I would be delighted if fate brought Tor and me back into each other’s orbits.

3. The Quavering ‘Om’ of Old Age

In the end, my favorite meditation group was composed of people who had not spent hours trying to learn how to do it properly. They were more interested in the difference between prayer and meditation than in deciding which Eastern tradition most appealed to them.

When Faith and I moved into a senior residential cooperative in late 2013, we were invited to a meditation class. We showed up, and the teacher, the son of a co-op member and a rather formal Buddhist, asked if we would like to learn to meditate. That he didn’t ask if we already meditated seemed a bit odd.

It turned out this was his final session. A few weeks passed and one of our new friends asked if we would like to host the group. Very informal—no close theological questions here!

Several weeks passed as we discovered what “our” group could be. Luckily, neither of us had a firm idea of what it should be. One of our warmest sponsors said she didn’t like meditating for more than eight minutes. I had always thought that meditation sessions should vary in length. I had received little formal training, and most of my understanding I had gleaned from studying a book called How to Meditate, by Lawrence LeShan. I have discussed this worthy little book elsewhere in this blog, and over the years I have practiced some of his meditations, trying to follow them closely.

LeShan lays out the principles of several distinct kinds of meditation. No one should charge you to supply a mantra (take that, Transcendental Meditation!). You should choose the meditation that most appeals to you and learn it on your own.

We met once or twice a month in the evenings for an hour, and every session was an adventure. We established a format: Every session would start with an eight-minute on-your-own meditation. (Over time, we worked this up to ten minutes.) Then we would spend a half-hour checking in; what came up for each of us, and what did we make of it. Then we would conclude with another short free-rein meditation. Sometimes profound revelations would come forward, and we fairly surged with joy as we made our way back through the corridors to our apartments. It seemed as if every session could produce a peak experience.

At this time I was passionately engaged in placing the mantra OM in my own meditations and tried to persuade the group to join me. The group--largely composed of women in their 70s and 80s, with on occasional chant-by of someone in her 60s or late 50s—regarded OM with great suspicion. It revealed the crackling age of their voices. I must not have been a very good leader!

My wife and I were gone for a month, and a group member brought her daughter to a session. This woman was a real meditation teacher and cajoled our little group into chanting OM. So after a while they agreed to chant OM with me, but only for five minutes. And they were right, of course. Their voices cracked. They quavered. Every irregular quality associated with age was on display. I was ecstatic. Here was living proof that OM belongs to everybody!

I never got them to try it again. I have thought of bringing my friend Adrienne to the group (or I would if it still met). She could explain how Om activates the vagus nerve and improves communication between the gut and the brain. So let me make do with supplying the link below to a blog explaining the value of OM and its essential role in the practice of yoga.

I still use OM almost daily in my practice. I sense the ravages of age. Sometimes I sound as if I am chanting MOAN or GROAN. But I will not give in. My vagus nerves would never forgive me. Besides, they would say, find someone to chant with you.

Here is a link that reaches into OM and the magic it works: How chanting OM affects your physiology - Sequence Wiz


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