Editor’s Note: This is the first piece of a two-part series. See next Wednesday’s Collegian for the conclusion.
I show up at the Zen Club’s meeting on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. Actually meditating hasn’t crossed my mind.
In fact, it doesn’t cross my mind until I answer “yes” to the question: “Will you be meditating with us?”
I’m here before anyone else: A reporter alone, standing in the pink-flowered garden of the Danforth Chapel, a small stone building originally intended for Christian use, on the north end of the Oval.
A man rides up on his bike. He is tall, close to my height – well over 6 feet – and thin, with no hair anywhere on his head. He wears khaki-colored pants and a green button-up shirt. He smiles widely and introduces himself as Tim Beecher.
Tim is a Ph.D. student studying clinical psychology, doing his residency at the University Counseling Center.
Erich Stroheim walks up. Erich is of slightly-above-average height – 6 feet, give or take an inch – and his hair is conservative and gray. Not far behind is Huanyu Qiao (“Joe”), who came to Fort Collins from China to study botany.
As I stand with these men, I realize how far they are from what people might think of as stereotypical Buddhists – waist-length hair, tie-dye – rather, these men look like any other three men you might see walking through the Oval.
And the four of us walk into the chapel. The east wall is made up of small rectangular windows and a dim glow pours in onto about a dozen pews.
Erich has a bag of cushions and I begin to worry about sitting on the ground for an extended period of time. My legs are long and my knees temperamental.
He assures me that the meditation won’t be as good, as effective, if I’m not comfortable, and that it won’t be a problem for me to sit on a pew.
“Would you like a pillow to sit on?” Stroheim asks, smiling.
I accept the pillow, and sit next to Tim on the pew, while Erich and Joe sink into their places cross-legged on the ground in front of where the altar would usually sit.
They explain to me a few things about how they meditate.
Posture is important.
“Ideally, your back is straight,” Stroheim says. His bushy eyebrows and kind eyes betray an air of wisdom. “And your spine is like a stack of coins.”
His arms hang and rest on his lap with his hands together. Glancing down, watching my body, I try to make mine look like his.
He explains the mudra – the way he holds his hands while he’s quietly sitting. Stroheim uses the full-moon mudra: The left hand rests palm-up on top of the right hand (also palm-up) with the fingers mirroring each other and the middle knuckles on the pinkie fingers aligned. The thumbs meet over the middle fingers making a full-moon shape.
Erich tells me what his tongue is doing as he quietly sits and meditates: “It’s lightly touching the front of my mouth where the teeth meet the gums.”
He says my gaze should be unfocused and on nothing in particular on the ground a few feet in front of me. I think of “Magic Eye” books – unfocused like that?
Erich confers with Tim on the technique of the actual breathing itself. “Some people say you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth,” he says.
“I’ve been told to breathe through the nose the entire time,” Beecher looks over to me. “Unless you’ve got allergies like I do and you have to go through the mouth.”
None of these guidelines I’m given are strict rules. Rather, what is seemingly minutiae to a newcomer is an attempt to physically balance, which aids meditation.
“The most important thing (about the sitting position) is that you are balanced physically,” Stroheim tells me. It’s also good to be comfortable, he says.
I’m told that during the meditation I will be contemplating the area directly below my stomach – I imagine what I think is really in that area inside me: Spleen? – as it expands and contracts with each breath coming in and going out.
He suggests that I count my breaths – the counting a tool to help me keep focus on the breathing – up until 10.
“You’ll be bombarded with thoughts,” Tim says. Tim calls this “monkey brain,” and I think of my rascally monkey brain – being rascally.
“It’s human nature,” Tim says. “But you want to try and just acknowledge each one and let it pass.” He says to try and come back to the breathing and restart my count at one.
Once the four of us are quiet and seated, on pews and on the ground, Erich rings a bell the shape of a small cereal bowl three times, letting it ring for at least 10 seconds each time. The sound is cool, resonant – soft – and has a tranquilizing effect on me.
I count: In (one). Out (two). In (three). Out (four). In (five). Out (six). I think about classes, about my fiction workshop. How can I develop my unnamed character? Why didn’t I name her? Oh, right – breathing.
I start again. In (one). Out (two). In (three). Out (four). and I start thinking about that one woman from class – the pretty brunette one I sit next to a lot, but haven’t ever met. I should introduce myself. Oh, right-
Erich Stroheim is a Ph.D. student in the sociology department and has been a practicing Buddhist for more than a quarter century. He is also the president of CSU’s Zen Club, an entity that started in 2001.
The group’s aim is to “provide an opportunity for students and community members to practice sitting meditation,” according to its Web site.
It’s easy for Erich to tell me what Buddhism isn’t. But it’s much more difficult to pin down what it is.
“I’d be very reluctant to say (Buddhism is) a religion,” Stroheim says. “It’s more like a philosophy, or an outlook.”
Viviane Ephraimson-Abt, assistant director of apartment life on campus and a practicing Buddhist for about 14 years, explains in a description of Buddhism she’s written that the Buddha is not a god.
Rather, he is an example for Buddhists: “A man who attained spiritual liberation through years of study and experimentation with religious practices of his time.”
Erich and Tim Beecher, a University of North Dakota Ph.D. student doing his residency in the University Counseling Center, both grew up in Christian traditions – Episcopalian and Catholic, respectively.
About the time Stroheim started college, his father died and he found himself searching. “There was something I wasn’t getting from Western religions.”
A class Stroheim took in his undergraduate work – which he is quick to point out was questionably named – in “Eastern Religions” spurred him to search more deeply and ultimately resulted in Zen practice.
Erich said Zen appealed to him partially because practitioners do not rely on outside authority.
In Buddhism, Beecher finds more of a place where he can look within himself as his own primary moral authority. “The question is, ‘What is my morality?'” The question is not what a set of rules says his morality is, he says.
In his experience, Beecher saw a Catholic upbringing as one filled with dichotomies of right and wrong. “It’s all black and white,” he says. Tim sees real life situations as not having two clear options. “Buddhism, to me, is all gray.”
This gray area is what Tim felt he couldn’t find in Catholicism.
It isn’t necessary, though, as Viviane explains, to choose one or the other. It is increasingly common for people to identify with both a religion, like Judaism or Christianity, and with the practice of Buddhism. Viviane identifies with Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.
What attracts Viviane to Zen practice, she says, is the fact that the aim is to improve the quality of life for all people regardless of their beliefs.
A dark room
Once more. Back to breathing. In (one). Out (two). In (three). and I start writing this article in my head. I start with opening lines – “To start: Beginnings” – I hammer out some really good transitions, etc. Then I realize that I’m not thinking about breathing.
And I realize, very suddenly, that meditation is actually a pretty difficult thing to do. I continue being overtaken by thoughts, about fiction, a woman and an article, until Erich rings the bell twice – letting it resonate both times – to signal sitting meditation’s end.
“How was it, Geoff?” Erich asks me.
I say, “I’m not very good.” I explain that I understand that I need practice – a flood of thoughts, I say.
Joe now explains to me, through a metaphor, what he sees as the real point of meditation.
Joe sets the scene of a pitch-black room.
“When it’s dark, you think it’s clear in the room,” he says. I visualize a dark room that appears to be clear.
He explains that sitting meditation is a light. “When you shine a light through the window of the dark room, you can see that there is actually a lot of dust flying around.”
I am confused. I nod, though. Joe’s metaphor for my head and the dusty darkness within is interesting, but I’m not exactly clear on what’s just happened. I walk away confused. Understanding meditation, I can tell, will take time.
Staff writer Geoff Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is ‘Mindfulness’?
Think of thoughtfulness, and then think of its opposite. Mindfulness is taking other people, their perspectives, beliefs, emotions, etc. into account.
Viviane Ephraimson-Abt puts it more eloquently: Mindfulness is the realization that there is “more than one reality going on at a given time.”
Buddhism and Homecoming
The Colorado Community of Mindful Living will be doing a peace walk as part of the Homecoming parade. The Homecoming parade will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, starting in Old Town Fort Collins and ending in Moby Arena’s parking lot.
For More Information
The Zen Club meets Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. in the Danforth Chapel at the north end of the Oval. For more information, visit: lamar.colostate.edu/zenclub.