- Hard on Everything but the Body
In the fall of 2011, my first year of college, I took a course on Asian religions at Alfred University. I became interested in different kinds of religions, especially Buddhism. I was lucky that the professor who taught Asian religions also offered an introductory class on Buddhism the following semester. It was an upper-level course, generally not open to first-year students, but the instructor let me enroll. The class met twice a week for two hours. At first it did not seem different in any way from my other classes, but during the second half of the semester, we spent fifteen to twenty minutes at the beginning of every class in meditation.
Before I came to college, I believed I had decent reasoning and interpretive skills; intellectually I knew I could go toe-to-toe with alien concepts and master them. But I had heard from my sister and my two eldest cousins that college was a different world from high school; I should expect my perceptions to change. Every time I was told something like this I shrugged it off. The suggestion that a class could affect my core beliefs seemed far-fetched. I did not think college would change me that much, but the Buddhism course and the meditation practice affected me in ways I did not expect: academically, spiritually, and emotionally. The process was gradual. By the end of the spring semester, there were big dents in my usual ways of thinking about the world and about myself.
Buddhism is a complex religion and some of its core ideas, such as the nature of human suffering, are not so easy to explain. Unlike other classes where I learn in traditional academic ways, meditation gave me an opportunity to understand Buddhism in new ways, more challenging and personal ways. After it was incorporated into the class, everything developed more color: things I thought I knew no longer seemed so black and white. I stopped feeling that tests and homework were the most important things about my classes; what matters is what I learn. And what I learn depends on me.
Unlike a straightforward academic class, in which I usually regurgitate what I read in books and hear in lectures, meditation caused me to focus on myself. I have not had a class before or since that has seeped into my life outside the classroom so much. (How often can people say that a class they took comes back to haunt them, in a good way?) None of my other classes has made me think so hard, either. I felt as though I was problem solving on a whole new level. [End Page 115]
Because I was a first-year student and most of the other students were juniors and seniors, in the beginning I felt as though I was barely holding on to everyone else’s coattails; they seemed to be grasping the material so much better. Reviewing the text only helped a little. I needed something to “click” so I could understand Buddhism better. I did not see how meditation could help anyone, however. I just saw it as a time to sit still and collect swarming thoughts. I did not get how it was supposed to advance anyone along their “path.” I doubted it would help me learn anything about Buddhism, let alone help me pass the course. Although I was wary, I was willing to try. After I did experience it for myself, the lessons became more comprehensible, because I could relate them to my own life and experiences. This made the class feel less stressful as well.
After about a week of doing meditation, a few friends asked me how it felt. I told them it felt very foreign to go to class and sit in front of a white wall for fifteen to twenty minutes and count my breaths. It was very different from immediately taking out paper and pen and starting to take notes. Sitting for those minutes was sometimes rather fun, relaxing. It made me want to go to class more because I had something to look forward to. I told...