- I Didn’t Like It, but I Recommend It: An Undergraduate Reflects on Contemplation in the Classroom
While taking Introduction to World Religions as a first-year college student, I became acutely aware that my preconceived notions about religions were often wrong, and I had been oblivious to the diversity and complexity of the traditions I began to study. During subsequent semesters, I studied Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, and during the spring semester of my junior year I was happy to add Buddhism to my schedule. In that class, I not only examined manifold Buddhist teachings and histories, but engaged in a form of Buddhist practice, too. Four days a week, my fellow students and I arranged our zafus in a straight line, bowed, and adjusted our postures to commence fifteen to twenty minutes of zazen. By the end of the semester, I concluded that although I am very ambivalent about this meditation practice, I nonetheless believe that contemplative practices can be valuable tools in the academic setting.
Because we were partaking in a religious practice in an academic setting, there were possibilities for ethical conflicts. My professor raised these and we discussed them several times during the first half of the semester, before we collectively agreed to give zazen a try. The only Buddhist in the room was my professor, so I agree that it was essential for her to stress that zazen was optional, and that if anyone felt uncomfortable in any way, it was okay to opt out. My professor reiterated this several times. I am not a follower of any religious tradition, so I did not have any conflicting feelings. Several of my classmates were Christian, but, like me, most were excited to give it a try. I think there was no sense of conflict because Buddhism involves a lot of practices geared toward developing insight on the basis of experience, and zazen does not require belief in a higher power. Buddhism does acknowledge the existence of gods, but they are irrelevant to the spiritual path. Also, my professor is an ordained Zen priest, and therefore very familiar with zazen. I did not have any doubts that we were taught an authentic practice by someone qualified to teach it.
Just as there was no pressure to participate, I did not feel that I was forced to like zazen or hold back any feelings of opposition; I was free to express how I felt and why. At first I did not like it because it hurt my back, and instead of sitting there in pain [End Page 119] every day, I let my professor know and she helped me make some adjustments to my posture. But I disliked meditation for other reasons, as well. I rarely, if ever, was able to stop my mind from being like a monkey on a jungle gym. As we sat, we repeatedly counted to ten and fixed our gaze on a spot in front of us. I was told that it is natural for my mind to bounce around and wander off while counting, but I did not expect it would happen before I got to four. Adding to my frustration was the fact that 70 percent of the time, my thoughts were focused on all of the work that I needed to get done before the end of the day. Even though I only sat for fifteen minutes, I got antsy and staying still was not helpful. It makes me wonder, though, whether or how my feelings would change if I did zazen in the summer when my stress levels are way down. Or what if I meditated for more than fifteen minutes? How long would it take before my mind settled down? Would it get worse?
Although my restlessness was not the most pleasant experience, I did have days where I found meditation helpful personally. In addition to zazen, we also tried walking meditation, and on nice days we meditated outside near a waterfall on campus. The sound of the water was really soothing, and I noticed that my mind wandered much less. Sometimes it was a relaxing break during the day, and even if I...