Teaching meditation as a bad meditator

Because it’s part of the taiji practice that I learned from my taiji instructor, I teach meditation as one aspect of my beginner taiji class. (I also include meditation as one aspect of the class for continuing students as well, but they know how to meditate so I don’t need to try to teach it.)

I worry that I don’t do it well, because I think of myself as a bad meditator. I’m easily distracted. Too often I spend half my time thinking about what I’ll do after I’m done meditating, and half my time thinking about stuff that happened in the past and how it went well or poorly.

But I do, now, actually meditate, however badly. That wasn’t always true. I came to meditation slowly. For a long time after starting to practice taiji I just went through the motions. I would sit while we were sitting and stand while we were standing, but not really even try to meditate. And, quite predictably, I saw few of the mental and emotional benefits of meditating.

I did, though, see some of the physical benefits—also predictably, because the physical part of sitting or standing was the part I was actually doing. I wrote about this a few years ago in a post called Physical benefits of standing meditation.

And it was then—when I saw the physical benefits of meditation—that it occurred to me that it might be useful to actually try to meditate and see if maybe the other benefits might accrue to such a practice. And they have, if only perhaps in a small way, because I’m a bad meditator.

In any case, I thought I’d go ahead and write down what I say to my meditation students, in the hope that it might be useful to others. It’s usually something like this:

To my mind, meditation is about paying attention. There are many meditation traditions which suggest different things that you might pay attention to: a repeated word or phrase such as a mantra or a prayer, or an object such as a crystal, or an image such as mandala, or your posture, or your breath.

What you choose to pay attention to is not important. What is important is simply that you’re paying attention.

In this room where we practice there are things that may distract you. The refrigerator or freezer may turn on and make noise. The people who work out front may come into the room to get their lunch. The lawnmower may go past outside the window. These things are not distractions from your meditation. Rather, they are things that are actually happening at that moment. If they capture your attention, that’s just fine. That’s what meditation is: Paying attention to what is actually happening in that moment.

What would not be fine would be to become attached to those things beyond the moment.

It would not be meditating to worry that the fridge might turn on. It would not be meditating to become annoyed at someone coming into the room to get their lunch. It would not be meditating to think that the lawn mower is going by because today is Wednesday and Wednesday is the day they mow the lawn.

Still, these things will happen. Things that capture your attention will continue to hold it beyond the moment when they are actually happening. Other thoughts will inevitably intrude. These things happen to everybody, even people who are very good at meditating.

What makes someone good at meditating is not that these things don’t happen—although they may happen less as you get better at it. What makes someone good at meditating is getting better at noticing when it has happened, and better at letting go of those thoughts and returning your attention to what is actually happening right now, right where you are.

I like this way of teaching meditation. I think it is authentic—I claim no expertise whatsoever, which is good because I’m not very good at meditation. But I think what I say is true. I think it’s what meditation is about at its deepest level.

Teaching Tai Chi this summer

I’m going to teach a Tai Chi class for the Champaign Park District this summer.

Screen grab of the Tai Chi course description.
Screen grab of the Tai Chi course description.

The park district doesn’t put their course descriptions on the web except in the form of the pdf file of the course catalog, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that they also don’t put the pdf file on their website, but instead offers it through Scribd—which makes it excruciatingly difficult to download the file. Otherwise, I’d go ahead and link to something. But, as I can’t find anything useful to link to, I’ll just paste in this screen grab from their on-line catalog.

I’d encourage any local folks who are interested in an introduction to Tai Chi to sign up. It costs $50 for park district residents and $75 for non-residents. The first session runs from June 3rd through September 26th. The second session runs from August 5th through September 27th.

Teaching about Esperanto and morphemes

Still full dark yesterday morning when I ventured out in the bitter cold to make the pre-dawn drive to Normal to give an 8:00 AM presentation on Esperanto.

I dressed for the cold—wool socks, flannel-lined jeans, wool shirt under my Alaska pipeline surplus coat, hand-knit wool hat, scarf, and mittens—so I was comfortable enough. (And it was cold. Official temp when I headed out was just -6℉, but it kept dropping as I drove and was apparently -11℉ by the time I arrived.)

It was a rather pleasant drive. The roads were clear, so I was able to make good time. (When it’s that cold ice isn’t really very slippery anyway.) There was a nearly full moon high in the south-west, so bright I was glad it wasn’t any lower or more westerly—it would have made it hard to see the road. In the rear-view mirror I could see the sky behind me turn pink with the approaching dawn.

I’d been invited by John Baldwin to teach a little Esperanto to one of his classes. He’d just introduced the students to the topic of morphemes, which are hard to teach to native speakers of English. English has morphemes, of course, but they’re largely fossilized—artifacts of the history of the language, rather than active components that speakers use all the time to build words and sentences the way they are in Esperanto.

I taught them a little Esperanto through the direct method—teaching them “Mia nomo estas . . .” and “Mi havas ĉapelon.” Then I went over the grammar of the language, with an emphasis on the morphemes, and then we translated some sentences into and out of Esperanto. I had a good time. The students seemed engaged. The professor said he was pleased with how things went. So, it was all good.

Things wrapped up promptly at 8:50. I got back in my car and drove back home. Not a boring drive, because things looked quite different by daylight. I did some thinking about my next story.

It was warming up—about 0℉ by the time I got home.