Guest Author: Seth Kaplan
For the past two weeks, I’ve attended a mindfulness meditation class at the First Parish in Sudbury, Massachusetts. A yogini buddy of mine facilitates it with verbal guidance, passage reading, and discussion. Many people meditate in various ways. For example, each day I chant my mantra and a passage, both of which I learned many years ago.
My friend, whom I’ll call Trish, wanted to bring the mindfulness modality to our Unitarian Church, and I wanted to experience both it and meditating in a group, which I heard could be beneficial to one’s individual meditation practice.
The various 30-minute activities—silent meditation, walking mindfully as if in a labyrinth, and discussion of the Jon Kabat-Zinn’s text and thoughts relevant to that session’s components—proved to be a good organizational format. I found, though, that my opinions and knowledge base seemed at variance with those of the group. For example, Trish read a poem that she thought illustrated positive aspects of mindfulness meditation. Here is the poem:
by Ellen Bass
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat–
the one you never really liked–will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice–one white, one black–scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
The poem creeped me out. “Ellen Bass doesn’t mince words,” Trish said by way of explication. The rest of the group, though, liked the poem! They found it a good thing that someone thought you could live life knowing bad things would happen and anticipating that they would. Me, not so much.
My experience has been that, as John Lennon observed, “Life happens while you are making other plans.” Things happen. We characterize them as good, bad, exciting, insightful, horrible, etc. But, in essence, they remain neutral. I find that I learn from all of them, look forward to certain ones, and eschew ever repeating others. Uncounted other people do the same things.
So, why did this poem lend insight into mindfulness meditation? Well, the author of the text, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has advocated for mindfulness in books, lectures, and retreats for many years. But, what is mindfulness?
I understand it to be a form of paying attention. You focus on your breathing while acknowledging everything ambient–sounds, forms, etc.–as well as intrusive thoughts without allowing them to distract you from using your focus on breath to take you within, eventually finding the union or infinite you seek.
There is a lot more to be said, of course, but you get the thrust. Many of us engage in such a search for meaning, union, or insight into life, the spirit, and the infinite. My challenge will be to find a way to integrate my understanding of and experience with other forms of meditation into the group’s activities, if that is the way Trish wants the group to work going forward.
From time to time, I shall return to this topic and bring you up to date.