Beginners’ Meditation

I was about to meditate. There was a beginners’ meditation class three blocks away at the 14th Street Y. Seemed wrong to not check it out. Low risk, potential high reward. Non-zero story value. Might even learn something.

It was held in Room 403. Not in the gym. In the preschool. Not great.

I looked inside. I saw a circle of about twenty folding chairs. Sitting in most of the chairs were very old women, chatting. Whatever filter was operating was not subtle.

It said, you are not the target.

Welcome to Meditators Anonymous. My name is Zvi. Hi, Zvi.

I asked if I was in the right room, hoping I wasn’t. I was. Despite lowered expectations, I sat down.

They passed around a petition to keep the class going after its one month engagement. This was class two. Impressive customer loyalty. Was a there there after all?

Several minutes late, the circle was complete. Me. One instructor. One Asian man. One Amy Poehler lookalike. Twenty-two very senior female citizens.

We were told meditation was us getting to know ourselves. Accepting our own friend request on Facebook. I tried not to make too much of a face. I tried not to make too little of a face. Would have been a lie. People deserve honest feedback.

We went around, said our names and mentioned something that warmed our hearts this past week. To get to know each other. I noticed I was confused. What did that have to do with meditation?

Some mentioned small niceties. Most mentioned babies. They especially loved fathers with babies, doing heroic things like pushing strollers or carrying the baby.

Here’s to you, baby carrying father. Here’s to you.

My son Gideon had been born the previous Thursday. So I won.

I like victory. Big fan. Passed the test just like all the rest. But never really understood the reasons why I took it in the first place.

We were told to sit comfortably in our folding chairs. Not a beginner task.

We were told to sit up fully straight, in a relaxed position. Some people can do that.

We were told to keep our eyes open, aiming six feet ahead on the floor, to take our practice into the world. We were told to relax our shoulders, and put our hands on our thighs. Can do.

Focus on the breath, either at the belly, chest or nose. If we have thoughts, label that thinking and come back to the breath. She mentioned things we might be distracted by. They were distracting. I got briefly hungry. I came back to the breath.

That was it. The whole instruction. The meditation itself lasted maybe ten minutes. There were people fidgeting. The instructor eyed her watch. I had thoughts. Many were meta. Is that common? Perhaps common but not discussed. I came back to the breath. We finished.

The instructor went over  ‘the practice’ again, asking us to name the steps. Like this was a classroom. It was. So, fair? Still infantilizing. Disrespectful of my time. This wasn’t complicated. Sit up straight, hands on thighs, look down six feet, focus on breath, bring focus back.

That was “the practice.” It had an exotic-sounding name.

Teacher said we keep our eyes open and sit in chairs so we don’t fall asleep. Must. Be. Nice. I envy those who fall asleep that easily. I am not enlightened.

I also wonder if that means that if you don’t fall asleep, you should lie down. Tempting!

Teacher took questions. Students pointed out focusing is hard. She agreed. They asked if it stops being hard. She said it doesn’t.

Teacher concluded with a call to ‘daily practice.’ If you had two minutes, that was all right. Two minutes will change your life!

How, exactly?

I know why I’m meditating. I’ve talked, theorized, modeled, gotten recommendations, read the review post, read the comments, read the other post, done better theorizing and modeling, and read the book up to where I couldn’t tell if it was talking nonsense anymore. Stage Four. Reading further would only distract. Beginner mind. So far so legit. Exceeds expectations. Tentatively recommended, could tell you why. Some day.

This class made no such attempt. No goals. No explanations. You make friends with yourself, on two minutes a day? No there there. Epic fail.

So why were these old ladies meditating? What kept them coming back, even signing a petition? Wasn’t point you only need to come once? Was this an excuse to share warm father and baby anecdotes? Why else would they want the class to continue? Why else were so many of them there so early?

Nobody Does the Thing They Are Supposedly Doing.

I hope that’s it. I wish them well. They seemed nice.



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17 Responses to Beginners’ Meditation

  1. James Cropcho says:

    The world of meditation is such, that unless you have a reason to believe otherwise, assume what you’re walking into, is precisely the highly-typical experience which you had at the Y.

    Speaking as a meditator of many years who—like you—is willing to show up to something and take a risk: no one at your event will have heard of Daniel Ingram or Culadasa, or whomever. A few will have heard of Sam Harris but only vaguely as some Muslim-hater, not as a meditator.

    I believe you are right, albeit with different phrasing than I: I’m not certainly exactly _what_ all the other attendees are seeking, but it’s seems to be utterly unrecognizable what you are seeking, and each attendee’s goals seem quite similar—not a confederation of disparate worldviews aligning out of necessity and scarcity.

    Hope that helps.

    • TheZvi says:

      That fits, thanks. Do you (or anyone else) have suggestions for places in lower Manhattan that would actually be helpful? I can’t even think about retreat-style stuff for at least a few months for obvious reasons, plus I wouldn’t be remotely ready anyway.

      • I don’t think you need places in Manhattan. You need Headspace or or whenever Sam Harris’ meditation app is out of beta. I don’t know if meditation is about “making friends with yourself” but it’s certainly not about making friends with others, which is what the thing you described is about. “A place in Manhattan” can help you stick with meditating each day, but you’re smart enough to come up with easier commitment devices.

        There are week-long meditation retreats with serious teachers that can take your practice to new levels, but I’m pretty sure that all the “starter kit” you need is accessible from your living room.

      • Glen Raphael says:

        I can recommend Headspace. It’s a phone app that leads you through guided meditation for 10 minutes a day or various other lengths of time. The early lessons have a lot of telling-you-what-to-do while later lessons start to assume you know what you’re doing and give you more time to just do it. Eventually there are modules to focus more specifically on things like “focus” or “gratitude” or various other positive qualities.

        You just need to find a park bench or a comfy chair any place you’re comfortable sitting down wearing headphones with eyes closed for 10 minutes.

      • TheZvi says:

        Huh. I tried headspace and it seemed pretty terrible. It has that freeware vibe of “you’re so good at this!” and “look what you can do in just 10 minutes” and “keep up your daily streak” and all that, and it’s so damn upbeat and cartoon-like. Plus its sessions are only 10 minutes, whereas I’m trying to do 35.

      • James Cropcho says:

        Happy to hear I’ve been helpful.

        Two good locations are Shambhala ( and New York Insight ( the latter which has actually had Culadasa visit, and had Shinzen Young visit (whatever you think of his efficacy, he’s got his head the right (rational, secular) place). That’s not to say that regarding instruction, each location wouldn’t have its “stinkers” too.

        Regarding using a space as a commitment device, Shambhala (and probably New York Insight) will allow you to do just drop in nearly whenever, take your shoes off, work on your meditation skillz, and leave whenever. (Thank you, Adam Widmer.)

        Regarding not needing a space as a commitment device: Zvi, you are not most people, so you know the psychological “technology” is needed to actually get oneself to regularly do something. I won’t go into it here, therefore, but just know that you’ll need to use _some_ commitment device(s).

        Regarding pre-recorded meditations, Calm is great but pricey. Going straight to the practitioner, i.e. to Tara Brach will be productive, but you’ll have to do your own curation, which requires not just finding quality and your personal style, but general knowledge of different mediation practices (it’s not just one activity!) would greatly bolster you. You can probably find some great-to-some stuff on these fora I’m in: Dharma Overground (Daniel Ingram’s) and Dharma Treasure (Culadasa).

        I hope that helps. Feel free to inquire to me further.

      • Glen Raphael says:

        Headspace’s cheesy overly-cheery cartoons are front-loaded – there are only a few of them. Later session lengths are customizable, but perhaps not to the extent of “35 minutes”. I’m currently doing the “focus” series, which as I look at it right now has a little popup where you can set to be any of 10-, 15-, or 20-minute sessions.

        Or for an entirely different meditation style you might try the phone app called “Pause”. It just has you keep rubbing the phone screen slowly and continuously as if it were a shiny river rock, while changes in an ambient music/nature track tell you if you’re doing it right – no other prompts but a pretty chime to tell you when it’s done.

      • Another space you might make use of:

        Go during a time labeled “zazen” (silent sitting meditation; no instruction provided). If you want zen-specific instruction, go to their Monday 630pm introduction.

  2. rossry says:

    Typo: “Welcome to Mediators Anonymous.” -> “Welcome to Meditators Anonymous.”

    Feel free to delete this comment.

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  4. benquo says:

    I don’t really understand why meditation classes would be necessary to learn the practice, unless (a) you’re pretty bad at following written instructions (i.e. most people but probably not you) or (b) you’re going to a retreat (which I recommend but you mentioned is not in the cards for you anytime soon).

    As far as written instructions, the emails I got when I signed up for this seemed like they would be a pretty reasonable way to get up to speed.

  5. Quixote says:

    Yeah. I have had, at times a pretty regular meditation practice. I’ve also dropped in on places and had a similar experience to what you described, (but with younger hipsters rather than old ladies).

    You do not need a place or a class. What you need is:
    1) find a cluster of park benches that are a) in an area you won’t be mugged while meditating with eyes closed, in Manhattan the financial district by the water is pretty good as the whole area is crawling with security all the time. b) at the edge of a shade source so you can sit on a bench in the sun or a bench in the shade depending on weather c) not facing directly into the sun at the time you usually want to meditate
    2) to reread the early chapters of the mind illuminated
    3) Just do what it says many times. You are strengthening a capacity and reps are essential.

    Separately, as mid level meditator, I would offer the advice to maybe try concentration mediation before insight mediation. This is contrary to the advice given by most masters, so likely its wrong. But I liked starting with concentration because concentration seemed fundamentally lower risk than insight in that it doesn’t fundamentally change your perspective. Yet it still provides a kind of proof; once you hit your first concentration state you know that the whole meditation thing is for real.

    • TheZvi says:

      That matches my intuitions (and that is indeed the book I’m using). Concentration first seemed obvious.

      Of course, with a newborn, finding time has been… tricky, so I’m having serious stage 1 problems. Unsurprising.

  6. bugsbycarlin says:

    My god. I sympathize.

    You do not need a *space*. Or *people*. You live in arguably the greatest walking city on earth, with infinite distractions. Meditation can be practiced while walking, and if you’re the walking type, you’ll probably prefer it.

    Take walks. Do not focus on the breath. Focus on what’s right in front of you, what’s coming through your eyes. If you find yourself retreating to an inner thought, glazing over, not seeing what’s in front of you, call *that* a thought, and return to what’s in front of you. If you get tired of focusing on what’s coming through your eyes, focus on what’s coming through your ears.

    This works as well in a forest as in a city, albeit for slightly different reasons (to do with balance of internal and external distraction).

    Do this somewhat regularly until it feels like you’ve built an extra muscle in your head, until you can turn away from your inner thoughts, your tendency to glaze over, at will. It might take on the order of weeks or a few months to get this sense.

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