Earlier this week I gave a meditation lesson to a class of seniors at a high school. I had a great time, but more importantly the students and their teacher felt the program was a great success. And the experience reinforced my long-standing belief in the universality and wonder of meditation. It reinforced my belief that people generally find something natural and enjoyable about meditating; that it slows things down and creates space in our lives; and that people respond to the world with more compassion and wisdom after meditating.
The lesson lasted well over an hour. We began discussing the diversity of meditation practices and their place in each of the major religions of the world, and we talked about the emerging medical science that describes the positive effects of meditation and the changes it effects in the brain. Then I spoke about the particular practice in which we were going to engage, one of sitting still in awareness; of sitting still and watching our breath, our thoughts, whatever comes and goes. And I told them we would be sitting still for twenty minutes.
One young man asked, “Do you really think we can sit still for that long?”. I answered, without hesitation, “Yes, I do.” I added, though, that in another sense, no one can sit still for twenty minutes: we have to breathe, and we also have inevitable minor- and micro-movements. Also, I said, I did not want them to feel they had to try to sit still through the inevitable pins and needles and other discomforts that would likely arise, and that if they needed to or wanted to change postures, they should do so quietly so as not to disturb the silence for others in the room.
Our conversation continued for a while. We shifted from looking at the practical benefits of meditation to discussing the spiritual perspective that such benefits are incidental. From a religious standpoint the real purpose of contemplative practice is getting to know our real selves and cultivating closeness to God. I analogized with yoga – whose original purpose is the same – and suggested that in a sense meditation is adopting a yoga asana and holding it for a really long time.
And then we sat. For twenty minutes.
Some individuals moved occasionally, but all respected the silence and the sanctity of the physical and mental space we had created. A small bell chimed to signal the end of our meditation, and we continued to sit in silence for a few more moments, before moving into discussion. Everything was quieter and slower than before. The kids seemed more settled and stable and they shared stories of interesting experiences during their twenty minutes. Unsolicited, one of their number said they would like to do this again. Several others chimed in that they would, too. Which is a good thing, because we I will be returning next month, and again a month after that, and hopefully every month during the 2015-6 academic year.
Sitting still for twenty minutes might sound intimidating, but if a bunch of high school kids can do it and feel good, then I’m pretty sure the same is true for most groups of people – students adults, and business people. I can only dream about the positive effects on the world if every school, every workplace, every house of worship, offered monthly a secular class on meditation, bringing together instruction, meditation experience, and peer conversation. I can only imagine the cumulative effect if just a small number of the attendees were to take this experience and start their own personal practice, even just ten or fifteen minutes a couple of times a week.
While concrete results are not, in my mind, the purpose of meditation, they do guide behaviors and they are certainly useful, and I thought it interesting that, while looking for a photo to plagiarize for this article, I came across this article: “How transcendental meditation impacts public high school graduation rates”.
Regular meditation in high schools and in the work place is a dream, maybe, but it is a dream that could change the world. It is also one I can work towards in my own little way with my own personal meditation practice, with the Buddhist meditation group of which I am a member, and when I return to the high school in a month for the next in our series of meditation classes. And it is one at the heart of the work of this blog, where I regularly write, for example in Five Minutes about how this practice can change one’s life; in Mindful Email and Digital Communications about daily implications; and in a weekly series of ten short emails about how we start to bring mindfulness practice into our lives.
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