In search of a little extra zen this new year? Scroll down to read an excerpt from Paula Poundstone’s The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.
‘The Get Quiet Experiment’
I’ve been reading a lot about the brain in the last couple of years. Meditation has come up frequently. It is said to work wonders. The practice is credited with lowering anxiety, rewiring the brain, and even producing bliss. Still, I have always felt that sitting quietly in a room full of people who were hoping to do the same would be, if not an impossibility, then a living hell for me.
Bliss could be good.
Last summer, my daughter Alley took meditation classes at a place called Unplug. You have to sign up for the classes online. Surely, they’ll take at least “First Runner Up” at “The Ironies” next awards season. Alley signed us up for a class together.
I give Unplug credit for creating a calm and serene ambiance in the midst of Wilshire Boulevard. This is a neighborhood full of heavy traffic, office buildings, banks, medical supply stores, imaging facilities, and mattress stores, but we walked into Unplug and into another world. The lights were low. The walls were white. Short, glowing candles surrounded the sign-in sheet at the front desk. Some sort of wooden flute music played interminable notes and a very sweet fragrance steamed out of a glowing container in the lobby. My allergic reaction to anything with an artificial scent causes frequent coughing fits. I was about to go into a quiet meditation room.
At 6:00 PM we heard the pure tone of a small bell, which signaled it was time to enter. The floor was covered in rows of small, black futons with internal metal frames.
Field Notes: Class #1
I think the teacher said her name was Emily, but I wasn’t focused yet. It might have been Ficus Nitida. She gave us a few minutes to settle in. “How far back do you want it to go?” Alley asked me softly as she tried to set the pitch of the back of my chair, “If you fall asleep and snore, she comes and taps your foot.”
“Put it straight up,” I said louder than I would have liked, but if I whispered I would cough. “You should have told me that before we came. I would have brought a nail to sit on. Can you make it at a forty-five degree angle, so I’m leaning forward? I really don’t want some lady tapping me awake because I’m snoring in front of 40 people.”
From her perch, Ficus spoke in a measured tone—very smooth and composed. She said this would be a guided meditation. She asked if anyone had any questions. I knew Alley wouldn’t like it if I raised my hand to ask, “Is this wooden flute player going to change to another note anytime soon?” So I didn’t.
I know there’s a special way you’re supposed to breathe for meditation, but I can never remember it. It’s in through your nose and out through your mouth or out through your nose and in through your mouth or suck your eyes in really hard or something. Ficus said that if your worries and thoughts about the outside world came into your head to acknowledge them, let them go, and return to the sound of her voice. She said, “You are walking through a forest. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my, I thought, right away. I couldn’t stop wondering, now that I was thinking about it: Why would lions and tigers and bears all be in a forest? Bears might be in a forest, but not lions and tigers. Shit. This is not what I’m supposed to be thinking. Acknowledge and let it go. F*ck, now the others are all up ahead of me in the forest. I have a guide on this meditation and I’m still going to get lost.
I heard Ficus say to imagine you are standing in front of a big, beautiful, wise, old oak tree. I glanced over at Alley. She looked so peaceful. Then, of course, it started—my nagging, hacking cough. And it’s a loud cough, too. I coughed three times. “Sorry, it’s the tree pollen.” I said. Ficus glared at me. Alley’s eyes rolled under her closed lids.
“The leaves are falling gently all around you,” Ficus intoned.
Acknowledge and let go, I reminded myself. Get back to the leaves. Damn it, I really need a Kleenex. I look like a fussy 3-year-old on a cold day. Acknowledge and let go. The leaves, get back to the f*cking leaves…”
“Slowly open your eyes and return to the room,” I could hear Ficus saying. “Become aware of your surroundings.”
A fellow student in a crepey, flowing blouse, and drawstring pants walked past, kicked over my soda, and didn’t say a word—so much for awareness. Maybe she was upset because her tree broke up with her.
Field Notes: Class #8
Among the variety of meditation classes on the Unplug schedule, there is something called a “Sound Bath Experience.” A sound bath sounded good to me.
I entered the meditation room at the ding of the bell in the lobby, found a futon chair, adjusted it as best I could, and followed the teacher’s directions to get comfortable. We were instructed to focus on just the sounds. He explained that the “Sound Bath” was designed to redirect the listener’s focus away from intrusive thoughts and back to the sounds, and that if it got too intense we should feel free to leave quietly. I couldn’t imagine running in horror from the sound of a rain stick, but maybe he had darker tools that I hadn’t seen. Maybe he played Wolf Blitzer audio at unbearable decibels. “Uh, here, uh, in the situation, uh, room today we are following a story that we, uh, know nothing about, uh, but that we hope will, uh, turn into a, uh, tragedy, uh, or at least something we can, uh, speculate about and, uh, blow out of proportion and, uh, milk for, uh, weeks.” I made note of the location of the closest exit.
Sinking into the chair with my eyes closed, I felt my shoulders lower almost instantly at the first simple, cool peal of a small bell. There followed waves of deep, sonorous tones. I recognized the bell sounds, the bowl sounds, the chimes, and the rain sticks. It was amazing. It lasted about fifteen seconds. Then I felt my restless leg syndrome go crazy. My eyes popped open and, down somewhere near the end of my legs, I could see my feet spinning around on my ankles like uncut carrots in a blender. I tried restraining my left foot with my right, and stepping on my right foot with my left. Nothing worked. Fortunately, the sound bath came to an end soon after. I sat up, reached forward and grabbed my feet. It was like trying to stop a fan with my hands. Once I was standing, my miscreant appendages fell into place beneath the rest of my body and carried me hurriedly from the room.
I’m going to go out on a limb, maybe even the limb of a wise, old oak tree, and say that I noticed during The Get Quiet Experiment that I have felt more optimistic. I used to need music or a Perry Mason or Columbo video playing while I did chores, if my kids weren’t around to talk to, that is. Now I have found that I like the silence. I am entertained by just thinking.
That’s not like me.