Hunting My Mountain Voice
Re-awakened. The classroom on the third floor of Avery Hall was too hot. It was the middle of fall, but it already felt like winter outside. This was frustrating. My syllabus had us going outside for the exercise, but it was early November, and by the third hour of class it was near dark and too cold for much of anything and the building's heat had us all on slow roast. We would move the meditation lesson somewhere down on the cooler first floor.
During our last break, I searched for a workable spot with the privacy necessary to un-clutter our minds and do some sitting practice. There was no good place. On the other hand, I explained once all nineteen of us settled along both sides of the main hallway, if you can still yourself enough any place is a fine spot for meditation. It was where you went in your mind, not your body.
Whatever happened would be all right. We would adjust to our environment, a sort of mantra for this Human Potential course I was teaching in the fall of 2009. The class, already taught at the university for thirty years, was just eccentric enough to be right up my alley. I knew I would learn as much as the students as the semester progressed, and I had. This night would prove that to me once again.
We were in the text covering emotions and feelings, had already spoken on identity, gender issues, human communication, emotional intelligence, and spirituality. We had tried to define prayer and even skirted along the topic of the essence of God. This sample of meditation was the challenging capstone experience for this week's meeting.
It was just us there for a time, but classes were about to dismiss. Soon there would be foot traffic and noise, distractions, an awkwardness of being seen doing something atypical, our backs against the walls, not moving or talking or even looking at anyone passing by. I wanted to get started before all that unfurled around our conversation. We spoke briefly about posture, how to sit, types of meditation, clearing the mind, disconnecting, what to expect, the awareness of breathing. How to bubble up distractions, acknowledge them and politely shoo them away and refocus.
We sat still and quiet for only two minutes on the first round, trying to empty our minds completely or to contemplate a single theme or object. Then, as if just for us, what was usually the ignored background of a college evening intensified. Perhaps what was happening around us would have challenged even the greatest Zen master. The elevator bell rang, people piled out of classrooms and out of the building, the sounds of footsteps from the second floor pounded their vibrations through the ceiling, the building creaked, other footsteps stomped by atop the carpet and past our crossed legs. A few people giggled at our scene or were curiously quiet in wonder and, perhaps, respect. Students were warming up instruments down the hall, the soda machines were never louder, the fluorescent lights buzzed like insects over our heads, we could hear each other breathing, cars honked and pulled out, highway traffic floated in from the highway hundreds of yards away. My back ached. My eye itched. My leg was threatening to fall asleep in the half lotus position. Stomachs growled. Cell phones chirped. That was just the first two minutes.
We then tried five minutes. I felt torn between doing real sitting practice and remaining aware enough to make comments as their instructor when the exercise was over. Teacher vs. learner. Learner vs. teacher. I wanted both. To my amazement, there was very little movement happening, no shifting, no sighs of frustration. As all this bloom of normally ignored life activity increased, they were simply sitting, just being for a few precious moments. Where they went inside was up to them. Five minutes of complete stillness - while awake - for the average Millennial student must feel like an hour. Their minds are electrified with technology all day, and here I was asking them to shut down and willingly forget about the surrounding noise and movement, the temptation to look around, the accumulating twitters and voice messages and Facebook and Myspace notifications and texts and emails piling up on them.
The time was up and we dismissed, but I suggested that if anyone wanted to stay for a ten-minute sitting they were welcome. Four stayed, eager and ready. We began again, stilled and alone, as more students dismissed and walked by us like ghosts we could here but not see.
Sound is not always a bad thing. We equate noise to negativity, often neglecting our appreciation of pure sound. In the midst of this regular shuffle, where we had established ourselves as temporary sculpture, I was reacquainting with the sound of school. It reminded me of a personal experience twenty years earlier just a few dozen feet outside this building along the sidewalk.
It was the fall of 1989, the middle of my third year as an undergrad. I had moved out of the house and on to campus. I was struggling with my major, often with why I was in school at all, with relationships. I'd work myself silly – mistaking feverish activity with success – and eventually collapse, not coming out of my room for two days while I slept as much as possible. More than anything, I was struggling with me. Looking back, I recognize these as my first bouts with manic depression.
Much of college is a blur now. This memory, however, is clear and important for me. I'm walking to a class, it's the peak of color in a place I had yet to consider my mountains, I'm still high from recently watching Dead Poets Society , the air is cooling and winter threatens with every passing day. Homecoming has come and gone. Even in all this, I'm exhausted and nearly depressed.
As I pass Avery Hall, I have one of the first true epiphanies of my life. An awareness I'd seldom experienced pleasantly creeps up. The music room window is open and someone is playing the piano. I hear it and actually listen. The music slows my steps. I look around, up and down, behind me. Something is happening. The wind picks up around my ears and waves my hair, it threads the half naked trees, scooting dry leaves past my feet with gentle scratches. Across the green, blindingly yellow Gingko leaves fall in sheets like rain, flapping against one another and patterning the grass. There is careless laughter from across the Quad. A professor's lecture mixes in from an open window on a second floor. I feel the books cradled in my hand. The trees are rust and yellow and green and scarlet. The music is a soundtrack as all the moment's senses run together and overwhelm me.
At that moment, I knew, in that gut hunch you can trust, that I was in the right place. This was what college was supposed to be like. It was more than robotically filling a seat in a lecture hall. More than tuition payments and being handed a degree on a stage. It was the sensual I was plugging into for the first time, right there in such an unexpected place and time. A few moments later, I was hiding in the men's room, tearing up and embarrassed, my heart racing. I was finally ready to attend college.
Twenty years later I was leaning back into this memory there in that hallway, surrounded by new students and only steps away from the root of spiritual connection I have with this place I call work and home. It was my hope that these students, patiently humoring their instructor, would hear what I was hearing.