I tried my first “social meditation” class and I am still reeling from it. What the heck was that?
I’ve been doing more-conventional meditation for a few months and it has been a good experience so far. It seemed only natural to experiment with a variation on the practice. But nothing about this variation felt natural.
In social meditation, the goal is to pay attention to the present moment by concentrating on how we feel and what we’re thinking. Then we share our personal experiences with others by vocalizing what’s going on in our minds and bodies.
We sit in a circle, facing one another. When a gong is chimed, we have the option to vocalize our thoughts and feelings, but we’re not obligated to speak. Silence is a form of participation, we’re told. There is no structured order to the speaking and no requirement to take turns. We just speak if and when we feel inclined to do so.
We might say, for example, “My back hurts from this posture.”
Or, “I’m feeling anxious because I have never done social meditation before.”
“I feel like I want to comfort this girl seated next to me, who seems very anxious about being here.”
“I’m sensing that we are all happy to be here and I like the feeling of sharing the energy we are creating.”
“My legs are falling asleep.”
All of this is every bit as weird as it sounds. I could hear myself becoming a hippie as I spoke. I’m not sure how I feel about it, even now.
One of the difficult aspects of social meditation is that there is a rule that no one can respond directly to anything stated by anyone else. There is no, “Me too,” and no permission ask people questions to clarify what they mean. As someone with a penchant for chatting with strangers, I hate that rule. It feels like torture because I can’t connect with people the way I do in real life.
In the session I attended, we agreed as a group that we’d sit for 90 minutes and do social meditation together. Afterward, we’d socialize over tea and get to know one another better.
After 60 minutes or so of this “meditation” practice, the guide observed that everyone was complaining of physical discomfort. She suggested we do a dyad together so that we could get up on our feet and move around. Then things got even more weird.
The dyad required everyone in the group to divide into pairs. Within each pair, the “Leader” was instructed to guide the “Follower” around the room, leading her by her index finger. The Follower had to keep her eyes closed until the Leader instructed her to open them for a few seconds. Then she’d close them again and the pair would continue walking. A good Leader, we were told, would be one who was conscientious about what the Follower was facing when she opened her eyes. We were advised that each eye-opening would be so brief that we would want to ensure that the thing the Follower saw was something of beauty. After three eye-openings, the pairs all switched roles and we repeated the exercise.
In my dyad, the role of Follower was difficult. Even though I knew my Leader was probably watching where she was walking, I couldn’t stop imagining that I was about to walk into some hard object with every step. The struggle to trust a basic stranger was excruciating. The “things of beauty” I saw included a tapestry, a bronze sculpture of the Buddha, and photograph of the head of the global organization to which our meditation center belongs.
The role of Leader came more naturally to me. I sort of enjoyed thinking about what objects to use for the eye-opening moments. I guided my partner to a plate of cookies in the tea room, a window that faces a beautiful tree, and an air conditioning vent. Afterward, she referred to them as “treats.”
The objective of the dyad is to become aware of someone else’s experience of the present moment. In a “big ideas” sense, this practice is meant to encourage people to be more compassionate in the real world after having spent an hour or so really trying to connect with what another human is feeling. If we’re just talking about the broad concept of fostering compassion, I’m totally on board with all of this. But when it comes to spending an evening in a shrine room, wandering around with my eyes closed, I get uncomfortable. This practice is painfully awkward. It feels like it exists in another universe, totally outside of the places where I try to function as an adult.
I struggle with the notion of letting go of the objective, analytical, facts-based version of me and connecting with some intuitive, oddball version of myself. There is a part of me that embraces the teaching that even one enlightened person can have the power to elevate the level of awareness of an entire culture, and so the pursuit of enlightenment seems to be worth its weight in weird hippie evenings. But then there is a more vocal part of me that is still hanging on, defensively projecting things to their logical extremes to keep me from getting too invested in this meditation nonsense. That part cautions me that one day, I’ll wake up and realize I’ve gone all “Peace and Love” and I can’t remember the last time I showered.