The Foundation Stone
In the early morning when it is still dark out, I'm sitting cross-legged on cushions on the floor in a semi-dark room. A candle flickers. A gentle breeze enters the open window along with sounds. The ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo of a Great Horned Owl mixes with the distant roar of cars and trucks on the highway several miles away and the plop, plop, plop of joggers running down the street just outside the window.
Some mornings attention is quickly snagged in a net of thoughts: the things that I need to do this day, the things I have put off for too long, the worries about some future event or regrets about the past. This particular morning, though, the heart and mind are at ease. The net is empty. Instead there is a gentle sense of relaxation as the sounds come and go, as thoughts and sensations arise out of emptiness and pass back into it. Eventually it is time to rise from the cushions and begin the day's activities. I arise settled and refreshed.
I first began this early morning meditation practice over 20 years ago. At that time, there were very few resources here in the Midwest to offer support or guidance to a beginning meditator. I found some books and read about meditation. I gathered a couple of cushions from the sofa, put them on the floor and sat down cross-legged. Then I began to sit quietly, paying attention to the sensations as the belly expanded and contracted with each breath. Attention would wander to something else and I would bring it back, again and again and again. Eventually I worked up to sitting for 20 minutes. I also found two or three people to sit with once a week, but these people offered no instructions. So for about the first two years that I practiced I had no teacher.
Circumstances changed and my family moved to the East Coast where I found a Zen Buddhist teacher. I did that practice for two years and sat some retreats. The initial retreats, in particular, were excruciating. The body just wasn't used to sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours at a time. And I didn't know how to work skillfully with physical pain.
Then I moved back to the Midwest and began attending Insight Meditation retreats. By then, the Zen people had trained my body and mind to sit without moving so that retreats weren't so painful any longer. They began to be a joy. Insight Meditation has been my practice since that time. And I've come to love it.
As I look back on those beginning years, I've wondered what kept me going in spite of the sense that I didn't know what I was doing and the pain of those first retreats. It wasn't that I was interested in Buddhist philosophy or was moved by the clarity of the Buddha's teaching. And it wasn't that I had an interest in being a Buddhist or even spiritual. The simple practice of sitting in silence satisfied a need that I had. A need to begin the day on a calm note. A need to have some space just for myself. A need to touch, if only for a few minutes, what was true. In this way sitting meditation became a foundation stone which my daily life rests on.