Western Wanderings: Peace on earth

Peter Fish

The minute I sign up for my beginning meditation course, Shambhala Training Level I: The Art of Being Human, I worry about what to wear.

"Hemp," my wife advises. "Everything has to be made from hemp."

Check. I want to look like one of the models in Yoga Journal: lithe, enlightened. I go to a natural-fiber store and try on a flowing shirt and drawstring pants. But in the three-way mirror, I don't look enlightened. I look like Gallagher, the comedian who drops watermelons from high places.

By the time I get to Shambhala Mountain Center, in the Rocky Mountains northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, I am knotted with anxiety, and not just from the pants.

I know that if you scoured the universe for the three people least likely to meditate successfully, you'd come up with Donald Rumsfeld, Daffy Duck, and me.

But I want to succeed. With millions of devotees, meditation has become as mainstream America as the burrito or the outlet mall. And the West, with its affinity for the spiritually experimental, is meditation central. The Shambhala Mountain Center is one of the movement's main nexuses, with its classes ― and its gold-domed Tibetan stupa ― drawing 10,000 visitors a year.

So one morning, I join 60 others sitting cross-legged on blue cushions. Our instructor, Cynthia, speaks in the throaty tones of a '40s film star. She gives a brief history of Shambhala meditation, then moves on to the basics: body, breath, and mind.

"Have your body make a statement of strength," Cynthia says. Our spine must be straight, she adds, to hold up our head, which weighs 14 pounds.

Fourteen pounds. I never knew my head was so heavy. I imagine it toppling off my spine and smashing like one of Gallagher's watermelons.

Next comes breath. "Breath is an expression of being in the present," Cynthia says. "Feel the breath, find the breath."

"But what about the tongue?" one young woman asks. "Should we rest it against the palate? Or against the teeth?"

I panic. I'm having enough trouble with my spine, my giant head, my breath. I can't think about my tongue.

When we break for lunch, the group is cheerful but battered. Nobody's done very well. What's striking, though, is the diversity of the novice meditators. A few are the 20-something seekers you see in places like nearby Boulder. But others are battling ill health, fraying marriages. One woman helps run a grief-counseling program for children. For these people, the need to shape a quiet refuge is as immediate as the need for water after a long, hot hike.

After lunch I work on my mind. Buddhist tradition describes the untrained human mind as "monkey mind," flitting from thought to thought. I don't even have that. I have zoo-full-of-monkeys mind ― caged, chattering, throwing food. My thoughts go: Meditate. Try to meditate. Dinner. Lasagna at lunch was good. Will we have lasagna again? James Bond's Thunderball. What was the villain's name?

We break for individual instruction. My instructor, Alan, says not to worry about my wild thought process. "Meditation," he says, "is not a higher state of mind. It is the mind."

Back in the meditation room, I focus on my breathing. And, for three one-minute periods over the next three hours, I get it. The feeling is like when, in bodysurfing, you rise with a cresting wave and, loosed from gravity, flow forward, free.

"Remember," Cynthia tells us, "the Buddha did not sit down just to sit down. He sat down to get up in a new way." That night, down from Shambhala Mountain, I feel strangely relaxed. I Google Thunderball and find out that Emilio Largo was the villain. But afterward, I sit on a pillow, spine straight, hoping to catch another wave.

Info: Shambhala Mountain Center (classes from $223, including room and board; reservations required; 888/788-7221)