Zeff Kraus, Korea Times: Everyone knows the fantasy: meditating on an idyllic Eastern mountain peak with birds singing in rhythm to the soft “ttak, ttak” of a temple’s wooden gong. Such images attracted me to Asia 10 years ago, seeking an inner sense of purpose that my upbringing in Canada had not provided. But my first visit to an actual mountain temple outside of Seoul resulted in a monk offering me inner peace — for $2,000 in tuition. From this I learned that a mountain peak can be simply a piece of the city mounted high. Luckily, I met a doctor of traditional Eastern medicine who offered to teach me meditation.
I think that my expectations of meditation matched those of most Westerners, since we all learned what to expect from movies and television shows. I knew that I would not really have to shave my head and wear a saffron robe, but I expected that my teacher would have me meditating in a hushed temple with woven mats and ancient statues. In later years, when I started instructing others in meditation, several of my Western students mentioned their fear that they would find meditation boring, a result that would have meant in their minds that they lacked some unique inner vision. I shared this concern and also feared that I would fail the esoteric art of meditation for petty reasons, such as failing to keep my mind from wandering or being unable to sit in one position for long periods of time.
The reality of my first meditation session was much like the reality of many stereotyped experiences. Half of my expectations were completely confounded, and the expectations that were met surprised me. Instead of a serene temple at dawn, my first meditation experience occurred in my teacher’s apartment after a fine dinner of kalbi and crab. During dinner, my teacher’s sister-in-law expressed her astonishment that I truly wanted to learn meditation. She was a modern Korean and viewed meditation as an outmoded and eccentric pastime. Her astonishment astonished me, for I had always presumed that all Asians revered meditation, and I suppose I even thought that monks were only the highest form of meditators and that all other Asians had at least some cultural experience of the art.
After coffee, my teacher announced: “Let’s meditate!”
His apartment study had a computer station along one wall, his library against a second wall and a meditation shrine against the third. His humble shrine, covered in white paper, had a simple silver water bowl, two white candles and an incense brazier. He and I sat on two cushions side by side and he began the instructions.
“Straighten your back. Breathe with your lower abdomen, like a baby does. Babies have the most perfect, natural breathing rhythm, right from the stomach. Your legs do not have to be in any limb-twisting lotus position, just cross them comfortably.” He gave me more practical advice on how to relax my muscles, where to place my hands and how to hold my head. The instruction that surprised me most was, “Close your eyes, but not all the way.” All the depictions of meditation I had seen had shown people with their eyes closed. But Dr. Shin Min-shik explained, “If you close your eyes, your mind will wander too easily. Instead, leave your eyelids open a crack to keep you grounded in reality.”
I told him that I thought the point of meditation was to transcend reality.
“If you close your eyes,” he explained, “your mind will drift off into your vast pool of memories and start compulsively thinking about everything. That’s analytical meditation, an entirely different form,” he said with a smile. “Besides, if you close your eyes, you’ll fall asleep.”
We meditated in silence at first, listening to our own breathing. After a few minutes, Dr. Shin led me in chanting a fundamental mantra focused on healing he had taught me earlier in his clinic office. At 23 syllables, the Taeul mantra seemed long and complicated to me, but short to him. For a Westerner, a short mantra would be “ohm,’’ but historically, Eastern mantras have stretched as long as ten thousand syllables, comprising the contents of entire tomes of learning.
After a time in which my mind focused on questions such as “Am I doing this properly” and “Am I chanting the mantra right,” I noticed my left hand become cold as though an ice pack were hovering near it and my right hand tingled as though near a heat source. Then, my feet and legs became numb, and this numbness progressed up my legs, chest and arms, until all that remained was the sound of the mantra, my breathing and my mind. A euphoria swelled within me, something that my mind did not recognize, yet could examine with eager curiosity. Eventually, my consciousness felt like a balloon tethered to a speeding car, just tenuously attached to reality.
The clapping of my teacher’s hands, signaling the end of meditation, startled me. I would later learn that sometimes during meditation, when your joints are aching or your body is sick, minutes can seem like hours. But in that first meditation session, what felt like a handful of minutes spent chanting turned out to have been 40 minutes.
Afterward, my emotional elevation evolved into a mindset of peace and expansive awareness. In trying to describe this elevation to friends, I explained that it did not feel like the giddiness of alcohol or sex, but rather like the euphoria one feels upon beginning a journey home. In my subsequent years of meditation, I came to recognize this giddiness as a happy stage that meditators eventually learn to move beyond as they seek the state in which the mind stops speaking and starts listening. Through and beyond this state lies the potential to see the universe as it exists in truth.
The writer works as an editor at the Jeung San Do spiritual organization’s headquarters in Taejon.