Last June, Steve was sitting in the back of a crowded room. It was the end of a long day and he had been called back to this room by a slightly inexplicable item on an agenda. Laptop on lap, he typed next to several other people who were also typing into some device or other. No one noticed the tall, lanky man walk into the center of the room until he cleared his throat and called the room to attention. It soon became clear that he would lead the final session of the day’s meeting. Also, it soon became clear that the purpose of the activity he would be leading would be extremely unclear for most of the audience. His subject was the ancient practice of paying attention to a process that many of us take for granted — our breathing.
“In a few minutes, after some more explanation, I’ll ask you to close your eyes — if you’re comfortable doing so,” he said. And then he talked to us about how we might sit and what we might do with our mouths (everything was couched in the conditional) and how it might be best to think of our thoughts, upon closing our eyes, if we chose to, as if they were clouds floating by. “You don’t judge the clouds, right?” He didn’t want us to judge our thoughts; he didn’t want us to name our mental clouds “good” or “bad;” he didn’t want us to be hard on ourselves if we could not focus; and he really didn’t want us to work on anything. Being. That is what we were supposed to be doing in the non-doing space he had deftly and surprisingly opened up for us that day.
For Steve, this impromptu meditation session was the most surprising thing that had happened all day, all week, and probably all month. He had not signed up for this, and it did not flow logically from the event for which he had signed up. He was at his school’s version of a tech conference. He had spent the day learning about Google Tools and backchanneling and Prezi and assessment. He wanted to try out the new tricks he had learned in a session on the latest Mac operating system (OS X Yosemite, at the time). He wanted, too, to respond to some emails that had been piling up. As he tried to settle into the guided meditation, begrudgingly at best, he spotted Reshan who had engineered not only the tech workshops but also this closing event. He wondered what Reshan was up to. Was this some kind of elaborate hoax? An experiment? As he thought to himself, he heard another voice in his head, chiding him: “You shouldn’t be pursuing that, or any, line of thought right now. The purpose is to focus on your breathing. The purpose is to stop focusing on the day’s work, the day’s screens, the day’s technology.” And then Steve knew exactly what was happening.
This meditation session was not solely, or even mostly, about meditation. It was about habits and default settings. It was a forced move away from hardware, software, and the networks that bind computing devices to other computing devices. Reshan wanted us to take a break — and not the kind of break that entails logging in to other social networks or email accounts to catch up on work between formal engagements.
The leader of the guided meditation said, “If your mind is filling up with thoughts, just let them go. Don’t chide yourself. Gently return your focus to your breathing.”
Steve agreed — still feeling a bit foolish — to give this a try. When he started to think, he returned his focus to his breathing. A few minutes later, when the leader called the people in the room back to attention, Steve felt refreshed, as if he had just returned from a dip in a cool stream. Maybe there was something to this . . . maybe.