When I first started going to my teacher Eugene Cash’s meditation group at the Unitarian Church in San Francisco on Sunday nights, back in the late 90s, I did what a lot of enthusiastic young meditators do in groups like that:
I skipped the break.
Which is to say, after the silent meditation finished, I just continued sitting in meditation through what I felt was an over-long tea time filled with (pointless, annoying) socializing.
The Buddha said, after all, to avoid idle chatter! And if you had to talk about anything, to discuss the Dhamma! Never mind that that was mainly for renunciate monastics — I was trying to be as much like one as I could, until I was ready to actually ordain. And being a somewhat immature introvert, with “avoidant” as my attachment style, and standard issue cis-dude conditioning, which is to say poor empathic listening skills, the injunction against idle chatter stood out to me as far more important then the just-as-common (and far more often mentioned) teaching that good friends were the whole of the holy life.
So I just sat there, trying to stay with my breath, or when that didn’t seem to be working, lurked awkwardly in the corners, waiting for the real practice to resume. This is pretty common, I see now. Meditation communities can be self-selecting for quiet types.
I actually love being an introvert. I love the ease with which I can rest into quiet space with myself, even in the middle of a crowd. I don’t mind at all that I’m one of those people who in the middle of the party, when it’s really hopping, ducks away into the kitchen to do some dishes. The pleasure of a quiet, useful task outweighs the pleasure of even my very lovely friends in settings like that. (Nothing personal, dear ones. 😉 )
But that’s not the only thing that was happening.
When he was mentoring me to teach, Jack Kornfield sent me to do trauma training, and I learned about the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), and how so many of these traits we hold so intimately as our identity are actually self-protective impulses. Obvious, as soon as I heard the term: self-protective. And then, the terrible punchline:
Social engagement is the path to healing.
In technical language, this is about how important the frontal, or ventral, branch of the Vagus Nerve is in regulating and maintaining our sense of safety. On a deep animal level, we learn that we are actually safe in the world — safe enough to relax, to let go, to look inward, to “rest and digest” — by seeing the faces of the people around us, and reading the subtle clues that indicate the absence of threat or danger.
This part of the nervous system is, as the name says, “autonomic”. Which means we can’t change its behavior in a top-down way, just by doing things. We have to actually experience the world differently. We have to be in safer spaces, AND we have to let that sense of safety in. We have to let… other people… in. Oh dear.
Other people. Good ones. The whole of the holy life. Dammit.
It’s not that I had been a total loner. I loved the communal aspect of the Zen training I had done, and probably my life was saved just as much by the experimental anarchist dance form Contact Improvisation as by the liberation teachings of the Buddha.
But in both disciplines, social contact, at least within intensive practice (which was always my preferred flavor), was activity-centered, ritualized, constrained by formal and informal codes of conduct. I felt safe on the dance floor, in the Zendo, circling around the work bell silently in crisp black robes, pine-scented wind rippling the sleeves. And when I did finally make friends, I did it slowly, and still always preferred formal practice to living room hang out. I still do, honestly.
But the teachings said to get to know suffering really well. So I started to explore my most familiar trait, using the ANS model as a guide, feeling for the difference between calm-content and overwhelmed-resigned, and looking for it in my students and community. And like one of those 3D eye puzzles, once I saw it, I saw it everywhere. Inside and out.
Flash forward to the present.
One of the benefits of Satsang moving to the new space is that we get our break back. The old 90 minute length — with chanting, sitting, talk, and discussion, and the need to pack up promptly afterward so the staff could clean the studio and go home — just didn’t leave enough time for idle chatter!
Idle chatter… which I’ve come to see as just as important as any of the formal practices of sitting or study. Maybe, at least in the healing-your-nervous-system-from-decades-of-alarm aspect of practice, the most important. Way to eat crow, young introvert!
The avoid idle chatter teaching is useful, of course, especially if gossip is one of your vices, and I do swoon when my students are happily standing around the tea urn and I overhear them discussing some detail of Dependent Origination (which they actually do, the lovelies). But it’s also true that casual conversation is one of the ways we get to know each other. Talking about low-importance things communicates to the ANS that there’s not an emergency happening!
So here we are at the new space…
Insight Meditation Satsang
Ashtanga Yoga Berkeley
Every Tuesday, 7:15-9pm
…with more time, and softer edges.
Come a bit early and say hi to people. Enjoy a bit of social time at the break. Stand around the tea urn [in progress but we hope will be there next week] or roll around on the wide, clean, beautiful floor, chatting idly, and get some Ventral Vagal innervation going. And sure, discuss the gem of the Dhamma, as pure as a polished shell… , or yes, sit in silence, or lie down for a bit of a nap. “Rest and digest”, friends. We’re all just animals here.