We’ve all had those sweetly memorable New Years Eves – each moment flowing into the next, until someone looks up just in time to start the countdown. But what about the following year, and the one after that? Can a single night ever be what we hope? This year, as I entertained these familiar questions, I realized I could take a break from asking them. In fact, like a kid with a well-worn set of blocks, I could just knock them down. And spend the evening meditating instead.
The Zen Center is open on New Years Eve and offers an opportunity to sit for two back-to-back 45-minute sessions of Zazen practice, also known as "just sitting" or "silent illumination." There’s also bell ringing and a bonfire, but those things are secondary to my plan.
I’m going to sit.
In planning this party-less New Years, I realized that I haven’t properly meditated in years. I lived in a Buddhist collective the summer after I graduated from college – a peaceful two-story house where all the residents had to lead one meditation session every week. All summer long I dutifully showed up to sit for 40 minute stretches, amidst cricket sounds and the neighbors’ flapping screen doors. It was an interesting experiment at the time, and I had a range of responses – from the weight of obligation to a sense of elation, a lightness that would surprise me some days after quieting my chattering mind.
Looking back, what I remembered most was the sensation of going numb in my legs. In some instances, the whole lower half of my body would fall asleep and I would panic a little, wondering what would happen if the blood didn’t come back. And all the drama of my 21-year-old life – the chaotic relationships, the impending move to San Francisco, my efforts at building an adult life out of the scraps I’d assembled – would all come bubbling up, no matter how hard I tried to focus on my breath.
Lately, I’ve been considering trying again; so incorporating a meditation into my New Years – a time when we all map out our intentions for the year ahead – seems fitting.
After driving through a city full of revelers in fur boots, tuxes, and sequins, tipping bottles to their mouths and ignoring crosswalks, I entered the sparsely decorated, hushed atmosphere of the San Francisco Zen Center.
The zendo, or meditation hall, is a dimly lit room in the basement of a stately if institutional looking, 4-story brick building. Someone once told me that it used to be a convent, and it didn’t surprise me at all. There was virtually nothing in the room but row after row of darkly colored cotton cushions (each round zafus is placed precisely at the perfect center of a flat zabuton) intended to make sitting cross-legged on the floor more bearable.
There are waist-high platforms built in around the edges of the room, on which some cushions rest, arranged like stones in a rock garden, while others line the floor, divided by low white dividers. Like sitting in a high-walled restaurant booth, you may find yourself meditating right beside someone else without ever actually seeing them.
By 10:30 pm, nearly 50 people had filtered in. Most look like serious practitioners who knew the protocol: where to slip off their shoes, how to bow, which direction to face while sitting. I watched and tried to recall what I could (there had been no “recommended for beginners” asterisk near the listing for this evening’s practice). Then the sound of the brass gong resonated throughout and the room settled.
I steeled myself; the first 45 minutes was sure to last forever. I wish I could report that my leg didn’t fall asleep this time, but it did. And a terrible itch took over my left ear. But I eventually settled into the stillness with a simple series of beginners’ mantras.
Soon I did a time check in my head – figuring around 20 minutes had passed, maybe 25. The occasional cars swished by on Page Street. Then a bell rang, signaling the end of the first period. Could it really be over already? That’s when I realized something. I was out of practice and out of my league, but in the decade that had passed I had done much more than not meditate. Now, in my 30s, I had an innate patience to draw on. I wasn’t a total disaster at this, and the fact came as a subtle shock.
A walking meditation provided a break between sessions and involved following other meditators in a slow, deliberate circle. Meanwhile, in the hall outside the zendo, a giant brass bell began ringing the traditional 108 times (one for every mortal desire) reminding us that midnight wasn’t far away.
Then it was time to sit again. I crossed my legs the other way and nothing went numb this time. I tried to count the sounds of the bell, but lost track. After around 10 minutes, one of the older monks spoke – “You have chosen to be here tonight,” he said, “instead of distracting yourself with food and drink.” (at this part it was hard not to think about the bottle of champagne I had left chilling in my fridge). “Every moment is new,” he said. “Please enjoy them.” And for a few seconds I could see them – all the minutes lined up before me, waiting to be lived.
Around 25 minutes in, the sounds outside the building started to pick up and intensify. Somewhere nearby, a group of people began carousing. When they starting counting “10, 9, 8…” I realized they were standing in the alley right behind us, one wall away from a whole room of people sitting silently. They hugged and screamed as they zeroed in on 2010 – raised their noise makers to their mouths and made a few celebratory honks, before ambling off. If they hadn’t been there we might have passed silently, unknowingly, into the next decade.
When the bell rang again, it felt terrific to fold my crossed legs in toward one another. Everyone in the room was invited up to garden courtyard on the second floor of the building, where a small bonfire waited. There were slips of paper where we could write down our hindrances to burn and mine came to me quickly. I folded the sheet in half, stooped toward the flame and – in a rare moment when it was enough to just be my clear-eyed self – I let it go.
Do It Yourself:
The San Francisco Zen Center offers classes, lectures and a number of meditation opportunities for beginners. See the calendar at: http://www.sfzc.org/