Where Is My Mind?
On a typical Friday night, I usually engage in noisy adventures like watching bands, drinking with friends, and, if I am lucky, hanging out with a cute girl.
My weekends are just a small part of the white noise clogging my brain, though. I’ve learned humans have about 70,000 thoughts per day. Since I overthink everything, I probably double that number.
I’m getting tired of my mind constantly racing in a city that rarely slows down. So I recently decided to spend a Friday night in silence with a group started by an ex-punk named Noah Levine. Noah had a history of violence and drug abuse before he turned his life around and dedicated himself to a mellower practice, which he dubbed Dharma Punx.
I’d heard about this unique Buddhist meditation group through a friend. Since punk rock saved my life when I was a teenager, I hoped I could calm my nerves with people from a similar background without feeling weird that this would turn into some sort of religious ceremony.
Dharma Punx meets every Friday in the Richmond District at the Cultural Integration Fellowship. The night I arrived, the rain hammered down, but it didn’t deter the faithful as they filled a large room to full capacity of about 75 people. I took my shoes off and found a chair to sit in, avoiding the pillows on the floor, as that position looked a little too New Agey for me.
I looked around the room. There were a few punks and heavily tattooed people here. One girl looked like a young Lydia Lunch. Most of the crowd looked pretty normal, though, like they just came out of a yoga class at the local gym.
Then I started freaking out. What was going to happen to me while I sat quietly for 30 minutes with a bunch of strangers? What if I emptied my mind and realized I’m absolutely crazy? What if all I could meditate on was my uncle’s suicide? I started worrying about my bouts of social anxiety. When I’m in a crowd without a lot of distractions (beer, music), I can go into a full-blown panic attack.
This was going to be the longest half hour of my life.
I remembered, though, that everyone I’ve ever asked about meditation has had positive experiences with the practice. They usually say it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them. I hoped this would be true for me too.
I became brave and opened up a conversation with the woman next to me, telling her the positive things I’d heard about meditation.
“My first meditation fucked me up,” she said. My body tensed.
“I was in a monastery for three days of silence in Thailand and lost my mind,” she continued.
“That was your first experience with meditation?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
Of course I had to sit next to the life of the party.
My panic subsided when Gene Lushtak, our leader and host, rang a bell for the proceedings to start.
Gene was a handsome, soft-spoken mentor and the crowd hung onto his every word. Their eagerness scared me a bit. He requested that we close our eyes and start meditating and everyone went right into it.
The room was silent. A cough here, a truck driving down Fulton Street there. How could this be meditation? I was just sitting there like I was waiting for my number to be called at the DMV, except I was shoeless.
Gene reminded us to concentrate on our breathing. I breathed.
We were given minimal guidance, including affirmations that our thoughts are not us, so we should let them come without judgment. If we have emotions, Gene said, we should just feel them. Our emotions don’t define who we are.
My sense of peace was constantly interrupted as I thought about article deadlines, girls in the room I’d like to ask out on a date – and then I saw a vision of my ex-wife. We went through a very rough divorce and I usually have feelings of betrayal, but for some reason I felt an odd sense of gratefulness. It was a thought and a feeling that I couldn’t believe could go together. I let it be.
What a great place to steal shoes and umbrellas.
My mind continued to jump around.
I wasn’t sure if I was meditating or just being quiet. I wanted to raise my hand, but everyone’s eyes were closed.
Finally, there were moments when my mind was still. I no longer felt threatened about how dark my thoughts may get. I found myself noticing instead of reacting.
After the bell rang signaling the end of meditation, Gene suggested talking to our neighbors about our experience. The energy of the room lit up. It was pretty amazing.
As we started discussing our thoughts, I felt the camaraderie so strongly I actually became calm in a social situation. It was strange to think that here it was a Friday night, and after sitting silently with a group of strangers, I felt close to them.
During the next week I became an information-gathering freak. I wanted to know all about Dharma Punx and Noah Levine, a Santa Cruz native who started the movement with his Dharma Punx memoir.
I grabbed that book along with his others, Against the Stream and The Heart of the Revolution, and carried them with me at all times. I wanted to catch up on Noah’s teachings since I planned on going to the next meditation meet up and doing it right.
In Dharma Punx, Noah talks about the importance of sobriety and how abstaining from sex brings one a step closer to enlightenment. From his research, I learned that Buddha was celibate because sexuality can bring torment to humans. Noah also believes that staying away from alcohol is ideal; in his book Against the Stream, he noted that even working as a bartender is “profiting from the suffering and confusion of others” and “has a negative karmic consequence.”
I realized after only one meditation session that starting a weekend in silence is like taking your brain on vacation to a cozy mountain cabin, only way cheaper. I went to the next Dharma Punx group the following Friday.
Once again I took off my shoes and entered the room. This time a really cute woman sat next to me.
Then the meditation began. It was a little easier.
As I sat quietly in the packed room, I didn’t have one panic attack, or escalation toward a panic attack. It was a nice surprise. A feeling of gratefulness kept creeping its way up.
The 30 minutes went by faster this time. Suddenly, Gene was ringing the bell.
He lectured with spontaneity, with mindfulness, and with long silences like he was still in meditation mode. It seemed honest. He discussed how meditation is a lifestyle. He referred to a story about Buddha, but I was too overwhelmed with the experience to remember what the exact parable was.
I introduced myself to the woman next to me. Her name was Danielle. We exchanged numbers – although I felt a little cheated because I didn’t get her digits for a date, but as a meditation partner. Gene had announced that everyone should get a Dharma buddy so we could text each other with the word “sat” after we practiced at home. It was an incentive not to miss a daily five-minute meditation.
I tried to be funny and texted Danielle, “I did a sit,” since it sounded more like “I did a shit.” We had LOLs and she eventually sent me a link to her personal blog. I finally got the guts to ask her to come with me to Hotel Biron for a drink.
At the bar, Danielle was refreshingly honest. I told her I thought she was cute and she told me her back hurt while she did modified yoga moves from her chair. We talked about our lives and ate cheese and I had a couple glasses of wine.
The date didn’t end in a lip-locked kiss as I had pictured. It ended in an awkward hug. We were back to meditation buddies. Text message exchanges went from playful to “sat.”
I’m meditating for five minutes a day now, though, and I text Danielle after each round. I plan on continuing with the Dharma Punx meetings at least twice a month too. Even though I still feel I’m not doing it exactly right, I like being quiet in a room full of strangers. When I leave, my brain is turned down a notch before I take it out on a noisy weekend journey.
Dharma Punx meets every Friday at the Cultural Integration Fellowship, 2650 Fulton Street. Donations are accepted.
To find out more about the Dharma Punx movement, read Noah Levine’s books Dharma Punx, Against the Stream, and The Heart of the Revolution, or check out his site, www.dharmapunx.com.