Sitting in Silence with Strangers

Meditation is a daunting word. But could it just mean showing up and shutting up?

Every Sunday morning a group of Buddhist sympathizers convene for two hours on the top floor of a nondescript three-story office building uptown. They meet at the Waterloo Riverview Dharma Centre (WRDC). They meet to meditate.

After enjoying an early morning coffee, on the Sunday of the Waterloo Jazz Festival I paid a visit to the WRDC. I was greeted at the open front door by a middle-aged woman named Penny. She was seated at the Buddhist lending library directly below a large wall poster of the smiling Dalai Lama. She seemed surprised to see me and asked if it was my first time visiting the Centre. I explained that it was but that I was happy to sit through the coming hour of unguided meditation — recommended on the Centre website for those with previous meditation experience.

Self-identifying as a “non-sectarian centre for meditative practice in the Buddhist tradition,” WRDC offers an eclectic program that includes meditation instruction in Theravada and Vajrayana traditions, as well as Qigong classes. Part of what intrigued me about Sunday morning sessions, however, was their lack of instruction.

I took my seat on a round black floor cushion in the front half of the room, set apart by Japanese-style dividers and marked by a modest shrine between the teacher’s cushion and a large east-facing window to the treetops lining Dupont Street. On a thin black table sat a sandy Buddha statue surrounded by a medley of pinecones, stones, and flowers dried and alive. Potted plants dotted the floor like patient disciples.

Legs crossed and hands folded, Buddha seemed to watch our small group approvingly as we assumed his posture one by one in silence. Just after 10 a.m. someone rang a singing bowl three times to commence the sit. Just before 11 a.m. the bowl rang thrice more to conclude. And that was it.

I think I expected an hour of cross-legged silence in a group of strangers to feel longer than an average hour. In fact, it flew by, and not because I was absorbed in single-pointed concentration. The time did not slow because my thoughts did not slow, at least for the first 30 minutes. After a half hour of semi-caffeinated “monkey mind” (a technical term in Buddhism), something of the room’s air-conditioned stillness crept into my mental space, I suspect by sheer osmosis. In the final minutes of meditation I found myself peacefully gazing at sandy Buddha and the trees swaying silently behind him.

When we had all returned to the meditation room with mugs of herbal tea, legs stretched and whistles wet, Penny spoke gently: “This is a time for people to share their experiences and maybe ask for advice on particular aspects of their meditation practice. But first, because there’s someone new here today, let’s introduce ourselves.” I appreciated the chance to hear how long people had been meditating, and was struck both by the range of experience in the room (from about one to 30 years) and by the absence of “cradle” Buddhists raised in the tradition.

Perhaps related to the fact that those gathered had discovered meditation as questing adults, the preferred approach to meditation and the Buddhist tradition seemed to be personally directed exploration rather than programmatic execution of instructions, at least at this freestyle Sunday sit.

I asked if it was a bad idea to meditate after a strong morning coffee, as I had unwittingly done. The group consensus was “not necessarily.” I was assured that coffee might help some people to meditate while it would surely hinder others. To one practitioner’s question of what would happen if we stopped fearing worst-case scenarios, someone replied that such scenarios would simply disappear. To a question about the fairly bleak Buddhist scenario of samsara (the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth), the group consensus was “not necessarily.” We were assured that Buddhist cosmology need not be adopted to benefit from Buddhist meditation.

A core principle of practice seemed to be “whatever works,” with an understanding that what works will be highly personal. But if merely sitting in group silence can make a caffeinated newbie a touch calmer, perhaps just showing up is as core a principle.

Christopher is a doctoral candidate in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Ph.D. in Religious Studies. He is currently writing his dissertation on the changing face of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in North American cities. He lives uptown with his wife and two daughters.