(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
Everyone knows the groan—the involuntary sound that arises when you’re told to do something you don’t want to do. Either you’ve caused it, heard it, or groaned yourself.
“Clean your room.” Groan. “Can you stop by the grocery store and pick up some half and half on your way home?” Groan. “Today in gym we’re going to play basketball.” Groan.
Teachers are world-class groan inducers. Fortunately, I teach gym. Almost all of the students are eager to do almost all of the activities almost all of the time. But almost isn’t always, so groaning still occurs on a regular basis. It’s such a comical sound, a harmonious collective lamentation, that I can’t say that I mind it. The groan means that we are playing something again, repeating an activity that the students have already done: dribbling a basketball, climbing a rope, running a quarter-mile. We are turning rote action into learned skill.
I know all about groaning, because I do it internally every time I sit down on the meditation cushion for another 30-minute session of staring at the wall. Here we go again, I think. I have more important things to do, like sleeping, or scouring motorcycle pictures on Instagram, or reading reviews of hiking backpacks online. You’d think that after a dozen years of meditation I’d look forward to each sitting round, approaching it with the sanctimonious smirk of someone who is about experience a mind-melding oneness with the cosmic web. Alas, such a melding has not occurred for me. Day after day I sit, and it is tremendously ordinary. What draws me back to the cushion is the chance to nurture a deeper appreciation for the tremendously ordinary moments that make up my life.
My groaning students claim that dribbling a basketball, climbing a rope, and running the quarter-mile are pointless. In the grand scheme of things, they are right. Unless they grow up to be archaeologists in the vein of Indiana Jones, I doubt they’ll end up in a situation where they’ll need to escape a careening boulder by running a quarter-mile stretch. Instead, they’ll learn minor lessons: the confidence that comes from taking on a challenge, the joy that comes from mastering a new skill, or the simple fact that sometimes you have to grin and bear it—that you can’t always change your circumstances, but you can change your attitude towards them.
One could argue that meditating is equally pointless, if not more so. Staring at a wall is about the least essential thing you can do. There are no finish lines, no champion meditators, no Wheaties boxes displaying the serene visage of a robed lama. To me, this makes sitting the most elegant of activities. If there was a finish line, meditation would be an activity performed for the sake of the result. Instead, the point is to be at ease with pointlessness. To relinquish the thirst for meaning is to find it.
In theory, the skills we practice will eventually become second nature. What is at first awkward and halting will turn into muscle memory and become instinctive and effortless. I consider such mastery a tangential benefit to gym. I hope my students can one day dribble a basketball effortlessly, but in practice what I really hope is that they develop the ability to be content with the ordinary. Enjoying basketball has more to do with enjoyment than it does with basketball.
In Buddhist practice we sit again and again, and after years of repetition, we recognize that the breath will never yield anything other than the noticing of the breath. Instead of turning the rote action of breathing into a learned skill, we might begin to unravel our alleged mastery of breathing and arrive at something akin to first nature—a radical appreciation of an action we’ve done our whole lives.
Tomorrow morning when the alarm goes off and it’s still dark out and I know I have to get up and sit, I’ll groan. And later, when I announce to my students that we’re starting the spring fitness challenge, my students will groan. They’ll object. It’s so pointless, they’ll say. As a teacher, I’m contractually obligated to needle them with corny jokes. So I’ll give them the sanctimonious smirk of one who has achieved a mind-melding oneness with the cosmic web, and say, “exactly.
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