While reading “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, “Accident, Mass. Ave.” by Jill McDonough, “Learning to Read” by Frances E.W. Harper, and “The service of Faith and Promotion of Justice in Jesuit Higher Education” by Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, I couldn’t help but reflect upon my own first experience with Zen meditation and the things that were expected of me, both physically and mentally. Like in Zen meditation, all of the readings held expectations as well: expectations of social norms as well as responsibilities toward our neighbors and the communities in which we live.
When I entered the dimly lit room thick with the smell of incense, tatami mats lining the floor and large black cushions positioned in a circle in the middle of the room, I had no idea what I was in for. My previous assumptions had been that Zen mediation would involve sitting with my eyes closed and relaxing for the hour and a half session, allowing me to sit quietly and reflect on my thoughts. However I quickly learned it was not as simple as I had assumed. Our instructor spent the majority of the session explaining the various poses of the body and hands so that we could sit for extended amounts of time in comfort. He also explained the various symbolic rituals that had to be adhered to, from removing socks and shoes upon entering, to which foot entered the room first and when to bow to the room. Finally the moment I had been waiting for arrived: the time to meditate. Little did I know how much concentration meditating would require and just how difficult it would be. During the twenty-five minutes of meditation I found myself fidgeting, moving, and forgetting to count my breaths, which was the main focus of the entire practice, and would enable us to reach a conscious deep peace.
I’ve never been more relieved for twenty-five minutes to be over in my life. I had grossly underestimated the concentration that Zen meditation required. I had failed almost every single requirement that had been expected of me; most importantly I had been unable to maintain the control over my body and mind.
Thinking of these expectations made me realize the requirements that were also expected in the readings. In “Accident, Mass. Ave.” both women had adhered to the social standings in Boston that required them to express their anger both verbally and violently after an accident. “She lived and drove in Boston, too, so she knew, we both knew, that the thing to do is get out of the car, slam the door as hard as you fucking can and yell(619).” Yet despite these unwritten rules to let your emotions run wild, they assessed the damages and discovered no damage had been done except to each other’s nerves. In the end, they hugged, cried and laughed at the situation they found themselves in. Just as I had failed to maintain the rules expected of me, they ignored the social norms after an accident and expressed mutual sympathies.
Similarly, in “Learning to Read” the sixty year old woman maintained her strong desire to read the bible, and allowed this desire to free her from the scorns of the “Rebs,” who believed that slaves shouldn’t be allowed to read. Against public opinion, she accomplished her goals of learning to read the hymns and Testaments, and with her new found freedom from social norms, acquired a new found independence and a house of her own. Unlike my own attempt to abide by the rules in order to achieve my goal, she prevailed against all odds, by ignoring the rules of the time.
In contrast, the speaker in “Mending Wall” silently stews about the unspoken agreement between himself and his neighbor to maintain the wall that borders their properties. Despite all his inner feelings about maintaining the wall, which in his opinion has no business being there, he not only helps maintain it but initiates this maintenance. His motives in doing this are questionable, but he upholds his neighbor’s mantra that “Good fences make good neighbors (360).” Just as Frost follows the rules despite his wants, I will continue to try and meet the requirements set up by my instructor despite my body and minds resistance to attaining stillness.
Finally, Kolvenbach goes about setting up a standard for all Jesuits as well as students and faculty at Jesuit educational facilities, in “The service of Faith and Promotion of Justice in Jesuit Higher Education.” He claims that in order to meet the mission of the Jesuits, one not only has to meet the requirement of “research, teaching and the various forms of service that correspond to its cultural mission(39),” but one must also “act in harmony with the demands of the service of faith and promotion of justice(39).” These expectations must be upheld in order to truly live a life the Jesuit way. Just as Kolvenbach put forth a Jesuit “standard” my instructor gave us the rules so that we could accomplish the deep peace found in sleep while being totally conscious, a discipline, he says, our society has lost. Reflecting on my own first attempt at meditation, I can agree with him, that we lack the teaching taught in some cultures that allow us to not only have a still body but a still mind. All I can do is strive to apply his teachings to my own self, and in doing so eventually learn to master my own body.