Swatting Flies at Exeter

Mariner E. Padwa

In 1981 the late Zen teacher Maurine Stuart started a sitting group at Phillips Exeter Academy, the exclusive New Hampshire boarding school renowned for its academic excellence. The meetings were originally held in the wrestling room. This article was sent to us by one of the members, Mariner E. Padwa, who is currently a junior taking a year off to spend time in a monastery in Thailand.


HOW DOES ONE WOO a group of generally preoccupied teenagers more interested in tomorrow's lacrosse game or math test to sit still and focus on their breath for just twenty minutes? It ain't easy. The best lure is that it's calm, relaxing, and appealing to many of the stressed-out students at a demanding private secondary school in New Hampshire. Exeter is academically quite challenging, and has the appearance of a typical prep school with red brick buildings and students in ties and tweed coats. It's not as strict as in the old days (it's co-ed now), but there are still remnants of the old academy. The object of occasional curiosity, a motley crew of barely Buddhist students meets once a week on Friday evenings to practice vipassana meditation. One shouldn't even call it a formal practice. I don't mean to slight our instructor, she is quite capable, but student interest is scarce, and not as committed as it could be. This is probably because most students at Exeter have a hard time taking something so alien to their day-to-day experience seriously. ("Did you say a non-theistic religion?") But for a dedicated few, there is a degree of earnestness.

The group meets on Friday nights, usually for about two hours. Typically, there is the instructor, a faculty member or two, and five or six regulars. Many faculty members are aware of the practice and support it but seldom can attend themselves. Occasional newcomers saunter in, urged on by a friend, curious, or more comically just at the wrong place at the wrong time. The group practices on a ring of zafus and zabutons (meditation pillows and mats) in an empty room upstairs in the school chapel (located on the heavily trafficked street and directly above the organ, upon which people sometimes decide to try their hands during the meditation). We have no altar or incense, and aside from the sky blue carpet and a small bell, the room is empty. The practice usually begins with the teacher explaining to any newcomers to focus on a point of contact, the hands, legs, buttocks, and so on. Later, focus is shifted to the breath, working to feel the contact of air brushing past the nostrils or the rise and fall of the diaphragm.

Courtesy Phillips Exeter Academy

The teacher speaks at intervals, sometimes offering thoughts or reminders, such as a sudden "Where is the breath?" Posture is altogether lax; we are novices concerned with comfort. Thus, most of the group was quite surprised when the American Zen roshi Richard Baker came to visit (his daughter was looking at Exeter) and snapped automatically into a traditional Zen full lotus asana, back straight as a rod and hands cupped formally, while the rest of us remained in our "pickingthe-nose, swatting-at-the-flies" postures. To alleviate even this unfamiliar position, however, the group usually starts a walking meditation after about twenty minutes of sitting. We walk around in a ring and try to focus on and observe each step independently. Then we return to sitting meditation (concentrating on the motions of rising and sitting as well). Finally our leader rings the bell, and a long discussion is launched when the instructor asks each member of the group what his or her thoughts were and how meditation went, using the responses as a jumping-off point. Often students talk about their distractions and thoughts on the practice, and most find it a positive learning experience.

 

Image 2: Exeter's main building. Courtesy Phillips Exeter Academy.

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