Meditating with Others

When good old Hexagram 3 came up, Difficulty in the Beginning, I was just about to lead a meditation for a group in China.

I have led meditations before, in the so-called real world, online over Zoom, and in Virtual Reality. The levels of connection are different, but there is an obvious and discernible group. We see and hear each other or some representation of each other.

What if there is none of that? No apparent connection.

Just my voice distributed to a group on WeChat in which many of the members do not speak the language I normally speak.

How much language do you really need to lead a meditation?

None, if it’s a silent meditation.

But there is an appetite among newcomers to the practice for live, guided meditation. How much guidance and when?

My plan was to front-load the talking, when no one would be very meditative yet anyway. They could read an instant translation of my words. They would hear my voice, my intonation. Reading a text translation wouldn’t be so bad at first.

But at some point, people would need to stop reading, to close their eyes and not engage their cognitive circuits..

I realized I had to learn some Mandarin fast.

I picked three phrases I knew I would want to say as we got more deeply into the meditation.

Breathing In, Breathing Out

Just notice it and go back to the breathing

Let your attention rest gently on the sound

Chengdu skyline, pic by Ashley

My friend in Chengdu translated the phrases and send me the Mandarin version as an MP3 file attached to an email. It still took an online coaching session for me to speak so I would be clearly understood.

I’ve traveled a lot and I know people appreciate it when anyone tries their language, no matter how clumsy. I wasn’t looking for appreciation. I wanted to lead a meditation for people in China, for people I did not know, did not see, and could not hear. They could all hear me. That was it. I needed to get the language right.

The solid line at the bottom of the Difficulty in the Beginning hexagram represents some new kind of life breaking through the earth like a blade of grass, just getting started and encountering resistance and adversity already.

The commentary said it is a moment full of confusion and no clarity. Advice would be offered from many directions, and we should be very cautious about which, if any, to follow.

At 5:59 pm my time, 9:59 am Beijing time, I received the text from the Group Leader inviting me into the chat.

From then on, nothing went the way I thought it was going to.

Multiple Mandarin text balloons popped up for me to Long-Press and translate. But which one? Where was the signal in the noise? It wasn’t clear. I didn’t know where to take my cues from.

I moved ahead slowly, saying my Meditation-Bio in short phrases, which some English-speakers could understand and others would read in Mandarin.

Thinking I was on a roll, I made the mistake of moving too quickly into the meditation itself. Nope.

I started to grasp which Mandarin text was the Group Leader and then I realized a Question and Answer session was next, that I was not expecting or prepared for. Except I was.


  • How do you get ready for meditation?

The questions are the story here, not the answers, but I described how the step-by-step process of setting up my bench and my little meditation area that I do exactly the same way every time starts me into the practice. I also said that I do not approach an individual meditation or meditation in general with a goal.

  • What do you think about during meditation?

This might be the best question a meditation leader can be asked, because it allows us to say that there is almost always some object of meditation to gently rest our attention on. Of course thoughts will come in and the practice of meditation is to just notice those thoughts and then go back to the object, to the breathing, or the mantra, or whatever it is.

  • How do you handle emotional awareness in meditation?

These were great questions and I felt like we might be moving beyond difficulty in the beginning already. The questions were presented in Mandarin, with translation. I texted back that emotions will come up when we meditate, just like thoughts. It can be even harder to turn our attention away from a strong emotion. We want to get engaged in everything about that emotion right them. It almost feels like there is no choice.

You will not always notice right away in your meditation— you might be all wrapped up in the emotion for as long as one minute and then you will realize, ‘oh I have been with this emotion and the story around it, I need to go back to my object of meditation.’

It’s OK. This is what happens. This is what meditation is.

When you meditate regularly, emotions still come up but you notice them more quickly and let go of them more easily.

The Group Leader stepped in and texted that the Professor would now begin the meditation.

This is where I step in and instead of writing about the very basic meditation I led, with some Mandarin thrown in — I’ll address a few topics you might be wondering about with a meta-Q & A.

  • Why is this WeChat meditation even happening?

The proximal cause is that someone living in China attended one of my meditations in Virtual Reality. We talked after the session and she told me it was her personal project to help spread meditation in her country.

She is a member of a meditation group on WeChat, where voice can be used for leading brief sessions. She asked if I would want to try doing it.

  • Who the heck are you to try doing it?

I’m not famous, which is good because if I was, being in proximity to fame would dominate the event.

More importantly, I do not represent a lineage. Some meditators would not be open to me specifically because of my eclecticism and lack of formal certification. I tend to use simple words and secular terminology. Even when I introduce Schrodinger’s Cat as an object of meditation which I have done.

Spreading meditation in China, my friend’s goal, is an unfathomable project. The problem is not too many people — it’s too many types of people.

The China my friend is thinking of is the China she knows, young professionals who are stressed to the max from too much hard work and who need help calming down. Calm is what they want and need, not liberation. I apologize for the faux duality but it’s a matter of presentation and emphasis.

I have maintained a regular practice of meditation since 1974. I have learned from a variety of teachers and I have used a variety of practices.

I have a PhD in Learning (actually, Instructional Technology and the Learning Sciences) which carries more weight in this sub-group of Chinese people than being able to recite the Prajnaparamita.

These ingredients are part of what make me the right kind of nobody for a little pilot like this one. Plenty of other people could be too and other session leaders will get involved if the project grows.

  • Why would you want to do it?

I think forming connections with other people around the world by meditating together is a positive step toward a future I want to be part of. A future where we are not divided, where we appreciate differences and see that our lives are so deeply linked that we really are one.

The term, ‘Others’ carries the baggage of seeing certain people as so fundamentally different that they are not like Us, always the source of distrust, feat and war. The practice of Meditating with Others can help make anybody not so Other, both by the nature of meditation and by the act of sharing a social experience.

I am not a China expert but you don’t have to be an expert to understand that China and a block of western nations led by the US need to overcome distrust, fear and the potential of war or human suffering will scale up to levels we have never experienced.

I would rather scale up Meditation with Others.

I have now led two meditation sessions over WeChat. I was told there were over 100 participants each time. I used the three phrases my friend in Chengdu sent me, the same friend of course who started the whole chain of events.

Chengdu sidewalk, image by Ashley

She said it went very well. Many people texted thanks. Of course I know these things would happen no matter what, even if the session was terrible.

I take these expressions at face value for now and prepare to add more Mandarin for the next sessions.

I still know next to nothing about the Group. I don’t understand what it meant for someone who met me in VR to bring me in.

The way I have just told the story is not the way my friend or anyone there would tell it.

To them, I’m an older professor someone in their group discovered who then became a bit character in their narratives, which are also opaque to me.

I will try to bring their perspective in if I can, so the members of the meditation group in China become part of the story as we move forward from difficulties in the beginning that aren’t very difficult when they’re expected

Tom Nickel writes about Virtual Reality and other topics on Medium.



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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos