Every other Tuesday evening a collection of artists, educators and healers gather in a small home on a tree-covered corner in Highland Park for conversation, tea and meditation. The email chain and Facebook group of 30 or so members has a simple title: Queer Meditation Group, the words beset on either side with stars and crystal ball emojis.
The idea for the gathering began with a few texts shared between myself and two other ritualists I knew, one from graduate school, the other from a dating app, who in turn knew each other from sober support networks. Somehow, in our conversations over separate coffee dates, with our casual understanding of each other’s various ritual practices, someone mentioned that perhaps we could meditate together and see what happens. We set a date and selected a home, and each of us told a few friends. Little did we know we’d soon create a vital space for psychic and physical healing.
Our first gathering occurred just as autumn in Los Angeles was turning to winter. We were eager for the familiar warmth of group intention. I felt it immediately upon stepping into the house as I hugged my co-conspirators and shook hands with a few new ones. I saw heavy coats draped over chairs and legwarmers padding across wood floors. I felt like I was in a Midwestern grandmother’s house that had been taken over by crystal-loving queers with side-shaves. I was drawn to a cute new boy I’d never met, whose graceful gesticulation and eye-twinkled smile bespoke the mood of the group as more people trickled in: we were all giddy to get calm together.
THE VIBE THROUGHOUT THE HOMEIS ONE OF TOTAL PEACE.
The Queer Meditation Group has met twice each month since that first gathering a year ago in the home of poet Emerson Whitney and his partner, Anastasia Baratta, herself a body worker and Pilates instructor. Between them, they have years of study on meditative practices, knowledge gathered from workshops, retreats and personal research. They refuse to claim any sort of leadership over the group, though if no one offers to guide on a given evening, responsibility often falls to one of them. I’ve never personally led the group, afraid of boring everyone or not providing the right amount of stimuli, or perhaps I’ll offer too much.
The best leaders are the ones who simply set the gears in motion, providing mental prompts that offer enough freedom for creativity, but not too little direction to leave one feeling adrift, vulnerable to their ongoing inner monologue.
Every evening begins in the heart of the home—the kitchen—as people wander in through the front and back doors and slip off their shoes. Kettles are heating on the stove and the table is set with cookies, dried fruit and a tin of assorted teas. The poet makes introductions between new faces, grabbing mugs and pouring hot water while others catch up and discuss work and other projects. I’ve met elementary school teachers and artists working with incarcerated women, set designers and gallery curators. I am part of a trio of adjunct community college instructors. We swap stories as the circle gets wider and the conversation turns to everyone’s latest stressors and traumas, recurring body aches from long car-strapped commutes and chronic pains in the head, neck and back. Most participants have spent the past two weeks waiting for this moment, and the feeling of relief in the shared space is palpable.
As if on queue, Anastasia walks in through the backdoor, fresh from giving a private Pilates session in her back studio, and pours herself some tea. I watch her eyes flit from figure to figure, smiling and nodding in greeting but also taking in people’s forms, silently studying how everyone carries their weight, listening closely to their stories. She crosses the room to give me a hug, and when I turn around to greet another friend, I feel one hand on my spine and the other on my shoulder. With a gentle push, Anastasia straightens me out, sending a wave of release down my limbs. She follows this with 30 seconds of firm thumb rotation in my lats until she pats me on the back and moves back into the crowd, leaving me loose as a sheet on a clothesline in summer. Relaxed and socialized, the group can now drift from the kitchen to the living room.
I FELT LIKE I WAS IN A MIDWESTERN GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE THAT HAD BEEN TAKEN OVER BY CRYSTAL-LOVING QUEERS WITH SIDE-SHAVES.
The walls are hung with prints of ritual symbols on soft scarves; spindly painted branches are suspended on strings from the ceiling. The lighting from the crackling fire is gentle off the dark wood floors. The vibe throughout the home is one of total peace. The couple produces a large mattress pad for the center of the room and pulls blankets and pillows from baskets and closets. Everyone finds a home—on the sofa, the floor, in the corners, in chairs. Some nights there are 30 in attendance, other nights there are only a handful.
When everyone has found a home, Anastasia instructs us to stand and leads the group in an exercise that combines breathing and stretching. She guides us through full breaths, telling us to scoop out our midsections with each exhale until our spines are folded over, heads and arms hanging to the floor. We then slowly pull ourselves back upward, stacking our spinal column one link at a time to align our chakras. Heads, lungs and limbs cleared, we take our seats. Anastasia walks around to each person, adjusting their position or posture, asking if a previously mentioned body pain is being triggered as she shifts them this way or that. She offers a few more cushions to raise their hips above their knees (for full circulation), or a pillow for their backs (to open up their centers). When everyone is settled, she takes her place.
I had my own forms of meditation before our first meeting, as I consider the acts of walking, baking and cleaning the home to be quite meditative and even healing. I also have a practice of personal ritual in front of my little altar that combines fasting and calisthenics. But like many in the group that first night, I had only once or twice ever powered through a motionless, cross-legged attempt at mind-wiping. I am a naturally emphatic person, ever charging through to-do lists while my arms flail through conversation. The very idea of sitting upright and remaining still for longer than five minutes was intimidating. I learned I was not alone in this feeling, and space was made for our nerves.
The group goes around in a circle, stating their names, preferred pronouns and intentions for the evening. Some share that they meditate daily and reveal that even after years of daily meditation they encounter roadblocks, or they’ve hit an excellent groove of late, slipping into the warm tub of meditation with ease thanks to a simple new technique. Others state that this is new and alien to them, that they are open-minded but uncertain, anticipating failure but hoping for something new. Many share their current stressors and psychic pains and their appreciation for the opportunity to gather. Often one of the more experienced practitioners gives brief instruction on techniques for clearing the mind, explaining commonly used anchors (images and mental techniques for drawing one’s focus away from the cycle of thought and back to the task of meditation). The conversation has the effect of drawing us further into our minds and bodies and into the group. I feel like we are sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool together, waiting for the floor to drop out from beneath us. At the end of the circle, the week’s leader chimes a low bell. Eyes close and backs go straight as the guided meditation begins.
OUT THE WINDOW I CAN SEE THAT TOGETHER, IN WHAT FELT LIKE ONLY A FEW MINUTES, WE’VE CHANGED THE COLOR OF THE SKY.
One made use of the natural soundscape of the fire and traffic passing outside, encouraging us to feel it rather than hear it. What does it look like? If the group is small enough, there might be a walking meditation in the yard. We make slow loops through the trees, up and down the driveway. Lift your foot, move your foot, drop your foot. Some encourage participation. What’s in your room? Paper. A dog. The sounds of other people in other rooms. People develop new anchors, like a sand-colored smoke that comes with each exhalation through the nose, each thought cleared away by its cleansing billows. “Asking the mind not to think is like asking the heart not to beat,” a Buddhist acolyte said to the group once. “There are gurus who can do both, but it’s a lifetime of practice.”
While meditation is guided, the directives from the leader are more like small islands in a sea of silence. Left to my inner wandering, the leader’s occasional words become a welcome vision appearing in my mind’s eye after setting us on our initial course. It is in this silence that the group is carried over time like a flock of geese on a draft. I’ve taken to using whatever initial images pass through my head to develop new anchors, using distraction against itself. I’ve imagined swinging pendulums knocking hectoring bosses out of my ears, or gilded picture frames capturing scenes of family drama and retreating into the horizon, or clear blue waters filling my head, submerging visual to-do lists.
I’ve learned that, for me, meditation is not a task of eliminating so much as controlling thought. It is always a struggle, but the brain is a muscle and can be taught.
When the bell chimes again, nearly an hour has passed, though everyone agrees that it only felt like 15 or 20 minutes. This is a common effect of mediation, startling enough to make me wonder if the theory of time lapse and relativity applies not just to interplanetary travel but to journeys through the isolated mind as well. Opening my eyes is like breaking back onto a main road after a night hike in the hills. I’ve forgotten that anything but shadows existed, but here I am, back in the world. The fire burns a little brighter, lighting the faces of my companions. I may have been alone in my mind, but some part of me registered the others by my side.
The silence is broken in bits—half-statements are interspersed with sighs and giggles. People tumble to the pad on the floor, draping over each other, sharing in a sense of peace and relief. The group goes around the circle one more time to share their experiences, discoveries and challenges faced in the silence. My monkey mind wouldn’t settle. I found my thoughts became progressively weaker as I placed each one in a fishbowl. My lower back pain howled until I broke through an invisible barrier. We rise and stretch, pulling our blankets and pillows from the floor as the poet encourages people to put their names on the list of future leaders.
EVERY LEADER TAKES A DIFFERENT APPROACH. ONE ENCOURAGED THE GROUP TO FILL AN EMPTY ROOM IN THEIR MINDS WITH THINGS THAT BROUGHT US PEACE.
All over the house people are chatting, making plans, pulling each other aside. What you’ve faced, I’ve faced it too, here’s how I dealt with it. If everyone was discussing problems before the meditation, now they are sharing solutions. A few take their turn asking Anastasia for advice on pains developed from sedentary jobs or athletics. She gives them descriptions of home remedies, simple exercises or stretches, if she can identify the problem. No one wants to release themselves from the air generated by the gathering, but slowly people drift out, hugging before acquiescing to the responsibilities of the next day, longingly reminding themselves, next time.
Lately I’ve been rising every morning a half hour earlier. I prefer to do it before the sun has risen and the sky outside is purple, when cold air flows through my windows to wrap my naked form as I step out of bed.
I slowly stretch before seating myself on a pair of folded blankets to stack my spine and raise my hips above my folded knees. I sit in front of my standing mirror and my dog comes to lie by my side, still half-asleep. I take in my reflection, the embodiment of my mind, an entity that actively separates itself from me during meditation so that we may work together. With my eyes closed, I imagine a white steam flowing in through the door and windows, consuming me and my reflection. I feel the warmth of my dog’s slow breathing at my thigh as I wade through the steam, actively motionless. When 25 minutes is up, soft chimes sing from the alarm on my phone. I open my eyes and my reflection is there to greet me. Out the window I can see that together, in what felt like only a few minutes, we’ve changed the color of the sky.