By Nicola Pitt, Alice Springs, Australia
Even though I completed the Online Ananda Meditation Teacher Training course last year, I hadn’t put it into practice until the beginning of this year when a few of my colleagues at work cornered me. They told me that they were interested in learning meditation, and logically it was I who should teach them (since I had the requisite piece of paper and everything). So I dusted off my teachers’ manual and put together a 4-week course for my colleagues, following the suggestions in Section 20 of the MTT manual. We met each Wednesday at lunchtime in the boardroom, and afterwards they suggested we continue meeting once a week to do a short meditation together. So what with them initiating the course and the follow-up, it was really the easiest way to start teaching, and I’m very grateful to my colleagues for giving me the nudge I needed.
Shortly after this I approached a few retirement homes to offer a meditation course to their residents, and one of them replied back to me very enthusiastically:
“Yes this would be wonderful. I have actually started one myself though not that successfully. I have wanted a non-denominational style meditation group but when I ran one myself it was pure comedy! I had a staff member come in and declare loudly “Robyn, your eyes are closed”. I tried to mouth the words “We’re meditating” but she started serving the residents morning tea! Which was a more attractive option to most of the meditators at the time. I also had some of the hard of hearing folk suddenly say “Can you hear anything?” “I can’t hear anything” “Can you?” toward almost everyone in the room. And of course one gentleman just dozed off happily. I knew I was not that good at it as well, so after a few weeks just stopped that endeavour. We would certainly welcome a trained facilitator and we have a room we can close off for the purpose.”
After a few emails back and forth I learned that senior citizens rarely have very much spare money to spend, and that $10 (Australian, about $5 US) was regrettably far too much for them to afford. I explained the importance of contributing something towards the teaching, and that it was a way to ensure they invested more of themselves in the learning. So we settled on a gold coin donation instead ($1 or $2 coin) and I emailed through a poster she could display in the home, announcing the course beginning in March. It was happening!
On the morning of the first class I arrived early and got chatting with a woman who was already seated in the activity room. Engaging in some small talk I commented on it being lovely weather for a Sunday, and she said “Oh, it’s a Sunday is it?” I realised that each of the days would look pretty similar when you don’t have a working week to schedule yourself around. That was my first hint that teaching this class would require a different approach.
Pretty soon the rest of the class were assembled in the activity room and there were eight students in total, consisting of two men, six women and a variety of walking frames and wheelchairs. The course manual suggests at the beginning of a new class asking the students to introduce themselves and say why they are interested in meditation. The first woman I directed this question to just blinked at me and looked bewildered, so I abandoned that activity and moved onto the explanation of what meditation is, followed by a short practice of watching the breath. And a short practice was all it was destined to be, because after two minutes a voice shouted “Wake up!” I looked to my right to see the cheeky face of Adeline, who had told me earlier “Just you wait ‘til you have children!” when I was explaining how to meditate. Adeline is from one of the founding families of this small town, and had given birth to ten children, so I joked to her that now her children were all grown up she was entitled to live the good life and enjoy some relaxation. Maybe she could try closing her eyes for the next class?
The majority of the others, however, had no problems closing their eyes—in fact their eyes closed a little too readily! It’s quite difficult to tell the difference between someone in deep meditation and somebody sleeping. I remembered that when I had told Gyandev about my plans to teach at the retirement home he had said I would need to be “my most engaging self.” I was starting to understand what he meant.
At the end of the first class, Robyn, the activity coordinator said it was the best explanation of meditation that she had heard, which was reassuring. Adeline and June very earnestly said they thanked me for coming to see them, and everyone else nodded in agreement. As I was saying thanks to them for their time, I was also wondering why nobody seemed to be moving. They just continued to look at me pleasantly and expectantly. And then I realised that there was no other pressing activity calling them that day. There was nowhere else to be but there, living in the moment.
As I left the retirement home I felt tears well up in my eyes but managed to keep them in check until I got to my car. Inside the car I started sobbing as the realities of old age confronted me. I hadn’t cried like that since my grandmother passed away. I remembered a quote from Autobiography of a Yogi: “Always remember that you belong to no one, and no one belongs to you. Reflect that someday you will suddenly have to leave everything in this world – so make the acquaintanceship of God now.” I realised that although I am the teacher of this course, I am just a student at life, and so grateful for the new perspectives these senior citizens are teaching me.
The course at lunchtime for my colleagues led to their suggestion of a weekly group meditation, to continue bringing what they had learnt into the workplace. And the four-week course at the retirement home resulted in an invitation for an ongoing weekly meditation class and some encouraging testimonials:
“Excellent teaching. Excellent explanation of the purpose of meditation… she is teaching from a classical point of view… and making sure that it is comfortable and adapted for the elderly. A really good blend of ancient teachings and modern interpretation.” – Ishie
“It is very confronting to see the infirm and the frailty of age. It takes courage to be willing and eager to work with them as you have. Courage to step into unknown territory as you have done” – Robyn
Some parting tips for teaching at a retirement home:
- Enunciate your words very clearly, because many will be using hearing aids.
- For those who feel they may nod off to sleep, suggest that they don’t close their eyes but rather fix their gaze at a point in the distance
- Begin the class with seated stretches in order to get the energy moving (and stave off sleep). Since the body is accustomed to less and less movement in old age, everyone enjoyed the “self-massage” of neck, shoulder and spinal rotations. Although the movements were slight, the enjoyment was great.