Yesterday: I am sitting on one of those little round meditation pillows, in a silence so total it’s overwhelming, and my spine pops happily because for once I am keeping it perfectly upright. In the quiet it sounds ghastly. POP. BANG. SNAP. I wonder if everyone else in the room can hear it, and is just politely not saying anything. My stomach wants to gurgle. I hope it doesn’t. This, I realize, is the opposite of clearing one’s mind. I’ve got the little round pillow under my butt, I’m sitting in a half-lotus, left foot on right knee like I usually do (and am doing as I type now), and I think of what the monk leading the class has said: if something comes to your mind, just let it float away.
What comes to my mind, then, is a bit from Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions, where one of the characters is doing a sort of meditation before he has to perform.
Learning how to quiet my mind is probably going to take a very long time. Good thing Buddhists are patient.
It’s another one of those only-me scenarios: a Buddhist monk I’d met down at a protest had added me on Facebook as part of the Mass Occupy Enfriendinating, and kept posting notices of meditation classes, everybody invited, at a temple clear on the opposite side of the city/county from me. So of course I wanted to go try it out. And of course given that I have Crippling Social Anxiety, I didn’t want to go alone, so I waited ’til my sista-of-another-mista Amber was willing to come along with me.
It’s very funny to say things like “Yeah, the monk guy on Facebook mentioned it.” Try it. See? Funny! But Buddhists, I have learned, are in love with shiny gadgets. At least, the ones I met last night were.
We rolled up after a bit of confusion with Google Maps; despite the fact that we know they are not entirely reliable, we tend to forget that and assume they are. Better than the Apple maps though, we didn’t wind up in a river. The place was very quiet, and intriguing in a homemade way: there were hammocks strung up between some of the oaks, there were all different kinds of unusual plants in gigantic pots, and a couple of signs in Vietnamese here and there. It wasn’t huge and fantastically gilded like the Wat temple down on Palm River; it looked like a perfectly ordinary house that had been repurposed into a temple.
Having grown up running around a perfectly ordinary house that had been repurposed into a radio station, that seemed familiar to me.
Inside was a different story: after kicking my sandals off I found myself in a big long room full of fantastic golden statues, altars crammed full of flowers and fruit and photographs and smaller statues and incense and wooden things that might have been some kind of drum. It smelled lovely. There were Buddha images hung on the wall, weighted at the bottom with little plastic bits that plinked against the wall in the breeze from the ceiling fans.
We were running early, so after the hellos and introductions, Thich (the monk; a small, gently rounded older man who seems to be smiling even when he isn’t) bounced off into another room where he was printing things and arguing with the wifi, leaving us in the room with the statuary and altars and offerings.
I had no idea what to do. I was raised Catholic, although I gave that up fairly early on, and outside that excessively formalized framework I have no real idea how things work in other organized religions. I did not want to be inadvertently rude, to do something wrong or disrespectful without knowing it. The problem there was that I know nothing about How One Behaves In A Buddhist Temple. I grok how the Catholics work: sit down, touch nothing, light a candle later, talk quietly, get Shame Glared if you do otherwise. So I looked around, and didn’t touch anything, and examined the titles in the bookshelves (if you put me in a room with a bookcase I will zone in on it, unless there’s something more distracting like LOVELY GIGANTIC GILDED BUDDHAS ON ALTARS FULL OF INTERESTING OBJECTS) — where everything was in Vietnamese.
After a nice rant about the impossibility of printers, whether or not they’re on a network, Thich laid out some little round meditation cushions in a circle, put his laptop into a bag, handed out copies of what he’d printed, and then we got to talking. That was most of the class, really, a meandering informal and often funny chat where we bounced from one subject to another with no discernible pattern. He asked what we knew about Buddhism (me: not much; Amber: hardly anything); whether we’d done any meditation before and what kind, told us a bit about the basics, the two major divisions of Buddhism, what they believed, the precepts and rules and things. It was perfectly okay – welcomed, even – to have questions or interject thoughts.
Sometimes, he said, people would meditate on a question, like: what color is your brain? Something that doesn’t have an answer. Or people would meditate on objects or situations, because if you’ve become accustomed to a thing, you’re no longer seeing the thing itself, you’re reacting to your impression of it.
(That’s around when something squawked and I asked, “Cat or kid?” and learned they have tame peacocks. I’d joked that I must be a brand-new soul, because I find everything fascinating — but the downside to that is I’m also easily distracted.)
If Catholic clergy were that friendly… eh, I still probably would have left due to that AIDS-in-Africa issue and the misogyny and the homophobia… but I might’ve felt bad about it.
We got to the meditation, starting with sitting properly. Full lotus is best, but if my experience is anything to go by you have to be able to dislocate a knee to do it comfortably, so you just get yourself comfy on the little round pillow. Hands cupped, right fingers on top, thumbs touching — and if your thumbs are pressing instead of touching you could tell you’re tense. Back straight but not artificially so, head comfortably tilted slightly down, staring into middle distance or eyes shut. And the most interesting part: you press your tongue up on the roof of your mouth, against your top teeth, which somehow prevents you from getting a dry mouth or going over all drooly. I took off my thumb ring so I wouldn’t fiddle with it, and then took off my glasses so that I could stare myopically into the distance without being distracted by the several thousand interesting things in the room.
Thich had a bowl sitting on an embroidered pillow next to him, a glass bowl patterned on the outside in a way that reminded me of snakeskin, and he tapped it with a special bowl-tapping implement, and then we were meditating.
Well. He probably was. Amber might have been. I certainly wasn’t. “At first you’ll notice that your mind seems like it’s racing,” he’d said, “but all that is, is, you’ve always been thinking like that, and you never focused on it before.” It’s a hard thing to describe a barrage of thoughts, flickering in and out, disconnected; it was like ticker-tapes, or advertising.
It is kind of funny to find yourself attempting meditation in a Buddhist temple and realizing you have Times Square inside your head.
At that point another guy came in for the class and performed a complex series of obeisances to the giant golden Buddha in the middle of the room. He had beads wrapped around his wrist and some sort of tunic-like shirt over his regular clothes, which he kept arranging so it wouldn’t sit wrinkled. He settled himself down on a pillow, and Thich tapped the bowl again, three times, soft, then louder and louder, to bring us back out of it.
Then we… chatted. A lot. It was friendly and informal and comfortable, which is weird for me because I rarely feel comfortable in New Places And New People Situations, see above re: the faulty wiring in my head. We talked about ancestry, and where our families had come from, and gardening, and the difficulty of getting a truck bed full of fill dirt into the places where you need it, and also cellphones. They were big into cellphones, going on about different types, features, iOS or Android, all of that. “The master has an iPhone!”
“And last month the Catholics made a big deal about smoke signals.” I didn’t exactly realize I was saying that until I said it. But it was an eye-opener for me, this little experience, since like I’d said that’s all I’ve experienced of how people Do Organized Religion.
We meditated one more time before ending things for the evening — which was when my spine started doing its Rice Krispies routine, snap crackle pop delicious, because after sitting so long on that little cushion it was aligning itself properly. I tried to get past the crazy Times Square barrage of thoughts, and that’s when Vonnegut hit me.
I am not sure that I’m cut out to be a Buddhist, because one of the basic tenets — freeing oneself of attachment to the world — is not really something I would want to do. I find the world fascinating. It’s great. Except for when my maladjusted brain fires off neurons in the wrong places and I am miserable. But that’s not the world, that’s my wires and, as Vonnegut would say, bad chemicals.The rest of the time, though, like those ear-worm commercials: boom-de-yada. I love the whole world.
The idea of cutting free of this world, full of peacocks and incense and Times Square and Vonnegut’s books and cellphones with kevlar coverings and little lizards and hammocks in oak trees and potted flowers and ornate statues — that just doesn’t appeal, even if you land somewhere that is infinitely content and peaceful. I guess I’m too attached. “I don’t think I’d be able to even want that,” is how I said it to Amber, later, as we headed back. “There’s so much stuff I haven’t been yet!”
The meditation, though; even if I’m stuck with Times Square and Breakfast of Champions; that, I liked quite a bit.