My friend Michelle is driving with me to the doctor. From the moment we leave my driveway, we are awkwardly chit-chatting, bouncing erratically from topic to topic unable to resolve or complete our fragmented thoughts as if zipping through our own personal Flipboard apps in our heads -- and not really listening to each other. It's 8:00 a.m. and we're sitting in thick traffic. I'm already mentally exhausted.
After a brief silence she says with an exasperated sigh, "I think I need to learn to meditate."
"Like, slow the fuck down, right?"
"Both of us. I think it would be good. Do you meditate?"
"Sometimes. I think."
"I can't even sleep anymore..."
"You can't... ?"
"I mean, I toss and turn and I have lists for my lists and three in the morning -- I'm wide awake pissed off and completely unable to get back to sleep. Sucks."
"Why don't we try the Buddhist Center up on the ridge? They have classes -- free, I think, for beginners."
"You're ON. We are SO going! I have always wanted to go there. We need this, right? Some Zen.
Gotta learn to shut my brain down. God, this fucking traffic, where are all these people going?! Look up their class schedule on your phone right now because we're going." There is no disagreeing with Michelle once she declares and this happens to be a solid idea. So we go.
We arrived at the Buddhist Center for a Sunday class that turned out to not be a meditation class at all but a presentation by a Jewish psychotherapist/author also studying and interpreting ancient Buddhist texts. We quickly learned that their website calendar was merely a suggestion; no one seemed committed to keeping tight schedules here. One of the regulars helpfully informed us to come back on Wednesday for the meditation class. By this point we had scoped out the place enough to know that it was a legitimate Buddhist retreat complete with incense-infused air, assorted altars, big happy photos of the Dalai Lama, and all manner of teas set out for our blissful consumption. When we arrived for our Wednesday class we were giddy with anticipation of learning, in one evening, hopefully in less than an hour because we both skipped dinner and were starving, how to shut the last 50 years of noise out of our brains.
My husband and I were married by a Buddhist priest four years ago, and although raised Catholic, like Michelle, my sensibilities and spirit aligns much more with my "inner-Buddha" than the nice carpenter from Nazareth. But that shouldn't matter; this is not about religion. This is a quest to shut down my crazy-busy, loud, annoying, buzzing, over-stimulated cerebral cortex through the ancient practice of Learning. How to Block out Stupid Shit, aka, meditation. All in all, I felt very comfortable with the choice of a Buddhist environment and was a little thrilled once we arrived.
The Center is laid out like a large, Colonial home and peopled with smiling volunteers and similarly-sized Buddhist monks (as if there were a special mold from which they all sprang) and many, many cats. I was "all good" up until seeing the cat infestation because I'm deathly allergic, but thought it unlikely that I would die of an asthma attack during an hour-long class, and if I did, I knew my chances of reincarnation here were very, very good.
"Jude, we so need this."
"Yes we do."
We wandered into a large room that was under construction and therefore open to the great outdoors through flapping blue tarps that brought the temperature in the room down to a chilly 50 degrees. I knew when I saw the small, gold and red altar and meditation mats lined up along the floor that this was to be our resting place for the next hour. There were pillows strewn about for cradling our middle-aged posteriors and a general sense of pleasant disarray in the room. However for some god-forsaken reason, no one thought to ignite the propane heater. There was no heat. At all. This is New England, in the spring, for Pete's sake; heat is still required after sundown. I turned down the volume on my disappointment thinking (foolishly) that surely when class begins it would be someone's job to crank it up to keep our teeth from chattering. I made myself comfortable, sort of, on a red velvet covered mat, precariously balancing my ass on a purple, round pillow covered in construction dust. Curiously, there are itchy Mexican blankets strewn about the room as well, which made me fear that the heater was just a prop, so I grabbed one and snuggled under it hoping that it was not one of the cats' favorites or I would be also snuggling my rescue inhaler very shortly.
Michelle sat in the row in front of me and we both realized too late that we had both worn very noisy jackets. The fabric reverberated much like a candy wrapper in a movie theater whenever we moved or ventured to breathe, but there was no way I was going to take mine off. I wear hats in warmer temperatures. So I just planned on remaining completely motionless for the rest of the hour so as not to disturb anyone else's chi. The other students filing in all seemed very relaxed and dare I say, a little unkempt. Some people can wear flannel and it looks nice and rugged and LLBean. Others let the flannel wear them until it takes over and becomes every part of their exterior color and texture including their hair. They have no luster. Their pallor becomes softly furry. They are muted and frizzy-haired Flannel People. And they're a little smelly.
Taking off one's shoes before entering the Center is customary and I'm totally comfortable with that. I do it at home. Sitting in a room with funky Flannel People who are in their socks, right next to my head and nasal passages, I'm not so fine with. Poor Michelle was downwind of someone who apparently had slept in his workbooks for the past six weeks and just decided to remove them before class. Opposite of relaxing.
So we're cold, perched uncomfortably on the floor, taking in the sights and scents of the space and its inhabitants, when in walks our Teacher for the evening in his saffron robes and a toasty v-neck cashmere sweater. Apparently he got the "no heat" memo. Everyone stands and bows so we follow suit with the standing but I didn't have enough information yet to decide whether I was on the bowing team.
He has a beautifully round, friendly face, and I'm now getting excited about learning something; taking some wisdom or knowledge home with me for safe keeping. I love being in the presence of good teachers; it's one of life's special gifts, and cold be damned; I'm starting to forgive the permeating bad sock smell and hold out for goodness.
Several people bow deeply now and are mumbling prayers that we can't hear or understand. They've started without us. I thought this was a beginner class and begin feeling inadequate. Then Teacher hands us all binders with English text that we can read from to begin our first meditation. I don't know why I have the feeling that I'm intruding, but I do. Michelle is doing some world-class fidgeting trying to get comfortable while we read through the passages and I am trying to stay hopeful. The droning buzz of people praying aloud and in unison washes over me and I begin to feel the same awkwardness I used to experience in church. When people are all saying the exact same thing out loud because they are supposed to, but don't necessarily want to; it's weird. Like a cloud of indifferent obedience.
Our Teacher asks us in broken, no, that's not strong enough, shattered English, to begin where we left off last week and to eliminate our "destructive minds" although in reality he was saying "distracted minds" but I didn't find this out until after class by someone who could actually understand what the hell he was saying. Talk about distracting. So I closed my eyes and tried to do as he asked; but then he introduced more unintelligible instructions to the mix by telling us that while we were concentrating on eliminating thought from our minds, we should also be thinking about a four-step process in every breath, which is to be executed with each inhale and should only take us one second to do, eventually, I guess when we're good enough at this. But for the life of me I can't imagine how organizing four thoughts of how to breathe into one second is relaxing or helpful. It feels more like that first time you go to yoga and some asshole has their foot behind their head during warm ups. Just because.
I'm ignoring the four-step breathing and just trying to keep my eyes shut, when all of a sudden the tarp holding the room together starts flapping shepherding in the cold night air and completely destroying any hope of concentration. All of my senses: the smell of the bad socks, the snapping tarp and indecipherable Teacher, the frigid room, my aching coccyx, and my left leg that is now completely asleep and sharing pins and needles when I breathe are working against me. Michelle and her noisy jacket are changing position every three seconds now, so I know she's back to her mental shopping lists, garden planning, Pinterest porn and real estate tasks -- or planning to kill me for agreeing to do this rather than talk her out of it, when she could be home eating dinner and drinking wine by a fire.
Then the Flannel People begin speaking and asking earnest questions about how to expand this practice amidst the earthly noise of living day to day in the real world. Several exchanges occur, none of which we can understand, but everyone else appears to be quite satisfied with Teacher's rambling responses. Then all of a sudden, one of the deepest breathers piped up and bellowed, "Um, I have a QWEZchun" in her thick New York accent. "There's a place called Big Buddha Cigars downtown, it says that, right on the sign: do you think that's disrespectful?" already inferring by her tone that she thought it was in clear violation of something serious in the Tibetan Handbook and wanted his validation. Even the Teacher cracked a smile at this point and said in his clearest English yet, "A name on a sign should not be capable of disturbing your happiness." And then he smiled even more broadly to let her know he was done opining on Buddha Cigar signage.
And there it was. The reason I came here. Silly me. My intentions were quite different of course, expecting to be cocooned in the peace of a magical, meditative place that would give me all the tools I needed in one visit to quiet my mental hard drive -- but I totally got my donations worth with that last little nugget from Teacher. I also realized full well I could have learned it from some inspirational graphic on Facebook posted by one of my glass-half-full friends, but the learning was worth it, and here it is: We have to stop looking to pick fights. That sign is not hurting anyone. The cigar people might even be Buddhist and meditate daily about their tobacco habit. We just don't know. But to work up a head of angry steam over something that is pretty meaningless in the scheme of things is just stupid, and always a good lesson to remember. I loved the fact that all the Flannel People were shaking their heads in solemn agreement with her as if this was a Big Question that required his guidance. At the end of the day, I guess we all got what we wanted.
Michelle and I left the class tired, cold, hungry, and annoyed. But the next day we screamed and laughed very loud, and made a new plan to go to our yoga studio when they hold meditation classes, because we're not giving up that easily.
"Okay, we owe it to ourselves to go to a class where we can understand what the fuck is being said."
"And they turn the heat on."
We also realized that taking it all so seriously was probably not the way to go. If we can quiet our minds long enough to laugh at Big Buddha Cigars, or just not give it any thought at all, then we're already a step ahead.
Sometimes friends and Teachers work in mysterious ways.