"I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened."
Last week, I glimpsed tranquility. How? I got angry.
The setting, a picturesque lodge in San Luis Obispo, was perfect for a meditation retreat. The weather was crisp and the woods enticing, but I and a dozen or so other retreatants would pass most of the time sitting together in a meditation hall in deep silence.
Generally, the Vipassana (mindfulness) tradition teaches us to sit still, pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, and return to a focus -- typically the breath -- whenever we notice our minds wandering. This practice, like developing muscles by repeating piano scales or doing bench presses, trains our mental muscles to incline to the present moment and be less moored to habitual, painful storylines about the past or the future. The benefits, including sharper clarity of mind, more patience and greater ability to be compassionate, can be life-altering.
The teachers in San Luis Obispo suggested we experiment with a different approach, allowing the mind to roam free without mantras, breath or any other focus. Their one suggestion: "Don't exclude any experience."
This was boring, and pretty soon the boredom became intolerable. My mind, as usual, filled the time with intense anxiety -- in this case about the economy -- followed by a dollop of regret about not being popular in junior high.
After what seemed an eternity, a delightful fantasy arose: I would develop a reality TV show called Nothing Doing! in which contestants sit on cushions and meditate. As soon as someone does something (shifts posture, coughs, bursts into tears), he or she is eliminated. Eventually -- and this could take the whole season, or even bleed into the next -- one meditator is left sitting, and that person wins. The prize, awarded by the Dalai Lama, is nothing less than the greatest gift given His Holiness, which he accepted by saying, "This is what I've been waiting for all my life." The gift? Nothing!
Then anger kicked in.
I'd made sure to book a single room; I am far from enlightened, and the prospect of sharing quarters with a stranger is too horrifying to contemplate. My private room turned out to be a hallway separated from the kitchen by a thin, pathetic sheet hanging from the ceiling. Listening to the cracking of eggs before the crack of dawn was not what I had in mind. I was furious, and reacted in my typical way, rationalizing, starting with the ever-popular "it could be worse," the old warhorse "they're doing their best," and the classic "I'm not entitled to complain because someone somewhere is suffering more than me."
The anger veered towards rage when I began to obsess over our leader/teacher, who'd told a harshly critical story about a Zen practitioner he barely knew. Then more rationalizing -- "maybe he didn't mean it," "maybe he didn't even say it," "maybe he's right and I'm wrong." Thoughts of revenge about my accommodations ensued, and included several creative techniques to silence the motor-mouthed kitchen crew.
Letting anger unfurl instead of letting it go seemed masochistic, but I went with it because I am nothing if not an obedient student, a trait that helped me earn many an A in school without learning anything. Maybe that's why I was so unpopular in junior high.
Hours later, and for no apparent reason, the anger began to lose its force. Eventually, like water turning to steam, it vaporized. They say nature abhors a vacuum, but here nothing replaced the sturm und drang. What remained was a tranquil state I'd rarely -- maybe never -- experienced before.
God -- or Buddha -- only knows how or why this happened. Perhaps the closest I can get to an explanation is that the agitated mind, if allowed to fully run its course without suppression of any thought or emotion, may simply exhaust itself and give up, revealing an underlying, more equanimous state.
With an ineffable lightness, I left San Luis Obispo a little early, averting another night of sleeplessness. (By this time they had me (not) sleeping in the meditation hall.) But karma was in this case literally right around the corner, and as soon as I pulled onto the freeway someone cut me off. I had an urge to scream "Fuck you," and worse. So much for tranquility.
But I didn't scream or give the guy the finger, or even a dirty look.
Pretty soon I'd forgotten all about it and was happily coasting down the 101, radio tuned to the glorious noise of some obscure psychedelic '60s band on Little Steven's amazing "Underground Garage."
I even felt relatively calm when, with no gas station in sight, my car complained that if it didn't get fed soon it would go on strike. I often talk back to my car when it tells me things I don't want to hear, but this time I encouraged it to fully express its anger, and assured it we'd make it home, one way or another.