Year To Live Project: Radical Silence – Would You Like Some Tea?
April 9th 2016. Upaya Zen Center. Santa Fe
Joshin is the head monk at the Upaya Zen Center, my home-away-from-home here in Santa Fe. We’re in a private, tatame mat-floored room in the back of the zendo sitting across from each other. I’m fortunate enough to have been granted some personal time with him.
“There’s a story about the Buddha at the end of life that you may find applicable,” Joshin says.
“The monastery was in a bit of turmoil. There was some infighting and political nonsense going on. The Buddha was deep in meditation when Mara, the deity of evil and unskillfulness, as well as the figurative representation of The Buddh’s troubled thoughts, came to the window. The Buddha told Mara, ‘Come sit. Please join me. Would you like some tea?’
That is the attitude we must take on the cushion. We welcome our experiences, all of them. Anger, sadness, righteousness, indignation, frustration, boredom – all of it is welcome. In this way, we fearless celebrate every aspect of being a human being while meditating. We do this so we may fearlessly celebrate every aspect of being a human being when not meditating.”
I’m A Meditation Failure
I’m a meditation failure this morning. I woke up at 4:45am, pounded two cups of strong coffee, and jumped around my bedroom in hopes of stimulating my large intestine so I wouldn’t have to deal with it during the fourteen-hour day awaiting me. There’s something magical about the ninety seconds before a physical competition and the ninety seconds after the bell rings signifying the start of a long meditation session. Both make me have to shit.
My colon isn’t my challenge this morning, though. It’s my neighbor – the guy sitting on the mat next to me – we’ll call him Larry. Our shoulders are no more than eighteen inches apart. We’re two in a group of roughly forty people that have also woken up this morning to dedicate the day to silence, awareness, and meditation at Upaya. We line the walls of the hardwood-floored room. Forty people, all sitting cross-legged, all facing the wall, all clad in black – all delving into their internal worlds.
We are in the first twenty four seconds of the second straight hour of sitting. The first hour did not move quickly. In fact, it was painstakingly slow. The lot of us strolled into the zendo around a quarter of six that morning and found our assigned mats. We sat. We folded our legs. We bowed. And when the bell was struck three times we dove inward into our monkey minds.
Larry might have dived inward, but he did so by immediately making sounds akin to mashing a banana between his teeth, or sucking the saliva from the front of his mouth to the back of this throat. Then swallowing that glob multiple times. Then burping quietly in rapid succession. Then repeating the entire process every twelve seconds. I know this because I counted the time between reps.
Every twelve seconds for the last hour Larry repeated his pattern, oblivious to the fact I was fantasizing about the standing ovation I would receive after choking the shit out of him. Here we are at the fresh start of the second hour and Larry is back to slurping his own body fluids.
I seethe. My internal world is on fire. I’m beside myself. Literally, I’m freaking the fuck out. The East Coast etiquette-driven part of my soul is doing backflips. I want to scream at Larry. Or kill him. Or scream at him and then kill him. It would be for his own good. And the good of the man on his other shoulder. It would be good for everyone in the room. It would be a noble act.
I know, I know. Whatever I’m experiencing with another human being isn’t about that person but something I find in myself, blah blah blah. I’ve read self-help books. I’m fluent in chakras. Larry is a mirror for me. Or is he? I’m not making all kinds of noise driving everyone else crazy. I’m sitting like a statue, albeit one that’s boiling on the inside. So what reflection is the mirror that is Larry showing me? Is it that I too make noise unconsciously? That I do things that bother other people?
No, he was truly just being an asshole and this has nothing to do with me. I’m sure if the Buddha himself was in my place he would want to choke Larry too. At least a little bit.
No Happy Place For You
Lunch is coming up next. I’m jubilant. Although our meals are also eaten in silent contemplation, they are a welcome break from sitting cross-legged and staring at the back of our eyelids. Plus I have a Buddha-belly sized crush on the woman that runs the kitchen. And although I was highly suspect upon reading the welcome email and seeing “vegetarian” as the only menu option, so far things have been nothing short of tasty. There’s a fresh pack of bacon waiting for me at home, too—you know, so I don’t wake up tomorrow morning with a sudden affinity for show tunes and male figure skaters.
The bell rings, signifying our meditation session is over, and I ecstatically stretch my legs, getting the feeling to return to my right one before standing and bowing yet again. Lots of bowing. With the second chiming of the bell, we all turn to our left in unison and prepare for the “walking” portion of the meditation, the ten-minute conclusion that allows the blood to flow back to its respective parts before we’re allowed to venture out into the world again.
Walking is an understatement as we’re taking one small step – minutely small, like only a few inches small – in correspondence with each breath. One breath, one baby step. Not good for actually getting anywhere, but we still have nine hours left so I guess there’s no real rush and nowhere to go. I tell myself I’ve got ten minutes of going nowhere, then I get to eat, so dive into it.
It’s surprisingly hard to walk at this rate. At one point I lose my balance and stumble sideways. Crap. Back to focusing. Larry is coughing, wheezing, and burping in my ear from a foot behind me. He’s following me. He’s everywhere I am. Ubiquitous. Like a fungus. Although I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason, I do believe I can try to use Larry’s bodily functions as a means of keeping myself from drifting off to the fantasy land of double overhead surf and an inhibition-less Shakira…”Quien es tu Papi?” Going to your happy place is counterintuitive to this practice, after all.
This is bullshit, lunch is a no-go. Somehow I’ve miscalculated the timing and instead of filing out of the meditation hall and off to the chow line, we’re right back on the cushion facing the wall. This is not good at all. One thing I’ve learned heartily in my life is I can handle anything if I know it’s coming. Surprises? Not so much. Surprises that keep me from food and a newfound love interest? Wars have been started over less. This hour is going to be one hell of a battle.
Larry sounds like my dog “cleaning” himself and has now taken to making full position shifts every thirty seconds or so. The goal in meditation is not to move at all. Not one tiny bit. This guy is literally doing gymnastics next to me in what should be a period of purely benevolent stillness. I’m not going to make the whole hour. It’s time for some self-talk.
“Calm down,” I tell myself. “Calm as fuck. I’m calm as fuck. Who’s calm as fuck? I am. That’s right. You are. The Buddha would high-five you. You know who thinks you’re super calm right now? I do. Good work. Breathe. Do it again. Let’s count to fifty. One. Two. Three. Fuck this. Why is he making so much noise? Why even come to a meditation retreat if you’re not going to meditate? Stop that. Calm as fuck, man. You got this. Say it – who’s calm? Don’t give him the evil eye. Don’t let him affect you. You’re a mediating god. Calm as fuck. Calm, cool, and collected. You got this. You’re like the Fonz, right? Chicks dig calm guys. You got this. Take another breath. Do it again.”
Joshin has told me to cultivate “radical hospitality” when I’m meditating. To welcome the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful with equally open arms. To deny none of my experience and allow all feelings to flow through me without judgment. This makes sense in life. That which is denied tends to lie dormant and sharpen the knife it’s going to stab you with once it gets tired of being buried or ignored. It’s harder after six hours of silent sitting to be hospitable to the negative feelings, though. My hospitality tolerance is at an all time low.
But then it becomes transparently clear: what you do on in practice, you do in the games. And here we are in the greatest practice arena ever created – silence and solitude.
By 8pm, I’m at my wits end. I want to go home. I want to eat a hamburger. I want to show the woman in the kitchen just how strong my hips are. I’m freaking out over all of the life-and-death emails I’ve probably missed and all the amazing opportunities lost by being away from Facebook and Instagram for fourteen hours. I shake my head in disappointment and near surrender when a light is shown on my soul.
“Larry, please come to your practice interview,” the voice of an angel calls out.
Larry has been excused from the room. He’s going to sit with Joshin. He’s not going to be gesticulating and gulping down his own DNA next to me for the rest of the hour. Somewhere in heaven I envision the baby Jesus and Buddha hugging each other and dually shining their light down upon me. Long life, honey in the heart, no evil, and thirteen thank-yous!
I prepare myself – the silence is mine. I’m going to meditate the ever-loving shit out of this round now that I have the space to myself. I pull my shoulders back, straighten my spine, take a deep cleansing breath, and welcome the peace and joy that are karmically owed to me after spending the day with a noisy neighbor.
And it comes. The peace. The joy. The serenity. It all comes. It’s so beautiful, I can literally taste it – for but a fleeting second. Without Larry and his cacophony of sounds and movements, my mind hastily returns to its unstoppable secretion of thought – fear of the future, pain from the past, anxiety about tomorrow, disappointments about this morning, worry over money, anger at my relationship, dread over the state of the world, missing my dog – and I wonder if I’m ever going to have peace in my life again.
It’s not until he’s gone that I realize how much I miss Larry and the gift he gave me by sitting next to me and keeping me out of my own head for the day. I feel a deep sense of compassion for the pain and discomfort he endured on his own cushion, and admire his willingness to show up and not quit. If I could speak to him I’d say,
“Come sit. Please join me. Would you like some tea?”