Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
When I sat za-zen with three Buddhists in a Baptist church eleven years ago, I had no idea what would happen. I’d only known one Buddhist previously, a creative writing professor who supervised an independent study with me in college. I once heard another student discussing him. She’d bristled at the word Buddhist, whispering it the way people sometimes whisper atheist or cancer. Still, Buddhism allured me. That former professor was kind and generous and calm. When I sat in his office, I felt calm and worthy of another person’s attention. He offered me something I had not received since my mother’s death. Presence.
Still, my first sit didn’t happen for three more years, when I was 24, and mired in grief, and grasping for a life that was no more, the life when I had a mother. That night I sat, eyes half-closed, and focused on my breath. In. Out. Nose. Mouth. I noticed my heart tightening, my arms tingling, my elbow itching with ferocious force. But I held my posture for 25 minutes –– legs folded in front of me, palms pressed lightly on my thighs, neck straight. Then a bell chimed, and I stood and walked for five minutes in a circle with the only three Buddhists I knew between Jackson, Mississippi and Shreveport, Louisiana.
We walked slowly. S-l-o-w-e-r than I’ve ever walked, our feet hitting the floor in perfect slow-motion time with one another. And then the bell chimed once more, its vibrations rippling into tiny and tinier pings until we sat again. Another 25 minutes of breathing and feeling and noticing our bodies and breath. Car doors slammed. Dogs yelped. Tim McGraw songs played from rolled down windows. But I just inhaled, exhaled. I contemplated the itch on my elbow, which turned into something else. Not an itch at all, just nerves and skin and, finally, softness. When the final bell rang, I felt like five minutes had elapsed, not another 25. I pressed my hands to my heart and bowed. Had I really just sat in silence for nearly an hour? This person who sat still that night, this person who had breathed stillness into every inch of herself, was not a self I knew.
The self I knew always surrounded herself with sound. She delighted in the noises of the world and the noises of her thoughts. She had so many noisy thoughts. Why did her mother die? How would she go on? When would she feel better? At night, in her apartment, she listened to records and struggled to sleep. When the sun came up, she listened to NPR, letting the voices of Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne soothe her jagged insomniac nerves. These noises reminded her that she also lived in a world full of people, connected her to something larger and broader. On the occasions that she did fall asleep, she dreamed of her mother, but awakened screaming, just as she remembered her mother was dead. This was the me I knew. This was the me I had been for the past three years. I never imagined I could be different. I never tried to be different.
But when I returned to my apartment after my first za-zen sit, a tiny revolution began. That night, I did not turn on my record player. I pulled on my nightgown and crashed into my bed. My black tomcat curled into my hip, and I slept hard beneath my quilt. In the morning, I did not turn on NPR while I dressed. I did not crave any sound. I felt lighter, more still. One thought distilled as I drove to work, and that was this: I felt like I had just returned from a one-week vacation to the beach. Grief contracted me, shrank my world, made me fearful and small. But meditation opened me to something else, something different, an experience where joy and hope ran beside pain.
I meditate now on my own and with others. I’ve explored different styles of Buddhist meditation practice, and ultimately gravitated into vipassana, or insight meditation. In the past ten years, I’ve read Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’ve also read Julian of Norwich and St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila. I’ve attended a day-long vipassana retreat and two multi-day retreats in Benedictine communities, but I never attended a weeklong retreat in a Buddhist community until this summer.
A few days ago, I returned from a seven-day Buddhist Geeks meditation retreat, an experience whose magnitude I’m still unpacking, along with a lot of dirty laundry and new dharma books I want to read. I went on retreat because my husband encouraged me, just as he encouraged me to get serious about meditation years ago, when I was still awakening to the sound of my own screams, and waking him up, too. (As they say in the South where we met, Bless his heart.) Truthfully, I would not have attended a retreat of this length without another person encouraging me to do so. I think this is because change and leaving my comfort zone are still excruciating for me. Really, they are the hardest things in my life. I resist them because they plunge me back to uncertainty, back to my first night without my mother, back to the end of my life as I once knew it.
I meditate now because I want to change how I relate to fear. Meditation sometimes escalates my anxiety and insomnia because I am relating deeply to emotions I have buried. Meditation has not made me zen in the way this word is commonly understood. I am still nervous and loud and seem like I drink a boatload of espresso when, in fact, I drink no coffee at all.
I still missed my mother when I came home. I stood in my dining room and watched morning light spill onto my record player, and I wanted to call her and tell her that the daughter who spent an entire adolescence on the telephone had just spent 80 percent of the past seven days in silence. I imagined how we both would have laughed until tears came out of our eyes. And tears did come out of my eyes then, but I welcomed my sorrow, this shadow side of love. I scooped my orange tomcat into my arms and kissed his soft head, then made myself a cup of tea.
I gave myself the gift another person had given me years and years ago, when I thought I could not live without my mother, when I did not want to live without her. I gave myself presence, pure and simple and elusive and profound. I returned to myself, my deepest unknowable evolving self. I sat still, caring and not caring, wanting and not wanting. Just there, in the still morning, with the sun coming up, where I once sat, many selves ago, beside my mother, who sipped her own tea and whispered how grateful she was that I was her daughter, how much she loved me, how lucky we were to be right there together, to be alive at the same time.