Clint Eastwood was recently featured in an issue of GQ magazine (voted “Badass of the Year”) wherein he confessed to meditating daily. He says it gives him a sense of self-reliance. I would argue he feels that way by virtue of being CLINT! FUCKING! EASTWOOD! but if he believes meditation has made him a better man, then perhaps it will make me one as well. So there you go – thousands of years of Eastern philosophy, million of practitioners, a rich religious tradition, and I decide to meditate only because Dirty Harry does it too.
That is how I find myself sitting crossed-legged on the floor of a long room with yellowed windows on one side and threadbare tapestries covering chipped concrete walls on the other. It smells vaguely of aromatherapy oils and sweat socks. The man next to me is whistling through his nose so loudly he sounds like a boiling kettle. When a friend recommended this “Buddhist temple” to me, I suppose I imagined something a little, well, grander. This place has all the meditative ambiance of a visiting room in a maximum security prison. Were Buddha here, he would tell me that I’m suffering over my environment because I have expectations as to what it should look like. I’ve lost before I’ve even begun. Even amongst Buddhists, I’m a loser.
There are nine other people in the room besides Whistler and myself, and all of them look like aging hippies. I’m reminded of that cliché about cops and doughnut shops - it wouldn’t be a cliché if it weren’t also true. About the only possible exception is the woman who will be leading the meditation. She has the ironically un-Zen look of Kathy Bates in the movie Misery. Her manner, on the other hand, is all Wilford Brimley in Cocoon, jocular and grandmotherly. When I tell her it’s my first time, she says “Well, I’ll be gentle, then” and winks. I guess Buddhists flirt like everybody else.
Kathy waddles to the front of the class and explains that since there is “a newcomer among us” (winks at me again) we’ll be starting with a simple breathing meditation. Kath instructs us to sit cross-legged with our back straight, our hands resting in our lap, one on top of the other. “Still your mind on the act of breathing,” she says. “Forget all other thoughts and feelings.” See, I knew this was too easy – thoughts in my head are racing like cars in the Paris-Dakar rally. I’ll be thinking about my lack of fulfilling job when it’s outpaced by worries over my precarious money situation, which is soon lapped by angst over my growing deficit of dignity.
I put up my hand. Ms. Bates seems mildly amused “I’m not exactly thinking less. Actually, all I’m doing is thinking. Is that common?” I ask. “Oh yes” she replies with a oddly wicked smirk. “Neurotics often feel that way at first.” I realize Kathy has seen my kind before – slightly manic, over-analytical types who take a paradoxical glee in sifting through the detritus of their life. She continues in the soothing but stern tones of a cop about to Taser an unruly perp. “Your mind isn’t busier. You’re just more conscious of how busy your mind actually is.” Kathy tells me to resist the urge to follow all those thoughts. If you discover that your mind has wandered, return it to the breath. “Just keep doing it. You’ll get it…eventually.”
Okay – stick to the breathing. I can do this, I say. Still, thoughts are tempting
me like Rachel Weisz in a bikini with a six-pack offering a back rub. I will not be seduced, I tell myself. “What about the issue with the bank?” Rachel asks. “Piss off, Rachel, I’m meditating,” I reply. “Yes, but don’t you feel desperately lonely and abandoned by your friends?” she coos. “Do you mind, Rachel? I’m focused on my breathing over here, and I have no time for self-pity.” I stay riveted on my flaring nostrils. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.
Finally, after what feels like an eternity fending off their suggestive advances and remaining fixated on that mundane repetitiveness which keeps me alive, my thoughts start to become increasingly less distracting. In terms of of their ability to command my attention, they seem less like my favorite actress considering a lap dance and more like yapping purse dogs – pesky but not unmanageable. Eventually, even the yapping diminishes. I don’t know at what point it happens, but I’m subconsciously aware of my mind being empty. This is it. I’m thinking…of nothing. This meditation thing? I may have it nailed. I have drilled deep into the core of my being, through the hard sediment of my skepticism and struck a vast reservoir of inner peace that is gushing all over my field of despair. And then, I’m nudged. Whistler hisses in my ear, obviously annoyed. “You were snoring,” he says. “Have some consideration. Some of us are trying to meditate.”
I apologize and quietly excuse myself. Apparently, keeping a straight back is very important in that it keeps you from getting too relaxed and falling asleep, something for which I have a legendary reputation. Many major milestones on my human safari have been undone by my championship capacity for napping anywhere and at anytime; my first driving exam, my first carnal experience with a woman and now my first attempt at meditation.
However, I don’t consider this a failure. For the first time in the last few months I have had a moment where I contemplated nothing. I get that occasionally, usually when I’m on my motorcycle, but even on my bike I’m thinking about how glad I am to be on my bike. This was a complete absence of anything, and it was a relief, like a burden had been lifted, albeit temporarily. I see what Dirty Harry is getting at, and I feel like one lucky punk.
I can’t say I found God during meditation. What I discovered instead was some actual peace, a place within myself to get away from myself. As I walk out onto the street, things look a little sharper, colors seem a little deeper. I know I’ll be coming back here again, regardless of the odor. Next time, I’ll make sure to have a full night’s sleep. I just hope Whistler’s happy to see me.