In honor of this week's publication of Stretch, I thought I'd reprint this little essay I wrote for The Faster Times back in June. Hope you all enjoy.
Soon after yoga school began, three weeks that feels like three months ago, a small group of people asked the management if the doors could open a little earlier. They wanted to meditate, starting at 6:45 AM, to help prepare themselves for the rigors of the day. This particular subsection of the yoga world tends to operate on a little-old-lady schedule, light early-bird dinner and up before dawn, so the request didn't surprise me.
Though I'd rather scrape my anus with a carrot peeler than do even more yoga, I also tend to move pretty fast once I finally do get out of bed. I'm usually one of the first people to arrive at any event, class, or function. Therefore, while I'm not part of the go-go morning meditation bunch at yoga school, I've tended to get there while they're still at the end of their inward bliss of solitude. I sit on the front step and receive visitors.
The meditators have apparently noticed. On Friday morning, one of them came up to me as I sat on my mat, not stretching.
"Can you do me a favor?" he asked.
"Depends," I said.
"For some reason," he said, "your voice is the only one all of us hear while we're meditating, and we were wondering if you could keep it down."
"Yeah," I said. "But you're meditating, so..."
"I know," he said. "Trucks go by and all. But still. You're really loud."
I was too stunned to tell him to go stuff his recycled-metal water bottle up his bum, so I agreed. All morning, I fumed silently. Sure, it's easy to meditate while everything is quiet and peaceful, but if you can't handle one loud, fat Jew squatting on your stoop for just a couple of minutes, well, let's just say the Buddha would be ashamed of you.
I continued to brood while everyone else leapt and bent and rolled around on the floor like lunatics. Of course, he'd had every right to tell me my voice was too loud, and that I was bothering him. He'd been man enough to confront me face-to-face. Plus, people have been telling me to shut up for decades. That's an insult I can bear.
After my "practice," we meditated as a class for 10 minutes. Then I went up to him and said, "was I quiet enough for you?" He said, "you were perfect," and then we were friends again.
A few minutes later, as I arranged my little nest in the front row so I could listen to Richard Freeman's daily words of wisdom, Richard's wife Mary, the real motor behind the operation, came up to me.
"I hate to do this," she said, "but a couple of the morning group have been complaining to me that you're being too loud."
"But..." I said.
"They're professional meditators," she said. "Still...they asked me to tell you, so I did."
I gurgled out an "OK." As soon as she walked away, I picked up my bag and prepared to leave yoga school forever. It's one thing to have someone confront you face-to-face, but it's another to have a silent tattletale call you into the principal's office. I huffed out the front door like a Real Housewife having a tantrum for the camera.
If no one had stopped me, I would have left, too, for good, but a couple of guys did, and they persuaded me to stay. Fine, I thought, I will. But I sat in the back, by the door, my legs splayed out, my mouth in a show-me-what-you-got sneer, no longer the eager student. The bloom had been removed and I was throwing mental spitwads.
Later, I complained to Mary, while acknowledging the near-impossible difficulty of her position, about the "passive aggression" of the students. But she disagreed with me, saying they were probably just "shy." No way, I thought. Why would anyone be afraid to confront me? I was all sweetness and posies.
Twenty hours and several massive bong hits later, I arrived at the Boulder Shambala Center for the first morning of our two-day "meditation retreat." Now I, too, could show off the full extent of my quietness. The retreat, held in a gorgeously-decorated fourth-floor temple, would be led by a professor named Jules Levinson, a leading American expert on Tibetan culture, who's been translating sacred Buddhist texts for more than 35 years. Levinson has studied with many prominent rinpoches, including one who was widely believed to be the rebirth of the great sage Milarepa. He knows way more about Buddhism than you'd expect from someone who looks like a fairly hip accountant.
Before we began our course, Richard referred to Levinson as the "Woody Allen of meditation," though I think he looks more like the actor David Straithairn. But the Woody Allen comparison is still pretty apt, as Levinson is bespectacled, quite nervously disposed, deeply intellectual, and totally obsessed with death. He told us that he'd started meditation as a young man because if he hadn't, he would have committed some sort of horribly violent act that would left him spending the rest of his life either in a mental asylum or a high-security prison. From that moment, we all feared him.
We started our retreat later than planned on Saturday morning because Jules couldn't figure out how to unlock the building. Then he told us that he'd nearly died of dehydration during the week, even though he's lived in Colorado for several decades. This was a guy after my own heart.
We'd been training for this retreat all month, and I found sitting silently for eight hours much easier than I thought I would, particularly given that we had an hour-and-a-half lunch break. Also, we didn't sit the whole time. Jules broke up the day with regular "walking meditations," wherein we all crossed our hands in the traditional way and loped around the room in a circle like a bunch of vampire brides wearing Bali vacation shawls.
In addition, my friend Bill had given me a mantra, which I'd promised him I'd use. Technically, Buddhist vipassana meditation doesn't use mantras, but who the hell was going to know? The mantra was excerpted from a popular 80's dance song. As the day wore on, I sung it to myself over and over gain: No parking baby/No parking on the dance floor. It really helped.
Meditation, according to a classic Buddhist saying that Richard quoted to us, is like "washing a ball of mud." Your thoughts come and go as though they were chirping birds, which also come and go while you're meditating. All sensations and weird mental manias exist to be observed objectively. External and internal stimuli exist on the same plane. Or at least they do ideally.
By the end of the day, I'd managed to perfect an amazing new technique wherein I could take a 20-minute nap while sitting up and staying perfectly still. This left me feeling perfectly refreshed when the gong sounded for our walking meditation. All the time, I pretended not to look around the room, thinking, which one of you buttheads snitched on me yesterday? Then, in true meditative fashion, I let that thought go, until it came up again five minutes later.
Our meditation ended at 5:30 PM, at which point Jules sat down in front of a microphone, wrapped himself in a black shawl, and began to talk at great length about misery, torture, and insanity. When he'd started, I'd felt pretty good. During my meditation, I'd come into some pretty great insights and thought that maybe I could now avoid certain mental patterns that kept me from achieving full enlightenment. What a fool I was!
After 15 minutes of listening to Jules tell stories about Buddhist masters instructing their pupils to jump off a cliff, I felt nothing but despair. All was death. All was destruction. Everything was about teachers torturing their students. Then it occurred to me that Jules was doing this on purpose, that he knew nimrods like me were just waiting to get the hell out of there so they could take a bong hit and enter the realm of the mega-stoned.
Jules had no interest in our pathetic desires for ephemeral sense-pleasures. We were going to sit there and listen to him translate, very slowly, a Tibetan song about something called "The Three Nails" whether we wanted to or not. I loathed him at that moment, but I definitely respected him, too. At the end, he said, "I'm really sorry to have kept you so long...actually, you know what? I'm not sorry at all!" Meanwhile, I continued to steam silently about the anonymous injustices committed against me by my fellow yoga students. Like a particularly encrusted hull-side barnacle, this thought just wouldn't let go of my consciousness.
By the morning of day two, we all looked like we'd spent the night trying to sleep on a pile of wet socks. That hour-long lecture on death and human misery, after an eight-hour meditation, had really sucked out the juice. But we got through the second day somehow. I kept repeating my mantra: No parking baby/No parking on the dance floor; I listed as many World Series winners as I could in my head; I continued to perfect my 20-minute sitting sleep; and I even, during one boring 10-minute thought-stretch, thought very sexy thoughts, and then thought very unsexy thoughts, just to see what happened below the belt. That's a meditation I've done many times before.
I found myself going in and out of trances. Time felt very slippery to me. I began to see some of the tricks that my mind played on me, but then when I tried to remember those tricks, they vanished, like everything else does. I was definitely in a meditative zone. When the gong rang at 5 PM, I returned to full awareness. My hangover had gone away. I felt calm and centered. My thoughts had traveled beyond thoughts. For a bit, maybe, I'd even partially blown through the brain-fog that prevents us from seeing reality in its true, gloriously luminescent nature. O happy meditation day!
Jules then gave an insightful lecture, during which he posed many challenges. The world we lived in wasn't real, he said, not in the way we think of it as real, anyway, and nothing was less real than our thoughts. After all, where did the thoughts you're having right now come from? Or the thoughts you just had two minutes ago? What about the thoughts you're about to have? Where are they now? All this was worth meditating about, he said.
He was right. But I had some questions of my own. What was I going to have for dinner? How much was I going to spend? Most importantly, who'd snitched on me at yoga school? Reveal yourself, traitor, I thought. I promise I won't yell; I just want to talk to you. In fact, I want to give you a mantra. I've got it right here:
No parking baby.
No parking on the dance floor.