Monday, March 13, 2017

Learning that silence isn't silent

"Have you ever tried meditation?" I asked my sister, Jen a couple weeks ago. 

We were hanging out in our sister Laura's kitchen, our various children running amok, discussing over various frustrations with our mental health.

I figured out of the three of us Jen would be the most likely candidate for being a bit Zen-ny. After all, she'd lived on Haight Street in San Francisco, sold handmade jewelry at the gay pride parade there and worked at The Fillmore. For whatever reason, in my mind, that somehow meant she'd probably also explored Eastern philosophies. Well that, and she kept a Buddha in the little garden outside her condo. 

And as it turned out, she had. Jen told me years ago she'd gone to meditation regularly at this Buddhist temple not far from her house. And she'd loved going.

"Wanna go again?" I asked. 

I've never meditated. Not really beyond the five-minute or so Savasana at the end of a Yoga class, which always ends up being less contemplative thought and more trying not to fall asleep. But I just finished reading two Buddhist-y books ("When Things Fall Apart" and "The Art of Happiness"). And in listening to On Being, I've found a common thread among these kind of deep thinkers with questions about our existence and purpose and the universe and all: They devote time to not doing things. The spend each day, praying or meditating or just being. And they seem to be figuring things out. 

I really want to find a path to some inner peace. 

Actually, I really hate how that sentence looks. Like, I'm going through some sort of Desperate-Housewife-y-weekend-in-Ojai-the-universe-is-telling-me-shit phase (when really, I'm just going through an add-a-"y"-to-a-bunch-of-random-words phase). Really, I'm trying to look at life as less phase-y and more journey-y (but not "Don't Stop Believing'" Journey – more like my experiences have answered lots of questions and raised a lot more questions about the bigger picture. So like a quest for truth. But not, like, my truth (which is kind of barf-y)).

But now I feel really judge-y.

Let me begin again. I'm trying to hit this depression from all angles. I'm on medication and in therapy, but I don't want to be on medication or in therapy forever so I need to add another tool to the 'ol self-care utility belt (it's like Batman's, only with more pillow mist and journaling).

So on Thursday, Jen and I headed to Ekoji Temple to meditate. I had next to no idea what to expect. I'd never been in a Buddhist Temple. Never read specifically on what a meditation practice should look like. I didn't have mantras or prayer beads at the ready. I just showed up.

Which, I guess, is all you really need to do. 

A man named Mark greeted us at the door and asked if we'd been before. Jen told him she'd been there years ago. He welcomed her back. We took off our shoes and walked into a large room that resembled the various Catholic church sanctuaries of my youth (you know, minus the stained glass with the stations of the cross and the giant crucifix, etc.). Instead of the cushions Jen had promised, there were long rows of chairs. We took a seat. There were maybe 10 other people scattered throughout the room. Nobody was talking. It was quiet and profoundly still with the musky scent of incense.

The overhead lights were switched off. Mark walked wordlessly down the center aisle, bowed at the altar(?) at the front of the room, sat down and rang a gong.

And then we just ... sat. Quietly. In the flickering light of a single candle. I borrowed some yoga practice and concentrated on my breathing. In and out. In and out. 

There was no direction from Mark or anyone else. No imagining myself floating on my favorite body of water. No picturing my thoughts drifting away like bubbles or balloons. Just sitting. And breathing. I decided early on I was not going to worry about the fact that I had no idea what to do. I was pretty sure there were no prerequisites. Instead I sat, sometimes concentrating on my breathing. Sometimes repeating the phrase "I am here, I am here." 

If I found my mind drifting from the moment, I labeled it "thinking" as directed by "When Things Fall Apart" and let it go. Returned to breath. 

At one point the gong rang again. And one by one, everyone stood up, went to the altar bowed a couple times, did something with the incense and shuffled around the room. I had no idea what they were doing. Or what I was supposed to be doing. So I continued sitting. Jen did too. Eventually, the gong rang again. Everyone sat down and we meditated some more. 

At the end Mark directed us to pages in books in front of us. And together we chanted. Well I attempted to chant. I half chanted, half listened. Enjoying the community and the opportunity to experience something new. The gong rang again, and it was over. Mark invited everyone to have tea and cookies. And that was that. Jen and I chatted with Mark as we were leaving – we both had questions that he kindly answered. I'm sure much to Jen's dismay, I suggested we sit down for tea with the others. Why not?

Sitting there, in the quiet dark of the temple I found myself hearing all sorts of things. The whir of car engines driving past outside. The swish of pant legs rubbing together. Throats being cleared. The gurgle-popping noises of stomachs digesting. The drippy sound of my own swallowing, which seemed deafening. 

It occurred to me that even when it was quiet, life was not quiet. That no matter how far you attempt to retreat from it, there is no way to vacuum every last bit of noise. It seemed an important epiphany. It meant I could bring this moment of peace into my day-to-day. There was no real difference between the noise the spit makes in my throat and the noise Lily makes when she's banging on the bathroom door, begging to be let in. I realized it was all relative. And if I could live in the moment while sitting in this temple, I could live in the moment while ... umm ... sitting... while I'm in the bathroom and a 6-year-old with no respect for personal space screamed that if I didn't let her in, she'd go potty on the floor. 

It's all the same.

So we don't need to wait for the perfect moment to be here right now. 

It was affirmation for me. That despite the fact I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing in that room on that night, that I was in the exact right place. That my attempts to bring myself back to the present moment while in the throes of whatever angst I was feeling at any given moment were on target. Being here was enough.

Being here is enough.

"We got to sit in a dark, quiet room that smelled good," I texted Laura the next day. "It was heaven." Jen agreed. Laura and Sarah would have to go with us the next time.

We all need an hour to just concentrate on being.

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