Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sit Down and Shut Up

We are at the Bodhi Zendo in Tamil Nadu. It is an amazing place -- serene, lovely Zen gardens surrounded by steep blue mountains. The sun is warm and the air is fresh and cool. We do meditation every morning, then work in the garden where most of the food we eat is grown, then meditate and rest and read. It’s great, it’s exactly what I had hoped for, and now I’m going to talk about all the ways it’s driving me crazy.

The food is delicious, vegetarian, lots of greens and what Ben calls “al dente legumes” that produce a tremendous amount of gas during digestion, so that while we sit in zazen my bowels make ominous bubbling noises like an air horn being fired up the ass of an elephant. I’m terrified to let out a fart, not only because it would be embarrassing to rip one in a room of 40 absolutely silent people, most of whom seem to have had humor-ectomies, but because the ones I actually let out smell bad enough that even I don’t want to meditate in a cloud of my own creation.

Lots of the day is silent. While in theory I like this, it’s almost worse to be doing made up sign language to try to indicate you want someone to pass the salt. It seems like even worse than just saying it. And it makes the simplest things — a bit of food on your face, stepping on someone’s foot by accident — like a Mr. Bean sketch. Sometimes I start laughing and can’t stop, like in church. The many Europeans here, on the other hand, seem to have no trouble at all keeping stone-faced, which makes me feel more awkward. Whatever happened to the laughing Buddha?

There is a really crazy thing about the way the white people here dress in Indian clothing. Granted, when I had a sari made for me I thought that was pretty cool, and then I wore it around and felt sort of weird, like dressing like a gangster and going down to hang out in the projects. It was just totally obvious that’s not my normal clothing. The people here are wearing more toned down, hippified versions mostly, like those ankle-length linen pants in turquoise or something. What really irks me, though, is the dudes-in-shawls thing. I just can’t dig on a guy in a pashmina, any more than a man with a low-slung pony tail — or worse, hair half-up, half-down. Yikes. Sorry, guys, but the fashion road is just a lot narrower for you.

As for the meditation, sitting in zazen is intensely physically uncomfortable. Most of the time I am thinking about my hips, or my knees, or lower back, and how it seems like a tendon is about to tear off my kneecap any second, and what would I do, blah, blah. When I’m not thinking about that, I get to see what’s going on in my mind, which appears on closer inspection to be kind of like a dusty garage full of TVs with broken screens playing the audio of commercials from approximately 1988-1998. Like, just a loop of “I believe in Crystal Light… cause I believe in me!” Or “Get in the zooooone -- The Auto Zone!” When I’m really reaching for the next spiritual plateau, I decorate rooms in my fantasy house, which is looking really awesome these days. I feel like everyone else in the room, sitting totally still with beautiful posture, is probably steadily inching their way towards Enlightenment, while I bend and squirm and itch and hear a line of Bon Jovi swirl around and around the drain of my consciousness. Each session is 25 minutes with a 5 minute walking break (the lady announces “kinhin” or “freakin’ hin” which I think is actually “free kinhin” when it’s time to walk around), and I spend at least half of every session praying fiercely for it to be over (and resenting the shit out of the woman who rings the start and end bell, wondering if she forgot to look at the clock, or if she’s drawing this session out to punish me, or what) or making plans for the future -- like, future bed linens, or porch furniture, or (winning first prize for irony) how I’m going to meditate a lot in the future.

Once I took some students on a trip to New York; one student kept asking me all the time “what are we doing later? What are we going to have for lunch? What are we doing tomorrow?” So I said, “look, maybe there won’t be a later. Maybe when we walk out of this museum you’ll get hit by a bus and die. So, let’s just enjoy what’s happening now.” I have come all the way to India to find that very child is the loudest voice in my head. Talk about irony.


  1. I don't know if I've read this post before but today it felt like the first time, and I had to contain my laughter in a way that almost ruined my career separates. You describe exactly what meditation was like for me. I hope you keep meditating. xo

  2. Bridget, I just read this now, and it's hilarious!