Justin’s first mistake was to barge into the room instead of slithering in quietly. (Chronic lateness was one of many Bodhisattva vows at which he was failing.) As he stumbled into the silent circle, he sensed the half-closed eyes of his fellow meditators slide toward him in secret judgment.
He had been looking forward to this session for weeks. Thanks to his friend Anne, the Buddhist Center kept him on their mailing list despite his dearth of donations and infrequent participation. Must focus on vows 2 and 4 — Charity and Commitment.
But there were too many “have-to’s” in Justin’s life. Meditation was one of those nice-to-dos, with no need to stress about it. So why did he always arrive huffing and puffing, feeling guilty about his lateness? Note to self on vow number 3 — Forgiveness.
He crept wideleggedly across the room like a Bill T Jones dancer, trying to avoid stepping on the scattered flock of Swami Mike. (Justin wondered why Mike had been holding out on giving himself a more Yogi-ish name). He almost made it to the corner and then… “Shit!”
He had landed on someone’s toe and considered Vows # 6 and 7 — inflict no pain and no cursing. It must be his karma to violate all 18 root downfalls in one meditation session. Maybe Buddha had a sense of humor after all.
But not so much Swami Mike, whose brow uncharacteristically creased down the middle.
Justin eyed an empty spot in the far corner and plopped down just as Mike started the session.
“Find a comfortable seat. Relax your sitz bones and your shoulders. Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth.”
Justin inhaled a nasty whiff of onion and garlic blown in his direction by his neighbor and nearly gagged. What was that guy thinking? He almost offered him a Tic Tac, then reconsidered: Vow #1 — no judgment.
He held his breath to avoid the stench and nearly suffocated, so took another big breath through his mouth, which resulted in a coughing fit.
Justin peered through half closed eyes across the room and caught the accusing half glance of Swami Mike, now visibly perturbed. Justin mouthed “Sorry,” rolled back his shoulders, and softly closed his eyes.
Mike continued his guidance: “Ignore any distractions or interruptions, the sounds in the room, and those outside.”
Justin winced at the passive aggressive command.
“Let go of any thoughts. Acknowledge them, then release them. Let them float away. Focus on your breath. The feel of the air on the tip of your nose, as it enters your nostrils and your lungs, then feeds your body. The breath of life….”
Justin flashed back to an old hymn from Junior High Church Camp in the Smoky Mountains: “I am the bread of life, he who believes in me shall not hunger….” So how in the world did he get here from there? Sitting crossed legged on a hard floor (right foot now asleep, left knee in spasms) at a Buddhist Center in Belle Mead, New Jersey.
He recalled his first kiss at the camp, with a blonde girl from Virginia named Bridget. But Bridget then dumped him for Brian, and Justin was scarred for life. His mind then traveled from Tennessee to Ohio as he conjured the college girls at Oberlin — or rather, college women, some of whom were now men, according to his Facebook alumni group. How did Facebook handle transgender transformation? No doubt a very large team at Facebook dealt with that very issue. And what about friend requests from people who had died? He feared offending someone in the Facebook afterlife. What would Buddha say?
“Focus on your breath and the way it cools your body, the way it stills your mind. Let go of the thoughts that enter,” Mike reminded. “They are just thoughts, nothing more.”
Although annoying, these remonstrations sidelined Justin’s trainwreck of a thought pattern before his whole meditation practice became moot.
Relax. Focus. Become a tiny grain of sand, he told himself. Which made him want to be at the beach right now. But traffic would be terrible on the Parkway. And he had no sunscreen. Wonder if that back pimple is skin cancer?
Staring death in the face, Justin sat up straight again and readjusted his feet so that feeling would return to his toes. The halitosis guy was now snoring. Justin needed to get in gear — it was time for a full body scan.
Relax the forehead, the eyes, the nose the mouth the neck the shoulders the arms the chest the stomach (hungry) the legs the feet. That’s more like it. Breathe in and out. Justin’s mind went to REM dreaming. Was he asleep or awake? There was a strange sound in the corner but he must focus on the breath and see the beach. The waves on the horizon, the sound of the water made him need to go to bathroom but no, he had caused enough ruckus for one session. He could hold it, breathe, and just be. He tried to ignore the rustling in the back of the room — maybe there were people who needed to leave early, or some who had arrived really late. He wondered what time it was and how much longer they would meditate — sometimes it was an hour, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. Swami Mike embraced the element of surprise, if not control.
Then suddenly, Mike dinged the bell, signaling that official meditation time was over. Justin woke with a start. Success = nap? Mike would think not, looking with disdain at those who snored. Did Justin snore? He didn’t know — he couldn’t hear himself. If a tree fell in the forest….
One by one, his fellow meditators slowly rose and stretched their legs, but a few stragglers remained in place. Justin waited and watched through hooded eyes. He wanted to leave after Mike did and avoid a confrontation.
Finally, Mike rose and left the room, glaring back over his shoulder at Justin. Would he be waiting outside? How long could Justin sit there and outlast the Swami? With his other foot now paralyzed, standing now would result in an embarrassing collapse. He slid his eyes to the left to see if his neighbor had budged. No movement.
Should Justin say something? Maybe the guy was just a quiet sleeper? But no sound, no movement. He started to worry. But he also knew better than to interrupt someone else’s meditation practice. That was like interrupting a couple in the middle of sex. He could hold off a bit longer.
Justin finally stood up and cleared his throat, in case that might wake him. No go.
He touched him on the shoulder. No response. He walked around the guy and stood in front of him to get a better look at him. The guy did not look good, not that he had ever seen him before to know what he ordinarily looked like: gray pallor, balding with a string of hair across the top that seemed oily or wet. Eyes closed but a crack in the rim as if in a trance. Hands on lap were limp. Justin had a jolt of recognition. This guy was dead! He had seen a dead person once before, a homeless man who had fallen off the wall of the canal in Georgetown, and rigor mortis had set in. The stench was awful. In this case, there was no smell yet, but he was definitely stiff.
“Excuse me, but are you OK?” Justin asked, his voice cracking from disuse. No reply.
God, what could he do? He reached over gave him a little shake in case this was a weird narcoleptic.
The guy tipped to the side and fell to the ground.
Justin yelped. What the hell should he do now? He didn’t want to leave the poor guy alone. He didn’t know CPR and didn’t feel like trying mouth to mouth, assuming that would be no help at this point.
At least the guy died in peace, Justin thought. That’s the way he wanted to go. In his sleep, maybe during meditation, maybe just after Swami Mike hit him up too many times for a donation, or maybe during sex — except not such a great experience for the partner, he thought.
And at least he didn’t die alone, which was Justin’s biggest fear. Must work on Vow 9 — a positive direction in life, rebirth, and liberation from it.
Justin pulled out his iPhone and spotted 3 messages. He almost opened them in his normal ADD/iPhone way but stopped himself — Vow to be selfless. He dialed 911.
Wendell Wood Collins is director of corporate relations at Bendheim Center for Finance at Princeton University. She is a participant in the Room At The Table writer’s group, and also Writing Space, a community for writers working at Princeton University. She and her family live in Pennington.