By Dave Martin
On a beautiful Saturday morning in August about two years ago, I walked to the library across the street from my apartment. As I entered the foyer, my eye was caught by a poster showing a picture of an aged man dressed in garb that I recognized as that of a Thai monk. Above the picture were the words “Free Meditation Instructor Course”. I’m sure my reaction was like that f others who saw the poster: more mumbling New Agers. Yet, I couldn’t argue with the price and the orientation would only take up one afternoon. Further, the location was not that far away. I marked the date in my mind and went about my business.
Meditation was not new to me. I had become interested when I was quite young. I read books and even tried to make it a habit several times; but I never lasted more than two months. In university I studied some of the ancient texts related to the Yoga Cara school of Indian thought, read some of the texts of Taoism and undertook my own study of Buddhism. Eastern thought became a constant source of new ideas or a way of trying to understand old ideas. On my travels I became friends with one or two Buddhists and had long, interesting discussions. Meditation was never far from the surface of my mind. So, I was quite confident that I would be able to discern if this was the real thing. I also thought a free meditation course might provide what I needed to make a habit where there was sincere desire and a few attempts.
On another beautiful Saturday that September, I made my way to the address on the poster. It turned out to be a plain, red bricked building with an unpronounceable transliteration ending in the word “Temple” inscribed over the doorway. I entered, removed my shoes, made my way down stairs and just about choked. I hate crowds. However, curiosity is a force I cab seldom master and I found myself sitting inside, near the door to facilitate escape.
I was unimpressed with the orientation. Sleep better, yeah yeah, feel less stress, yeah yeah, improve job performance, “What?” I thought, “These people don’t even know working is a waste of time?” What’s more, the monk whose picture I saw on the poster dreams of bringing about world peace through meditation. Get real! How are you ever going to get everyone in the world to sit down and meditate at the same time? Yet, I could not find anything that indicated this show was bogus. In fact, there was a great deal of seriousness: every day for six months. The course called for discipline, commitment and other qualities formerly known as virtues. I decided I would give it five days.
Well, here I am writing about why I stayed, so the out come of my trial is clear. We learned two forms of meditation: walking and sitting. Sitting meditation was practiced in a chair and I liked it because I was more familiar with it and I found it more relaxing. At first I kept on seeing things in my minds eye that distracted me, but I kept focused and paid the images no heed. Gradually, they subsided and with them the noise in my mind began to take on a muted quality. I can hardly find words that describe this experience. I have a mind that goes like a tornado. At times, I have trouble talking with people because I rush ahead in the conversation. I read frantically, and because I can’t keep my mind in one place I used to compensate by reading eight books at once. To have that party move to another room after forty six years is beyond words. I could still hear the buzz, but there was a quiet space I had never before experienced. As time went on deep meditation became a nearly daily occurrence. I began to relax, take things a little easier. It was very refreshing, and it stayed so for another three or four weeks. Then something happened.
I’ve almost never spoken of this and only once, as far as I can recall, wrote about it. I was in the midst of walking meditation, which consists of walking back and forth between two marks on the floor. I practiced at the back of the temple and I remember that I had just started to walk towards the temple’s back wall. I was about a third of the way when I had a sudden realization. Everything that I considered as “me” was a lie. My history, from the age of sixteen, when I quit school and left home with less than gracious thoughts about my family to that place one third of the way to the temple’s back wall, was a story I told myself. But this story wasn’t made up of events so much as memories to reactions of events. Those reactions created an impression of the world that I used as a basis of decisions. Of course, I would judge my decisions based on how well they confirmed or denied my impression of the world. Everything, from the way I interacted with people, to the kind of moviesI liked, to the things I studied was a carefully constructed mind game. The idea was to keep my impressions of the world and my reactions balanced. It was like playing ping pong with myself. “See? I told ya so.”
I didn’t miss a step I focused my mind, I walked on and took only slight notice of the thought that floated across my mind. “I must kill myself”. Of course, I didn’t mean it literally. What I had realized was that the “me” I had constructed over the years had to go.
I don’t remember the rest of that evening, but I’m sure that as I walked home I was thinking about what I had learned. In fact, over the next few weeks I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I had fourty six years under my belt and quite a personal history. But no matte from which I approached it, I always reached the same point. I thought, for example, about a time something bad had happened to me. I could still conjure a picture of the event in my mind, but it was my memory of the reaction that was most important. Sure, I could let those things go, get beyond those feelings, yet I still carried with me the ideas I had formed. If I didn’t carry those ideas with me it was because I’d replaced them with new ideas, a new interpretation of the world I could prove or disprove to myself. The same was true of good things that had happened. It all came from that whirlwind in my head. But if that was true there had to be another, more real, “me” beneath all that fuss and buzz.
I didn’t know at the time, but this was a huge step. In the great religious traditions there are names for this kind of insight. I don’t know them and I haven’t taken time to learn them because they are only names, more ideas. I was interested in my experience. Suddenly, everything took on the quality of veneer. In a sense, I became a stranger to myself. Meditation became a practice in stillness of the mind through which I could let the”me” beneath the veneer emerge.
I did not find this precisely fun. I was changing in ways I never knew I could and I didn’t like it. To begin with I was becoming more sensitive to the mindless cruelty and violence that pervades our way of life. I’ve never turned a blind eye to human misery, and I’ve always done my best to make my corner of the world a little better. However, I considered the outrages people propagate on each other as something which had to be accepted. Cruelty and violence are part of nature and the human animal is not immune. People will always be crushed by the decisions of others in far away places. It’s called politics. I know how lucky I am to have been born in twentieth century Canada; but a realistic view of things requires mental toughness. One has to see the world for what t is and make the calls. But that mental toughness was now shaken by a notion rumbling about like the tremors of a quake. How much of the stupidity and unhappiness around me arise because people don’t see what’s really there but see instead the ideas that grow out of their reactions? Was that toughness another kind of reaction upon which I focused? Was it another idea I used to interpret the world?
As I continued my practice, I noticed all the little ways that people were decent to each other. I don’t mean in an empty, formal sense, but really decent. There are a multitude of small actions that people engage in every day, like not driving through that puddle when someone is walking by, holding the door for someone with a bag of groceries. It was good to see and I too began to make a little more effort. I found a little more change for the homeless souls and the last year I even volunteered for the Christmas Bureau. I have always been an active volunteer, but this time there was a difference. There was no sense of obligation. I simply wanted to give. It made me a little queasy if the truth be told. “Great”, I thought, “this stuff id going to turn me into yet another muddle aged Canadian with the hardiness of a dust bunny!”
There were further insights not unlike the one that occurred during my walking meditation. One morning I was trying to work through problems I was having with a few people when suddenly it occurred to me that I had no problem. I didn’t dislike those people; what I disliked were the ideas I had built up about those people. I wasn’t looking at them, I was looking at my ideas about them and making a judgement call. Could it be that I chose to have a problem? Did I crate my own misery and generate a little for them?
As uncomfortable as some of these changes were there were others that really took me by surprise in a good way, Because I was aware of the games my mind played I found it easier to listen to people, accept them and simply relax. Impressions are just images and mind forms. They are hollow so it’s easy to let them go. I began to make new friends. People didn’t start beating down my door, but there were more people in my life who were positive, kind and cared enough that when they asked hoe I was doing I knew it was sincere.
Along with a growing circle of friends was an increasing sense of contentment. Most people describe me as a happy fellow, and I am. Yet I began to accept my place and situation in life in a deeper way. I realize that the things I wished for and the goals I had were no longer essential to my happiness. Of course I still work toward those things, but I am content with the way things are now.
There were a few other changes that I noticed. For example, I began to stop and smell the roses, literally. The beauty of nature, even in the midst of the irredeemable ugliness of the city, began to make more of an impression on me. I also began to write more often, which brings me to this essay.
I was walking, I don’t recall where, and noticed a large, majestic tree arching over the sidewalk. I realized that the pleasure I took in that tree was something that came as a result my practice of meditation. I decided I would write a short piece about the difference one and a half years of meditation practice has made. As I thought about all the changes that have occurred, the new friends, the desire to help in ways I’d never thought I would, I had to smile. “Would you look at that,” I may have spoken the words aloud. “That old monk is right. There is just a little more peace on earth.”