Self-Doubt: November 18, 2012
My pen drops to the faux-wood desk before me. Mesmerized. A list touches my right hand. No checkmarks. Everything waits to be completed. Type meeting minutes, thank you notes, Spring class schedule, declare major, internship applications, order prescription. I pick up my pen and continue. What else can I shove into my radar? Never a dull moment. Never an afternoon to breath. Never a chance to relax.
I fiddle the thin plastic between my fingers, biting the end. It tastes different this time. Too smooth, no teeth marks. Not my pen. I release it again. Defeated. My mental to-do list too overwhelming, too long for the page; not worth it. The stress, sleepless nights, weekend nights in, shortened meals. My eyes dart. Up, down, left, right, over and over and over again taking in the yellow page. My mind stumbles upon more missing items as I ponder over the already written thoughts.
Back and forth my legs swing, elevated above the tile floor. My eyes follow the pattern. The same pace reaches from my feet to my face. Eventually my eyes swing high enough to land on the pictures hanging above my desk. Side by side. Dozens of pictures. Black and white. Color. Crinkled edges. Water-marked middles. Pictures of me dressed as a Dalmatian for Halloween when I was seven, me surrounded by girls in sequined dresses and heels, me and my sister crouched before our collapsing sand castle on the beach, me and my family on Christmas in front of our glittering tree, me and my roommate at Convocation. They seem unending. I sit surrounded by memories. Visible. Frozen. Captured. Picture illustrating more than moments. They represent life. I stand to take in the life staring back at me.
The numerous smiling Annies won’t fool me this time. My lips press closer and closer together as my mind reels. Questions flying. Order on a page beneath me. Chaotic thoughts. Perfectly placed pictures before me. Scattered priorities. In front of me my entire life is on display by a mere fifty pictures. In front of me my entire week is mapped out by one rectangular piece of paper.
My eyes never move this fast. They race to the same pace as my mind. Fast breaths. Everything gathers speed. From stillness to sprinting. For once I want it to stop. To pause. Just for a moment. I can’t find the button to make that possible.
Reaching forward I tear. Pictures rip. My heart dives. Thumbtacks fall from the cement wall, a prison design. Thin edges slice my fingers. My to-do list disappears. Bright blue skies and smiling children litter the desk. Memories cover the future, a blockade to tomorrow. Water spills onto the memories as tears slip off my red face and land on the desk. Heavy from all the weight the desk wants to collapse. It wants to cave in. Give up. Not do its job. Take a different road. Try something new. I know the weight the desk carries.
I know the weight the desk carries because it carries my weight. Holds it up for me to see. The list. The pictures. The tears. And the questions that lean into it as I fold over. My head reaches the cold surface. Arms stretch forward. Knees shaking. Hitting the right-side drawers. One. Two. Three. Back and forth they tremble. My sealed lips follow suit. Still stuck together, but quivering to a beat. I try not to verbalize the questions. The why am I here? Why still go to school? Why after twenty years have I still not lived in the “real world?” What am I doing with my life? I lift my head. Each hand grasps a side, pulling it up, forcing it to look at the white wall. My thumbs bend beneath my ears. Ring fingers direct the tears, scooping them up as my pinkies bend in. I flick the tears away to the other side of me. Off my face they fly, towards the floor. I can’t reject the questions as easily. I let them in and I can’t close the door now.
Fear: January 4, 2013
His petite body bent perfectly so that both legs crossed. His sockless feet rested on the knee of the opposite leg. I remained in my kindergarten-style criss-cross-apple-sauce pose, lacking the confidence to mimic his entwined posture. His back gently reached stillness at a right angle. Perfection in human form. Yet, sitting this close to him it was hard to ignore the unevenness of his teeth each time he spoke.
“Feel free to move closer.” I savored our distance. I had space. I was supported by the wall. I was protected by the dark corner. Prem sat in the open. No wall. No darkness. This assurance forced my heart to run. It picked up pace and started a marathon at sprint-speed. I tried breathing. Deep breaths, long breaths. Looking at Prem turned to staring at Prem.
He wanted to help when I approached him. Now I wanted to reject him. I bit my tongue. Tears clung to my eyes I was so nervous. That uncomfortable. That scared. His presence was too much. Too strong and too open. Too willing to be unsure. I never lived like that. Fear held me back. Still holds me back.
Incense stretched its smell into every corner. The ashram held the scent tightly. It thickened the air. Rustic. Antique. Chalky. It made me drowsy. I needed this wall. It was my support and pulled away a layer of uncertainty.
Prem nodded in my direction, a mound of grey and white hair engulfed his olive-shaped head. The misguided curls jiggled. Fuzzy eyebrows shaded his eyes, dark brown circles covered with fur. He was hiding too. I had my corner. He had his hair. I wondered what else might be hidden. There must be more stored behind his hair. His fears. His worries. His hurries. His doubts.
I slid off the pillow and pulled away from the wall. My heart began sprinting. I pushed my teeth into my tongue. Harder. The tears sunk back into my eyes. I shuffled towards Prem. Our eyes locked, creating a battle. I would not drop my gaze first. He refused to blink. I bit harder. I blinked, letting my lids rest shut for a moment too long before reawakening. He smiled. I did not. My lips swelled. I wanted out. I wanted out before this started. This ceremony. This adventure. This four-week lesson. I didn’t want it to start. I did not want Prem anymore.
Worry: January 22, 2013
A bear is going to eat me. That small hook protecting me from the surrounding woods will prove useless when a bear decides to enter my one-room cabin. I was surrounded by hopelessness. Situated too far from the temple building for a cry of help to be heard. But maybe a bear won’t eat me. Maybe he will rip off my head but won’t eat it. At least if that happens the rescue crew will know they’ve found me. I shouldn’t have eaten my banana. The bear will smell the peel and come looking for food. The bear will find me for food. A bear is going to eat me…
I fell asleep that night convinced I would never wake up. If a bear did not manage to find and eat me I feared that the radiator hanging inches from my head would combust. Throughout the night it gurgled and coughed and screamed. It neared explosion. If it erupts, I worried, I will go up in flames. I will not wake up tomorrow.
4 am. I survived. My cracked lips stuck together. My empty stomach cried. My unbrushed mouth thick. My nerves froze. Held at climax. Waiting to drop. Thirty more minutes. I survived though, a bear did not eat me and the radiator did not combust. One polka-dotted sheet, one pastel quilt, one plump baby blue comforter, yet my toes still ached. Heat was nonexistent. The radiator silenced. Numb toes, spirited mind. Restless thoughts. Anxious anticipations. A mysterious morning.
Curled into a ball on the floor I held a cold glass of water. Sticky mouth. Dry throat. Tickling cough. This water was a taste of heaven. Mark, a psychologist, was perched across the once-door-now-table from me. Butter and salt scents wafted from his feet as he kneaded cashews, peanuts, and almonds to dust. A topping for a later meal. Kenzon, the lone monk on the premise, dashed sauces and sprinkled salts at the stove. He stirred three different pots with the same wooden spoon. I remained in a ball. I was not allowed to help. I wanted out of their way. I wanted to be invisible. I never wished for that before. I was a thorn in their kitchen routine, their premeditation habits, their Wednesday morning ritual. A boulder on the floor, wanting to be a pebble.
“So you’re here for a school trip,” the psychologist probed. It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a statement either. It was a comment to fill the void. He thought I thought his practice was a subject. Something to study. Something to write about. But not something I sincerely wanted to experience. This psychologist was wrong. I wanted to learn. I wanted to try and I was not ready to fail. I was not willing to call this a school trip. This was a trip for me. I wanted this trip, but not for school and not just for a paper. I wanted to see who meditation could make me. To see what I could learn about myself from this temple on the mountain. At this point I knew meditation would not answer my questions, I just hoped it might let me reach peace with them.
Kenzon continued to stir, sprinkle, and dash. He angled his robed body towards us on the floor, but his shaved monk’s head bobbed towards the stove. A wonderful smile overcame his face and stayed plastered between his nose and chin. It became out-of-place. He failed to notice its randomness. It remained there only growing as the skidding of a car could be heard climbing the hill to the temple. It was time. Nobody spoke those words, their actions did were enough to tell me.
The front door blew open. Somebody stomped boots before kicking the door back shut. I continued on content in my ball. I watched. I wanted no mistakes. Learn from watching, then follow. Follow once you learn the way. Kenzon led the way as he added another black layer to his robes.
From the kitchen to the shrine. Back out of the kitchen. Turn towards the shrine. Two steps forward. Palm-touching hands. Held at hearts center. Bow. Hold for one, two, three. I held for one extra second. I count fast. I did not want to make mistakes. Regaining my height, my hands dropped slowly, thoughtfully. Every act performed with purpose. I passed one, two pads with black cushions. The third was mine. It sat next to Kenzon. The monk wanted me by his side, in his sight. He didn’t trust me. He wanted to test himself. He knew I couldn’t sit still. He knew I would wriggle. Wriggle and cough and nod and fumble. Fumble with thoughts. Fumble with my fingers. Fumble with my posture. Fumble with it and drop it- too weak to hold it. He wanted to make himself face these imperfections. Relive these experiences. Put himself in a beginner’s seat again. Struggle for two hours. Struggle through my experience. Make my struggle his. I sat beside Kenzon.
I don’t do rules. At school I practiced how I wanted. Lights off. Back straightened against a wall. Legs crossed and knees hovering. Hands clasped. Eyes shut. Deep breathing with rough intakes and raspy outtakes. Mouth moving, repeating the mantra, bringing my mind back. These actions break the rules. The rules at Shao Shan Temple led to a different meditation. A meditation focused on stillness. Begging me to fail. Wanting me to break the rules.
Back straight. Not guided by a wall. Held in form by the invisible string through my head pulling my posture to stillness. Stiff stillness. Knees touch the floor. Legs bent. And knees must touch floor. Lean forward if it’s possible. Hold for two hours and try not to get a numb foot. Head tilted at a forty-five degree angle. Pick a spot. An area of stillness for your gaze and hold. Stretch your eyes open. Keep them wide. Don’t lose the spot. Don’t shut your eyes. Hands cusped. Middle fingers touch, just barely adding pressure. Pinky, ring, and pointer follow suit. Touch to release tension. It’s an oxymoron. Thumbs bridge and complete the circle. A piece of paper should fit between them. Hold that gap. Don’t make it too big. Too small means paper can’t get through either. Hold that stillness. One, two, three bell chimes. Two hours begin. Now.
That isn’t my meditation. That is Kenzon’s. That is Mark’s. That practice is how they learned. How they trained. But to me, that practice is a distraction. My knees hurt because of the pressure. My back curled, forming a lovely arch. As Kenzon grew beside me I shrunk. I inhaled slowly.
The oak wall before me offered nothing. The backs of my eyelids offered stillness. They provided a wall for my focus. Kenzon knew my eyes were shut. The light was too much. Even with a just wall before us there is always something to see. Close your eyes and you can see within. Keep them open and forever they will dart, squint, and inquire. They will forever want to know about the images before them. They won’t think to turn the thoughts inside. The world has too much to offer, keeping the internal insights from happening.
Hurry: January 22, 2013
She liked knowing I was lost. She takes pride in the confusion of others. It gives her power. It reminds her she is grounded. She doesn’t need help because she knows the way. She loved shoving the flimsy, binded packet into my hands. She threw the pages at me and walked back to her seat. The psychologist sat behind us, but I could sense his proximity. Even so, I wanted him closer, beside me. Help because you want to. Helping out of necessity is useless. I’d rather do it on my own. But Kenzon had asked her to help. She would show me the way. She is a bad leader.
My entire trip to the temple I realized I spoke a different language from these people. I heard their words, I listened patiently, but I chose not to speak. They could articulate thoughts differently. Calmly. Thought through. Inquisitive. Insightful. They had confidence in their practices. They knew what others wanted to hear and I did not speak this seasoned language. I would complain about my restlessness. I would find excuses for my challenges. I would try not to face the fact: I was struggling. Meditation is hard. Meditation is not a four-week adventure. It is a life lesson. A practice. An intention.
Kenzon rang a new bell. The sound echoed same as the others. Long, stinging our ears. Deep though. The others were high pitched. Bird chirps. This was a moan. A human mouth noise. It felt familiar. The words to follow were foreign. Literally. Consonants next to consonants. Sporadic vowels. I tried to follow this gibberish, but the phrases caught in my throat. They stuck in the spot where my cough drop should’ve been. Rushing through each word I choked. Speed made no difference. I knew I was lost. My gibberish did not match theirs.
She turned towards me. Her hand crept close to my still bent knees. I didn’t want her help, yet an opened pamphlet slid into my view. I looked at her. She stared forward, her gaze too good for me. The chanting had paused, as I still stared at her. I had no idea what she was showing me. Maybe I was the useless one. Does a good leader depend on having a good follower?
“The page number. You’re wrong,” she seethed.
God she needed meditation. Clearly she had work to do.
I took my time catching up. She began immediately, however, and incorrectly. Kenzon followed, correctly. Mark followed Kenzon, correctly. I followed Mark. One line behind, but I wanted time. I despised haste here. Slow. Down. Notice the words. Uneven. Rigid. Activating the mind. Refusing ease. My tongue tried to hold the words back. My mind jumped to experience each. Caught between the two I lost attention. Distanced from the chanting, I wandered through my thoughts.
My mind leapt from one random thought to the next, stripping away my meditation. I could offer to make the bed in my cabin. Maybe I should wash the sheets. They weren’t clean when I got into the bed. I saw a curled black hair. I blew it off. I need to buy more tissues. Emily keeps using my tissues. She also keeps eating my food. She keeps using my desk. That’s obnoxious. I could help her clean. She has clothes everywhere. Maybe she should do laundry. I could do laundry. The gym washes my squash clothes though. I missed two practices now. To come here, Shao Shan Temple. John laughed when I told him. We laugh at his life though. Maybe John just never grew. I once said I always wanted to be a little kid. Forever. If time just stopped. Right about when I was ten. But that’s an awkward stage. Prepubescent. Such a horrible word. Maybe 13. I don’t remember 13 much. But that’s kind of old. 6. I like 6. Breathe. Time does not freeze. Breathe. The chant continued. I must have been on the wrong page. Breathe. Maybe if I breathe. Time seems slower. Stuck. Stagnant. Stripped of pace. Stripped of hurry. Just calm. No. Finally calm. What a feat.
Acceptance: February 1, 2013
I am lost. Surrounded by beauty externally. Engulfed by terror internally. Looking down at the snow causing my toes to ache I feel the freeze move up my body. My fear hardens with the frost. Caught in this moment.
I am lost. Surrounded by trees covered in paper-white snow. Natural beauty. No noises. No bodies. No buildings. I am alone. Lost by myself.
A creek speeds past me to my right. Silent. Too fast for a noise to follow. There are paw prints scattered throughout the snow. They stop at a pile of sticks. I clamber over these pieces looking for a trail. It ends. The trees continue. They stand tall for another fifteen miles. That’s what Prem had said. The woods behind his house stretch for fifteen miles straight. He also said there was a trail. I don’t see a trail. I see snow. I see tall trees. Broken trees. Scattered leaves. Frozen leaves. Death is alive in these woods. It breathes in me. Prem also said not to get lost. “Don’t get lost in the woods in the middle of the winter.” It is the middle of winter and the sun is fading and I am still lost. Every tree looks the same. Bare branches, scrapped trunks, hidden bases. I see my footsteps but they don’t lead me anywhere. I have made too many turns. I have second-guessed myself too many times, making a path of circles.
The wind whips the back of my head. My nose tingles with pain. The hairs inside it stand tall, starched by the bitter cold. This is the only part of my body exposed. I can’t focus on getting back when my nose is this cold. So I stop. I turn and turn and turn. I expect something to change. Nothing has. The trees still block the sun. The path still remains invisible. I still don’t have food in my pack. My nose is still numb. I still cannot feel my toes. I am still lost. No noises, people, signs, buildings, hints, nor answers are here for me. I have myself as my only tool of survival. So I breathe. Inhale the frost. Exhale my warmth. Slow down. Stop turning. Stop thinking and walk. I see the sun setting. Its light strikes across the middle of each tree. Breathe. Take in the beauty, the frost, the shadows. Release the fears, worries, and doubts. I trust myself. I trust myself to make a new trail. I will find my way home. Breathe.