Breathe

There’s nothing like the whir of a fishing reel to accent an already tense silence. Sssssssss…plop.  It’s a perfect cast, and the lure lands just below a jagged outcrop of rocks, disappearing into the black Aegean.  I turn to Nic, hoping to offer my own bait in the form of conversation.

”So…do you think they’ll take the worms?”

He shrugs and responds with a thick British twang.  ”Eh.  They might do.  They were hittin on em yesterday.”

”Ah.”

The silence returns.  Above us, the stars continue revealing themselves, popping insistently in stark defiance to the emptiness all around.  Perhaps it’s better that we aren’t talking.  What’s the use in clogging up a perfectly valid moment of space porn with the trivial meanderings of acquaintance small talk?  I pull my eyes from the galactic drama and take a quick glance over at Nic.  He’s sitting on the edge of the pier, back hunched, eyes dark and brooding, as if to intimidate a fish into dinner.  I wonder what’s really going through his mind, but based on our earlier conversations, I think I have an idea.  It’s not the fish that Nic is angry with, nor is it me.  It’s a past that will not let him sleep and a present that he never expected.  Who knows about the future.

I’m not at all upset by the moment, which ends on the heavy note it carried from the first sunset cast.  In fact, I’m more curious than anything.  As an unabashed believer in the intelligence of the Universe, I have an intuitive inkling whatever that strange experience was, we both needed it to happen.  The more I travel, the more I relinquish control—and the more I come to see that within the weave of reality, a very rational magic exists that simply asks us to accept our own evolution.  I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty certain that’s why I found myself on a remote island under lonely skies, contemplating a stranger’s existential dilemma.  It’s a piece to the puzzle, a message revealed in a single dejected slouch.  Somehow, it matters.

Ikaria, the Greek island where my journey began, is named after the Greek god Icarus, who supposedly crashed into the sea near the Northern shore after flying too close to the sun.  The message haunts me, and perhaps Nic as well.  Maybe Icarus is himself the message.  Is it better to forget about flight?  Is it hubris to hope for a life above the mundane trivialities of postmodern existence?  These are questions that I think every traveler, at some point, must face.  Secretly, I think that’s why many people travel.  Maybe even all.  The external vacation gives the internal swamp an unprecedented opportunity to gurgle its message.  Nic and I both sense it, the message, lurking somewhere inside.  The real question is, how many plane tickets and overnight busses, how many dollars and baht and euros, how many stomach aches and exuberant motorcycle rides and cigarettes will it take for it to be heard?

Like many travelers, I have a book to keep the information of people I meet on the road.  Mine is small and golden, and was given to me by a priest while I was on Ikaria.  On the front is a quote and a picture; not of Jesus, but of Pythagoras.  The quote reads “No one is free if he cannot command himself.” Against the shiny golden paint, the picture and the the quote are etched in black, textured letters, and surrounding those, along the edges, a repeating pattern of a labyrinth.   At first, I thought it was tacky and I planned to throw it away.  The last thing I need tainting my image as a spiritual traveler is a dollar store contact book.  However, everything changed the first time I pulled it out to record an email address.

It was my last day on Ikaria after a nearly three month stay.  As I handed the book over to Nic, now a friend, the quote caught me.  An idea spilled out of my mouth, already formed.

”Hey, you know, I think it would be cool if you added a quote of your own in there with your email address, something that relates to our relationship somehow.”

His brown eyes looked up, piercing me with surprise and possibly annoyance at being put on the spot.  Then he relaxed, and nodded.

”Yeh, alright.  I reckon I can come up with something.”

”Can you make sure it sounds as British as your real voice?”

He offered a little smile, and then turned his attention to the book.  When he handed it back to me, I couldn’t resist the temptation to look.  I turned to page one and skipped past his contact information, going directly to the quote.  He had written two, in block lettering and without punctuation.

”IF YOU ARE SAT ROUND THE POKER TABLE AND YOU CANT SEE THE FISH—YOU ARE THE FISH”

”WATCH OUT FOR DISPROPORTIONATE REACTIONS TO SMALL DISTURBANCES IN YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE—THEY ARE SIGNPOSTS TO YOUR CHILDHOOD TRAUMA”

”What’s the one about the poker table?” I asked.  I already knew enough about the second thought.

”It means…if you can’t tell who’s gettin played, it’s you.  And, I reckon you should fold and walk away.”

”Noted.  I think I’ll just stay away from poker instead.”

”Yeh.  That’s probly for the best.”

I talked with Nic and his family for a few more minutes and passed the book around to them, for their information and their thoughts.  When they finished, I hugged them and gave them the presents I made.  I let my gaze linger, soaking in the weight of a reluctant goodbye, and then I turned around and slowly made my way home.

The road back to the house  juts out from the hillside like a pouty lower lip; a treacherous asphalt snake that drops abruptly into the glimmering water on the other side.  Home—my grandmother’s mother’s house—was on this same road, perched nonchalantly between a mohawk ridge line of cliffs and the pale turquoise mirror of the sea.  As I walked in the fading light of the sunset, my mind wandered back to the second quote.  ”Signposts to your childhood trauma…”  It’s why Nic was there, of course.  He had uprooted his entire family from the cloudy indifference of England and brought them to Ikaria with the hope of interrupting the brutal cycle of childhood trauma that is the inevitable inheritance of failed cultural mythology.  What I mean is, he was trying to avoid passing the violence his parents had inflicted upon him to his young son.  He came to heal.

From the solitude of Greece, my journey took me to the organized mayhem that is Southeast Asia.  The shift was intense and unexpected.  One way tickets are like that, I guess.  Within a week of my arrival in Bangkok, I found myself sitting in the registration office of a ten day silent meditation retreat in Yangon, Myanmar, signing away my verbal abilities to the rhythm of a wobbly ceiling fan.  Ten days of “traveling” never sounds like enough.  I quickly learned that 10 days of psychic isolation is traveling alright, but of the jaw-clenching, brutal initiation variety.  It was plenty.

If you want to understand the theory of relativity, simply sit alone for an extended period of time.  One day would probably do it.  I think day two is where I entered a warp tunnel; one part vertigo, one part frustration, and two parts exhaustion which combined to form the perfect conditions for cathartic exploration.  I’m convinced you can’t discover anything worthwhile about yourself until the habitual padding of mental patterns is stripped away, and, well, that happened.

Each day at 4:00 am I awoke to the sound—or the feeling—of the gong reverberating through my entire skeletal structure.  With groggy dread, I would lurch out of bed and stumble beneath a splash of stars to the meditation hall, squat down on my cushion, and try to prepare my mind for a full day of focused attention.  I would begin at the entrance to my nostrils, noticing the breath as it brushed across my pseudo-mustache, feeling the cold touch as it filtered into my windpipe and down into my lungs.  Five breaths, six, ten at most, and suddenly I am in my head—remembering or anticipating or dreading or avenging.  The voice that I call myself has stolen the show once again.

”My knees hurt already.  Shit.  That’s not good.  It’s only five am, is it five am?  Has it been a half hour yet?  That guy needs to stop coughing.  I would love to go camping, god dammit that guy, stop coughing.  I’m hungry, I think I’m going to drink coffee at breakfast today, I wonder if I’m losing weight from eating vegetarian, hopefully I can nap after lunch.  Fuck, meditation.  Alright.”

Back to the breath.  One…two…seven.  Gone again, back into the temptations of my mental dreamscape, back into fantasy.  And on it went, for ten full days.  I don’t think I ever actually got past ten or twenty seconds of focused awareness before again being sucked into the reservoir of “me”.  Despite this, the process still worked.  The long hours blended together, the beads of sweat on my forehead forming and sliding to a predictable rhythm as my mind began to reluctantly burp up the reminiscences of days long past.

At the lake with my family, laughing as our dog trees a squirrel, the despair of watching a marshmallow catch fire, the silent slide into sleep that is only possible deep in the mountains…

”Breath.”

Back on the cushion, simply noticing my body.  Tracing the tension in my shoulders, pausing in an area on my right arm with no sensation, straining to feel it, gritting teeth, clenching hands, mental gridlock.

”Breath.”

Down the abdomen, feeling the tingles—the “free flow of subtle vibrations” as the teacher calls it—arriving at the legs, down down down, all the way to the toes.

”I guess I can take a break here.  That was a lot of work.”

Dreamland.  REGRET.  Why did I say that?  Why did I have to be a dick to that person?  What should I have said to him?  I wonder if she’ll ever forgive me?  The thoughts take me over and I’m not on the cushion anymore.  I’m in an argument, cheeks burning red with shame, watching and feeling pride, arrogance, fear.  My body is shaking.  The person on the cushion next to me gets up suddenly and stumbles out of the meditation hall.  He’s crying before he hits the door, and despite his distance, we all hear his wails and in a very real way, we all share his pain.

Breathe.  Meditate.

”Toes…toes…what am I feeling in my toes?”

The tenth and final day of the course was a true celebration.  We could talk again, we could laugh at the absurdity of ourselves and our stubborn minds, together.  The eyes of the other meditators gleamed with self-assurance and hilarity.  We had done it, we had sat with the voice, our own voice, for ten full days without going crazy.  We agreed that it was probably the most difficult and profound experience of our lives, and we exchanged email addresses and hugs.

When I pulled out the golden book, I again read the quote on the front and I was struck by how appropriate it was. A  slender Japanese man with straight, shoulder length hair was standing next to me, so I handed it to him first.  He had been sitting directly behind me for the duration of the course and I mentioned how impressed with him I was.  He hadn’t moved a muscle, as far as I could tell, for the entire course—on all other sides, there had been shuffles, coughs, grunts, sighs, and cries—but not once did I hear a sound from the man behind me.  He laughed, first with his eyes then with his voice.

”Haha, oh, thank you.  Yes, I have trained in meditation before this course and I am used to sitting on the floor because I am from Japan.”  He nodded as he said it, simultaneously acknowledging and excusing my inability to sit still.  I chuckled and introduced myself.

”I’m Kris.”

”Oh, hello!  I am Moto.”  He said it cheerfully, and handed me back my book.  As was my custom by this time, I flipped immediately to the page he had signed and read his piece of wisdom, which was written like a poem, or perhaps a koan:

Everything is planned,

So, you are all free.

we are all free.

Keep in touch,

with all the miracles!

I stared at the page for a few moments before I realized that I had no idea what it meant.  Moto was still there, studying me without assumption.  His eyes met mine and in that instant I was transfixed.

”What…what does this mean, exactly?” I asked him.

”To explain that, I will have to explain an experience to you that I had when I was twenty four years old.”

”Alright.”

Moto went on, in the same cheerful, detached tone, about an experience he had that made him realize that “he was the universe.”  One of the other meditators named Michael had caught a piece of the story and came over to listen in.  Moto watched our faces as he told us about the night it happened, speaking with the measured tempo of simplicity.

”I was talking with a friend one night.  She had many problems, and I offered to talk with her about them.  She came to my house and we were sitting on my bed, and I was listening to her problems.  So many problems she had.  I did not do much talking, only listening.  She went on, talking so much for five or six hours.  Suddenly, at the end of those hours, she stopped and said ‘I have no problems.’  And then she looked at me and said it again.  In that moment, I felt that all space opened up, and she did too.  Suddenly, together, we saw that we had no problems, that we could not actually have problems, because we were a part of everything that exists, and that we could never be separate from anything at all.”

Michael and I could only stare in disbelief.  Finally I managed a response, lacking equally in subtlety and taste.

”So, you’re enlightened?”

He smiled again, the full face smile, and shrugged.

”I look at it as only realizing what the facts already are.  I am the same as you and the only difference between us is that I know that.”

We spent the next thirty minutes conversing about his awakening experience and how it had informed his life in the 12 years since it had taken place.  He told us that he had “facilitated” the experience for six other people in the first few years, and that it hadn’t happened anymore after that.  He also told us that he spent five or six years as a reluctant guru of sorts, getting paid to show up to rooms full of eager truth-seekers and speak about enlightenment and whatever else came to his mind.  As the conversation wrapped up, he summarized his thoughts on the subject, probably aware that Michael and I were hanging off his every word.

”Don’t get me wrong.  I am still a human being.  I still feel pain and sadness and anger and every other thing that we all feel.  I still get hungry and want to have sex.  I only realize that these things are not who I am.”

It’s been over a month since the meditation course, and the raw, open, honest space that was forcefully ripped open in my heart has since scabbed over with the walls of consensus reality.  They feel thinner and less in control, but they are still there, the fears and the defense mechanisms, prodding me with the irrationality of social contract.

I’m still traveling, and I’m still watching those walls, long established habits of thinking—remnants of stagnated life—flare up.  The difference is that I don’t listen to them nearly as much.  I stand when they say sit, and I board another bus when everything in my head tells me to go home.  I don’t know where the trip will take me, when I will run out of money, or who I’ll meet in the meantime, but I’m confident in my ability to let go and allow it all to happen as it may.

The golden contact book is filling up with names and thoughts rather quickly.  Even on the days I don’t want to talk to anyone, I can usually count on somebody coming over to sit down next to me.  Whether I like them or not is beside the point.  I always learn something.  I get to experience another angle of the human jewel, another constellation of relativity from which to assess the big picture.  And sometimes, I even get a great hint about a cool waterfall or a cheap place to rent a motorcycle.

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What I’ve seen on my rounds is that if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect at the end of a life, then love is revealed as the great currency. It’s the thing. The treasury. It’s what mattered. Few gloat on a business success, or property portfolio at that point, how they royally screwed someone over.

How well did I love?, who did I love?, and how was love central to the life that I made for myself? And I have to say, sometimes folks don’t like the insights they receive at that latest of moments.

But if we’re reading this, than anything is possible. It is. The doorway to mercy is still open.

When the lots are counted, when we are gathered in, we will find that it was love that mattered. Love expressed, given, received, fought for. So for those of us fighting right now, I say; keep going. As a culture, as an individual, believe in the full life that is your bequeathed inheritance, not the subterranean half-life that terror and impoverished minded bullies will try and spike your wine with. You are too good for that. Remember Rilke: “wherever I am folded there I am a lie”

–Martin Shaw

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