The sound of alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. today and a series of catchy children’s songs from teaching ESL echoed the soundtrack of my life immediately.
I turned off the alarm, and rolled over sluggishly. It can’t be time to go to work already, I told myself. Can I really keep singing these songs day-after-day?
But suddenly, I remembered.
My alarm sounded because it was Saturday. I had been looking forward to meditation all week, so I rolled out of bed immediately and watched as beads of water poured out of the shower nozzle. I waited a minute, and put my hand under the shower head to feel it’s warmth.
There was no need to change the battery of our water heater if I went in quickly, I smiled about dodging the winter weather outside, so I stepped over the ledge and into the tub.
I felt the water warm my skin and pulled sleep from my eyes, smiling to myself about the prospect of going to Dharma Drum Mountain for Chan meditation, even though I wasn’t familiar with its style.
Afterwards, I got dressed and rushed out of the door.
I smiled at my doorman outside as he lit a cigarette in the cool morning’s dew, and his eyes widened when he noticed me. It was no later than 7 a.m. and I was already on my way to meet Monica, a Taiwanese woman who I’d met at the Jhongli Meditation Centre, and catch the bus to Taipei for an English meditation practice.
After one hour of commuting, we arrived at the Taipei West Bus Terminal and walked out the doors at the station. It was directly across from where the bus we took had parked.
“See those lights,” Monica asked patiently.
“Yes,” I replied. “We turn left here. It’s the first set of lights, try to remember so you can come next weekend, OK?”
“OK,” I replied etching a mental note permanently in my brain. “Turn left at the first set of lights.”
Then what I wondered.
We turned right at a bakery, which faced the first Watson’s Pharmacy that we passed, towards a colourful temple down the street. There was a large building, which resembled an apartment.
“We’re here,” she gestured for me to go inside the building.
“This is it,” I asked. “Wow, it’s so big.”
She nodded pointing at a sign with a list of floors inside of the facility, there were several. My eyes widened in spite of the time of the day. I was eager to learn what was in store for me until we got off of the elevator.
I rushed to the bathroom and didn’t say anything to anybody. I planned to apologize later if anybody’s feathers felt noticeably ruffled upon my return to the foyer.
But when I turned to walk away, I heard Monica tell a practitioner my name.
I smiled instinctively remembering the kindness and compassion that I had felt at the last monastery I attended with people who I gained insight and understanding from and with. I instantly recognized Monica was trying to help make the day easy for me. I looked forward to the practice, but suddenly felt worried about what we would do there and when I returned from the bathroom, a man introduced himself to me immediately.
‘This is for me,’ I thought. ‘Just me, and it’s not for a man to give me a line. That’s the last thing I need right now.’
But I was surprised to learn his name was John.
John, the man who I had exchanged several e-mails with. It seemed strange yet fitting he should be the first one to meet today.
“Oh,” I said with a grin. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“You too,” he replied. “Now tell me, how do you practice?”
I felt confused by the question and started wondering what he meant, but instead of asking for clarification, I replied.
“In Edmonton, I learned about Thich Nhat Hanh,” I explained. “We did sitting meditation, and walking meditation.”
“I don’t mean that,” he replied quickly. “How do you practice?
“Here, we focus on our breath. Is that what you learned? It sounded like you have been practicing for a while.”
“Oh,” I said feeling my cheeks flush like a school girl, all the time realizing meditation was still a new and wonderful thing I was learning about every day. “Yes, I focus on my breath.”
“And did you go to the Jhongli Centre that we discussed,” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied gesturing towards my friend. “That’s how I met Monica.”
“Very good,” he said with a smile. “And, how did you find it?”
I laughed a little, remembering the experience fondly in spite of the initial confusion about how to get there, and ignored the fact that the meditation practice was held purely in a language different than my own. This is Taiwan, I thought, that’s what you get.
Local language, local culture.
“It was good,” I said shifting my weight between my feet. “Different, but good.”
“Oh,” he said with a slight rise in his intonation. “How so?”
“The exercise is different,” I said, my mind reeling through a list of differences that I would never be bold enough to explain to a stranger. “But it was OK.”
“It’s not just exercise,” he explained. “It’s moving meditation. It’s like walking meditation.”
I smiled uneasily, wondering if exercise would be the end of my practice or if I could learn to love moving meditation the same way I loved what the Edmontonians had taught me.
“Go inside and make yourself comfortable,” he said.
The room, and brown meditation mats, were divided in half.
I looked around and instantly remembered it was split up based on our gender.
“Which side is for women,” I asked mechanically, without questioning it and pointed across the room. “This one?”
“Find a spot,” John said pointing to the other side of the room. “We’re going to start with moving meditation. Make sure you have enough space for prostrations too.”
My gullet filled up with dread, and I began wondering why I came to practice meditation.
Chan is not my style and I could feel a load of arguments seething back up through my throat, just like my body had rejected the idea.
But I need this, my mind protested, it’s not like an allergy. ‘Get over it’ and ‘Please don’t let exercise be the thing that ruins this for you,’ I told myself nervously.
But it came as no surprise when I started wondering if it might happen anyways. I dreaded the thought. I knew myself and I knew my emotions a little too well at times. I need the practice to be a part of my life in order to lead a happy life, whether it be with, or without the exercise.
So, instead of focusing on what John was saying about exercise, my mind started racing through a long list of ideas collected last night, from my romantic Valentine’s Day. You know, the one I opted to spend alone despite several invitations to join friends, watching clips of TED Talks on YouTube. Maybe I’m getting old, but it was definitely my idea of a good time.
I dismissed the idea and followed my mind around the corners of its walls, as it raced through a list of ideas about Spoken Poetry by Sarah Kay, and began wondering if it was time for me to make a list. Maybe several. Then, I began making lists about lists that I needed to make.
‘No,’ my mind protested again. ‘Buddhism teaches you to be present, so why don’t you just try to do that.’
I took a deep breath in and tried to get rid of my allergy to exercise, rolling my neck, blissfully unaware of the movement.
Instead, I felt like a newborn taking its first steps. I wobbled around as we moved and stretched, and I tried diligently to do these simple poses without exerting too much energy without revealing too many of my imperfections showing.
‘Just get through it, and move on,’ I told myself.
Then, I was interrupted by a series of loud sounds echoing inside of the plain white room, and my thoughts were drowned by the noise. I watched carefully as a blonde foreign girl sauntered into the room late, and put her stuff in a pile beside a mat on the wrong side of the room.
How couldn’t she notice the room was divided by gender? Isn’t anybody going to tell her?
I would hope somebody would be kind enough to tell me if I made a mistake.
‘No,’ my mind protested. ‘A Buddhist would never tell you that what you’re doing is wrong. They would wait for you to realize it by yourself, or offer some sagely advice that pushes you towards this realization on your own terms. Maybe they would just listen, deeply, though.
I think Buddhism attracts the right kind of people. It’s a religion that encourages us to grow in our own ways. It’s a nurturing religion, and it’s one that would never throw somebody out on their ass, unlike many Western religions do so often with people who cannot conform to the rules.
I distinctly remembered being asked to leave a Spanish church for taking a photo inside of it, and what’s worse was standing in line for hours, to sightsee, but being refused entry to Vatican City in Rome for wearing a dress that merely showed my knees and shoulders when I was a blissfully ignorant 19-year-old.
Why wasn’t there a sign to save people the trouble at least? Because it would make too much sense, right?
These religions preach the same ideas as Buddhism. They teach practitioners to be faithful, and loving, and good, and compassionate; but when a person can’t fill out the pages of their lives based on the spiritual learning in their books, these people are flogged and the organizations refuse to adjust to help them.
Yet, in Edmonton, I listened to the abbot of the Truc Lam Monastery console people with drug addictions, bereavements, lover’s quarrels, children–you name it. He was insightful, and patient to everyone who approached him with question of any variety. I always learned from his Dharma talks because of his humour, wisdom and grace.
So, why can’t other religions do the same thing for people if all of these religions supposedly teach the same ideas.
I wobbled as one of my feet left the ground, and lost track of my ideas for a moment when John said, “Watch your hands. Stay focused.”
It was inevitable, I realized, my monkey mind is back and it was looking for revenge.
I was jilted when the practice shifted back into a sitting meditation.
Everybody sat down on their cushions, and sighed a breath of relief. Somebody even told the Western girl to sit with the women.
She sat down quickly on a mat beside me.
It seemed ironic.
We were sitting in two groups. The room was divided in half based on the number of cushions. There were 50 per nine men and only four women.
Two Taiwanese women sat in front of me, and the foreign girl plunked down on a cushion beside me.
I began waiting for further instructions, but the room fell silent. I kept waiting, wondering why the teacher sat behind us instead of in front of us and when he would talk to us.
I started wondering why the cushions we used at Chan meditation were round, not square and flat like the ones I’d used at Truc Lam.
My feet fell asleep, and I was still waiting for him to give us instructions. I was still wondering why there was no idol in front of us to worship and why it mattered. Then, I started wishing a statue or a mandala, a teacher or a poster was plastered up in front of us to cover up this hideous white wall with nothing on it.
Anything that might help me visualize relaxation and focused. I longed to feel relaxed and believe anything would have been better than a white wall, including someone to model my practice after, like a teacher.
And then, I began wondering why I was waiting to be told to get ready.
Why wasn’t I ready? What did I need to do to get ready? Why couldn’t my mind join my body and enjoy the moment?
But my mind was where it always was. I was making lists, comparing ideas and judging those around me. I wasn’t focusing on my breath, a teacher or a statue. I was focusing on the differences around me and struggling to be present.
Why do I even bother trying to practice?
Then my mind started running through ideas featured on TED Talks.
I was amused that poet Sarah Kay realized she could deliver Spoken Poetry because of a girl in a hoody. I was even more amused that a list could be turned into a poem, like Kay’s student, if you tried hard enough, and when I remembered the concept of making lists, I started sifting through the ideas collected last night after watching San Diego-based poet Rudy Francisco talk about his viewpoints during open mic presentations in California.
Finally, I remembered three TED Talks women gave about sex and laughed about some of the ideas. Maybe they were right, albeit a bit quirky.
I imagined these women talked in the same style I do–erratically, spontaneously, morbidly, curiously, funnily and fluidly.
But one of these women talked about being mindful with sex. She even quoted the Dalai Lama about it during her talk.
I paused for a moment, trying to remember the exact wording. She said, His Holiness once said, “Western women would change the world.”
If the Dalai Lama said Western women would change the world, why didn’t I question the room being divided based on gender? Why did I adhere to this pattern without seeing a problem? Why are there only two of us, Western women, here practising Buddhism today if that’s really true? And are we really more advanced women than the rest of the world?
The speaker certainly didn’t think so, and neither do I.
I began imagining horrific situations where women might be objectified or abused in other cultures, and began wondering if this idea could be true. Maybe it was.
One hour passed and I had only made a bunch of mental lists to review later.
I had an appetite for philosophy and a good discussion, but couldn’t talk in a room full of people when all I really wanted to do was write, or argue with someone about these topics.
I did not want to meditate.
Walking meditation began, and I couldn’t help but feel that I had been cheating on my sitting meditation.
I spent one hour caught up in memories, thoughts, comparisons and ideas. Maybe I shouldn’t practice Buddhism. Maybe it’s not possible.
I’m a writer and my personal narrator never stops talking.
I struggled, and began wishing my mind could delete files like my computer would, but so far in life, it couldn’t and it hasn’t.
How can a writer be a Buddhist if their inner dialogue never shuts up?
How can a writer take the conversations from their minds and pause them, or delete those files and start fresh at a meditation if they practice?
How can one be truly mindful and focus on breathing if these things never stop?
But, wait, why am I asking questions in this style? With these words?
How is my inner dialogue different than who I am as a person? And why is that qualified as “a bad” and “separate” thing?
How is a conversation with yourself, a different part of you, than yourself, and why is it labelled that way if it’s all in your mind?
How are Buddhist texts written in a surplus of languages if the inner dialogue a writer has never stops making these marks on their souls?
But these things exist, that’s how I came to know about Buddhism, so surely, it’s attainable to practice both of these skills–writing and meditating.
That’s what the Dalai Lama was talking about in his book. People walk around with unattainable dreams, and remain unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives because they have expectations that cannot be turned into reality. We spend so much time dreaming about permanence when everything in life is impermanent and then, we suffer when our dreams don’t come true.
And when their dreams don’t come true, the negative thing that doesn’t behave the way we want it to, becomes separate from ourselves in our mind. We call it names, like “it.”
We blame “it” for being “bad.”
Like, “practising Buddhism is bad.”
It isn’t the practices’ fault that I can’t be present at meditation today, it’s my own fault. Now, I finally understand what he was trying to write about in his book, “How to See Yourself As You Really Are: His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
I’ve been pouring through the pages of this book for months in spite of all the headaches that “it” filled my head with.
Maybe this is all a dream, and if “it” is just a dream, it’s one that I want to wake up from. “It” isn’t going well, even though I firmly believe Buddhism came into my life at exactly the right moment. “It” is bad.
Or, is it?
When the second round of sitting meditation was finished, and I still hadn’t been present or mindful for my practice, I began to feel disillusioned and annoyed. Suddenly, and without warning, a Taiwanese man addressed the group in English.
“Don’t think of your practice as good or bad,” he said loudly, with a chuckle from the bottom his belly. “Think of it as practice, and we practice simply to practice. The only bad thing we can do, would be to stop the practice.”
I smiled, realizing that the two hours I spent making mental lists and comparisons wasn’t a complete waste. I got to know myself better and learned how to understand my believes more. I got to practice.
‘How can a writer be a Buddhist if,’ I paused for a moment thinking about how to modify the sentence correctly, “our minds never stop?”