A Slow Song

I am standing on the U-shaped wide-slatted bench that leads to the entrance of the meditation hall. My gaze is soft, aimed at the ground about 10 feet in front of me. If I step right, my foot fits just perfectly within one of the slats. In my head I am walking on a giant wooden piano, tapping out scales with my toes. I match my steps to my breath, my leg raising on the inhales, slowly descending on the exhales. The gong sounds on my third pass back and forth on the bench. Time to switch from walking meditation to sitting meditation.

It’s day five of the seven day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. I’ve finally gotten my severely overactive brain to slow down to the point where I am able to focus on my breath for minutes as a time. The first two days I was so restless during the sitting meditations that I thought I was nearing a panic attack. The conversations in my head were non-stop; mostly a variation of “You are in this beautiful meditation hall, in the middle of the woods, you can hear the birds singing, they are feeding you delicious, healthy food, why the fuck are you so agitated?” But I knew that the first few days were akin to detox; my body and mind were clearly going to try and rebel and fight against this extended practice of attaining inner calm.

The dharma talks in the evenings are led by our two teachers, Tempel Smith and Sally Armstrong, who sit at the front of the octagon-shaped hall on a raised bamboo platform, Sally on a cushion in lotus position, Tempel on a chair. He tells us on day one how his back problems keep him from sitting on a cushion, but that even when his back was fine and he was required to sit like the rest of us, on the floor, he often preferred the chair. The hall fills with relieved laughter. We’ve been fighting back pain, shoulder pain, numbness, stiffness for days now. I’m sitting in the front row, which is not at all what I do in large groups. Usually I stay near the back and observe. But I’m determined to beat back my sometimes debilitating anxiety without any medication, and I know being close to the source is what I need. I’d weaned myself off of Xanax over the past couple months, though I have a couple hidden in my shaving kit, back in my room. Just in case. Meditation, not medication. That’s my mantra.

Although I know I’m supposed to not have impure sexual thoughts, I’ve formed spiritual crushes on both my teachers, who tell such wise, grounded, relatable stories of their own Buddhist journeys, their own struggles with mental illness, existential angst, and self-doubt. They admit to us that they continue to struggle with their inner demons, to this day, but that with meditation, with dharma study, they have acquired many tools to combat the power of crazy mind. This is both a relief and tremendously disappointing. I’m not alone in this, but the work to keep the negative, critical thoughts at bay will never cease.

A creeping sadness overtakes me, knowing that there’s only two more days of this. I don’t want it to end. Which I realize is clinging, which leads to suffering, which is what they have been teaching us all week. But now I can see this, can see the irony of it and am not anxious about it at all. Just wistful. Wistful for what hasn’t even happened yet. And then it passes and I’m back with my breath.

We end each evening meditation with a chant, a song really, in the Pali language, which is the language of the Buddha. It’s a chance to use our voices and although I am normally highly self-conscious of my singing voice, I don’t hold back when we repeat the phrases that Sally chants first. I trust that we are not invoking evil spirits with these ancient words that sound like baby talk. The first night I had looked around to see if anyone else thought all of this was silly and hippy-dippy. What were we going to next, hold hands and sing Kumbaya? Now I see the chanting as the perfect dessert after a delicious meal.

After the chanting, the hall is left open for another hour for anyone who wants to continue sitting. The previous four nights, the idea of sitting “extra” never occurred to me and even sounded slightly insane. Tonight, I remain on my zafu, my hips more open than I can remember, my tight knees even hitting the cushion without strain. I feel a warm, electrical buzz over my entire body.  It feels like five minutes later when the retreat manager comes in to blow out the candles and turn off the dimmed lights. I don’t want to leave.

I walk back to the dorm; the chirping and bleating of night-time insects fill me with a ridiculous, euphoric giddiness and I wonder if I will be able to sleep. Where a normal walking pace would take me five minutes, tops, it takes me almost an hour to travel the short distance to the building. The world is my piano and I am playing my slow song.


Dreams of Loneliness

I board the 8:34am BART train at Fruitvale Station. The car is packed but I’m able to push my way through and grab onto a hanging strap away from the doors. If there are no delays on the line I should reach Civic Center Station at 8:57. And if I maneuver my way to the car nearest the up escalator, and if I speed walk through the crowded station, am able to avoid stepping in all manner of mysterious liquid and solid along the way, then tap dance up the 48 steps to Market Street, I might make the 9am express line to my office on Townsend Street, eight blocks away. I run through this math in my head as the train lurches toward Lake Merritt. I click the play button on my iPhone, close my eyes, and sink into the latest This American Life podcast episode. Ira Glass’ nasal drone calms my nerves and helps me forget that my face is within inches of five different armpits. I thankfully am not a germaphobe, but even so, I remind myself not to touch any place on my body until I can fish out my hand sanitizer. I take only shallow mouth breaths to avoid inhaling any aromas I fear might linger in my nostrils (and my clothes).

This is my usual morning commute.

Only on this particular day I seem to have forgotten my headphones. I’ve been on a social media fast, and I’m not willing to break it to occupy these newfound minutes mindlessly tapping through Facebook. No, I will stand here and simply keep my gaze forward. Observe the rainbow assortment of individuals sharing the crowded train ride with me. I scan the car to see if anyone else has empty ears and device-free hands. Just two older Asian ladies with wide-brimmed visors talking to each other. I decide that doesn’t count.

I pull my cell phone from my jacket, twice, out of habit, then quickly shove it back in my pocket, as if attempting to disguise an illegal activity. The train empties slightly, then re-fills at Lake Merritt Station. It’s not quite a can of sardines — more like a box of cereal: contents shifting to adjust to the size of the container.

At the far end of the car I hear a man’s deep voice booming: “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen! I have a son who needs medicine.”

Oh great, another guy trying to suck money out of us hardworking commuters, I think, and, I imagine, so do many others. I can feel a communal exasperated energy, watch people glance up from and then quickly back down to their devices, effortful attempts at ignoring this “intruder.” As the man heads in my direction, I see he is a slight, middle-aged African American man, his red flannel shirt and dark blue slacks hanging off him as if being pulled down by weights. He is holding an acoustic guitar in front of his reed-thin body as he navigates through the crowd. He stops right beside me and I see that the guitar strap is a shredding loop of twine. He speaks again: loud, but not aggressive. A performers voice.

“I’m going to play a song for you, and if you like it, I sure would appreciate anything you could spare. My son appreciates it too. God bless.”

I don’t make eye contact with the man at first, partly because he is so close, but also because I’m pretty sure I only have 20s in my wallet, no small bills, and realize I cannot give him anything. The thought of tipping this man 20 dollars doesn’t occur to me. As if there’s some sort of unspoken busking payment rule that I have always blindly followed.

The guitar and voice begin together and it only takes me about five seconds to realize that the man is playing the Fleetwood Mac classic, “Dreams.” It’s my favorite song from their Rumours album and this guy is giving Stevie Nicks a run for her money. While at the same time pulling off some truly intricate Lindsey Buckingham guitar licks. On a beat up old acoustic. His wizened, weathered face is a foot and a half from mine and it reads like a roadmap of decades of struggle.


He bends his head to the side as he attempts the high notes on the line, “Who wants to wrap around your dreams,” and he nails it. After a minute of watching this man embody the emotional power of the song, I reach into my inside jacket pocket, check my wallet and find that I have a ten dollar bill. I pull it out and hold it tightly in my palm, then turn to watch the man continue on with the song. When I see him turn back to face me, I drop the bill into a hat he has placed by his feet. Without breaking the pace or mood of the song, he smiles and sings “thank you,” while looking directly into my eyes, incorporating the words into the lyrics. I am overcome with a feeling of deep empathy laced with a heavy dollop of guilt, and the incongruity of these emotions makes my face twitch.

He finishes, “When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know. You will know. Oh, whoa whoa, you’ll know.” The guitar strums its final notes.

I’m the only one who claps.

A young African American woman with an infant in her arms, seated on the handicapped bench, reaches into her purse and gives him a dollar. He thanks her, then me again and pushes his way to the other end of the car. I don’t see anyone else offer him any money.

We arrive at West Oakland station and he’s gone.

Now here you go again, you say
You want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It’s only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost