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 9:34am BART train at Fruitvale Station and the car is full but not packed and I’m able to grab onto a hanging strap away from the doors. If there are no delays on the line I should reach Civic Center Station at 9:57, and if I move to the car nearest the escalator, which is 3 1/2 cars up and if I speed walk through the station and up the stairs to Market Street (I know this because I’ve been riding this train for 7 years), I might make my 10am shuttle to my office on time. I do this math in my head within seconds after the train lurches toward Lake Merritt Station. But I know exactly what my percentages are; it’s my ritual. A form of OCD. In 24 minutes time I will be running through underground tunnels filled with commuters, homeless, buskers and tired looking BART employees. I will dart past the guy who plays hits of the 70s and 80s (and some 90s) on the accordion, his long-time dog companion beside him in a red wagon lined with flannel blankets. Sometimes the two of them wear matching hats. When I’m not in a hurry I throw a couple dollar bills in his accordion case, especially when he plays something by the Talking Heads or Devo, which I know are his favorites. I wish I thought ahead to have brought along a bag of dog treats. Next time, I say to myself as I run past, making sure not to step in a puddle of urine. I scurry up the steps to Market, skip through the crowded street between  8th and 9th, weaving and bobbing through an obstacle course of businessmen, homeless, folks in wheelchairs and tourists; and I just make the shuttle with mere seconds to spare.

This is my usual morning commute.

Only on this particular morning I forget my headphones and decide that I’m not going spend these 24 plus minutes mindlessly tapping through Facebook on my phone. No, I will stand here and look forward. Or upward. Maybe focus on my breath. Maybe I’ll count how many other commuters aren’t wearing white earbuds or headphones to keep them separated from the rest of the crowd. I notice two others. I pull out my cell phone twice, out of habit, hold my thumbprint to the button that unlocks the device and stare at the twenty app icons on the first screen. I remember that I agreed to not be a phone zombie this morning and put the cell back in my jacket pocket. The train fills at Lake Merritt. It’s not a can of sardines, but it’s definitely 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 voice booming: “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen! I have a son who needs medicine.” Oh great, another guy trying to get money out of us hardworking commuters, I think and so do many others. I can feel their exasperated energy, the effortful attempts at ignoring this “intruder.” As the man heads toward me, I see he is a slight middle-aged African American man, his 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 strap of the guitar is a shredding ring of twine. He speaks, loud, but not aggressive. A performers voice.

“I am 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 look directly at the man at first, partly because he is so close, but also because I am pretty sure I only have 20s in my wallet, no small bills, and realize I cannot give him anything. I look around the car and most everyone is pretending he isn’t there, that he doesn’t exist.


The guitar and voice begin together and it only takes me about five seconds to realize that he is playing the Fleetwood Mac classic, “Dreams.” It’s one of my favorites from their “Rumours” album and this guy is able to give Stevie Nicks a run for her money. And he’s able to pull off some truly intricate Lindsey Buckingham guitar lines at the same time. On a beat up old guitar. After a minute I reach into my backpack, check my wallet and find a ten dollar bill. I pull it out and hold in in my palm for a few seconds, then turn to watch the man continue on with the song. His weathered face is a foot and a half from mine. He closes his eyes. I see him bend his head to the side as he attempts the high notes on the line, “Who wants to wrap around your dreams,” and he hits it. I drop the bill I’m holding in my palm into a hat he has placed by his feet. Without breaking the pace or mood of the song, he sings “thank you,” while looking directly into my eyes, incorporating the words into the lyrics of the song.

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 in the handicapped bench, reaches into her purse and gives him a dollar. He thanks her, then me again and strolls to the other end of the car. No one else gives him anything.

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