When I was a younger man, TVs had static. Try as you might to keep the picture stable, your screen would, in time, fill with ghosts and shadows. So you'd gamely attempt to fix it. You'd move the aerial, then move it again into more convoluted positions to catch the broadcast. But eventually even this would fail and you'd have to retune the channel to get your picture back, which involved dialling, slowly, one way only, through endless, flickering phosphorescent clouds of static, hissing and buzzing at you like furious bees with all the yellow sucked out of them. But you'd keep on winding the knob, through the barren wasteland of the VHF spectrum, hoping to return to the more perfect world you remembered.
Nowadays, of course, it's just a serene, digital blue between the channels. I like to think that's what enlightenment must be like. Just this endless sea of deep, abiding calm before...plink... you arrive at the correct mindset for whatever situation you find yourself in. But every time I sit down in zazen it's like those same angry bees are my thoughts, buzzing around inside my head like I'm a bear that stole their honey.
I don't recall how exactly I started meditating. After her funeral definitely. I remember I hadn't been sleeping. Maybe a colleague suggested it as I wanly roamed the cubicles, maybe I simply saw a pamphlet in a kebab shop. But I did look into it, and found the whole concept of calming the mind beguiling. I didn't know what to expect when I turned up to the introductory class, nervous and awkward, but they explained the basics, the focusing on breath and then the gradual refinement of focus to a single point of concentration, and what did I have to lose? I knelt among the cross-legged and the lotuses, sequestered in the dim, incense-clouded light of a small meeting room on an out-of-the-way street, breathing, focussing, refining.
Right from the beginning, my thoughts were wrathful hornets in my skull.
I put it down to inexperience. I kept trying, showing up regularly for weeks, months even, but there was no calming of the mind, not even a slight lull. I have to admit, at the time I thought there was something wrong with me. But some of the regulars were talking about how intense weekend retreats could propel one's progress, so I decided to give one a try.
Retreats turned out to be weird, mostly silent affairs, based around regimented mindfulness. Those few occasions I was allowed to talk, I would always ask "How can I calm my thoughts?" and they'd say something typically cryptic about how "it's not the thoughts I need to calm but a stick of dried dung". Or something like that, it never made the slightest bit of sense to me, but apparently that's the point. I'd heard the story of how Bodhidarma spent nine years meditating in front of a cave wall, so I stuck with it. "Rome wasn't built in a day," I said to myself, "and Kyoto probably wasn't either. It'll get better."
It didn't get better. I gradually switched to a cross-legged position, or as near to it as my aging knees could manage. I worked through my breathing exercises, settling my concentration to a tiny pinprick in the pit of my belly and, sure enough, within moments my thoughts would rise up in a cavalcade of wishes, ruminations and anxieties. Each and every time. My body would twitch, physically acting out, squinting from the memory of embarrassing incidents, swaying at snippets of catchy songs, shivering uncontrollably at the recollection of the few times of my life when I've truly felt fear. Those I talked to about it, my fellow retreaters and practitioners, all told me that I shouldn't worry, that everyone has trouble to start with. And they were half right. My difficulties didn't go away, but after a while I did stop worrying about it.
In fact, I came to enjoy it. Every morning, half past six, I'd make my blurry-eyed way to the little spot I'd set up in the corner of my bedroom, pull as many feet into my lap as my ligaments would allow, then just stare at the wall, breathe, and wait for the inevitable raucousness to begin. I never had to wait long. They were all there, just lurking beneath the thin veneer of my conscious mind, all the hopes and concerns and feelings that I'd buried, or forgotten, or desperately tried to forget. All the times I'd done the wrong thing, or the right thing, but it had gone horribly wrong, all the arguments and the reconciliations, all the victories and defeats. Sneaking out after dark to kiss my first girlfriend. Her miming fingers down her throat, making vomiting noises to her friends when I passed them in the street after she dumped me. Getting my degree handed to me on stage at the town hall. Getting my first student loan pay deduction. Sad, solitary emissions. Pre-marital sex. Marriage. Marital sex. The funeral. Sad, solitary emissions. It was all there, there was no hiding from it. It was almost better than keeping a journal, not least because you didn't have to bother with the actual writing.
After a while, though, I stopped going on retreats. They were getting a bit pricey for no real improvement. I even stopped going to my group meditation practice because I didn't really see the point. Nobody else was undergoing what I was experiencing, and none of their advice seemed to help, and I wasn't even sure that I wanted it to. It was comforting just to know that they were always there, in my otherwise empty house, waiting for me to sit down on my cushion and rejoin them. I'd begin to breathe, and just let them swarm all over the honeycombs of my mind.
Don't get me wrong, I did make some improvements in my practice over time. I finally managed to sit in the full lotus position, and then, much later, I was able to maintain it without the knee and back-pain I had assumed would always be part of things. My practice times grew longer, minutes stretched to hours. This meant I was coming into work later and later, but the increasing irritation of my boss and my co-workers didn't phase me. In fact it barely even registered. That is, until one day it rose from the depths of my subconscious , a particularly vicious thought-wasp that had me literally quaking with guilt over how much they must have been carrying me for the last little while, and I realised, then and there, that I had to do something. My apathy toward work was becoming a serious problem.
So I quit my job. At the time it made perfect sense. I still had a huge wad of life insurance money, and work was getting in the way of my practice anyway.
The internet is a wonderful thing. I was able to have food and groceries sent to my door, and though I was resentful of the time that unpacking it took away from my practice, I still realised that literal starvation would hardly be an alternative. So I took the necessary amount of time out of my day to attend to all the trivial stuff: eating, ablutions, sleeping.
The rest of the day was spent in practice and in reverie, reliving and rethinking all the things that had made my life my life. One after another, an endless succession with no recognisable sense or sequence. But they were mine, truly mine, to have and to hold. Even the painful recollections were old friends, returning in splendour after some time away. I revelled in it, my entire body vibrated with it. The hopes and the hurt. Our fights and our dreams. The day we'd found out we couldn't have children. The wrongness of preferring margarine to butter. The hospice room with the wall of machines. The scent of somebody I never spoke to. Waiting for her in a small, wooden, chapel. Watching her drift down the aisle, radiant in her perfect, blue dress. Every word of our vows, the things we said, the things we left unsaid. The ring sliding onto her finger. Lifting her veil. Her face, her face…
Her face is nothing but static. Oh, God, I love her so much.