“I can’t control my destiny. I trust my soul; my only goal is just to be. There’s only now, there’s only here. Give in to love or live in fear. No other path; no other way. No day but today.” Jonathan Larson, author of the musical Rent.
This week I bundled into defensive outerwear and made my way downtown to the Shambhala Center on West 22nd Street in Manhattan. Normally adverse to the mind-numbing steel trap of winter, I was induced from my cozy uptown nest. The scheduled speaker, John Baker, is one of the most popular teachers at the Center. And I figured my soul needed a top up.
The Shambhala Center is in an old loft building between the neighborhoods of Chelsea—once a bawdy locale for malfeasance in the 1920s and 30s—and the Flatiron district, which coddled excess of another kind: feminine accessories for the rich woman’s lust for silks and jewelry to later display in the many theaters and concert halls once populating the area. With all that historical baggage surrounding it, the center can rightfully be called a haven.
Before the speaker got underway there would be a half hour of group meditation. The room is an inviting airy space, hung with colorful banners and punctuated by many blue pillows, which were rapidly receiving bottoms. As I waited quietly I surveyed the scene, checking out the arrivals: a punky couple—he with a full-out Mohawk furred atop his shaven skull; a young woman—her raven hair bobbed—wearing what looked like a wedding dress and huge rhinestone globes in her ears; the elderly man in Burberry clutching a vial of prescription tablets; a rangy red-head with killer biceps she didn’t mind flexing; a wheel chair-bound young man with spikey hair, and on the back of one t-shirt a jaunty rhino in a basketball outfit. There were a considerable number of gray heads among the audience and there was the blonde with the tight, beatific smile. I noticed a few Asians and very few African Americans. Why is that? In fact, I count only two Black women. My absent friend, who is African American, would have made it a trio.
The Buddha was the most ordinary of human beings.
The gong is struck, the room becomes still, and I am ready to be not thinking for the next half hour. As if summoned, the Trickster Monkeys take the form of rising heat and clatter through the pipes; it’s like a John Cage orchestration of hissing, scrambling, and what sounds like tinkling glass. Immediately I think about the play I have just seen; the New York premiere of Leaves of Glass. My friend Christopher Lione designed the costumes; he’s also read my novel twice; he thinks it should be a play. Maybe it will turn into a big hit…stop!
Okay, back to the breath. Stay in the moment.
Open awareness keeps us in the present moment so I should ignore the fire truck wailing in the streets below. The clattering Monkeys continue their orchestrated diversion. I think of Chinese New Year, the celebratory cacophony of sound one hears paraded through the narrow streets in Chinatown. What year is this? The year of the ox, that’s right. Hmmm, I read that Obama was born in the year of the ox. What will that mean for the next four years? The ox is solid, dependable, but not necessarily imaginative. Born under that sign Obama should be up to the monumental tasks ahead. Whew! Oh, but what about that stubborn streak? And he could be narrow-minded!
Holy Samsara! Get me off this wheel and back to the breath. I’m boiling, head beating like a clock that can’t tick fast enough. This is hot boredom. I need to be still like a rock in a cool mountain stream; cool boredom. I need to stop thinking. I sneak a glance at my watch and satisfied there is only moments left I finally relax into the silence of absent thought before the gong is struck again, signaling the end of the group meditation.
We stand and stretch, rustle about for a moment and then settle onto our cushions. The title of the talk is: “Discovering Boredom: taking our seat on the earth.”
The speaker is a genial man who immediately puts the audience at ease; well those who have, like me, not exactly got the sitting still thing mastered. Being human, he said, we tend to worry the same bone over and over again. We may be lost in thought and a person passes who reminds us of another who might have hurt us in the past and that hurt resurrects itself and before you know it ambling reverie becomes agitated argument. Or you may be thinking about your mother and thoughts turn to apple pie and then that fight with weight loss. Or, in my case, thinking about mother immediately conjures the graveyard scene at the end of the horror film, "Carrie."
He spoke about the six Buddhist realms of existence. Good to know he thought the highest realm—the God realm—was actually boring. The human realm was preferable because it has the best combination of suffering and intellect. The animal realm? Animals prey on each other; no one wants to be there. Not even an overindulged cat named Sidney, curled into one of his many beds back home.
Bernie Madoff, ubiquitous subject of media headlines even made it into the evening’s talk. The speaker revealed he had a close friend who lost everything—all his money invested with Bernie. Not a Buddhist, I guess, or at least not a very aware one. Surely, he said, there were those among the group who, if not personally infected with ponzitis, knew someone who was and called for a show of hands. Middle-of-the-night Googling had, in fact, revealed an uncle of the EX, now retired to Palm Beach, had indeed been scammed for some tens of millions. Snappily, I raised my hand for the count.
And then one has to think about starting over; about the new path one will find oneself on. Will we be better able to read the signs? Will we get lost again? If it’s The Mister and me, we will get lost again, although hopefully not in the spiritual sense. The Mister doesn’t go to the dharma gatherings, as he is already enlightened. But he does get lost. We are that couple of hikers who stand at the crossroads on a mountain path in the deliriously gorgeous Lake District in England and stare sagely at the directions to the marked trail, speculate aloud that we know exactly where we are going and then head off in completely the opposite direction. Or we make our arduous way up the steep slope of Mt. Helvellyn, scrambling over loose rock in our eminently unsuitable Doc Martens, only to be put off by the storm clouds gathering ominously and swiftly above us and within feet of what is purportedly a spectacular view we make a hasty retreat down the steep mountainside mostly on our asses. Later we’ll purchase a framed watercolor of the majestic mountain and crow aloud about our climb only to be told by the astonished shopkeeper that we completely missed a manageable route nearby that would have taken us to the celebrated view. “My dears, no one goes up the way you did.”
We have had to adjust along the path, though. Losing a job that earned me quite a good salary (and a hole in my spirit) has caused us to make a checklist of what’s really important. This happened long enough ago to have, by now, adjusted quite well with our less fatty finances. I am a reasonably good cook. Art and music and writing are fully back in our lives. We entertain each other.
This last tsunami of layoffs may have been bad for the bankers and those alpha male guys in finance but a blog I recently came across reveals it’s much harder on the wives and girlfriends. These women have taken the bull by the horns—so to speak—and bear their collective anguished souls on the Internet. Hyperventilating over that cancelled black American Express card, they’ve formed a support group: Dating a Banker Anonymous. How dare he tell her to grow up and stop complaining about holidays and 4-star restaurants when he’s got to fire a few hundred people at the end of the week! And she’s the mistress! Reservations at Masa are off the table now. It will be mac ‘n cheese at Ye Olde Waverly Inn—with luck—and without the truffles. Those Jimmy Choos? Get used to mucking in with sturdier stuff from Abercrombie & Bitch.
It’s the anxiety of hope and fear that drives drives capitalism and politics and…religion. There, I said it—inspired by a brilliant documentary I watched last night with The Mister. “For the Bible Tells Me So” shattered the illusion that anti-gay bias, among other heinous acts, is championed in the Bible. Like the politics of fear that have driven this country for too long, some religious leaders have thumped the holy book and driven spikes of hatred and self-loathing into hearts that should never be anything less than all inclusive muscles of love and acceptance for every human being.
Take a seat on the earth, everyone. Discover cool boredom.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Buddha
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