As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing. –C.P. Cavafy
I had a panic attack once while meditating. This is counter-intuitive, right? I mean, meditating is supposed to be relaxing. It’s supposed to put your mind at ease. And in fact, being at ease was what set the attack off in the first place.
I was in college, my first year. I was a participant in Zen meditation sessions led by one of my Asian Studies professors, a man named Tadanori Yamashita. I remember we were sitting there, counting our breaths up to ten, starting over again. Over and over. Breeeeaaathing. And then, I must have dozed, because all of a sudden my head snapped up with a start, my eyes wide, my heart beating wildly. I was sweating, and scared, and trembling. I felt like I would die.
I knew that what had happened was that I had fallen asleep, and in a more logical moment, I would have been able to recover easily from the momentary surprise and confusion of waking up. But I remember thinking “I have no control over myself. I have so little control over myself, I can’t even keep myself from falling asleep while sitting up. My body is out of my control.” And the more I thought about this, the more scared I got, and the more trapped I felt by the little tea house and the other students breathing beside me. I managed to not run out of the place, but I waited in a state of rising panic until I could scuttle back to my dorm, distract myself somehow, and take a Klonopin.
I practiced meditation on and off after that, in varying forms and in varying places. I wouldn’t say I’m a Buddhist, exactly, but there have always been things about Buddhist practices that spoke to me more than any other religion or philosophy. I can feel Buddhism in my bones – Attachment, in its myriad forms is real and it definitely causes suffering. I can see it every time I am in Target and decide that I need every colorful bauble and bit of cloth they sell. I can see it when I get fixated on a negative thought and turn it around and around in my brain until I feel completely mired in a pit of swirling, negative despair. The ability to see a sticky thing or thought and just let it sail by is a valuable one. It’s an ability I crave and strive for.
In 2008 (approximately,) a relationship of mine was falling apart. Ok, it wasn’t a relationship per se, but more of a friendship that involved some relationshippy things. It was not good for either party, but man did I cling to it ferociously. I tagged along with this man on a few occasions to the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery (KTC) in Wappingers Falls to meditate. The shrine room of the temple didn’t quite fit my previous spartan, zen-influenced aesthetics, with its walls of gold statues and colorful scrolls, and their beliefs and practices were somewhat unfamiliar. But the temple was beautiful, the people there sweet and gracious, and the vibe pleasant. I felt instantly at home there, standing in bare feet and drinking tea with the monks and nuns in their maroon and orange.
As this friend prepared to move to NYC, we went to the KTC for one last meditation session together. I knew at that point that things between us were falling apart (and that really, we weren’t compatible,) but was still deluding myself into thinking we’d rally somehow. I was terrified of being alone. I was still telling myself I would visit him, that he’d let me visit and goddamn it, he’d like it, that we’d hang onto this thread that connected us. That it wouldn’t hold us both back. I think I may have still thought that his talks of leaving might not be real. We hadn’t been romantically involved in a while, but I still told myself we may be again. I could. not. let. go.
That last night, we took our shoes off for the last time, walked upstairs to the shrine room for the last time, and sat down on those cushions for the last time. The bowl was hit and after it stopped reverberating, the room relaxed into silence.
I sat there, breathing, counting, thinking I was doing ok at the whole meditating thing (and then thinking “dammit! I thought something!”) But then, out of the depth of my chest, rose a sob.
I had been maintaining this balance between grasping frantically at this world I knew, and telling myself that I wasn’t actually losing that world. I had been distracting myself with internet and friends and video games and books. But sitting in that silent room, all of a sudden it hit me. Everything was changing. Again and constantly. And I had to change with it, or break.
It was embarrassing, sitting there wracked with sobs, hoping nobody else noticed. I dried my eyes as best I could, and at the end of the meditation, we walked outside into the cold evening and my friend talked to one of the residents there about finding a place to study in his new home. That was the moment I guess I knew there was no going back, and there would be no desperate clinging. I needed to let go.
Fast forward eight years (eight years! Wow.) That relationship (or whatever it was,) is long over, and I’ve moved on to better things, at least in the romance department. My father died in March, though, and I’ve been sort of floundering ever since. I’ve followed distraction after distraction trying not to get sucked down into the misery that is losing a parent.
I’m not typically a person who allows myself much mental downtime, which is maybe a big part of why I am so drawn to Buddhism, and meditation in general. Left to my own devices, I fill my brain with a million and one thoughts so I don’t have to confront the fear and sadness that lurks inside. This has been especially true since my father’s death. My preoccupation with occupying myself has been almost frantic. If I don’t stop moving, I don’t have to face myself.
It was among this sadness that I saw the post about the kirtan with Krishna Das at the KTC. I have only gone there once or twice since that last evening with the non-boyfriend, but I still have connections there, and despite now living 45 minutes away, I often think about going back. A free ticket (thanks, Doug!) gave me a good excuse to go.
(As an aside, Krishna Das has always occupied a special place in my heart as well. When I was pregnant with my now 13-year-old son, Keith, I listened to him obsessively. I brought the CD with me, in fact, when I went to give birth. Mother Song was literally the soundtrack to his entrance into this world. So to hear the artist in person was too good of a chance to miss.)
I brought Jp. We got there early, found seats on the floor of the KTC’s new Maitreya Center. It was beautiful and colorful and comfortable. I was told the statues were made out of butter. I found this fascinating.
After about a half an hour, Krishna Das came on the short stage with his accompanying musicians, and began to chant. Because it was a kirtan, we in the audience chanted back.
At one point, I looked to my left to see a thin, aristocratic-faced lady with her hair in an updo, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her cheeks. My initial reaction was embarrassment on her behalf for displaying emotion so brazenly. Then I tried to dismiss it with a shrug. I guessed she must have some deep emotional attachment to this song. That’s fine, right? We all have our secret pain.
I closed my eyes, then, and continued chanting along with everyone else, and then, all of a sudden, it hit me. On the Krishna Das albums I used to listen to, you’d sometimes hear a chorus of people chanting back. And here we were. We were the chorus. It sounds simple now that I write it out, but it hit me as this sort of divine truth in that moment, that we were part of this, every single one of us was part of this greater whole of humanity. We all suffer. We all have these feelings of loss and abandonment and sadness, and in that shared suffering, there is a sort of power. Because none of us are alone, because we’re all together in our aloneness.
Then the tears started rolling down my cheeks. And at first I thought Jesus Christ. Not again. I’m crying in public here again. (And then I thought what is this, some sort of communicable crying sickness?)
But as I wiped the tears away and continued chanting, I thought this is why I do this. This is why we’re here. To confront the monster of suffering, then wave as we sail on by.