I headed to the Zen Center for a one-day introductory workshop. Ex-therapist Matt had described the center before I quit seeing him. Going there had seemed to help as he struggled through his divorce. I thought, Why not? The bouts of depression and anxiety from years of untreated post-traumatic stress had continued unabated, ramping up rather than calming. I was apt to try anything if it would help find a new way of being. The only way I knew how to exist was by zoning out (don’t ask where I go, I don’t know, just not here) or feeling anxious when I’m around others except Samuel, my kids, and cat, Polly. Out of the four, Polly wins the “most-trusted award.”
We live in the country by a creek. Samuel drives to the city nearby every day for work. I rarely travel there, yet took on the adventure excitedly. The city was foreign territory but I eventually found Harold, a quiet little street lined with trees. The homes sat at varying intervals back from the road, most hidden by more trees and shrubbery. Finding the house, I slowly pulled into the compact gravel parking area nestled under the shady greenery out front.
There’s calmness, a feel about the place that enveloped me like an embrace. My school bus yellow car looked out of place among the trees that formed a natural canopy, their branches shielding occupants from the hot sun. My love of bright colors lightens a tendency towards sadness, so clothing gravitates towards gaiety along with vividly splashed color on a few walls at home; not too many, Samuel, a quiet, conservative man, can only handle so much of that. The Zen Center felt like an oasis hidden amidst the chaos of the city, cement, exhaust, buildings too close and traffic too fast. I sighed, expelling the city with my breath.
As I was about to knock on the door, it opened to a smiling face.
“Hi, welcome. You’re here for the workshop?” the greeter asked, opening the door wide.
“Hi, yes!” I replied, noting the casual dress, relieved with my own choice of khakis and light top.
“Come in. There’s tea on the table. Help yourself. And sign in please. Once everyone’s here we’ll start.” She led me to the sign-in book, then pointed towards the tea table.
While she left to receive more guests, I made a cup of tea and stood near the wall watching the others. An eclectic mix of souls were gathering, maybe wondering “why” like me, searching for truth, or hoping to become one with themselves. Clothing ran the gamut from suit jackets and dresses to decent-looking jeans, shorts, and pants. The expansive entryway retained a simple charm, unpretentious and functional. The wooden walls and planked floors gave the space an earthy feel, helped by the slight hint of incense in the air.
Though alone, I didn’t feel out of place. There were small groups, couples, and other singles. Finally the foyer filled and the group moved to a spacious area down the hall large enough to accommodate forty or so. I chose a seat near the back. This room also had unvarnished walls, earth-toned with a large window behind the speakers‟ podium looking out to the backyard gardens. The lighting was soft, easy on the eyes. Milaca introduced herself and absorbed the audience; the lilt in her voice sounding slightly British. Later I learned she had traveled from Australia and would return to start a center there with her husband. Though the receptionist greeting guests at the door wore street clothes, Milaca looked monk- like with a long drab robe and a sash gathered around the waist. The extra cloth signified high ranking from years of practice.
The Zen master entered the room and took the podium. When he spoke, the group became quiet and attentive. He seemed kingly, resembling the lead from the movie “The King and I,” but more because of his regal carriage than his clothing. His words were clear and simple with a surprising addition of humor. He told a story of how Buddha began his quest. Buddha, who searched for the meaning of life, started as an angry young man. Maybe there was hope for me.
I longed for peace, for calmness, for whatever it was I saw in others who seemed to have it, who seemed to digest each moment one by one, slowly, not speeding past it. Full of anxiety, I withdrew to a place only I knew to feel safe from the present and the people in it. Yet those weren’t thing I could put into words. I didn’t know what I longed for, just anything different than what I had known. Moments of connectedness within, a calm interior: those miracles were to come. And since I didn’t know them, I couldn’t name them, just that there must be a better way to be.
After the morning’s introduction, we toured the kitchen where the cook prepared lunch and happily greeted everyone. Downstairs a room held cloaks which were offered for meditation, but not required. The cloaks were intended to cut down distractions while meditating so one’s eyes weren’t diverted by clothing colors. A smaller room off the side with little cubicles housed extra pillows for supporting knees and elbows if needed.
We were then led to the room where meditation took place: the zendo. The guide talked in a hush as if in respect of the room itself. The feel of it captivated me, quiet and serene. The only windows were up high near the ceiling, with the sound of birds drifting in from the trees outside, safe from the rush of the city. The smell of incense intensified. A large, almost life-sized gold Buddha sat at the front. Four rows of wide built-in counters, where you sat cross- legged, spanned the length of the room. Anyone sitting at the outer two rows faced the wall while meditating. Before the start of sitting, helpers put up temporary walls along the inner two rows. If you felt sleepy during meditation, by prompting the monitor with your hand by a signal behind your back, you’d receive a slight wrap on the shoulder with a stick. I definitely would not be doing that.
The guide added, “Anyone who experienced physical abuse during childhood or later on, would probably not want this form of prompting.”
After careful explanations about the process, the group broke for lunch, then returned to the zendo for afternoon meditation. Here I would have my first taste of relaxation. A brass gong clanged at the start and I eagerly found a spot. Breathe in, count one, breath out, count two, and so on until you get to ten, then start over. Come back to the breath; find your true nature…
Sounds easy, but too often I lost track of counting, my mind whirling with other thoughts, and suddenly the count was eleven, twelve, or thirteen. Counting to ten with the breath took practice. The gong struck again, signaling a walk around the room with eyes slightly downcast, then more sitting.
My knees ached, throbbed really, but I was determined to be like the rest. There were chairs set up at the outskirts for those with knee, back, or any other problems that interfered with sitting cross- legged. I wasn’t connected enough to my body to realize I was causing further injury to already arthritic knees. I would have been too shy anyway to take a chair and risk being different. So I sat cross- legged and almost cried with the pain as sweat beaded up on my forehead.
Still, even through the pain, something of value happened while sitting silently among a roomful of people. I quieted. Maybe I felt it only a moment or two, relaxation around others, my insides untwisting, but it was enough.
Shaking hands with staff, we said our goodbyes and I headed home, continuing with what I had learned, committing to a half hour a day. And over time, with practice, change occurred deep within.
The first year I set up a pillow as they had shown us, with extra support under the knees. It faced a white wall in a little room off our bedroom. The cross-legged position ended after knee surgery repairing a torn meniscus. Trying to be like everyone else, forcing my knees to bend and overextending the joints, probably caused the tear. Though it sometimes takes a big message, like surgery, for me to pay attention, I did change my position while meditating.
Practice continued by lying flat with a cushion under each elbow, my hands overlapping each other lightly across my lower abdomen, called the “hara”, or spiritual center. Using a thirty-minute timer, my cat curled up and purring on my stomach, my thoughts quieted as I concentrated on my breath. A peaceful interior began to grow, a connectedness within, and the ability to be present, unafraid.
More than all the years of therapists, money, time, and effort poured into feeling even a moment of peace, this one thing helped me find what I had been looking for: myself.