Down the Rabbit Hole
I placed my Zafu (meditation cushion) on the floor and sat facing the wall. I set the timer on my phone for twenty-five minutes and took my seat. I relaxed my gaze and focused my attention on my breathing.
In, out, in, out. The gentle rhythm of my breathing lapped against the shore of my mind like small waves born from a quiet ocean. I sat on the shore and looked out across the water as a seagull lazily circled before settling down to bob peacefully on the tide.
I whipped around to see a Buddhist monk running down the shore towards me, his saffron robes billowing behind him.
“Matt!” he called again, drawing near.
The monk arrived breathless and covered in sweat. He doubled over as he tried to catch his breath resting one hand on my shoulder for support.
“Matt,” the monk huffed, still fighting for air, “I had to tell you. You forgot to get new heads for your electric tooth brush.”
And with that, he was gone. I shook my head in disbelief but again refocused on the gentle lapping of the waves as they greeted the shore.
Far out beyond the waves a seagull took off squawking in protest as a large boat plowed through the still water leaving a foaming white wake like a horrible scar across the sea. I shielded my eyes against the sun and could make out “The S.S. Cancer” written in italics across the hull of the boat and there was a banner trailing behind with the words: “43% of men will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime.”
“That could be you,” said the monk, suddenly by my side again. “Who knows, maybe you have cancer right now.”
“My stomach did hurt this morning…” I said, but as I blinked the monk was gone again and I wasn’t on a beach anymore. I was at my medical school in a small conference room.
“I said: ‘What is the hereditary condition characterized by bronze skin, high blood sugar, and joint pain?’” the professor repeated, staring expectantly at me.
“I, uh,” I stuttered, “Did you guys see a monk come through here…”
“A what?” asked the professor incredulously.
“Nevermind,” I said, “Isn’t the condition called Wilson’s disease or something?”
“No, Matthew. If you had been paying attention in lecture earlier instead of chasing that monk –“
“So you did see a monk!” I said, looking around the room expectantly.
“– You would know that the condition I was referring to was hereditary hemochromatosis.”
“Oh, I,” but as I formulated my reply the conference room went dark, and when the lights came back on I was alone. I was surrounded by a silence so profound that it made the inside of my left ear itch. The silence burrowed into my ear canal, eventually settling in like a family of fleas who found the last open dog in a world full of Frontline Plus.
The itch was so all-consuming that I felt the axis of my world tilt to balance anew on this profoundly irritating sensation. Just as I felt my world slipping over the edge, the empty conference room disintegrated and I found myself sitting cross-legged in an octagonal room with mirrors for walls.
I gazed into the mirror in front of me and saw an image of myself sitting on my Zafu, eyes downcast, and back straight. My reflection was a kaleidoscope, echoing infinitely deeper into the mirror world. At the very last derivative of self-reflection I saw the briefest shadow of a flowing robe as it disappeared around the corner of the image.
I stood and ran head long into the first, the second, the third reflection, catching another glimpse of flowing robes slipping behind the eighth reflection. So I picked up speed and ran deeper into my reflected selves. The eighth, the ninth, the tenth. And then all of a sudden as I plunged into the eleventh reflection I emerged back on the shore in a crash of glass. The waves greeted me with their gentle lapping and the seagull had returned to bob along with the gentle tide. I looked up and down the shoreline but did not see my friend the monk.
I walked slowly to the edge of the shore and sat down to watch the waves and smiled.
There is a common misconception that to meditate we must not think. This misunderstanding sets the practitioner up for failure. Thoughts are as inevitable as the movements of the sun. And in some ways thoughts lie just as far beyond our willful control. When we try to will our thoughts out of our minds it is like desperately blowing into a blazing fire to get it to stop: we only end up adding fuel and feeding the flames.
Breathing meditation is a process of recognizing one’s thought process, acknowledging it, and refocusing on the breath. That’s it.
The very moment you recognize that your thoughts are wandering you have already arrived back on the path of mindfulness and no further action is required.
Don’t chase after monks, just enjoy the journey.
Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?
— Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Laozi, and Stephen Mitchell. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.