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Silk Scarf
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Silk Scarf

Reality is a funny thing.
You'd think it would be the one thing you can count on, the base of experience, solid and constant. Otherwise, what do you have to stand on? There'd be no ground beneath your feet. But it's not. It's as flighty as everything else.

Buddha talked about the impermanence of everything, and how it's the trying to hang on to things that causes suffering. He talked about "what is" as though "what is" is something you can count on, different from everything else. Trouble is, it's pretty hard to know what is when even that won't hold still. So the trick is to be in the moment—what is, in this moment, is reality, and there is no other. It's tough when you're brought up to believe in permanent things like America and God and Mom and Dad and Good and Bad. Study hard in school so you get good grades so you can get a good job so you can make enough money to live and buy things you want and some wonderful person will come into your life and want you and the two of you will have a nice house and a string of nice cars and a string of nice kids and when you've lived your life you can go to Florida and play golf the rest of your time here.

I thought that was reality. Well, I guess I believed it for a while, anyway. Easy to get cynical when you see things that happen even when people do the right thing.

Eventually, I traded in that idea of reality for something that seemed to work better for me, at least. I had this alarm bell in my head that went off when anybody tried to tell me about something that I couldn't check out for myself. "Faith" was pipe dreams. So was God. Even Good and Bad didn't always fit the circumstances. Like in the seventies, things that people had told me were bad turned out to be not so bad, after all. I smoked a little pot, and well, it was interesting, and I wouldn't want to have to drive a car with it in my head—I couldn't even speak a complete sentence—but it changed my ideas about "reality." (Again.) So I decided I'd just have to check out everything for myself.

I was an old man when I discovered I'd have to do some more work on reality. I read some things about the "perennial philosophy," a collection of ideas that seemed to be true no matter what part of the world you grew up in. The fact that most people didn't know anything about the perennial philosophy only meant that they hadn't thought deep enough to get past the America and God and Mom and Dad and all that stuff that supposedly never changed but didn't look the same from other perspectives. For a long time I thought there ought to be something bigger than just what I could see and taste. For one thing, as I got old I couldn't see or taste or hear or smell or feel or remember as well as I used to. It was depressing, to just kind of fade away before I was even ready to die. Like Shakespeare wrote somewhere (I think it was him, anyway), you end up "sans teeth, sans everything." I didn't care much about dying anymore. I could laugh about buying a mattress with a twenty-year warranty when nobody could guarantee that I'd be around in twenty years to collect on it. But I had this feeling that it all must add up to something, something I didn't have a clue about. In the perennial philosophy, there was something more. The trouble is, you can't get it just by reading a book. I know. I read lots of books, and I still didn't get it. I didn’t even think I had enough time left in my life to really get it. People spend their whole lives and don't always get it. But according to the books on the perennial philosophy, if you do finally get it, "it" comes out pretty much the same, no matter where you are.

A guy named Ken Wilber got me started on it. He explained that the only dependable way to get it is to meditate, to develop your mind so it can see from a better perspective. He quoted Buddha, who said not to take his word for anything: "just do the practice, and see for yourself." The practice for most people is to sit on a cushion for hours at a time and watch your mind at work. Don't try to do anything, don't try to steer it, just watch. After years of this, you'll begin to see. As Buddha put it, you'll wake up.

It's funny, but when I had all those years I could have spent on it, I didn't know anything about it. If I had, I probably would have thought I had better things to do with my time than sit on a cushion. Now that I don't have much time left, nothing else seems so important, so here I am. If I run out of time before I get it, so what have I lost? We're a long time dead anyway. A few years more or less don't matter.

I started sitting on my own, ten minutes a day, and then sometimes twenty. My body hurt a lot, but gradually I could think of other things than how much it hurt. My left leg went to sleep regularly, and I had to be careful when I finished that I didn't try to stand up right away. When you're old, it hurts more to fall down. That's part of reality that seems to be pretty solid. Funny they didn't say anything about it in the perennial philosophy. I guess it isn't philosophical enough.

I met some other people who were into meditation, and we got together every couple of weeks to sit together. It helped me to keep my interest. I attended some day-long retreats, and then some weekend retreats, where you sit for hours and hours. They let you up every so often to stretch your legs and your back, and they called it "walking meditation," so you could keep watching your mind. That helped my body, but I couldn't stay as "mindful" when I was walking. Meanwhile, I kept reading. That also kept me interested, and reminded me regularly what I was trying to do.

One thing I discovered was that, while a weekend meditation retreat gave me more time to practice without so much interference from day-to-day experiences, I still felt that just about the time I began to really get into it, it was over. So I thought about going to a center and doing a long retreat. Maybe I'd get the hang of it better if I could just get away from my life for a while. It turned out that there are a lot of places just for that, and I didn't have to go to Southeast Asia or Tibet. Bunch of them in California, as you could imagine. Since I'm retired, I could take the time, once I got the money together to fly there.

I chose a ten-day retreat. One of the teachers was somebody I had read in his books, and he seemed to talk a language I could understand. I didn't know any of the others. I figured they'd included him as a marketing thing, and he'd probably drop in once in the ten days but would be too busy flying around the world signing books or setting up meditation centers to spend much time in my retreat. But I didn't have much else to judge from.

Another world, a different reality
I got to the center early, and walked around taking pictures. It was a beautiful place, set into a little valley between some hills, where the trees stay green among all the brown grass that covers the hills. The sun shown just about every day and the nights were cool. There were about a hundred people there to meditate. We all had separate sleeping rooms. In the very beginning, they told us that this was a silent retreat, that we weren't to speak for the whole ten days, except to the teachers during question-and-answer sessions. I didn't think I'd have much problem with that, because I don't say much anyway. I like people, but in a crowd I usually sit on the side and don't offer much conversation. I probably think too much. People have told me that, anyway.

So here we were, a hundred people, like going to classes in a college, but never speaking. People didn't even look at other people much, just looked down and seemed lost in thought all the time. Actually, it was a little spooky at first, seeing all these people walking slowly, almost like the zombies in the old movies, shuffling along, not looking around or anything. I sneaked looks sometimes, but mostly kept my head down. I tried to keep watching my mind, but it had a mind of its own, and kept going off somewhere else.

The routine was that they rang bells or gongs for everything. Somebody came through the residence buildings ringing a bell at 5:45 A.M. A half-hour later, they hit this big gong outside the meditation hall for the first sitting. After forty-five minutes, we broke for breakfast. Eat silently, meditating on your food and all the people who had helped bring it to you. Then about an hour of "work meditation," chores that were assigned to you so you would keep in touch with the "real world." I ran a vacuum and dusted and swept. Then it was sitting for another period, then walking meditation, then sitting again, and so on through the day. At nine-thirty at night we were off, and I collapsed in my bed.

The pain in my back and hip kept getting worse. They said we didn't have to sit on the cushions if it was distracting us from our meditation. They had some comfortable chairs that worked for me, although my back still hurt like hell. I experimented with positions and cushions, but three days into the retreat I began to wonder what the hell I was doing there. Literally.

Where did it go, "reality?"
Somehow my brain shorted out or something. I could not remember what we were supposed to be doing there. Oh, I knew we were meditating, and this was supposed to enable us to reach higher states of awareness. But I became convinced that it was all a sham or something, pie-in-the-sky "enlightenment." I began having this conversation in my head—actually, a courtroom drama, like in Ironsides, in which I was demanding that the teachers convince me about the logic and worth of this retreat. Even as I went through it, I could see that I was irrational. It was bizarre. Here I was, seventy years old, in the middle of a large group of people who seemed to know exactly what they were doing, and I truly didn't know why we were there. I thought about leaving and going home, wasting all the money I'd spent, having to explain to my wife and the people back home that it was all a mistake. No, I couldn't do that. For one thing, I couldn't admit to having made that big a mistake (all my meditation hasn't made much of a dent in my ego). So I decided to prepare myself to confront a teacher at my next interview. I was almost in tears with pain, both physical and emotional.

Then, at the evening dharma talk, which was simply a lecture on the basics of mindfulness and meditation and Buddhist philosophy, one of the teachers began to talk about the Five Hindrances.

Buddhism started some 2600 years ago, and most teaching was done orally. Students memorized the things they had to know, and to make the process easier they grouped things, labeling the groups with the number of things in them. The Four Noble Truths. The Eight-fold Path. And so on. The Five Hindrances are the main things that people run into that keep them from being awake to what is. They are: Sensory Desire, Ill Will, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness, and Doubt.

Ten minutes into the dharma talk, I began to grin. "How did you know?!!" I asked him in my head. He had nailed me, even before I had a chance to nail my theses on the church door. Doubt was what I had, and it had come, very likely, because of my pain and because I knew that I wouldn't give up on something I believed in. My mind had sabotaged me. I could hardly believe it. Of course, I knew by then what I was there for, what we were all there for, to learn mindfulness. Simple as that. A single word that I knew and believed in and wanted to possess as my own. My own mind had blocked it out. Totally.

By the time the teacher had gotten to the Fifth Hindrance, I knew it better than he did. My episode had dissolved as cleanly as it had begun. Troubled, however, I wondered how I could have so completely lost my mind. I still can't quite believe I did that. But I did it, and that's part of my reality. The rest of the ten days went by without any repetition of such weirdness. There were times when I was tired of it, or sick of it, or just plain ready for it to end. But I never again lost sight of why I was there. My body gradually accommodated to the sitting and walking, and I actually had some sessions that ended before I was quite ready.

Some time ago, when I began to realize how out-of-control my mind is, I would time my moments of awareness, when I knew I was truly present, by counting my breaths. Almost always, by the time I got to six or eight, my mind had gone off on a side trip. After a week in the retreat, even with all the pain and weirdness, I began to stretch that out to longer and longer periods. I'd count up to 30 or 40 breaths, and then stop counting just because there didn’t seem any point to it anymore. Maybe I was making progress.

The people there were a cross-section of society. Some, I learned later, were from other countries (since I never heard them speak, I never knew they had accents). There were teen-aged girls and both men and women who were obviously older than I. One big strapping fellow wore tee-shirts touting a horse ranch in Montana. I'd never have guessed, if I had met him on the street, that he meditated. Some people seemed as though they were naturally outgoing, even though they maintained their silence with the rest of us. I thought that they must be having a lot more trouble with not talking than I was. Gradually, I got to recognize people, and wondered sometimes where they were from, what they did in the outside world, how long they had been meditating, what the experience was like for them. I found out from the teachers at the very end that for some of them it was the very first retreat. Others had been attending these things for twenty years or more. I felt better about myself when I saw people much younger than I rubbing sore muscles and struggling to stay upright and alert on their cushions.

The silk scarf
One woman caught my eye early in the retreat, simply because she had a brightly colored silk scarf pinned to her shoulder. Nearly everybody wore comfortable clothes, like sweatshirts, sandals and jeans. The staff had advised us to bring shoes for walking, as well as slip-ons that could be left at the door. (Shoes were not permitted in the meditation hall or the residence halls.) Many went barefoot inside, and some even outdoors. I watched one man standing barefoot in the line to breakfast outside the dining hall, and wondered how he could stand there on the cold pavement with the temperature around 40 degrees. He must have been practicing meditation for a lot of years.

She—with the silk scarves—was about my age, I guessed from the look of her skin, with white hair and delicate features. At one time, I thought, she must have been a real beauty. No, I decided, she was still a great beauty. Her body was slim and graceful, and she wore expensive clothes. Not that she seemed ostentatious—just in good taste. One of those women who were so far out of my social class that I would never have considered speaking to them. She intrigued me even as she intimidated me. Each day, she wore the trademark scarf, whether with blue jeans or an African robe. In other circumstances, I had no doubt, she would have been surrounded by an incredibly subtle—and expensive—scent. And men.

They had asked us to not wear perfume or use scented cosmetics, both to avoid distracting others and because some people are sensitive to them and would not be able to remain in a close space like the meditation hall if they were present. I made the mistake one morning of using one of those little samples of shampoo that you get from hotels, simply because it was in my toilet case. The shampoo was from a hotel in Venice, a souvenir from the trip to Italy my wife and I took the year before. I knew right away that it was the kind they were talking about. During the morning meditation, I had an image of myself sitting there on my cushion, surrounded to a distance of at least ten feet by this big cloud of perfume. In the breakfast line, a woman standing in front of me turned, ever-so-slowly, to look out at something in the garden, but I knew she was trying to see out the corner of her eye just who it was in the midst of that cloud. No one mentioned it to me, but my paranoia was rampant the whole day.

Each day, especially at mealtime, I noticed whether she were there or not. Once, our eyes met for an instant, then both of us looked down. I had to laugh at myself. I felt like a teen-ager smitten by the class beauty. Here I was, counting down in the low numbers of years left of me, happily married in the best relationship I had ever had, without any adventures untasted, no wistful wonderings about how this or that might feel to experience, thinking about a sixty- or seventy-year-old woman. Just wondering what she was like, not in bed or anything, just—I don't know what. I wasn't obsessing or anything, just curious. Or, maybe at my age and testosterone level, that's what obsessing looks like. Reality changes its appearance.

Then, on the next-to-last day during the questions period, she asked the teacher about higher levels of consciousness. I don't remember her exact question, but it reminded me immediately of Ken Wilber, who had written a book—dozens of books—about levels of consciousness. The teacher short-changed her with his answer, something to the effect that it was theoretical, and that's not what we were about here. I wondered if she asked the question because she had read Wilber or if it just occurred to her in meditation. Now I had something else to be curious about her. Back in my room, I wrote Ken Wilber's name and "Spectrum of Consciousness" on a little piece of paper and put it in my pocket. The next time I saw her at mealtime, I thought of slipping her the note without saying anything, even though that was against the rules. But I let the opportunity go by, turning chicken at the last moment. But I kept the note.

The afternoon of the last full day, they relaxed the "no talking" rule for a time, and allowed us to socialize through dinnertime. (They called it "tea" instead of "dinner." In a lot of Asian monasteries, they don't eat anything at all after noon.) After the session ended, people stood around in the foyer and laughed and chatted. I felt uncomfortable and shy, and didn't talk to anyone. Then I saw Silk Scarf, standing alone. This was the perfect opportunity to hand her the note. Our eyes met again, and I panicked. I left the building and went back to my room.

The comfort of the familiar discomfort
The dining hall was chaos. I remembered our instructions as continuing to observe silence in the dining hall itself, but I must have been wrong, for it was like a high-school cafeteria. I had a lot of trouble with the noise. It had been so quiet for the past nine days, I couldn't stand it. I got down on myself (again) for my shyness, and for my hearing problem that made the hundred different conversations in that echoic room sound like thousands of people at a basketball game. I couldn't hear the conversation going on next to me, and I just closed down. People might have thought I was "going inside" as we had been for nine days, but that's not how I felt.

Why can't I just be, like everybody else, and do small talk and say pleasant things? The harder I try the worse I get. I guess that's what they mean by being mindful, or "in the moment." You don't carry your baggage, your fears and your doubts into this moment. "Be here, now," was how Ram Daas put it. The Dale Carnegie Course, thirty-five years ago, didn't do it for me. Maybe meditation would, eventually. If I live that long. It's a different reality.

I went back home the next day, without ever speaking to Silk Scarf. It's just as well. I'd probably have made a fool of myself, stuttering and stumbling over my words and my feet and making the whole thing more important than it really was. You know, I just noticed that this person asked a question that I might have some information about if she was interested. "Gee, thanks, I'll look him up," she would have said.

I don't even know why I'm writing this.

Donald Skiff, November 4, 1999

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