Three days a week or so, I go to the park to teach martial arts to my only current student. On Thursday, February 26th, 2015 I arrived about twenty minutes early. I had a bit of friendly conversation with a young couple who were sharing a joint and then I tied on my black belt and sat cross legged in the grass with the sunlight pouring over me. In my black master’s uniform, the warmth clung to me and seeped in through cotton and flesh and muscle to warm my marrow.
A few feet behind me, a tree whose name I do not know, scratched and rattled with the sound of squirrels at play. I listened to the squirrels. I listened to my breath. I pretended to meditate as I often do when I wish to meditate but believe I have forgotten how, or never really knew to begin with. I listened to my breath, but I heard the squirrels.
I heard the soft isping breath of a squirrel very close to me and I opened my eyes to glance down in time to see a bushy grey blur vanish from my periphery. I wished that I had had the discipline to keep my eyes closed, to let the sound of the squirrel and my awareness of its presence be enough. I steered my focus back to my breath and decided to do better. A minute or two later I was almost certain I heard the squirrel – I was quite certain it was the same squirrel, though I realize now that I can’t know that for sure. It had come near again. I heard its very stillness, then I heard its soft speech as it muttered to itself and examined the ground a foot or two away. I kept my eyes closed and listened to my breath as much as I could so that the squirrel would remain unobserved. I wanted it to feel safe enough to examine me. I made myself a sort of Schrodinger’s statue, neither art nor reality, needing to be explored for certainty, hoping the squirrel might walk to me, might walk on me. Thinking of it, a light smile played across my lips and I realized that I was supposed to maintain a light smile when meditating or pretending to meditate.
I began to write a story in my head. The Accidental Meditator, would be a man who pretended to meditate until he drifted into a relaxed and happy state and in that state he held still and breathing as a squirrel climbed to his shoulder. Enjoying that proximity he might think to himself that, while he might never learn to meditate properly, he was certainly enjoying this moment and the comradery, so he would hold still and at least the squirrel would get a comfortable and safe place to be for a while.
As I thought this, I heard heavier, human footsteps a little distance away from me on the grass. I kept my eyes closed, reminding myself that there was really very little likelihood of danger from whomever it was and I very much wanted to be perceived as a disciplined meditator. I watched that thought come and go with mild amusement.
In my imagined story, a man walked past my hero in much the same way. My hero, Thomas, he seemed to be named, heard him do so, heard him stop and then heard him move on. Thomas did not know, though, that the man had snapped a photo with his phone. He had snapped a photo of a man in a park meditating, apparently unaware of the squirrel on his shoulder.
The photo would be uploaded. It would go viral. The story was swiftly becoming a novel. The photo would become a meme before Thomas was aware of it. Meantime, he returned to the park every day now. The squirrel joined him regularly, ran across his lap one day, nested in his hair the next.
Eventually people began sitting with Thomas while he meditated and the squirrel brought friends. The people who sat still enough sometimes found themselves joined by squirrels.
People began asking Thomas for advice. Thomas would not understand why this was happening until one of the people made him aware of his internet presence, his odd sort of burgeoning fame. A spirituality grew up around him with which he was not at all comfortable. He gave advice as best he could when asked, tried to remain thoughtful and present, but the demands increased and a friend saw the potential for profit.
Others would see him as a threat, accuse him of some kind of spiritual fraud, FOX News hosts would berate him, misquote him.
Thomas became a small center of attention, speaking, holding seminars, making money, growing anxious . . .
A novel. Crap. The whole thing was reeling together in my mind as I listened to my breath in the park, in the warmth. Each scene led to another and I could not imagine when I might make the time to get it all onto the page. Sometimes I fear that I have forgotten how to write or that I never really knew to begin with. Other times, it seems as though it is all I know how to do and I will never have the time to get it all done.
The squirrel, whose name I did not know, still moved about the grass near me, exploring, eating, curious and hungry.
My student said, “Good afternoon, Sir,” and I was a bit startled as I emerged from my state.
I said, “Good afternoon.”
We spoke a few more words of greeting and then a man with a tiny grey dog on a leash approached.
One of the great benefits of training in a park rather than a studio is that people with dogs happen by and breaks can be taken to meet dogs. I like dogs a lot. So does my student.
The man with the dog said, “I watched you meditating.”
I met the dog. Her name was Bella. My student met Bella.
The man said, “I used to meditate. I had a thing in my shoulder. There was – anyway, I was in a lot of pain and I used to meditate a little. It’s good. I think it helped.”
My student and I had finished meeting Bella the silky-terrier now, but the man was still talking to me. What he wanted seemed apparent, though he hadn’t said it. I hadn’t intended on starting the session this way, but there was no harm in it.
I told my student to sit down. He said, “Yes, sir,” and complied.
I told the stranger to sit down. He complied. I growled and said, “No. Say, ‘yes, sir.’” He complied with that as well. It was subtle but it was deliberate. The ‘yes, sirs,’ have a psychological effect. They inform one internally that authority is granted, that a level of trust is established.
I talked my student and the man through one of the basic guided meditations I have developed over the years. I focused them on their breath, reminding them of their ability to listen to their breath and still hear my voice. Bella curled up in contact with the man, feeling safe in his presence.
I created imagery about time and light, confidence and the unknown for them to follow. I let them become their own light at the center of an experience. I reminded them, as they listened to the darkness behind their eyes, that the future is always invisible until they arrive to shine light into it, to learn what is there when they are present. I told them to open their eyes. I told them to stand up. I nodded to the man and told him to go away so that I could teach.
He did not. He thanked me for the meditation. He hugged me awkwardly. He told me he needed that. He told me that he had been married for twenty-five years and that his wife was leaving him. He told me that neither of them had cheated and that somehow that made it worse. I told my student to warm up and begin stretching without me. The man continued to talk. He is almost fifty, he told me. His wife is pretty much the only –
His story rambled. His eye contact never broke. I listened as my student, beyond the man but in my line of sight, began practicing a form. Seeing him about to turn right when he should turn left, I put a finger up to the stranger and said, “excuse me.” Then I shouted, “Other hand!” to my student and returned focus to the man in need.
As he spoke, he revealed pain and wounds far greater than I could treat, but at that moment, I was all he had, so I stayed. I wanted to cut him off, to send him away at once. More than that, though, I wanted to set a good example for my student. So I stayed, shouting occasional corrections or words of encouragement past the man to my student.
When I felt the desire to silence him, to make him stop sharing his pain with me, I simply listened to my breath, to the chitter and shake of the tree nearby. I could listen to the living world and still hear his voice. I tried to be a sprocket-post for him, to allow him to re-wrap his unreeling story about my stillness as he spoke.
A great many thoughts had drifted by, bookmarking themselves for later examination. This, I thought, is how my student should perceive his Master. I seem caring and patient. I seem empathetic and more interested in doing what is right in the circumstance than what is scheduled or anticipated. I still had moments of irritation with this stranger whose needs demanded me, but I could at least appear to be the man I most want to be. I could be still and present and let this happen.
When the man seemed to be at a loss for further personal details to reveal, I reminded him that he was going to be okay. I offered conversational reference to images from the meditation. I asked his name. It was Sean. I wished him well a moment later and he walked away.
My mind sought stillness in a synaptic tempest. The novel about Thomas and his discomfort with his role as a spiritual leader continued to build, scene after scene, image after image, pressing against the inside of my skull and murmuring assurances that it would have time to be written eventually, that I could do that a bit at a time, that it would all come to the light of the page in proper order.
The small man with a grey lawn of short hair and his grey rodent-sized companion walked off across the grass. They reminded me of something, but I could not quite figure out what it was. There was some connection my mind wanted to make, wanted me to see, but I was too dense to find it.
The squirrels had retreated into the tree, chittering and chasing.
My student awaited my attention and I turned it to him, pretending to be a Master, which is what I do when I fear I have forgotten how, or never knew in the first place.