I admit it, I am slow to let things go. Mistakes, mostly mine but sometimes others, register deeply with me. Once something has gotten under my skin it becomes so persistent an irritant that I’ll let it drag me down into a festering funk. Case in point, when the Easter Bunny failed to put eggs around our yard and shoddily left Celia’s Easter basket sitting on the kitchen counter where she found it while her parents slept-in, I fought the funk but it succeeded in spoiling my morning. On every level I logically understand that by letting the small offenses of others and mistakes of my own go, I can be a happier person. And yet, I’ve not found a way to let things go.
So I thought that it was perfectly apropos when I read that the subject matter of this week’s Dharma talk was pure salt in my self-inflicted wound. On Sunday mornings in Todos Santos a small brick building which doubles as a dojo, yoga studio and party venue belongs to Dr. Robert K Hall, a retired psychotherapist and ordained Buddhist Priest and his pupils who turn out for his Dharma talks. Accepting that maybe meditation is the solution to my self-destructive tenacity, I broke my cardinal rule of Todos Santos and set an alarm clock to learn more. In addition to heeding the alarm, the morning posed a number of challenges.
Catholics say that Sunday mass is a time to reflect. Really? I was a practicing Catholic for nearly two decades and I recall the mass being about genuflecting, standing, singing, sitting, kneeling, sitting, standing, giving peace, singing, kneeling, taking communion, kneeling, sitting, standing, singing and genuflecting – roughly in that order. Exactly where in that spasm of spirituality would you find to time to reflect? What I found, during my time in the pew was ample opportunity to day dream, obsess, plan and even work in some covert butt clenching to tone up for bikini season. With this definition of reflection, I’m not surprised that I’m meditatively challenged.
I arrive at the dojo with local residents and long-time Dharma pupils, Glen and Arlene who have graciously invited me to join them. As the room fills with people exchanging hellos and vying for seats, a man enters. Before a group of about 30 locals seated in plastic lawn chairs, Dr. Hall, dressed in breezy white linen, folds himself down into a kneeling position on to a tower of teetering pillows and tucks a blanket over his lap. Hall is a gentle but sturdy-looking man in his mid-60s with a broad, open face. His job on this morning is to lead us through an hour-long session of Vipassana or Insight Meditation and he looks like the right man for the job.
I steal a quick look around the room while I still have a chance – expecting that meditation might discourage idle people watching. For the most part I am about 30 years younger than the congregation average. Most are recent retirees who have ex-patrioted themselves to simpler lives in Mexico. I recognize individuals from town – several of them well-known artists. I notice that they all have an easiness about them which suggests few are new to meditation. I can see that this group is an eager choir to Dr. Hall’s signing.
Looking much like a legless Buddha in a crisp Cuban-style shirt, Dr. Hall starts to talk about our physical beings – starting at our feet and dialoging – ever so smoothly – up our bodies. [Ug! We’ve started our meditation and I’m already behind!] I sit up straight and give a quick shout-out to my feet, claves and thighs to catch up with the group’s contemplation of bellies. Confirming my general reluctance to fixate on my midsection, I see that sitting upright in the plastic lawn chair is making my belly squeeze over my waist band in a most unflattering way. [Maybe if I slide back in the chair and recline a bit the roll will subside. That’s better but now my feet – hi feet – don’t touch the ground. Oh well. Shoot I missed the shoulders and neck!]
We are on to breathing. I take a few deep breaths as directed, feeling “the life-giving process course through my body.” As we breathe deeply with conscious thought my thinking goes to the phlegmy tickle in my throat. [Don’t cough. No one else is making noise. Try swallowing – nope. It’s getting worse! I should just clear it – but if I only do it half way, I’ll have to do it again. Then I’ll be a repeat offender.]
While I wrestle with my inner demon, the group moves on to calming their minds. If you’ve never tried meditating you won’t believe the complete lack of control you have over your own mind. The goal is simple - blankly focus on clearing the mind by listening to your breath and constantly bringing your mind back to nothing when it strays. And stray it will. [I wonder if Arlene would give Celia a piano lesson while we are here…oh crap, exhale. Focus, damn it… I should ask Ed to bring some more mosquito spray – this bite itches… that flounder was good last night…] In 10 minutes of effort, I accomplish about 10 seconds of near meditation. Just when I am about to internally berate my ADD self, Hall tells us to gently bring our minds back to rest, without punishing ourselves. [Saved by the bell, self.] I’m finally getting the hang of it when I realize the whole group is now sitting tall looking at Dr. Hall who is smiling back like a happy Hotei. The smile is infectious and soon everyone is smiling including me.
We are on to the Dharma talk portion of the program. Hall begins in a soft, soothing voice by calling our attention to the news today of the election in Iran. [Really? Everyone else is nodding like this is common knowledge. I should Google this when I get back to the hotel.] A candidate has won and, in true Iranian fashion, the opposition has been jailed and the dissenting public is receiving demonstrative beatings in the streets –while the victor professes the advent of new and impenetrable joy for his countrymen to the CNN correspondent. For a moment I think we are headed for a political discussion and I feel myself wince, lamenting that I ever bent my no alarm clock rule. But instead Dr. Hall gets right to the point.
The world is – and always has been - suffering from polarized views and belief systems. The human condition, he says, is plagued by the fundamental role the ego plays in interpreting everything that happens – directly or indirectly – as it relates to one’s self. We spend our years developing and nurturing our sense of self in order to build an identity. We become –ists to various –isms. We subscribe to theories and denounce others. Each opinion, preference and prejudice is fashioned into an arduously-cut stone with which we embellish our life’s work – ourselves. We grow stronger in our beliefs by clinging to these jewels. It turns out that our precious views are essentially the problem. [Wait – I’m no expert but I’ve seen my share of after school specials. Isn’t knowing yourself the goal? If I don’t know what I think and feel, how will I have voice? Are you saying that my voice isn’t helping? Quick, think of a time my voice has helped someone – thinking… missing the conversation, still thinking…crap, what did Dr. Hall just say?]
No one view point is more right or more just. Hitler [ballsy choice] had a point of view that conflicted with a good number of non-Aryan dissenters. [Hold up now – he can’t mean that any view point is equally good for mankind, can he? This is getting complicated, I wish I was taking notes.] The key, Dr. Hall, says [I’m listening…] is in learning to connect with our mind on a level below identity, deeply beneath the labels that define us – not as men or women, gay or straight, republican or democrat, Muslim or Jew – but as a component of humanity. [Oh. That totally makes sense. It’s like reducing organized religion to the golden rule. But HOW does one…] And then he said it. “You just have to let go.”
[No, no, no! That can’t be the secret to happiness.Next you'll tell me that patience is the key tot he kindom - I am so screwed!]
Horrified, I will Dr. Hall to launch into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo which makes no sense at all so I can cling to my jewel of intolerance. But, no dice. Instead he says when we let go of the beliefs that polarize us from others we achieve an awareness based on the totality of each situation – not a single point of view. We can then empathize with all humans because we see all points of view. Dr Hall pauses for a moment and then rewards the class yet again with his happy Buddha smile to signal the crucial bit of information coming our way. I’m on the edge of my seat, despite the belly roll. He says that if we can find this awareness, at the end of our days, we can truly let it all go in death as we did in life – no clinging needed.
Damn! Looks like I have to forgive the Easter Bunny.