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Anne Panning

On the Occasion of My First Meditation Class                            

            First, make sure to wear hand-woven Guatemalan socks and for god's sakes don't forget to take your shoes off at the door.  Also, to blend in, wear a gnarled, oversized sweater, don't comb your hair but do bathe in patchouli oil. The teacher, Rinpoche Sue, looks like Sally Jesse Raphael though her eyes are closed as you all enter and get settled. Coffee is not served.  "Turn off your cell phone" is not mentioned, but assumed. Herbal tea is served, and wrinkly dried apples that look like mutant pig ears.

            "Let's take a few moment to arrive," Rinpoche Sue says.  So you sit and "arrive" silently with your eyes closed for what feels like two hours.  You peek twice. The woman in front of you has an extremely long neck and keeps adjusting her pashmina scarf and scrunching around in her North Face ski jacket. You can't wait to go to T. J. Maxx later and dig through winter clearance.  You hope to catch the early matinee of "Argo" with Sugar Babies and buttered popcorn— if you can get out of here in time. 

            "This is not a joyride—the journey of the mind," Rinpoche Sue says. Truth!  You are frantic about your parking meter outside, ticking down the minutes, sure to find a ticket on your salt-caked Volvo.  And suddenly you wonder where the bathroom is and panic that you will need it at least twice, thrice in these huge whole hours ahead of you after pounding almost a pot of Sumatran at home but a man with gray tufted eyebrows and red chamois shirt sits blocking the door so you won't be able to get out. You won't! and Oh God! How will you get out if you have to pee, which of course you do have to pee, now, already you can feel the urgent weight hit your bladder and press down like a turgid water balloon ready to pop.

            This is not a joyride.

            "The beautiful lotus flower grows in mud," Rinpoche Sue says.  She makes deep penetrating eye contact with everyone.  She sits yogi style on a green velvet couch with glorious stained glass windows casting heavenly light around her. "You must learn to bloom in the mud," she says. She speaks Bumper Sticker in whisper-hush. Of course she mentions a recent trip to India with her grown children. You look for a wedding ring and see none.

            "Let us go around," Rinpoche Sue says, "and share our aspirations for today." No!  No! No! The rich ski lady says, "I've been studying Buddhism for two months.  I would like to find peace in mindfulness."  Almost everyone uses the same words:  awareness/centered/balance/enlightenment. But no one gave you the script!  You have no words! You have to pee. You say, "I'm here to relax. To learn how to?" when the truth is your kids are skiing today at Bristol with your husband but you're from Minnesota and scared of falling and weren't sure what to do with your restlessness and longing for something you can't name. 

           "Mmmm." Rinpoche Sue gazes at you with so much love you want to tackle her and cuddle her and go to India with her and eat lentil curry in her kitchen, which is bound to be cozy and woodsy and full of fragrant spices and chunky candles. 

           A girl in a navy watch cap and rolled-up jeans says, "I just moved here from Brooklyn and need to get New York City out of my head!"  Everyone laughs because she is so young and hip and cute and offers hope to the old cragglies who sparkle at her newness.  You think: she could be your daughter. You think: how long until she's beaten down to dust. You think: there is never enough time. Never.

           When everyone is done, Rinpoche Sue bows her head, her hands pressed together in thanks. There is a lesson coming; you can feel it.  She's gearing up for the wallop epiphany. "Listen," she says. "We have seatbelts to protect our bodies, don't we? So we don't get hurt.  So we stay safe.  Isn't that right?"  You nod. You're a nodder.  "But what is our seatbelt for the mind and heart?"  She fist-taps her chest. "What do we have to keep our souls safe? To protect our hearts?"  You're pretty sure this is a rhetorical question, but could offer a few tangible ideas: a good chardonnay, therapy, sushi, a novel so beautifully written it makes you cry and lie on the couch for hours after finishing it as the sun sets and everything grows dark.

           But you're a good student and know the answer must be a) mindfulness, b) loving human kindness, c) meditation, or d) all of the above.  And you're right: it's all of the above. 

          Finally, blissfully, there is a break, and you find a bathroom.  When you return, everyone is gathered around the tea and apples, but you were never good at small talk. Instead of, "Can you believe this weather?" your usual line is: "So tell me who you are.  What is your life like?" You can see snow dashing across the stained glass windows.  Your car is likely towed and you will never get home. There's a crowd around the Brooklyn girl, everyone cheering her on for moving to their beloved Rochester.  You overhear her telling them she's going to get a Master's in Leadership and you think: that's not a real degree. But she'll learn. Someday she'll learn.

           Rinpoche Sue taps the gong with a padded mallet.  The door is open. There are two choices.  This is not a joyride—the journey of the mind.


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