Nanzenji Temple Trees, Kyoto
The sound of my voice in silence makes only one mistake. So I’ll tell you about a small two-story grey house. Can you see weeds flutter among patches of dry Bermuda grass and a chain link fence encircling the front yard which is protected by a padlocked gate?
Imagine shadows, long and chilly. I’ve been here only at dusk for the hour when I used to teach meditation to young women who live at this safe house. They’ve fled abusive relationships. They’re pregnant, or have recently given birth. I’d like to say I exuded an aura of peace when I arrived, but the truth is my silver meditation chimes clattered against each other as I hurriedly picked my way between strollers, a red plastic tricycle, and the rocking horse that cluttered the front porch.
I was, am still, practicing the art of moving gracefully through the day. This class was my idea. I was new to meditation and felt its effects to be profound. Like the first time I ate a lychee while traveling in Japan and discovered its seed buried unexpectedly beneath the rough bark peel and slippery ivory flesh, when I began to meditate, I found a deep kernel of peace enfolded in my heart and was surprised it lived there. Also, I discovered that when I was very very quiet I could hear my voice, the one that sounds like the true me without any doubt or hesitation.
It seemed odd: me teaching women with one, two, or three infants or toddlers who barely have time to use the bathroom alone, never mind the possibility of finding solitude to meditate. I told them that going deep within, to a quiet and holy place, might ground them and bring them peace. Sometimes I felt like I was offering peanut brittle to the toothless, but it was really all I had. Of course when my two children were babies, I’d found no time to center myself. Yet now, when I need it maybe less than I did then, I begin my day before dawn with an hour of reading, meditation and contemplative prayer. This stillness carries me through the day like a time-release sedative. I reflect on many things, but my thoughts frequently turn to the concept of voice. Do I use mine enough?
One night, after class, I have this dream:
I doze in the sun on a plastic-strapped lounge chair next to a small apartment building pool with leaves and twigs floating atop the water.
Splash! I open my eyes to see one boy, young enough to still have his milk teeth, smiling as he dog paddles in the shallow end. “Dad!” yells a high-pitched voice. “Dad! I’m over here.” A man waves absently at the boy and slowly picks his way around the pool deck littered with old chairs.
The boy cannonballs off the side of the pool. The father gazes at me, working a cigarette with his lips. He descends the pool steps and wades into the shallow end.
I peer over the edge and see a dark shape at the bottom, like a balled-up baby doll of a lump.
I glance at the shallow end where the boy sits astride his father’s shoulders thrusting his fists into the air. But I can’t hear him any more. I look again and that thing on the bottom of the pool is still there.
It looks like a baby doll. Oh please, let it be a baby doll. Precious oxygen time is wasting and still, I don’t dive in. I don’t want to be involved in death this afternoon, especially not the death of strangers. I will not jump in. Even as I say this in my head, I open my mouth.
“Help!” I yell. There is no sound I scrunch my face and try again.
“HELP!” The boy jumps off his father’s shoulders and the father ducks below the water.
I look again at the shadow on the bottom of the pool. Deliberately I open my mouth wide. “Help! “There’s a baby on the bottom of the pool!” I’m yelling in silence.
Alone, I plunge into the cold water, try to retrieve what I can hardly bear to touch. A body, rubbery. And cold. So cold. She is cold. She’s blue. Dead. Then I shriek. The man and the boy rush to my end of the pool. I huddle over the body, shielding the sight from the young boy.
I’m awake. Straight up in bed. I’m screaming. No sound comes out.
For many mornings, I sit in meditation with this dream. Of course I don’t tell the women at the safe house to sit with nightmares looking for answers. In fact, I really don’t tell them much. I repeat the words of Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Breathing in, I calm. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, it is the most wonderful moment. For one simple hour we concentrate on the gentle rhythm of breath. We drink in the blessed silence that happens when babies fall asleep in their mothers’ laps, safe, warm and full, sometimes working their lips as they suck in their dreams. I whisper the thought that this kind of peace can be recalled at other, less tranquil times, as a balm against anger or frustration or fear. Breath is always with us. Sometimes a hardness about the women’s eyes begins to soften. I tiptoe out when my hour is up, not wishing to disturb the mothers who’ve fallen into deep meditation, or sleep, themselves.
Shortly after my dream, meditation classes are cancelled. It has something to do with house counselors wanting more time for job skill training and Bible classes. Yet, I think often about the young women who live in that grey house, wonder if they remember anything at all about what I tried to teach them. They never considered anything they were doing as remarkable. Not the courage it took to leave their abusive situations. Not the energy they poured into keeping their babies safe and working on a new sort of future.
“We’re just trying to breathe,” they’d say. Then they’d laugh like children.
If you want to begin meditation or deepen your spiritual practice here are some of my favorite book resources: The Energy of Prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh “When love and compassion are present in us, and we send them outward, then that is truly prayer.” Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating “The will is designed for infinite love and the mind for infinite truth, if there is nothing to stop them, they tend to move in that direction.” Or, if you prefer a quick how-to article, you can check out Sam Harris’ “How To Meditate.” Peace, C.
Zen Rock Garden at Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto