American Pilgrimage #9

Day 3

My meditation has deepened.  The performance anxiety I felt has been replaced by something more visceral; anger at first, which later melts into sadness. In the kitchen, one of the Thai ladies asks if I am all right. I nod.

The process has begun, and it is painful, but if I do not go on then the sea monsters of my mind will remain on the ocean’s floor, swaying me from beneath,  surfacing from time to time with terrifying results. When we meditate, we try to bring our monsters to the surface and smile at them. If we react with fear or dismay, they will return stronger and meaner than before.

It is not easy. Doubts come and go. I wonder what I am doing here, almost forty, my life drifting away while I sit on a cushion.

‘Does this even work?’ my mind says.‘ Why Are You Wasting Your Time? Do something! Make Money! Be Responsible!’

I let the chatter happen. Meditation does work and I am committed.

In the afternoon I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s  Old Path White Clouds. It is the story of the Buddha when father wanted him to rule the kingdom. ‘As long as there is greed and jealousy’, he told his father, ‘problems will remain, no matter  what policies we pursue. And there is greed and jealousy in my heart too, so how can I benefit anyone else?’

The Buddha’s wife, Yashodhara, was committed to social work in the service of the poor. One day, in spite of her efforts, a baby in her care died. She cried, telling the Buddha: ‘I have only two hands’. I understand this: no matter how earnestly we try,  grief and suffering will always find us. We have to cleanse our minds to be free.

My own father never agreed with the Buddha for  walking out on his wife and child. But I think I understand.The Buddha knew that the only way he could help anyone was to find a way out of mental suffering. I consider him a rebel and am surprised to realise that he was an individualist too. He knew that no-one can liberate another person; that we can only liberate ourselves.


The Buddha returning to the palace after reaching enlightenment

During the evening’s meditation, I work even harder, but still my doubts return.  I have recurring dreams of money, power, sex, status, fame.  The voice in my head comes back, saying: ‘Meditation is a scam. Pointless. You should be out there in the world doing Something.  What about poverty? What about Gaza? You’re just helping people to do nothing.’

I remember how the same thoughts were points of discussion at Deer Park. There we had finally agreed that we could do nothing for others unless there was peace in our own hearts, be it in business, law, science, activism, or  farming. If we did not have peace, we risked making matters gravely worse. So we chose meditation first. This is how we will change the world.


Day 4


Everything has changed. It happened in an instant.

Someone made an unkind comment to me in the kitchen – or at least, I think they did – and I reacted.

It  is purely an internal thing, my reaction, and I am observing it, but the change inside of me is so stark. It is like a dark storm blowing across my mind, compelling and absolute. The happiness and harmony I felt only yesterday is gone. In it’s place is anger, ill will, and misery.

The more I think about it, the more I replay the incident over and over in my mind, the worse it becomes. I observe how it multiplies. Anger becomes guilt; guilt becomes resentment; resentment becomes hatred; hatred becomes fear; fear becomes anger; and so on.

Those lovely trees, the sun, the sky … they are as grey and joyless as my own mind. Everything is contaminated; nothing is pleasant or beautiful.

Further meditation helps; the grey cloud shifts somewhat. Still, whenever my mind returns to the ‘incident’, unwanted feelings return.

Now I am sure of is this: thinking does not help.

After servers’ metta, I stand with the three other men beneath the stars, surrounded by pine trees. Diego is unhappy: the teacher told him he could not use his Smartphone to read the suttas on, and confiscated it along with his books. One of the others suddenly confesses that someone said something unkind to him too today, and I say, ‘Yes! Me too!’

And now we are no longer miserable. The simple act of  sharing our sorrow enables us all to laugh again, at ourselves, our silliness, our humanity. I shake my head and tell them that I have sat on a plane for 11 hours, come to the other side of the world, and here I am caught in the same trap I was in before. I suppose misery is the same, wherever we are, whoever we are.




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