Before I entered the main sanctuary of the Buddhist monastery, I had obeyed a sign requesting that I remove my shoes. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what to do. I understood that it was okay for me to be here because the monastery hosts a public meditation hour every morning and evening. It also offers classes and interfaith roundtables and provides a home to a handful of monks and nuns.
But I’m the first here on this particular evening, so I take a seat in one of a few chairs at the back of the room. From this vantage, I can watch as people arrive, bowing even before crossing the threshold of the room and then, once they enter, bowing again toward the altar. Each selects from the stack of mats and cushions along the wall, and then arranges them on the floor before taking a seat. After several minutes, a gentle gong sounds and everyone settles down, growing so still and quiet inside that it seems to magnify the sounds from the street. Rap music spills from a passing car and a woman stands nearby chatting on her cell phone.
All I know about meditation at this point is that it’s meant to induce a tranquil state of mind. I command my thoughts to settle down, but they defy my orders and grow more active. I feel like I’m riding one of those mechanical bulls. I yell, “Slower!” and it speeds up instead. At times, I grow so deeply embedded in daydreams of my past it’s like I’m living them again—except through the filter of greater understanding, making them all the more painful. I feel guilty and upset at the angsty, angry young woman I was when I went to school here. Waves of sadness wash over me, and tears sting my eyes. At moments, it’s almost too excruciating to bear and I teeter on the verge of running from the room to find a private spot, a bathroom stall somewhere, where I can bawl my heart out.
Mercifully, the hour comes to an end with me still planted in my seat. People rise and stretch and return their cushions to the stacks. Their serene expressions seem to indicate that they’ve enjoyed a reprieve from the day’s chaos. As I stand, I feel quite the opposite. I’m relieved that the bucking has stopped and I am walking away in one piece.
Later that night, I organize the pile of books I brought and work out a flow chart of Buddhist centers I plan to visit. Any large university will have lots of places of worship nearby, but Berkeley has an inordinate number of Buddhist options. They surround campus on all sides and represent derivations of the faith from Korea, China, Japan, Tibet, and Thailand. Some, like the monastery I visited earlier this evening, offer a hybrid approach, emphasizing various aspects of different traditions. Most provide instruction sessions—orientations, classes, talks—throughout the week and I hope to attend as many of these as possible. I’ve decided to take an aggressive approach to getting peaceful.