In the zendo, the meditation period begins and almost immediately my cheek begins to itch. I try to ignore it. I’ve noticed that most people manage to stay absolutely still during meditation, which has been a challenge for me. I seem to require little readjustments—my knee gets a cramp or my hip twinges. But the face-tickle thing is new and while this particular itch starts out mild, waiting for it to subside on its own quickly escalates into a tiny form of torture. I contort my face in every direction. As the sensation begins to fade, a series of itches erupts across my scalp. Suddenly I understand something more is going on here. Either I’ve contracted a rare case of chicken-lice-pox or my mind is playing tricks on me. I’ve read that the meditative task can create revolt from the part of your mind that controls the thought-highway. I spend the rest of the time engaged in the excruciating task of refusing to respond to the phantom itches that dance across my head. It is a battle of wills, both mine.
After the breakfast, we do a walking meditation; together, single file, we left the zendo. I was near the back of the line trying to stay in step with the person in front of me. We walked out of the garden onto the street. In the neighborhood, regular people were going about their mornings: an old man walking and a couple of teenage boys skateboarding. They froze in their tracks and watched us snake up and down. The front half of the line had doubled back on the sidewalk; I could see my fellow meditator’s gazes as they passed: cast down, a soft focus on the ground, looking at nothing in particular. Their faces were expressionless. I couldn’t put finger on it, but a chill went up my spine.
Perhaps “being present” can become a new story so powerful that you miss what’s happening before your eyes. Buddhist exercises—the meditating, chanting, burning of incense—are meant to encourage the practitioner to recognize the truth. By reminding us to stay in, or come back to, the present moment, they help remove the veil of illusion. We are not the details of a story, good or bad. We are simply living right here and now, a part of everything else. In fact, our true nature is much bigger than the story allows.
But the same exercises that encourage us to grasp this reality can just as easily strengthen our illusions. This is not the fault of the exercises themselves; rather, some aspect of our human nature hates any diminishment in our sense of isolation. It feels more real when we stand apart. We may engage in an act and think, “I am extraordinarily spiritual” or “I’m not spiritual enough.” Either way, it’s back to living in the story, away from the present moment.
I was glad then for what I did during the walking meditation.
The old man who stopped in his tracks to watch us looked baffled by what he was witnessing. As the front of the line snaked around, it passed feet from where he was standing. I could see that no one was even glancing at him. It didn’t seem right to maintain a trance-like state, unable or unwilling to acknowledge other members of society right in front of us. The man was, after all, inhabiting the present moment with us. So when it was my turn to pass him, I caught his eye and offered up the toothiest grin I could muster.