I am sitting in the sanctuary of a Buddhist monastery “meditating.” I put that in quotes because what I’m really doing is resting in a chair, thinking. I’ve decided to stop in Berkeley, California on my way back to Washington state from Los Angeles. The route home had me passing right by on the freeway and then I was offered the use of a guest room, free reign to come and go as I please for as long as want. I tried to come up with a good reason to decline but could think of none. I plan to stay for a few weeks to explore Buddhism, which feels appropriate not just because the Bay Area is a hot spot for this particular faith, but also because of how I behaved when I was going to school here. As long as I’m going back and staring down old demons, I suppose it’s time to face the crappy karma I left in this particular place.
As a college student, I was not what you would call “lots of fun.” I was the person who hissed at people for talking in the dorm hallway past 10 p.m., who scowled at merry pranksters for laughing too loudly. I was very anxious about my grades and about proper behavior. I was an “old soul”—but not the beautiful, wise kind you hear about; I was more the grumpy, frowny kind. I suppose it was evidence of that old river of shame—the potent mix of fear and anger that had gone dormant in me for a time—bubbling to the surface again. I wanted everyone to suffer with me.
Wherever I was, I always thought somewhere else would be better. When I lived in the dorms, I imagined how much happier I’d be living in a student-run co-op; when I moved to a co-op, I thought I’d really start enjoying life once I had my own apartment; when I had my own apartment, I thought a different, more happiness-inducing apartment was the answer. This discontent clung to me year to year, month to month, second to second. I would reflect on moments that were infinitely better than the one I was currently occupying, perhaps a moment I had lived in the past that hadn’t seemed so great at the time, but now, in retrospect, took on the romantic patina of life lived right. Or, always, I longed for that fantastic future moment that I just knew, once I came to it, would offer up bliss as sure and solid as the ground beneath my feet. Of course, once I got there, happiness eluded my grasp like a phantom.
The monastery in which I am sitting is just a few blocks from my alma mater. The building is actually an old church, the white steeple a reminder of its former incarnation. The pews have been removed from the sanctuary and the tall windows that line either side of the room have been filled with various stained glass depictions of Buddha, some standing and some sitting. The altar remains, but now it has a gold Buddha statue several feet tall sitting on an intricately carved wood table. On either side is an orchid plant, the likes of which I have never seen; each boasts at least a hundred miniature yellow faces grinning out.