For most of my life, I’ve conceived of my past as something as solid and real as a ladder, and the events that comprise it as true as rungs underfoot. Frequently, I paused to consider the lowest treads, the particulars that had made it a difficult climb—the broken home, the financial insecurity, the frequent moving, the spotty schooling. In college, I clung tightly to the rails. I had to work harder than everyone else, I told myself. I had to hold down a job and study twice as diligently. I couldn’t let my white-knuckle focus lapse for even an instant, or I might lose footing. I was nudged forward by the sorrowful plot points. In a sense, the story was living me, not the other way around.
I was not fond of the ladder on which I stood. I thought if I changed my environment then everything that had led up to that moment might be transformed, that I might shed my story like a snake does its skin. I remember junior year I decided what I needed, the one thing that would brighten my existence, was an apartment with an outdoor space where I could sit. So senior year I moved into a place with a patio. But it was just a concrete slab with a few sad plants; I was no happier. My stupid story had followed me there.
To pursue Buddhism where I went to college is a funny task because it is here where my investment in “the story” solidified, where I fine-tuned and polished it to sparkly gleam. And it is just this sort of attachment to story that Buddhism attempts to rid us of by encouraging us to always come back to the present moment, to learn to release the steady stream of thoughts on which the story is built.
Still, being in Berkeley, a part of me can’t help but feel teleported into the past, to sense my ghostly doppelganger dangling precariously from her ladder. I see something and suddenly I’m looking through the lens of the 20-year-old me. This is exactly what happens when I enter a Zen center with a lush exterior courtyard. “This is just what I had in mind,” I think, referring to the outdoor space I thought could miraculously soothe me senior year. As this thought putters by, I am aware of how silly it is. Even if time collapsed and the old me somehow had access to this sumptuous garden, it wouldn’t have mattered. My interior terrain would have remained unchanged.
This particular Zen center is on a residential street within walking distance to the places I lived junior and senior years—the one without, and the one with, a patio. It is made up of two houses next door to one another and their separate backyards have been combined to create an oasis of serenity and to accommodate other structures. One is a zendo, a traditional Buddhist meditation hall that looks like a Japanese gingerbread house and adds to the charm of the courtyard. Long wood steps lead to the zendo’s porch and offer a perch for removing shoes.
When I arrive, the sun is only starting to rise. I’m 15 minutes early for the seated meditation that begins at 6 am. I enter the yard quietly, cognizant of the fact that several people live in these houses—a couple of monks who run the place, one of whom is married and raised his children here. As I sit on the zendo’s steps, the garden slowly illuminates, and I hear the reassuring rustle of people starting their days.