The grin

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.

8 thoughts on “The grin

  1. I don’t remember ever having done walking meditation in such a public setting. Once or twice I was in retreats at a suburban meditation center in which we walked a couple of blocks to a cemetery, through the lines of tombstones, and back, but there were few people around to see us. I wonder what the passing car drivers thought, but then they probably think everyone walking down the street is crazy.

    When we do walking meditation inside the center, newcomers sometimes think it is rather strange. Once a couple of teenage girls came, and during the walking meditation they dissolved in giggles. I think the problem some new people have is that this sort of walking seems too different from everyday walking.

    As for itches, that’s a very frequent problem. If there isn’t a strict disciplinarian leading the meditation, I sometimes commit the sin of scratching, but it’s true that simply including the itches in your awareness of “what is at this moment” is a much better thing to do.

    • Hi Zenner, I think it’s really tricky to stay in that “eyes unfocused” meditation state when walking, especially when walking out in a city or public space. I can understand that it’s more of a challenge to the meditator to not be distracted by the noise and people, but something about it feels not-quite-right in terms of maintaining a level of awareness for others not engaged in the meditation. In this particular experience and in a few others (another will appear here on the blog), it felt better to me when we walked within the confines of the center or on the grounds.

  2. Good for you Corinna–that grin probably made the guy’s day! Besdies, what good is all the faith in the world–regardless of the religion–if you can’t recognize the existence of a fellow human?

    • Amen, Tim! Reminds me of that old saying, “Don’t be so heavenly-minded that you’re no earthly good.”

      I have that itch thing going on every time I try to meditate or just to be present in the moment with God. I guess that “part of the mind that controls the thought-highway” is VERY revolting in me!

  3. Corinna, good for you! You have just encapsulated what is, and I underscore this – for me, the primary flaw in Buddhism, or at least what kept me from it lo those many years ago I studied it (40 or more): disassociation. From the things around us, from ourselves, even, and from others. Non-attachment.

    Personally, I prefer to be attached. Connected. Part of other human beings and involved in them. Loving (or attempting to) my neighbor as myself. And that means involving myself as much as I can in this world.. The Christian concept of being in the world while not necessarily worldly (of it) fits me much better than the attempt to not be attached to it at all, which is what I understood from Buddhism.

    At any rate, bless you for that grin! Oh…and I have EXACTLY the same problem with itching when I am attempting to focus on prayer during the Mass. It’s amazing how many nerve endings we have, isn’t it? lol.

    Yours, In Christ

    • Hi Patti, Perhaps the trick is to find a balance between non-attachment and attachment, because there does seem to be amazing wisdom in recognizing our attachments for what they are and not being so caught up in them that we think that’s all there is. I think it is very human to have attachments and also very Buddhist to recognize them for what they are.

  4. You know what i thought about this type of meditation? That i did it for years when I had a city job and I commuted; where you are driving along, window down, following butt to butt traffic, warm summer breeze wafting in, radio playing classical…and you think, “wow, im here already?”


  5. attachments….hmmmm…’re right, Corinna, it’s so human to have attachments, and it’s ALSO human to recognize them for what they are…..I suppose that’s the point: as humans, we are complex, and ain’t it grand! And…yes, I too, applaud your grin! You are soo Corinna!
    ps: haven’t been on much….3 close friends have been in the hospital with serious stuff, so our life is crazy these days 😦

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