The Zen master invites me to sit opposite him. “Do you have a question?” he asks.
I nod and search for the right words. “I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’m meditating…” I hesitate, wondering if what I’m about to say will make any sense. “…something will happen. I’ll be really aware of my breathing and the present moment and then suddenly I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. Do you understand why this happens?”
He nods knowingly. “That’s your ‘little I.’”
“My ‘little I’?”
“You begin to occupy the space of the ‘big I’ and then your ‘little I’ gets scared. Before, the ‘little I’ is who you thought you were and now you have the understanding that you are more. She is threatened. You are making progress and you might not need her. That feeling of anxiety or panic is her tool. You have no choice but to come back to her.”
I’m amazed at how effortlessly he presents his answer, as if this issue was brought to him regularly. Then I remember a small detail I read about the Buddha. In recalling the years leading up to his enlightenment, when he was meditating in the forest by himself, he said fear and terror became his “constant companions.” They could be aroused by the smallest things like “a peacock dropping a twig and the wind blowing the fallen leaves.” That must have been Buddha’s ‘little I’ rebelling against his increasing awareness.
So maybe these sensations aren’t a sign of my going backwards, as I had believed. I think back to the moments of panic, not just on this trip but at other times in my life too. Perhaps they were all fueled by the dawning realization: I might be more than this individual identity. Maybe I was starting to sense the vast space outside the thought highway.
“So how do I get rid of her?” I ask my Zen master.
“My ‘little I’? How do I kill her off for good?”
A look of concern washes over his face. “You don’t.”
“I thought that was the point.”
“No. You need her.”
“I need her?”
“She takes care of you. She gets things done. Be compassionate toward her.”
“But…” I was about to say that I thought she was the enemy when it occurs to me what a bizarre thing that would be to admit. She’s me…
“Be aware of her. That’s enough.”
I’m staring at the patch of nubby white carpet between us trying to recalibrate my perspective when my Zen master asks, “What is all that exists?”
I look up. It’s a koan, a Buddhist brain-teaser meant to slap me upside the head so I can see things with fresh eyes.
“Truth?” I say.
He slams his open palm against the floor, making the thwacking sound I’ve been hearing all afternoon.
“If you can name it, you’ve limited it,” he says. He’s been transformed into a Buddhist drill sergeant. “This…” he hits the floor again. “Is all there is. It has no words!”
He tries again. “What do you see?”
Now I’m worried. I don’t know the answer. I’m looking into his eyes. “A soul?” I say. The second it comes out, I know it’s wrong.
He looks disappointed. “You see a soul?”
“Love?” Another stupid answer.
He bulges his eyes out at me. “What…do…you…SEE?”
“Eyeballs! I see your eyeballs!”
He smiles. “What color are they?”
He looks pleased. “That is what you see.” He smacks the ground. “All there is with no thinking.”