Steps of prayer

When I first entered the children’s class room at the mosque, Fatima’s co-instructor seemed unpleased with my presence. She wore a dark caftan and even darker expression. Then Fatima welcomed me with an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks, and the other lady’s attitude appeared to soften. She opened a folder and handed me a photocopied sheet as if it were a peace offering. Single spaced and printed on both sides, it was labeled “Steps of Prayer.” It spelled out the precise movements and words to utter. It was exactly what I needed. “Thank you,” I said as if she were giving me a precious gem stone.

As we waited for more kids to arrive, I read the instructions carefully. It explained how to do a “rakah,” which is one cycle of standing/bowing/prostrating/sitting—the building blocks of a prayer. Depending on the time of day, every prayer has two to four rakahs. Start, it read, by facing in the direction of Mecca. Declare your intention to perform the payer. (For example, “I intend to offer fajr prayer for Allah.”) Then cup your hands to your ears and say, “Allah Akbar,” which translates as “God is the greatest.”

So far so good, I thought with confidence.

Next, the instructions continued, place your left hand over your stomach and then grasp the wrist of that hand with your right hand. Say, “Glory be to You oh Allah, and praise be to You. Blessed be Your Name, exalted be Your Majesty and Glory. There is no God but You.” But really I was supposed to say this in Arabic and, luckily, a transliteration was provided: Subhanaka Allahummah wa bihamdika, wa tabarakasmuka, wa ta’ala jadduka, wala ilaha.

I tried to form those sounds. I got half way through and began to worry.

I skimmed ahead.

I had a few more phrases to say in the standing position. Then I needed to recite the first chapter, or sura, of the Quran, which is very short and, ideally, another short sura or section of a longer sura—prayer’s choice.

Now came the bowing part I knew from the night before. A quick “Allah Akbar” and bend at the waist. In this position, I was to say three times: “Glorified my Lord, the Great.” In Arabic it sounds like, “Subhana rabbiyal Ajhim.” I got excited. I thought this was something I could probably master.

Stand. Say, “Allah Akbar.” Then come swiftly to my knees. With palms and forehead to the ground, I am to say three times, “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala,” which means “Glory be to Allah, the Exalted.” Awesome, I thought, this part I could do.

With an “Allah Akbar,” come out of the prostration and sit with posterior on the heels of feet, which is like a crouch with knees on the floor. This position has a special name: jalsa. From here, repeat “Rabbi-ghfir li wa arhamni” three times. This looks really hard to say, but simply means, “Oh my Lord, forgive me and have mercy on me.” I suppose, if one must, this is a good phrase to butcher.

After this and another “Allah Akbar,” one’s forehead returns to the floor for another three repetitions of the phrase, “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala.”

Now do it all over again—once, twice, or three times depending on the location of the sun.

At the end of the series of rakahs, regardless of how many and while still seated in jalsa, one recites something called the Tashahod. This appears, for the most part, to be a summation of the compliments and requests given to or asked of Allah throughout the other parts of the prayers. It is customary to point one’s index finger toward Mecca while saying it.

Finally, you turn your head to the right and say, “Assalamu alaikum warahmatullah.” Then you turn left and repeat this phrase, which translates as, “Peace and mercy of Allah be on you.”

Finally Fatima

I followed Mandisa out to the hall and up the stairs to the mosque’s main floor. I could see through to the main sanctuary. Men and older boys were milling and chatting as casually as the women downstairs.

We entered a room that looked like a makeshift library. Shelves filled with books and pamphlets lined the walls. Mandisa shut the door and we sat across from one another at a table. Mandisa looked very serious and I wondered if my Islamic instruction was to begin promptly. She seemed to be considering where to start when the door opened and a third woman joined us. The latecomer was as drab as Mandisa was colorful. She wore a solid grey caftan with an extra snug topper; not one hair peeked out. Her scarf was the same grey material as the rest of the outfit, as if she had made both pieces on her own. I wondered about the fabric she had used; it looked rough. When she got close, I could see sweat beading across her brow and upper lip as if she had just completed a physically demanding task. I didn’t know it right then, but the teacher I had been looking for had finally made her entrance.

Mandisa introduced the new woman, giving me her name and her country. I recognized her name immediately from my Islamic reading: it was the same as one of Prophet Muhammad’s most beloved female family members. Among Muslims, disagreements abound over which of his relations were closest to the Prophet, but this was a woman whose significance and goodness is undisputable. Every Muslim holds Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, in high esteem.

“Fatima!” I said because I recognized it. The way it came out, I realized it might seem as if I thought we had met before.

She smiled. She understood. “You know it.”

I nodded. Her country, on the other hand, I knew little about. I had never met anyone from there. I hated to admit it but, in my mind, its name was synonymous with violence.

As Mandisa hunted the shelves for literature I could take home, Fatima beamed at me—as if I was an answer to her prayers, as if she had been waiting for me to come into her life not vice versa. “I am so happy. Allah makes all things better. You will see.” It occurred to me that this meeting was not as haphazard as I had assumed.

Mandisa handed over recent copies of an American Muslim magazine and Fatima invited me to return to the mosque the following day. She told me that classes are held for women and children in the afternoon. She repeated several times, “I will be there. ‘Insha’Allah.’ God willing.” I thought she was hedging, perhaps giving herself a little wiggle room in case she decided not to show. I fought my impulse to ask, “What happens if you aren’t there? Who will help me?”

The night prayers were about to begin and the three of us hurried back downstairs. Women were congregating in a small room adjacent to where we had eaten. This one was free of furnishings and the floor had extra-plush carpeting. I asked Fatima if she thought it would be okay if I joined. Of course, she said. She would do the prayers on her own later, but I should go. Wait, she said, fix your hijab first. She tucked my bangs into my headscarf like a doting mother.

The women were lining up shoulder to shoulder. I got in next to the younger of the two Pilipino women; the older was nowhere to be seen. In this room, the carpet had designs like little built-in prayer rugs to indicate where to stand. The orientation of the main squiggle put us with our backs to the windows. A man’s voice from upstairs played from small speakers hidden in the ceiling. I didn’t know the words, but I recognized the way he spoke them. All the women bowed. I followed along. We dropped to our knees. We pressed our foreheads to the ground. We sat. We stood. We did it all over again.

Mandisa

The women’s entrance at the mosque led into the basement of the building. At the end of a short hall, I came to a rack filled with shoes outside a room where the women were sitting family style at long tables. This must be some sort of party, I thought. I bought a few minutes by very carefully removing my shoes and arranging them on the rack. I wondered if I should remove my head scarf too. By recognizing customs, was I being respectful or deceitful?

I decided to leave my shoes off and my scarf on. I would be as forthright as possible when I spoke to people. I couldn’t help what assumptions were made about me from across a room. I preferred this scenario to the risk of offending.

The women were sitting around the tables talking. I wondered if Mandisa was here yet. I had no idea what she looked like. I made my way to an opening across from two women, one older and one younger. Their faces appeared Asian.

“I’m looking for Mandisa,” I told them.

“From Egypt?” the older one asked. I nodded and she looked around the room. “I don’t think I’ve seen her yet.”

“It’s your first time here?” the younger of the two wanted to know.

I nodded and sat. “I’m not Muslim.”

They seemed not at all surprised.

Someone announced the food was ready; I’d had dinner at home, but I wanted to participate. We filled our paper plates buffet style with rice and chicken and returned to our places.

The two women and I exchanged some basic information while we ate. They were both from the Philippines. The younger was a student. The older was married to a professor and had lived in the states for 20 years. She pointed at the ceiling. “My husband’s upstairs.”

They wanted to know what brought me to the mosque and I explained my quest. I told them that, specifically, I was hoping to learn the daily prayers.

The older woman looked at me sheepishly. “I don’t do them. My husband does, but not me. Maybe when I get old I will do them all the time.” She shrugged. “Not right now.”

“Corinna?” A beautiful face framed by a hot pink scarf was peering down at me. “Mandisa?” She grasped the hand I had extended and wrapped her other arm around me. We hugged and shook hands simultaneously.

Like mine, her clothes were western style pieces that just happened to provide full coverage: an ankle-length skirt and a shirt with sleeves to the wrists. Many of the women wore long caftans, most in dark colors. Some topped off their outfits with regular-looking scarves while others used special wraps with a cut-out for the face. The ways in which the women presented themselves were surprisingly varied.

“Shall we go to the library?” Mandisa asked. Her accent had just a whisper of British; it spoke volumes about the history of colonialism in her country. She seemed sophisticated and fashionable and it suddenly made sense why my other would-be Muslim mentors had fallen through. All along, it was meant to be Mandisa.

Hunger

I had never given much thought to my stomach’s precise capacity. I suppose I considered it more or less bottomless. I put stuff in whenever I wanted. Every so often, I registered its being full as pain, and then I stopped putting stuff in for a while.

Now with Ramadan, I became extremely mindful of each item that entered and what purpose it served. With food vying for space with water, I learned through trial and error. One night early on I wolfed an enormous bowl of pasta and discovered, while gut-busting, its substance petered out too quickly. I came to see my stomach as valuable real estate; I had to select and pace wisely.

I was forced to acknowledge the wisdom of guidelines nutritional experts cram down our throats. I still daydreamed about downing an entire batch of cookie dough or a huge stack of pancakes dripping with syrup. But when the time came to eat, those options were no longer appealing. Perhaps I would have gone in for a bite or two, but filling up would have been reckless. I couldn’t afford to live out my Willy Wonka fantasies.

I needed a small amount of carbohydrates in conjunction with protein. I found that eggs and high-quality yogurt provided long-lasting hunger suppression. My body craved nutritional powerhouses. Black beans, walnuts, and spinach were good, as was whole grain toast smeared with peanut butter. I read that dates, which are rich source of vitamins and natural sugars, are a popular Ramadan treat. I began to eat them nightly, craving their compact goodness first thing after a long day of fasting.

I became familiar with the nuances of hunger. There’s the superficial discomfort when your belly growls. Most of us in the course of our normal lives will never get far beyond this feeling. But past it, await ever-intensifying shades of hunger. Eventually the burning want dulls and radiates out. Your limbs grow heavy and less adept. Several hours in, it reaches your brain and your thinking slows. In the late afternoon, putting my body in a horizontal position seemed like a good option; in fact, most days, it felt like the only option. I thought how difficult it must be for Muslims who had to work throughout Ramadan, especially those with manual labor jobs. I was fortunate to have the freedom to rest.

Muslims are known to spend extra time reading their Qurans during Ramadan. Religious leaders also emphasize that time spent in reflection and prayer can be particularly fruitful during this time of year. But on practical terms alone, I can see why these particular tasks are favored. There came a time in the late afternoon when reading was about as physically demanding an activity as I felt I could manage. I studied passages from the Quran and made my way through books about Muhammad’s life, the history of Islam, the political narratives of predominantly Muslim countries, and the significance of religious practices such as Ramadan. But eventually even reading felt too challenging. My eyes didn’t have the energy to track the lines; my brain didn’t want to process the words. I would fall asleep or just lay there lethargically, my thoughts meandering.

Ramadan showed me the complexity of hunger. It seems counterintuitive, but the more time that elapsed since the last time I ate, the easier it became to not eat. At some point each day, my belly ceased signaling it even wanted to be fed. It must be some sort of protective mechanism: your stomach stops bothering you. It’s pleasant to be free of the nagging, but this is when the mind/body connection starts playing tricks on you because you don’t realize how in need of nourishment your body is becoming. Of course, when hunger stops hurting the potential for real damage begins.

Day one

Before the start of Ramadan, I searched the internet for tips on fasting. I downloaded an app to my smartphone that uses GPS to alert you when the fast begins and ends each day based on the precise rise and set of the sun where you are.

Two things I hadn’t thoroughly considered worried me. This Ramadan was falling smack in the middle of summer and I happen to live far north of the equator. The day light hours at this time of year are extremely long. They may not be as intense as summer days in Canada or Alaska, but they are much longer than places where day and night stay more evenly divided throughout the year. Here, we can have about 18 hours of light during the peak of summer. That this particular Ramadan would be my first was a bit like deciding to start my mountain-climbing with Everest. How would I make it so long without even a sip of water, especially as the sun blazed and temps climbed well into the 90s?

I set those concerns on the backburner to focus on the logistics of my coffee consumption. Normally, I drink two large mugs of coffee when I wake up in the morning. I usually sip them slowly, over the course of a few hours, as I’m working. With my new schedule, I had a couple options. Online, I learned that many Muslims change their days to wake up early during Ramadan and go about their morning routine before the sun comes up. I could see how this might be a nice alternative even if the sun rises as early as 5 in the morning. According to my app, my first day of fasting was to begin at 3:01 am. This meant I would have to start my day at about 2:30. I set my alarm to see how I felt at that hour. When I heard the beep, I turned on my light and sat up in bed. I guzzled a tall glass of water and downed a container of yogurt I had left on my nightstand. I snapped off the light. No way was I getting up at that hour and starting my day. For me, the only possibility was going cold turkey.

I suppose I have the raging headache to thank for distracting me from thirst and hunger on the first day of Ramadan. The morning started okay. I was able to work for a few hours at my laptop, though my thinking felt muddled. The pain set in at about noon and built over the next several hours. By 7 that evening, I was horizontal on the sofa, eyes shut and a hand at each temple, wondering if my brain was actually pulsating or if it just felt that way.

I had read that if one’s health is threatened, Muslims are permitted to relax the standards of fasting. Allah wants us challenged, not packed like sardines into local emergency rooms. After seeing that, I determined I must listen to my body throughout this experience and respond accordingly even if it meant bending the rules. I felt my headache was bad enough to do something about, so I choked down two aspirin with a tiny sip of water.

All day I had been focused on the exact moment my app said the fast could be broken: 8:43. I had fantasized about the foods I would consume when the time came. I was planning on making at least two grilled cheese sandwiches and letting my heart’s desire guide me in scooping out my ice cream. I’d chase it all with big bowl of granola before bed. Instead, 8:43 came and went with me sprawled on the bathroom floor, intermittently dry-heaving into the toilet. The situation I had created by taking aspirin on an empty stomach was worse than the original pain. As the waves of nausea reached a sickening crescendo, I moaned pathetically and wondered what purpose, if any, my suffering was serving and if this was anywhere near a typical Ramadan experience. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude as the queasiness subsided enough that I could eat a piece of toast. I was content to simply crawl into bed and say goodnight to day one.

Islam

As I wrapped up my trip through Buddhism, I started to get nervous. I knew the time to explore Islam was fast approaching. Unlike the places of worship of the previous religions that had allowed me to tailor my explorations to ease into a particular faith by degrees, theological variations among Muslims are less apparent. Perhaps this is especially true in the United States, where congregants who gather under one roof may hail from a range of countries and represent a spectrum of belief. In all likelihood, I would have no way of readily identifying the individuals whose convictions put them at the extremes of Muslim faith.

Back at home, I gave the matter more thought. My tiny town serves as home to a surprisingly diverse Islamic community, many of them young men and women from countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East who earn degrees from the university. The absence of a busy urban environment seems to render them more conspicuous here and I watch with interest. One day I witnessed a man and his two young sons pause to offer afternoon prayers at the local mall. They knelt on small rugs facing a Bath and Body Works, their backs to the walkway. I wondered about the trust it took to assume such a vulnerable position in public. Their faith was as enveloping as the sweet fragrance from the store.

Phil and I encountered a group of Muslims at a remote county park. Ours was the only car in the lot when we arrived but after our hike we encountered two picnicking groups. One was a cluster of men sitting and eating. Several hundred yards away, several women were stretched out together on a blanket in the grass laughing and relaxing. We knew they were Muslim because of the scarfs fastened securely at their chins. So unexpected was this sight that I felt Phil and I had entered the forest in rural Washington state, but had emerged somewhere on the other side of the planet.

I was forced to consider what seemed like an irony: Islamic female garb may be worn to conceal, yet it never fails to identify. This might not be the case in places where the population is predominantly Muslim, but in countries where this is not the case, Muslim women stick out. Often, if it weren’t for the women, the Muslims in my midst would have gone unnoticed. A guy in the pasta aisle at Safeway was just a regular dude until I spotted his wife in a hijab draped from ear to ear; she had a bare band around her eyes like the opposite of a masquerade ball. Her face may have been hidden, but the collective identity to which she belonged was on display. I wondered what it must be like to bear the brunt of public scrutiny, to have your presence function as a symbol. I once walked behind a woman wearing a full burka that rendered the woman inside as invisible as a ghost. The fabric of her garment rolled and snapped so wildly that it appeared to contain its own weather pattern. Outside a breeze blew gently; underneath, a storm raged.

Killing ‘little I’

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.

“Who?”

“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?”

“Uh…”

“Come on!”

“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?”

“Grey.”

He looks pleased. “That is what you see.” He smacks the ground. “All there is with no thinking.”

The master

I don’t know what to expect from a private meeting with a Zen master. Part of me hopes it will be like sitting with Buddha himself. He will say some phrase that will ping around my skull releasing profound wisdom. Or maybe he won’t say anything, just put a hand to my head and pass on enlightenment via touch. I’ve been told that my “dharma interview” is a chance for me to ask a question, which seems like good timing because I have one that’s been gnawing at me.

I want to see if he understands why, at times when it seems I’m finally getting a hang of this meditation thing, I’ll be rudely yanked out of my peaceful contemplation by some awful sensation. It’s the sharp crack of panic, or some other random thing like the explosion of itches. They come out of left field, in response to nothing; I’m not considering anything troubling when I’m stricken with the anxiety. In fact, it happens when I’m especially absorbed in the meditation practice, which is why I find it perplexing. The Zen master will probably say I just need to ramp up my efforts to stay on the side of the metaphorical “thought highway,” firmly planted in the “big me” zone. When I get lazy, I must wander into the on-coming traffic.

This particular Zen master is a Jew by birth and psychotherapist by trade—two characteristics that apparently lend themselves to being a good student of Buddhism; I’ve found they are not uncommon among practitioners in the area. My consultation with him is part of a one-day meditation retreat. I became familiar with this opportunity and the master a few nights earlier at the weekly lesson for newcomers held at this particular center, which occupies an historic school house in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The Buddhism practiced here hails from Korea and often employs seemingly mysteriously combinations of words or strange little questions as part of the path to enlightenment. The master told us that during his own meditation he favors a silent statement for each inhalation and exhalation. “Clear mind,” he says, breathing in; “Know nothing,” he says, breathing out. He invites us to use these words or come up with others.

This Buddhism bears a resemblance to the type I experienced at the other Zen center I visited earlier, which came to the United States via Japan. At both, those further along in their practice are distinguished by robes, bowing is frequent, decorations are subdued, and walking is orderly. However, seated meditation here does not take place facing the walls. The cushions are set up so that we sit side-by-side facing the middle of the room. I’ve watched others coming and going, so I know to bow as I enter the main sanctuary and then again before I sit. Today, I am assigned a spot between two more experienced practitioners. I bow to my cushion and take my place.

Loving-kindness contemplation

All this thinking about karma makes me wonder about what I left for the students who came after me; I’d like to make it better. I’ve come to campus today to try a “loving-kindness contemplation,” an exercise to improve both personal and shared karmas.

I was introduced to the contemplation a few nights earlier during a “joy class” at a center directly across the street from campus. This particular organization teaches a version of Buddhism tailored for a secular audience. While its founders claim that the practices are rooted in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, they have been tweaked and elaborated upon to appeal to Westerners, particularly those who might want to focus on the benefit to society at large. Individuals are taught a variety of contemplative tools not just to promote their own joy and peace, but to help create a culture of kindness, generosity, and courage.

They call those who engage in this work “spiritual warriors.” I can see why they say it requires bravery: to do it properly one must face painful realities. I had thought reviewing my past behaviors and actions would be the hardest task but I see now that those never existed in isolation. My private dramas were unfolding alongside these communal events, their causes and effects crisscrossing and overlapping in mysterious ways. Did those events influence me? Did my thoughts and actions contribute to them? A Buddhist would answer “yes” to both—though no one can know precisely how or to what extent.

Having come to the end of my recollections of my college years, my heart feels a bit battered and sore. This, I am told, is a good place to start. In my joy class, I learned that spiritual warriors are those willing to wade through the muck turned up by their own tender hearts. It is important to keep going even when the journey gets tough, to learn to dwell in the discomfort. This is fertile ground for compassion.

A loving-kindness contemplation transforms the pain into something positive. You might channel it as contentment or good will or the absence of suffering, but the idea is to share the feelings that radiate from an open heart in some systematic fashion; experts generally suggest starting with a recipient for whom it is easier to summon kind feelings and move out from there.

In the version we practiced in class, guided by the instructor, we were told to start with ourselves by thinking these words: “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” For about a minute I concentrated on that sentiment, but I couldn’t feel any tenderness for myself. My heart softened when we were told to repeat the statement, but replace ourselves with someone we love. Then we were instructed to direct happiness to those for whom our emotions are “neutral” and, finally, to those we find “challenging.” I was able to scrape up a sense of compassion for both categories—certainly more so than I had for myself.

Sitting on Sproul Plaza, I put my own spin on the exercise. My recollections have left a delicate ache in my chest, and I know I must use that sensation. As uncomfortable as it might seem, I must kindle it—cup my palms around that spark and see if I can’t help it ignite. Because I’ve been thinking of the earthquake and the fires, I turn that raw softness to the victims of those tragedies. I expand my feelings to encompass everyone affected by those events, all who were attending school here at the time or lived in the region. Then I think of the participants in my joy class, some of whom seemed so sad, and I send them this warmth that oozes from my broken heart. I offer it to all the students, every drop of the river that continues to flow through this institution. The flame of my tenderness is stoked; now I picture a map of the United States and I see it spread out from where I sit. I send it across the land and over the ocean; it travels North, South, East and West. I keep going until the light that emanates from my heart wraps around the entire globe.

At the end, I have one person yet to be officially included: me.

Then I realize there’s no reason to treat myself separately. By extending my compassion to everyone, I’ve included myself. I’m part of the network of humanity. When I see it like that, I feel a surge of sympathy for the girl I was and the woman I am. I’m just another person doing the best she can.

Karma

I can track my college career by tragedies. A few weeks after the start of my freshman, a violent earthquake collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge and part of the freeway in Oakland. It flattened houses and set businesses ablaze. I was walking to class when it hit; I tripped and blamed the uneven sidewalk.

My sophomore year began with a fire in a fraternity house that killed three students. Just a couple weeks later, and within a few short blocks, a terrifying situation took place in a popular bar. A psychotic gunman held hostage 33 people, most students. After seven hours of terror, police managed to bust in and the deranged man was shot dead—as was a student who took a bullet to the chest.

How does that kind of fear and destruction affect us? Some are touched directly. The victims whose time was cut short, their family and friends—those lives are obviously altered to some degree or another. What about everyone else? The quake killed 63 people, injured almost 4,000, and left many homeless (some estimates of those needing shelter were as high as 12,000). But in ways difficult to fathom, none of us was left unscathed. Aftershocks of that and the other tragedies rippled out.

Fall semester of my junior year, another fire tore through the Oakland and Berkeley hills. I watched its progression from the window of my second-story apartment south of campus on Telegraph Avenue. The tenets of my building were asked to prepare for evacuation. We waited for further word, our radios dialed to pick up what our eyes couldn’t. I saw the fire come around the bend from Oakland toward the houses on the hills above like some hungry dragon laying waste to everything in its path. It was sneaking up on a house I had always admired, a Victorian painted crisp white against the dark hillside. I told myself the fire would stop before it got there; that house was special, it deserved to survive. Then the trees around the house ignited as easily as birthday candles and a few seconds later the roof was smoking. Too soon, it was nothing but the outline of a house, everything but its frame consumed by an inferno within, leaving a skeleton against a bright white light. The only other time I can remember feeling as helpless, horrified, and heartbroken as that moment was watching live footage of the twin towers collapse on September 11, 2001.

I still recall the pieces of burned things that rained down for days after the fire was contained. Even after the sky began to clear, slowly turning from dark grey to hazy orange, bits of blackened stuff floated through the air. I snatched one of these items as it fluttered past me on campus. It was part of a page from a book, charred illegible and so delicate it crumbled in my hand.

Had we somehow brought these events upon ourselves? Related to Buddha’s theory of causation, is the concept of “karma.” It’s the application of Buddha’s theory on a personal level: an individual’s actions and thoughts affect the events that occur in that person’s life. According to this idea, the students and the people of this community, area, and region were responsible in some way for the misfortunes that were befalling us. Had the 25 people killed in the fire done something awful to deserve their fates? What about the thousands whose homes were destroyed? Taken too literally, the concept of karma can seem to blame those who suffer tragedy. Cancer patients grow their own tumors. Jews caused the Holocaust. Thankfully, I’m told that’s far too simplistic a take on karma. There’s personal karma, but there’s also collective karma, which are social and historical forces too broad and complex for sorting through and allotting culpability. Personal and collective karmas crash and mix in unpredictable and mysterious ways.