Three Views of Meditation

A common view of meditation is that it aims to stop all thought. Stare at a candle, recite a mantra, count the breath, whatever means to inhibit the unending flow of ideas, concepts, and judgments. Since this is an impossibility, one can quickly get wrapped up in judging a meditation session as good or bad depending on how much thought has occurred. The practice itself then becomes the cause of suffering.

A more refined view holds that in meditation a practitioner neither holds on to nor inhibits thought. Thoughts arise naturally, they are noticed, acknowledged and one returns to the breath or the mantra. Here a meditation session risks being judged not by how much thought occurs but by the amount of attachment to various thoughts.

An even more refined view holds that in meditation, there is no goal, and no attempt to inhibit desires, cravings, and thoughts. Thoughts come and go, moments of ‘waking up’ arise and recede, delusion exists, enlightenment exists. 

At whatever view, the power of meditation resounds in the deep clearing that occurs each time we wake up, return to our breath or posture, and experience for ourselves that all thoughts can vanish in an instant, throwing us back to the actual reality of our lives. Over time, we make this reality our foundation. Rather than stress over the endless content of our thoughts, we learn through meditation to make our home right here, alive and engaged, letting the scenery of the mind do what it does, pass. When it does, what is left? 

Attachment to Productivity

All the productivity hacks in the world can’t take the place of discovering your own vision, at best they support it, at worst, they distract you from it. If you’re heading in the wrong (or outdated) direction, efficiency merely pours gas on the fire. Over-attachment to productivity may hide the very tools you need most: boredom, idleness, rest, reflection.

The Wrong Choice

When Werner saw Georg’s newest sculpture and the praise it was lauded by their teacher, he became depressed. He imagined within it his own artistic deficiencies, his lack of imagination and formal technique. Rather than take this recognition as a call to action, Werner sank deeper and deeper into despair. After almost three years in art school and hundreds of private lessons, he worried that he had made the wrong choice with his life. So after days of sulking, Werner called a meeting at Bar Wolke with Christophe, Charles, and Olga to discuss his future. They drank four rounds of beer, and then standing up, Werner placed his right hand on the table to steady himself, and declared that he was no longer a sculptor. “From today on, you will know me as the playwright who transformed the German theatre!” and then fell over, cutting his hand on a protruding nail. 

Pemberton Goes to the Opera

Michael Pemberton pushed open the lightly gilded men’s room door. He could still hear the voice of the soprano as he walked through the threshold. Tonight’s production of Christopher Ulang’s new opera Crimea was challenging, discordant, and grim. The house was filled with ambitious music students awaiting the first words in over thirty years from the reclusive composer. Inside the bathroom Michael saw a hulk of a man huddled between the urinals. His tuxedo shirt was bloodied, bow tie hanging over his shoulder, hair wet and messy. He had a bruise under his left eye and a long gash that ran down the length of his pant leg to a pair of shoes covered in mud.

When Michael approached, he immediately recognized the man as Charles Finnois, the critic known for his vitriolic reviews of contemporary opera. Finnois had a reputation for taking a composer’s work personally, and if an opera didn’t quite live up to his critical ear, like a scorned lover, he’d set out on a war path raging against the piece for months in any newspaper or magazine that would have him.

Finnois leaned his head back against the wall and groaned. “Are you alright?” Michael said. The plum-colored bruise under his left eye twitched. “I’d rather not talk. It just fell apart.” Michael nodded and then heard the sound of clapping. Intermission. In twenty seconds, Finnois would be surrounded by a line of old, half-seeing men, doing everything they could to relieve themselves. “Shall I help you up?” No response.

So Michael stood there, wondering what to do and thought about how odd it was that even in the rarified atmosphere of the opera house, where every note is crafted and considered, where performers cover imperfections with makeup, where guests button themselves tightly into impossible outfits and speak of important things, entropy still pokes through, kicking up fights and laughing at out cultivated efforts to stave off the specter of death. 

You may not sleep well tonight

Every evening, Robert paints at the front table in a small cafe on Greene street. He wears a backwards baseball cap, a shock of messy grey hair sticking out the back. He’s old and thin. Tattoos cover his right forearm.

Before he begins, he pulls out a metal desk lamp and plugs it into the wall socket. He shines the light on two notebooks filled with paintings.

Next to the notebooks he places two boxes of pastels, six tiny jars of acrylics, thin brushes, and a third notebook used for sketches. He drinks from a glass of water and considers his work.

From the street, he looks like a drunk, worn out and redfaced. As he works, well-dressed women stare at him from the street. Robert looks at them wild-eyed and they scurrie off.

At half past eleven, Robert stops working and places each item, the notebooks, paints, brushes, and pastels, neatly into a red duffle bag. He’s careful to put each object in its proper place.

He finishes his routine by turning off the desk lamp and putting it into his backpack. Old time jazz plays on the cafe speakers.

Sometime before midnight, he takes his backpack and duffle and walks out into the cool night air. He passes the bank and the realtor’s office turning left toward the beach. He no longer sleeps on the sand because the beach patrol wakes him too early. Instead he heads for the small walkway behind the shops on Main street. Between a dumpster and a bush lies a ten by four foot space of grass that fits his sleeping pad and blanket.

At midnight, the church bells ring. Robert lays his head down on his jacket. He hears a radiator click on and then looks up at the sky. The weather is getting colder he thinks and then pulls his blanket tightly around his neck.

H.A.G is the Name of the Bar

Across the dead street lives a karaoke bar that smells of seafood and tacos. The neon sign spells out the initials H.A.G. There are no windows except for a small horizontal pane of glass at the top of the door. If you look through it, you’ll see bodies pressed up against each other moving through a fog of smoke and sweat. Tiny red lights pop in an out at various points. There’s a rumble of sound but you can’t make out anything definitive.

On most nights after work, Corey walks by the bar without noticing it. He’s wrapped up in his thoughts, his body tight from sitting at a desk all day. Tonight, the sky is oil black and the street is silent. He hears the smack of his rubber shoes on the pavement and goes inside.

Four hours from now when the street is a corpse, Corey will exit the bar without his jacket or wallet wearing lipstick and eyeliner. His hair will smell of shrimp and his shoes will be dirty. He will not know what the initials H.A.G mean.

Down the street he’ll feel the cold air on his thin arms, shiver slightly, and look back to the bar. He’ll wonder if he went inside with a jacket, realize he had, but decide not to go back in. The night will plaster itself on his temple, heavy and thick, and the only sound will remain the faint hum of Stevie wonder’s voice.

The Secret Rapport

“Have I ever really wanted to know the depths of him,” Marta thought as she finished packing her suitcase, filling it with a random assortment of clothes and colored scarves. Marta had loved him for a year now and in her view that was a long time. It was now time to leave.

A month ago at a dinner party, he sat next to her, his hand pulling at her thigh. While the attention of the group had been directed toward someone’s travel pictures, he asked her in a concentrated whisper if she had something to tell him. She didn’t think so but his question made her wonder if perhaps she did.

“You can be honest with me,” he continued, looking her directly in the eyes, his gaze a piercing arrow of worry. Honesty. Marta sat back in her chair feeling the hard wooden frame press into her spine. Her eyes darted around the room uncomfortably searching for something to draw her attention away. A bright red designer coffee pot smooth and efficient sat proudly on the kitchen counter to her left. On the sofa’s arm, a cat rested to her right. A gilded-framed mirror directly in front of her. Above her, a slowly turning fan.


Terrance Wears a Cape

Terrance thought himself smarter than most people which he felt helped to explain why he was often bored and more depressive. There is that category of genius, he thought, that dips more toward childlike glee than melancholy. Terrance was decisively a member of the melancholy camp although he hesitated to say it out loud.

He liked to quote Elizabethan poets and their absolute acceptance of pessimism as healthy and just to his positively smiling American friends. Recently, he started wearing a cape and felt hat to parties. When the time is right, he wrote in a letter to his idol, the writer Wilford Wainsly, Ill feel confident enough to speak only when I want to in conversations and allow myself to eat chocolate close to bedtime.

If Breath Could Speak

Zadie forced herself up from the chair and paced around the hospital room. It smelled of cleaning fluid and old skin. The window on the opposite side of the door was small and round. It didn’t open. It looked out onto the parking lot below and a school across the street. When it was night and the lights in the room were on, you could not see out the window, all you could see was your own face in reflection.

Her mother had fallen asleep a few minutes before. She was dosed with drugs, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, morphine. A day before, Zadie’s father had traveled around a curve too quickly, a patch of black ice grabbing the wheel and sending the car spinning into the embankment. Her father had cut his forehead but was not hurt. Her mother broke seven ribs, her fragile old body twisting under the force of the spin.

It was late and Zadie wanted to go home to bed. As she wished to be anywhere but there, in that odd-shaped room smelling of skin and cleaning supplies, she sat back down on the wooden chair and took a deep breath. She sent her abdomen out as far as she could allowing her diaphram to drop and drew in a relaxing breath.

When she exhaled, she felt the air rush past her lips towards her mother who, without the aid of a metal and plastic machine, would forfeit her right to the next breath, the next moment. Looking once more at the cylinders of oxygen and the ingenuity of some human or a team of humans somewhere able to construct the breathing apparatus of humans in steel and light, she resolved to stay a few more minutes.

The Uselessness of Earthly Affairs

Bishop Thomas picked up his black hat and newspaper from the train seat and urged his stomach past the tight train seats. He found the loud talk of his neighbor unbearable and rather than express his frustration directly, he gritted his white virgin teeth and wrenched his buccinator muscles into a hard smile.

He walked the length of the wobbly car trying to inhibit the comparison his mind made to Jesus’ great walk and then glanced out the window. Grey factories and brick smokestacks filled his view and reminded him of the best the Catholics had to offer, a grim and sober acceptance of the uselessness of earthly affairs.