There is a scene in The Passenger, an old Michelangelo Antonioni film from the 70s, of this courtyard in a hotel, a seven-minute continuous pan of vast, empty space that starts behind a gate and ends behind a window.
One take, no edits.
It’s always been the last swell of attention span I can recall where I was able to fully, completely absorb myself in a moment and just observe reality, as it is.
Of course this was Antonioni’s depiction of reality, but for the purpose of the narrative of the film, a meditation on alienation and man’s eternal search for truth in an increasingly modernizing world, it’s fucking eery how this is the last true connection I have to observing what’s in front of me, without any agenda or craving to do something else. Not because of the film’s narrative. To be thrilled. To hum in some existential parallel. But just to observe this moving still life we call the world.
Immediately following I signed up for FaceNovel at 25, of which I wear with a developmental badge of honor — your kids are going to be batshit self-centered and insecure with Facebook accounts in grammar school — but look back upon as an absolute cyclical crack Scientology-like addiction to craving, the ego, and approval. Attain likes. Attain friends. Give face and be happy.
I use it, you use it, it feels good. I will continue to use it because it feels good. Despite its experimental status on what it does to our brains long term, we are but social creatures.
This is not a young old man condemnation of FaceNovel, though. It’s evolving. The machine knows your face now.
But this addiction to the validation of self, along with a dwindling recall of memory, a near complete disconnection with the lightness of being we’re all born with and becoming a slave to the reactions of my brain brought me to another one of those great breaking points in life where the Etcha Sketch must be shook.
Some travel. Some buy go like hell machines that whip wind through their hair, or lack-thereof, some cling to some ghost Jesus footprint on the beach next to theirs or some deity, some gobble a bunch of mushrooms and walk into the wild. Some just complain about it to the ones they love until said loved ones finally decide to tell them how insufferable they are. Some, myself very much forever included, find meditation in movement, listening to your heart beat at the pace you tell it to, climbing some rock, riding some wave, careening through fresh groomed snow. Some do that tired old bum-chic bottom of a whiskey bottle crap.
At this point in my young old man life, though, I opted for travel and a 10-day silent meditation in the foothills of India’s Himalayan mountains.
The style is called Vipassana. And I ain’t going to sell you on it. But essentially you sit on a butt pad in a meditation hall and shut the fuck up for 10 days, reduce your body to its elemental sensations, and most importantly, connect back to pure, simple, observation.
There’s much more to it, and I’ll tell you all about it over a beer or tea or walk sometime. Like how on Day Three I had to look down at my flower-patterned butt pad to see if I was still sitting on my flower-patterned butt pad because my legs were completely numb. Or the neon gold fish I saw float across my left eye myriad times. Or the day I lost entirely to a fantasy about Kung-fu black-belting the handful of meditators with runny noses and bubble guts. Or 10 days of monkeys. All of the monkeys all of the time.
Or my non-God — Vipassana is supposedly an unadulterated, non-denomination style the Buddha, yes that Buddha, enlightened himself with thousands of years ago — the gleaming head German ‘assistant’ with the ascot and the parachute pants on Day Six who chased me down to the only peaceful patch of grass and sun on the compound in Dharamkot I could find to escape and perhaps do same damn yoga to balance out the hours of hellish sitting — you’re not allowed to exercise or leave the grounds of the center you choose — to first namaste me in gesture — you’re also not allowed to touch or shout at anyone — and then proceed to inquire:
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I am a quite fine.”
“Why not seize the day then, yes? Come back and meditate some more?”
As I felt the tease of the sun gleam off of his bald head and onto my face, willingly relinquishing my freedom to be a human under it, all I could think about was some subtext I perhaps missed on the painted gate that led into the grounds:
Vipassana Dhamma Sikhara
(Meditation Will Set you Free)
I will repeat — the method is hell.
But once you see that the former Burmese business man (S.N. Goenka) who brought back the ancient Buddha method back to India, upon clockwork videotape discussions at the end of the day express a sense of humor about it all, remind you that the entire room and board is free — the myriad centers around the world are funded by donations by past students who wish to contribute — and pain is necessary for your own observation of your self’s most hellish parts, eradicating said hellish parts with your own soul, and not with the help of not a damn other person, complete self-reliance of your own satisfaction, on your own path (your ‘dhamma’), which in turn allows you to wholly express love for and with your fellow man, it is easy to see that the method is merely a tool. Sharpen it and use it however you want.
There’s a lot of bullshit in Goenka’s reinterpretation of the teachings, too. Buddha was supposedly enlightened under a tree. Why do we have to sit in a dank hall? And sitting like a perfect cross-legged little Buddha statue? C’mon now, there are other ways to focus without attempting to destroy the natural curve of your back under 10 hours of alignment battle a day.
So goes the cost of shaking the Etcha Sketch, though.
In the end, I had my shocks of awakenings. I saw my visions. I stood for hours amongst trees and reflected on days, weeks, months, I wasted on worrying, or lusting, self-deprecating, when I could have put every single issue on fade, like they’re intended to do, smoke rings on a dying fire. Merely observing. Sweetly observing.
I thought of my father taking his own life. I thought of my brother almost getting his life taken. And I brought my self back to the narrative we are all beautifully crafting for ourselves, and for each other and how impermanence is absolutely chaotic and still-life everything and nothing all of the time. A baby monkey staring at you on top of a slab of concrete. Or a nerve sending signal from brain to make like a samurai warrior stabbing you in the spine.
Deal with it. And then come back to observe everything all of the time with me.
And I now walk out of the silent and back into the sun, onward, through