How Mindfulness Works IRL
I grabbed my straw hat from the dashboard as Ben waited beside the car, and then, my hand in his, we followed the aroma of hickory-smoked burgers to the wooden fence that enclosed our friend’s back yard.
After a daylong retreat, I anticipated Kate’s barbecue like a kid looking forward to recess. My mind had slowed during meditation, to contemplate the touch sensation of each breath, to wonder at the miracle of dust particles floating in the sunbeams that angled in through the windows. Now I was eager to speed up, to laugh too loudly and eat too much. What was the latest news about Carol’s job and Barbara’s reflexology class? The fellow practitioners I’d sat with all day would greet me with bear hugs or a silly haven’t seen you forever, but when Ben opened the gate and stood aside to let me go in first, no one waved a welcoming hello. A crowd of poker-faced strangers filled the yard.
I froze, thrown back in time, slammed into a younger version of myself, when other stony faces had barred my way.
I was the new girl in high school the year Dad transplanted our family — five kids and his new wife — from Iowa to California. Returning to the building at the end of lunch hour, I ran a gauntlet of poker-faced strangers, classmates who lined the sidewalk. Their dull eyes dismissive, when I dared to look. A few boys flirted. Not knowing how to play along, I ignored them. Their voices hardened. “That’s how it is, sister?” “Can’t even say hello?” “Stuck up.” Girls spat comments about my Angela Davis afro. “Got ’em with that head, didn’t you?” They waggled fingers at me. One of them closed in. “High yellow bitch.” The words were opaque, but the threat transparent. I folded my arms across my chest and willed myself not to run, purse bumping against my hip with every step.
Poised with Ben at the edge of a sea of veiled faces, I was an intruder, a high yellow bitch. There was no way into the secret world the faces guarded and no clear path to safety. On top of being afraid, I was a failure, too. Week after week, I’d followed my Buddhist mindfulness instructions. Be present with your feelings. Don’t justify them; don’t criticize them. Don’t decide what to do about them. Only watch. Three years, ten retreats, and 1,000 meditations into my spiritual practice, I was still dragging around emotional baggage from my teenage years.
That tenth-grade urge to bolt welled up, but Ben blocked my path. He seemed calm, even though I accidentally stepped on his foot. “Where you going?”
I couldn’t admit my terror. “Uh, nowhere. You recognize anybody?”
“Christine over by that tree. The last person I want to talk to. Maybe there’s more inside.”
He strolled into the yard, me gripping his hand.
A man by the grill pointed and yelled, “Burgers over here. Beer’s in the cooler. Food in the kitchen.”
Inside, Barbara and Carol were filling their plates at the buffet tables. I rushed at them, my arms flung open. “So great to see you guys.”
Barbara, knocked off balance by my hug, dropped her spoon. “Just saw you an hour ago. What’s the big deal?”
I ignored the question, because the answer embarrassed me. I kept the two of them in sight, while piling my plate with junk food. In the process, I lost track of Ben.
A fresh wave of panic rolled over me. I walked out the door, trying to remember what it was like to be a confident adult. Barbara and Carol followed, but, hell, they might ditch me, too. Empty chairs remained near several partiers, their chatter peppered with spirited hoots. I joined them, balanced my plate on my knees, and looked up just in time to see my friends heading off in another direction.
I watched in disbelief, my feet anchored to the ground. The scene closed in on me, disembodied voices ringing in my ears. The strangers would call me stuck up if I left. They’d call me a bitch if I stayed.
I needed to snap out of it, search for a way back to normalcy. I waited for an opportunity to introduce myself but found nothing to add to their debate about the local college football team. No one offered an opening, so I settled into not fitting in, plastered an expression of interest on my face, and tried to ignore the smell of beer warming in the sun.
I turned. Carol, Barbara, and Ben had set up four chairs under a shade tree. They motioned for me to join them. We formed a little circle of muteness. Barbara and Carol were both quiet types. Ben and I were often the entertainment, but he was busy eating, and I was busy being miserable. I kicked off a sandal and kneaded the grass with my toes. My chewing sounded deafening.
“Ben. Dawn.” Kate waved at us from the other side of the yard. She dragged a chair over and parked it beside Ben. “I didn’t see you come in.”
Ben voiced my confusion. “I’m surprised I don’t know these people. Who are they?”
“Mostly Randy’s friends.” She glanced toward her husband, who was just emerging from the house. “Guys he goes hunting with. Their wives. But there’s some other people you all know.”
Ben nodded, satisfied with her explanation.
Christine strolled over and waited to get his attention. When he failed to notice her, she turned to me. “Oh. You’re here too?” It sounded like an accusation, but I smiled up at her and extended my hand. She didn’t take it.
“I see you’re wearing a hat — so you can hide.” She arched an eyebrow and sauntered off.
I gasped, smile still painted on my face, hand still extended. The worst thing that could happen, did happen: public humiliation. She’d outed me as a fraud and branded me unacceptable. She’d exposed a nerve that twanged with the suspicion she was right. I wanted to hide, hoped no one had overheard.
In the past, my mind would have resounded with opinions. About her: obnoxious. About me: pathetic. I waited for the familiar voices, for the noise that would obscure my feelings. Silence. Not a word. Not a thought. A chasm opened between my shame and me, as though a movie camera had pulled back from a close-up to a panoramic view.
The backside of my attacker receded. Heat flooded my cheeks. My heart pounded, fast and loud. But, at the same time, I felt peaceful, even curious. I was meeting an emotion for the first time. So … you’re shame. I’ve heard a lot about you.
I turned to Carol, excited about describing this miracle. “The weirdest thing just happened. Christine insulted — ”
“Did I tell you the latest about my stupid job?” she asked.
What the heck. I’m talking here. I angled closer, ready to pounce. I intended to point out she’d interrupted me and hurt my feelings and what kind of Buddhist friend was she, anyway? But, really, I leaned in with the intention of feeling better, after saying all that to her.
My intention fizzled. For some inexplicable reason, it was okay to not feel better. Again, agitated and calm all at once. Bewildered by their coexistence. I relaxed in my chair and observed the three of us: Carol, my pissy mood, and me.
A couple strolled over, hand in hand. The woman beamed like a new bride. She pushed a wayward silver curl behind her ear.
“Hi, everybody. This is Herman.”
She patted his chest. “We were friends in junior high. Got together last month at our fortieth reunion. Then he flew out to visit me, and we haven’t spent a day apart.”
Herman grinned from under a cowboy hat. He released her hand and put his arm around her shoulders. “Yup.”
They radiated happiness — with each other, unexpected romance, a sense of unlimited possibility. It was as infectious as a baby’s coo.
Once again, a distance opened between my emotion and me, yet I sensed it more intensely. I tasted delight, as never before. Neither cynicism nor jealousy diminished its sweetness. Self-centered concerns did not water it down. No disappointment that I hadn’t felt it earlier, no yearning for it to last all evening, no fear that it wouldn’t. Undiluted joy: an orange eaten straight from the tree.
I’d studied mindfulness with the zeal of a fanatic. Contemplations. Exercises. Verses composed of impenetrable phrases. “Arising and passing away.” “In the hearing, just the heard.” “Contemplate the body in the body.” I didn’t remember any of it at the barbecue, and I was unprepared for the firsthand experience. The way that awareness, uncaused and unavoidable, drifted in and out on a cloud of hickory smoke. The way it revealed a sense of well-being right there in the heat of my emotions, moods that proved as ephemeral as each breath I’d been taught to focus on. I suspected the only constant was the peace of mind. Unreasonable. Timeless. Reaching back, embracing adolescent me.