When I mentioned my plan to go to Spirit Rock, the Buddhist Meditation Center in West Marin, my friends Tom and Martha were skeptical. They’re religious historians, and disdain any post-Reformation spiritual trends. Buddhism has a couple of millennia on Martin Luther, but the American secularized version favored at Spirit Rock does not pass muster with Tom and Martha. What could I say as they pressed me further on why I wanted to go? That I had too much time on my hands since leaving my part-time job? That it was none of their business?
In truth, the credo of good deeds and potlucks from my Unitarian upbringing left me hungering for spiritual sustenance. But someone who couldn’t cut it as even a lapsed secular humanist was unlikely to embrace the rigors of faith endorsed by Tom and Martha. I was too ashamed to admit that my quest for enlightenment would undoubtedly follow along the lines of someone trying to lose weight without giving up junk food.
“Why do you care?” I snapped at my interrogators, before adding more softly, “Maybe I’ve been too lonely since working less.”
“You can feel lonely at work, too,” retorted Martha. “Besides, it’s dilettantism. Just a bunch of rich, middle-aged, white people who aren’t really serious, cherry-picking what they like.”
“But I’m a dilettante!” I exclaimed.
It’s true. Ever since a substitute teacher in 8th grade read our lifelines and declared me a jack of all trades but master of none, I’ve accepted this as my destiny. Go figure: I reject the notion of an omnipotent deity manipulating our fates like a master puppeteer. But I’ve let myself be defined by some poor per-diem woman who probably just couldn’t find the real teacher’s lesson plan for the day.
As lesson plans for life go, Buddhism has never particularly appealed to me. I’m suspicious of too much serenity. It makes me think that people are trying to hide something, like murderous rage. Besides, before encountering the Marin style of fitting in a trip to Spirit Rock the way you might fit in a workout or a manicure, my only brush with Buddhism was through a friend’s wife, who shaved her head and turned their house into an ashram before divorcing him.
It seemed pretty unlikely that I’d upend my marriage just by attending an introductory talk at Spirit Rock by cofounder Jack Kornfield. He’s the same guy who wrote a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, so I figured he had a knack for integrating spiritual and domestic demands. Besides, my husband and I had long pushed our daughters to take advantage of teachers with great reputations regardless of subject matter. Kornfield and his cofounder, Sylvia Boorstein, weren’t getting any younger. What was I waiting for? My husband urged me to go, promising he’d still love me even if I shaved my head
So one evening, fortified by a dinner of Cherry Garcia smothered with fudge sauce, I finally went to find enlightenment. Or at least the in-and-out kind a dabbling dilettante might sample.
A diamond-shaped yellow traffic sign declaring “Yield to the Present” signaled that I had arrived. Not at enlightenment, but at a field overflowing with Priuses sporting “Coexist” bumper stickers. Volunteers in flowing natural fiber garments and hemp-soled sandals greeted me serenely. The night sky was vast overhead. I felt connected and sheltered under its starry expanse. Might I feel the same inside the meditation hall?
The cavernous but low-ceilinged room was filled with people who sat eyes closed on folding chairs. Middle-aged dilettantes might be doctrinally flexible, but not flexible enough to assume the lotus position on floor cushions in front of the dais upon which Jack Kornfield perched.
Jack led the meditation. We sat quietly, breathing in, breathing out. I don’t remember what he said, just that the evening cradled me like a lullaby. I left feeling sated, not just with Ben & Jerry’s, but with an unusual fullness and depth of compassion.
Two days later I returned to hear Sylvia Boorstein talk about the Buddha’s Words on Kindness, or Metta Sutta. Afraid I might be required to surrender my irreverence, I sat near the exit in case I needed to make a quick getaway. Still, Kindness sounded innocuous enough, and Sylvia, ample-bosomed and smiling warmly, looked like everybody’s favorite grandmother. She noted in her talk that judgment tightens the mind when we get too caught up in the imperative of being right. The idea of a clear mind and open heart sounded tempting, and I began to be lulled into something resembling bliss.
My reverie ended abruptly when Sylvia got to the part of the Metta Sutta that counsels not doing “the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.” Suddenly I felt the imperative to argue. Seriously? Not the slightest thing? As a psychotherapist, I spend countless hours trying to help perfectionists recover from such expectations. “To live beyond reproach sets an impossibly high standard,” I tell them, “not to mention making one insufferable.”
My wariness deepened when Sylvia described with a hint of fond reproval her pet terrier, who growls if aroused. As I thought about my clients who endanger themselves by ignoring their instinct to protest, I, too, felt my hackles prickle, a low rumble grow in the back of my throat. You want us to be perfect passive zombies! I almost shouted. Meanwhile, Sylvia explained how she’s learned to override her own “Grrr” response by simply choosing not to get agitated.
By this time I was pretty agitated myself, straining to prove Sylvia wrong without coming across as abrasive or challenging. I wanted to unseat the teacher without anyone noticing.
Her further words of wisdom escaped me, so intent was I on formulating the perfect Buddhist riposte. Something like, I wonder if we might welcome the ‘Grrr’ as a call to something that warrants our attention. We mustn’t ignore the warning, but perhaps we could quell the yapping.
Irreproachable! I congratulated myself, summoning the courage to raise my hand so I could share my brilliance. I imagined Sylvia admiringly incorporating my wisdom into her future talks. “A wonderful example of Beginner’s Mind!” she’d say about her new star student.
But then the imperative to speak up was supplanted by the imperative to shut up. All I could imagine was Sylvia’s pitying smile for the unenlightened newcomer who had stumbled like a half-wit into the circle of wisdom and kindness.
My mind was clouded, my heart tightened with judgment.