I could tell from the fixed, forced rigidity of her pose, as she sat and looked, blank, into the laptop screen, that she did not sniff because she had a cold.
“Do you have a cold?” I asked.
“No,” she replied.
I rounded my desk and sat down. She looked up as I settled into my seat.
“I’m not well,” she said.
She didn’t look well.
It is December last and I am sitting, perched on the corner of a bed that I’d slept in as a child. Listening only to my breath, I sit and wait. I don’t know what I’m waiting for – I’m just following instructions. Sit straight, follow the breath to a count of ten – start again, start again, start again. Only desperation could have lead me to such a silent drudgery. My mind, up until this point, was an ever-rising mess of opposing thoughts: a masochism of countering shoulds, oughts, mights, cannots and will nots. I breathe, I wait. I know the window is in front of my closed eyes and I know that down in the street below is my former playground. A place where I fell off skateboards, chased and was chased by friends – a place I would walk in the not unpleasant agony of love. A place to which I had returned now in pain and confusion.
I sit and I breathe and I wait and then. And then.
It is as if what I considered to be the centre of my being – somewhere in the centre of my skull – simply falls back like a rockstar falling back into its audience. What I thought was my mind turns out to be simply a part of a much larger consciousness and this much larger consciousness turns out to be a great, blank expanse of no-feeling, no-thing: just awareness, always on, never tired, never old, just what it is and only that. A great knot of stress suddenly unfurls in my chest – even better than that, it blossoms a warmth throughout my solar plexus and I find that I am what I always was: a thing that contains a mind that thinks that it is sitting in a thing. The simplicity of the realisation is both glacial and quietly, wonderfully devastating. A smile breaks and a tear falls. This is all and this is enough.
What I’d experienced was something that is termed Kensho in Zen Buddhism – essentially a glimpse of the nature of mind and a small node on the pathway to a state of enlightenment.
Now, before I take this any further, I want to make it very clear that I would not, then or now, call myself a Buddhist and I did and still do retain a healthy skepticism for religious myth. I only seek to put this experience into words because it happened to me and it was profound enough for me to relate it to you.
I sought this space and stillness – and I sought the sanctuary of my childhood home (I needed my mam) – because I was suffering from burnout. Having worked in a couple of pretty tough and strange schools over a period of two years, I had reached a mental impasse. I had run out of thoughts with which to placate myself. My wit had come to a very definite end.
And so I sat, for a short time, each day for a succession of days – and this amazing thing happened. The stress fell away; old patterns of self-criticism and railing gave way to a knowing, empowered acceptance.
The change was lasting. I began to take pleasure in life again. A vibrancy creeps into my vision, music sounds good again, colours are interesting, other people are an infinite source of delight (even the wankers).
I would wish this feeling upon the world, but I would teach it to none.
My instinct is to reach out to my colleague. I want to help her out of the place from which she struggles even to read the words in the email on the laptop screen. It isn’t only the tears that blur her eyes, but the thoughts that blur her mind. My instinct is to tell her what I’ve seen and show her the route out of the mess in which we have both found ourselves. But I can’t.
I can’t because it involves putting something into words. It involves saying something so stupid, like “you need to meditate”. So facile, too easy, silly, quietly painful and initially completely useless. Only absolute desperation would drive one through the first ten days of ceaseless internal chatter and doubt and only she knows how desperate she is. So I don’t say these things to her. I listen to her and I talk to her and I listen, but my advice amounts to aphorisms and hints: “We can be our own worst enemies”, “We think cruel things of ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying to any other person on Earth” – I even resort to the strange and empty phrase, “Life is a funny kind of roller coaster”. I am a non-committal Ronan Keating of pseudo-philosophy.
And this is why my instinct tells me that we should not teach mindfulness in schools. I employ a curious logic that might extend to not teaching Shakespeare in schools, but it really doesn’t. In Zen Buddhism, the great master will lead meditation, give sermon and then receive individual aspirants in an interview called Dokusan. It is during the Dokusan that aspirants will ask questions of the master but it is also during the Dokusan that the master will quiz the aspirant to ascertain the extent to which they had experienced genuine glimmers of enlightenment. This process of essentially assessing mindfulness has been in place unbroken since the Buddha ducked out from under his fig tree to begin spreading the research findings of his remarkable forty-nine day inner journey.
My simple point is that to teach mindfulness, one would naturally need to have experienced its benefits. And that if one had experienced its benefits, one would (as I do) feel very circumspect in one’s approach to spreading such benefits in a lasting, meaningful way that fosters compassion and wisdom – as opposed to simply calming people down or, at worst, irritating fidgety children into never wanting to go anywhere near inner reflection ever again.
The Dokusan is the failsafe, ensuring that mindfulness is sought with consent, sincerity and a kind of earnest levity. It is involves answering questions such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “what is your face before your grandparents were born?”
It is not, most definitely not, content to be covered, a half-hour to be seen to be spent in some foot-smelling primary school hall. To give that to a child means to take it from them for the better part of their lives. They would then only rediscover the great falling away when it was far, far too far down the line of their little lives.
I look on, helpless, at my colleague’s pain. I listen and I talk. I know a way out, but it is a journey so personal that to take a step forward unwillingly would be doomed to failure. So I listen and I talk – I try to show her the shape of my mind in the hope that she may find something there for herself. “Whatever happens,” I say, “you’ll always be somewhere to be found.”
If she begins to look and she continues to fail to find herself, she will be well again.