Where I live I try to read. I have time, and there’s a library here, so I go and I look at the books on the shelves. Many of them I’ve heard of and many of them I would want to read, but I don’t seem to have much interest. I’ve read books before, and I’m usually glad when I do, so I start browsing the shelves. Do I want to entertain myself or do I want to improve myself? Those seem to be the possibilities, and for me, there’s enough entertainment already, enough stories in the world, so I try to find the self-help section. Unfortunately there is no self-help section in this library, so I pull out a book, almost at random. It’s a book by Spalding Gray. I’ve heard of him, and I sit in a red chair, and the parts I read were about a narrator who went from a zen dojo to a porno theater, and his responses to the situation, and his responses to himself in the situation, seemed recognizable. I liked the fact that someone was brave enough and sane enough to venture out into the world and see what happens.
There’s a woman who lives here, very short gray hair, and very calm. Also very kind. (And she meditates.) She leads a little meditation group, every Sunday, in the library, and I’ve sat on meditation cushions before, and watched my breath, and occasionally I’ve been able to observe my thoughts, watching them like watching a tree or a car. But most of the time the thoughts just happen, and when they’re over . . . Well, they’re never over. Which is why I went to the library last Sunday. Koji was there, a heavy-set Japanese guy, and Polly from Ireland, and MH, and a girl whose name I didn’t know. I sat on a red, comfortable chair, and the library is made of stone so it was cool, and I was wearing socks, on the rug, sitting in this chair, and the woman sat on a small bench and there was incense and she rang a bell.
Most of the time I like who I am, but a lot of the time I hate who I am, and that’s why people meditate I think. Hate might be too strong a word, but all that being buffeted around. Sometimes I think it might be nice to get beyond the various likes and dislikes and not be so—the buddhists would say—attached to what I am. Which is why I picked out a book by John Dos Passos. I’ve never really read Dos Passos, but I’ve always thought he was underappreciated, so I started looking at the book, at the words on the page, and there were so many words and so many pages, I only read certain sections. But even then I could see the writing was grappling with a changing world and what was happening in that changing world, and trying to show the world as it was.
The form our actual meditation takes is thirty minutes sitting, ten minutes walking in circles, and then twenty minutes sitting. During the walking part I try not to look at my fellow practitioners. They’re walking in a circle around the main rug, and because I’m worried about stepping on someone’s heels, or being stepped on, I go to the other side of the piano and walk back and forth over there. At this point, theoretically, I’m concentrated on an object, on my breath or my feet on the floor, whatever it is, the object is there to interrupt the constant flow of thought, and when it’s interrupted, the flow of thought becomes clearer. In theory.
I was sitting in the corner of the library and I noticed, tucked away with the regular books, a manila folder with a photocopy of an article—it wasn’t very long—by George Trow. I started skimming it, not thinking I was really reading it until after a while I realized I was reading it. It moved very quickly, like someone thinking, and I wasn’t completely sure what he was thinking about, but I had a sense what it was because of the way it was written. It wasn’t a story I was reading, but a mind, working its way through a question, and there was a pleasure in the rhythm of this flow of thought.
Usually after about ten minutes of sitting in the chair I have a sensation that I assume is unique to me. I get a surge of emotion. A surge of a sense of sadness, like a wanting to cry. And at first I try to avoid it. I redouble my concentration on my breath, or my body, trying to maintain control, but whatever it is, real or imaginary, it keeps coming back, into my mind, and anything can be an object of concentration, that’s what I tell myself. And I’m sure I get a little too caught up in the psychology of this particular emotion, but because it’s part of my imagination, like a dream, it’s interesting to me.
Someone arrived a few days ago with a book by Cormac McCarthy, and she loaned it to me. It took a few days to build up the courage to start, and I’m only partway into it, but I can see that inside the text is a thought or a feeling, or a vision really, being worked out. When you see a vision, I assume you need to tell someone because there’s a lot of description of rimrock and landscape. And it’s not just a mind working through an idea, it’s the mind of a story working itself out to its eventual conclusion. Although it advocates nothing and prescribes nothing, it’s telling us what the world is or what it could be, as if that telling were a gift, and I find myself submitting to the words on the page because something is going to happen.
When we’re sitting in the library, we’re all in chairs except the woman, on her bench, and Koji, who sits cross-legged on the rug. As we settle in our seats I watch him and I remember him telling someone that when he meditates he tries to think of sending peace to certain people. It was something like “peace,” probably a translated Japanese word. And I imagine thinking about peace. First of all I have to imagine peace. And then what would that be like, if you thought about peace, nonstop, for 24 hours? Or even 15 minutes? It would certainly change my attitude. Which is what I want. And it’s funny because, although a world is out there, a beautiful world probably, except for Sunday afternoons, I don’t have the time to meditate. But I think about it.
The things we all know to be true, these are the things we want to be reminded of, in some new way perhaps, and when I found, in the poetry section, a copy of the Collected Poems of Auden I brought it back to my room. There are certain poems I like, and when I read these poems, or reread them, the world of the poem, or the mind of the poem, engages my imagination. The cold, gray day when Yeats died, for instance, or the image of Icarus falling out of the sky, or the fact that poetry changes nothing. It’s obvious that poetry changes nothing, and it’s sad, like mortality, and by reminding me of that mortality, which seems to be true, it reminds me of the world and the possibilities of living in that world, and lets me return to the world, slightly more clear-sighted.