It was around the time I graduated from high school that I found Jack Kerouac, and thus began a fascination with the Beat writers. I quickly developed a fondness for Allen Ginsberg, and was thrilled when I heard he was coming to town to perform in a benefit for a local Tibetan Buddhist center.
The auditorium was packed, and hot, and the scent of patchouli was thick in the air. As my friends and I found our seats, a group of monks in colorful robes took to the stage. At first there was silence. The mostly-college crowd that had been bustling just a moment earlier was completely quiet , and then the monks began to chant.
Many in the crowd joined in the chant. I had no idea what they were saying or what it meant, but it was mesmerizing. In that moment I felt something that was familiar but seemed elusive…stillness.
To back-track a little…I was a college student with anger issues. Not aggressive, scary anger, but the kind of confused frustration that gets stuffed down until it feels like it is eating you alive. As a shy, sensitive person, I had not really found my voice. I feared being seen as disagreeable. I preferred to “go along to get along”. I was very lucky to have a supportive family who loved me, but I was going through a phase of trying to differentiate, and not knowing who I was supposed to be.
So, the stillness…I had seen it before. My Busia (Grandma) had an air of serenity about her. I would sit next to her at her big kitchen table or across from her at church and just watch her face…she always had a slight smile and a certain look that she just might know something the rest of us did not. I remember as a little girl hoping that I would know her secret when I grew up.
The monks chanted, and time stood still. And I paid attention. When Allen Ginsberg took the stage to read “Howl”, I was thinking about the stillness. I knew I needed to find that again.
A few months later I decided to write a long letter to the monks at Jewel Heart, the organization that hosted the benefit. I told them that I wanted the stillness. I wanted to be calm, to let go of anxiety and not allow anger to build up inside of me. I don’t know what I expected in return. Step-by-step instructions, perhaps? But I checked the mail each day. (Obviously I did not have internet access at this time, email could have been much quicker!). I don’t remember how much time passed. Months, perhaps. But then one day I went to check the mail and there was a business size envelope addressed to me.
I opened the envelope to find my original letter, re-folded. On the back of my letter was one word, scribbled in all caps.
I wish I could tell you that I understood, at that moment. I wish I could tell you that I saved the letter. But what really happened…I got mad. I thought it was awfully condescending to reply to my heartfelt plea with one scribbled word. I threw out the letter and that was that.
But it was in the following year that I started practicing yoga, and I was beginning to learn the importance of the breath. “Follow your breath”, my teacher would say, and I fought the impatience, and the resistance, by surrendering, and breathing.
In these 40 years I have been alive, I now see that one of the most valuable things I have learned is, simply, to keep breathing. It has been a lesson that has taken me a long time to integrate, and one I still need to be reminded of daily. (In fact, if you happen to visit me at 11:11 am on any given day, you will hear the alarm on my cell phone, reminding me to stop and take a deep breath). It is a lesson that my husband and I try to teach our children…inhale, exhale, return to center. It is a lesson we employ oh so much these days for ourselves when parenting gets tough.
So I think of those monks…of my Busia…of my kids…of my husband who reminds me when I forget…and I bow to them in deep gratitude. I’m still learning, but I think I get it now.