Teaching Street Meditation

Cigarettes sucked to the butt, lie dead on the sidewalk like flat white and orange cancer worms. Not my ideal place to meditate, but I’ve committed to 2 hours of sitting on this grungy street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The handwritten sign above my head reads Free Meditation scrawled with one of my son’s purple smelly markers. I’m surrounded by a small legless dog, its toothless owner, and a woman muttering to herself. They are waiting to take a free mobile shower thanks to the nonprofit Lava Mae. I had some kind of fantasy that the cardboard box campers, hungover, strung out, would sit with me, close their eyes, allow me to guide them through some mindful breathing. Instead the first hour is me and them, the guy blasting AC/DC on his cassette player boom box, a mom with two toddler children sitting in my guest meditation chairs, and a homeless kid talking to himself about fairies. I close my eyes, breathe in the secondhand smoke, try to ignore the broken needle on the curb a few feet away. The Lava Mae staff encourage people to sit with me. We are offering meditation today Charlie, want to try it? They ask the toothless man. But Charlie just looks through me like he’s on his 3rd tour in the ‘Nam. They all ignore me, like they ignore the Back in Black screeching out into the foggy Saturday morning air.

I try to meditate, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes catching glimpses of people throwing their used towels into a bin as they trudge away to get dirty again. Then this guy sits down next to me to dry off after his shower. My altruistic heart skips a beat. This is what I’m here for, to save someone, to be an example of peace, to add hope to the psyche of the streets. He’s tall, maybe 6’6, light skinned, African American, carrying a large blanket like a cape, like a king. You meditating man? He asks. Yes, would you like to sit with me? I say, almost sounding like Linus speaking about the Great Pumpkin. Nah man, but that meditation stuff is some good shit, I like that shit, but I came here to get my ass clean. His eyes look at me clearly, no booze on his breath, no weed smell around his edges. You’ve meditated? I ask. Yeah, meditated, yoga, visualization, all that shit. We talk about his hoops career, (he played divison one ball in college), his ex-wife, his old job selling cars, his race (Man, I didn’t discover my blackness until I was like 20, I was raised by white folks who’d adopted me), his descent into crystal meth. I ask him about living on the streets. Dan, man, I never miss a meal, I sometimes walk 12 miles a day from place to place. I sleep wherever, in a tent, in a box, on the bus to the casino up north. I don’t ask him if he’s still using, but my money says yes. You want to get off the streets? I ask. Yeah, but I want someone to write my story. I was a pro baller in Europe man, fuck, people need to know about this shit. I look down at my watch, an hour has passed talking with Dennis and my time is up. I grab my sign, say goodbye to the Lava Mae people, then to Dennis. I want to give him my card, meet with him again, write his story, save him from his end, but all I can manage is, really good to meet you, stay strong. With that he is off, clutching his blanket, a giant of a man, almost elegant, owned by addiction.

I get home and immediately go to my computer. There he is, averaged 9.7 points a game his senior year, his LinkedIn profile shows his last job as a car sales manager near Sacramento. He was telling the truth, I think. A real man, a real human being, off the grid, gone, maybe forever.

Meditating in Bed

I’ve gotten lazy (not the right word). These days I meditate lying in bed. Slow inhales, exhales, 140 of them, 20 minutes, head still on my morning pillow. Sometimes my son joins the moments, his pjs nestled next to my wife. Is this meditation? I ask myself. Does it count? Before the puppy I used to go downstairs for 30-minute sits, quiet, alone. But the house is always awake now, or about to get up. I try to sneak in meditation on the couch after dinner. I close the eyes of my mind, breathe, count to 7, stare speechless, paying attention to nothing in particular.  Are you meditating? My wife asks? She can always tell. No, I answer, starting my count again. Post-puppy I still meet my quota, at least 45 daily minutes (usually more), but at home I’m surrounded by the family, my family. I’ve learned to accept the interruptions, the imperfections, after all, I’m meditating for my wife, for the kids, for the benefit of all beings. Sitting, walking, standing, lying down, mindful seconds, slowly becoming my mindful life.

Thinking about Meditation, 2008

Meditation, mindfulness, yogic breathing, transcendental meditation, zazen, guided visualization, the breath, mind in the moment, in the seconds really. I’ve read about them all, but I’m absorbing Kabat-Zinn now, his words slowing me down time, as I walk through campus seeing sentences, one by one, as they arrive from colleagues and students. Usually it is a torrent, flooding phrases, mine, theirs, uncontrolled verbal ejaculations, reactive, sometimes rehearsed. How are you? Good. It hasn’t yet occurred to me, to go beyond reading, to actually sit, breathe, listen to my breath. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf, Zinn says. Intellectually I comprehend, but don’t yet know about the doing of the not doing, the complicated simplicity that is meditation. The aloneness of my own lungs, eyes closed, the stopping, no audience, no tangible reward.  As I read, I like to pretend that I’m mindful all the time, that I’m a Zen monk, learned, wise. Fantasy, like when I pick up a Runner’s World in the airport and think, I’m a marathoner, or I can do that, have calves that look like that. Could be mindful all the time, could run a marathon, can’t, won’t, truth. I sell myself the same ideas that are sold to me. But meditation, just breathing, is free. It will be three more years before I begin, really breathe in, breathe out, stringing minutes together, before I learn, that you don’t think about meditation, you do it.