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Letter from a Retreat

September 29, 2014 | by

How not to meditate.

Himalaya_sud_avion

Photo: Michel Royon

Martin had a long pair of navy-blue socks that he wore when it was cold. He wore them in the morning before sunrise, and usually took them off before noon.

We were doing a silent, shamatha meditation retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas. The retreat was led by a stern Zen monk from Japan. We referred to him by his honorific, Venerable. Venerable was tall. It was hard to determine his age. He might have been fifty years old, at most. He wore aviator-style glasses. He had square front teeth. His eyes tilted a bit down at the outer corners, down toward his ears, giving him a sad, warm, sexual look. He was handsome and he was stern. He told us that if we learned to sit shamatha, we would no longer have nightmares, and all our anxieties would reveal themselves as mental disturbances and nothing more. He asked us to consider, when we were feeling anxiety, if that was really bliss. Really look at it, he said, really ask yourself. Actually, I don’t think he understood our practice, but I think he’d gotten some instruction, and I was a little offended and a little uneasy that he’d come and sit here and insult us—suggest vaguely that his style of Buddhism was superior. But maybe I was imagining it.

On the first night of the retreat, Venerable told us that ego is like a vampire. Martin, whom I was secretly dating, raised his hand and asked how, if he was to think of his ego as a sneaky vampire, he was expected to relax. The phrase “sneaky vampire” got stuck in my head. The question seemed like a comeback. It made Venerable seem, all at once, ridiculous. I was afraid, while Venerable answered, that I would start laughing, so I didn’t hear his answer. The next person asked a question. I was still thinking “sneaky vampire.” Then I broke. I started laughing. Each time I got my laughing under control, it would explode again, worse, when I thought, “sneaky vampire” while looking at Venerable’s handsome face, noticing his elegant comportment. Venerable was answering an Australian paraglider’s question about light. “Ah, light,” he said, “that is a big subject. For that, come and talk to me in private.” Read More »

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Letter from a Haunted House: Part 2

October 23, 2012 | by

The story so far

Usually I go to bed early, but given all the recent ghost activity in my house, I was getting a little spooked. So I was still up at eleven P.M., in bed and on the phone with my husband, Clancy. While we were talking, something black circled my bed twice, so fast I wasn’t sure I saw it, and then flew into a storage area where I have been slowly setting up a shrine. I yelled out twice while it circled me, but somehow Clancy didn’t hear me and continued talking.

I said, “There’s a bat or a bird in my apartment.”

“Is it a bat or a bird?”

“I don’t know. It may be a bird. I think it’s a bat.”

It had flown through so quickly, now I wasn’t sure I’d seen it. I said, “I think he’s in my shrine.”

I got a broom and went to look. It was only my second experience with a bat, and I didn’t know if he would get scared and come flying at me.

On the far wall, hanging from a pipe, was a very small thing. It might have been a clump of dust, or a piece of metal pipe with a cap over it, or it might have been a very tiny bat, hanging upside down, wings folded.

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Letter from a Haunted House: Part 1

October 3, 2012 | by

I rented my apartment, a large studio on the top floor of a three-story house listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, sight unseen, through Craigslist. When my mom asked me, months later, for its address, I had to do a Google search. Among the results was a mention of my place being haunted. I didn’t click on the link. I did mention it to my husband, Clancy, in passing.

On the day I moved in, without giving it any thought, we started to refer to one storage space—there are three, two low-ceilinged ones on either side of the pitch-roofed room and one closet—as “the bad area.” We had barely walked in, we (at least I) had forgotten the ghost, and here we were—“the bad area.”

In fairness to the rational-minded, the bad area was just that. It had a white door on hinges that came to my chest. The floorboards were unfinished. Brown insulation fiber had come loose in the ceilings and was all over the floor. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. An industrial, kevlar-and-aluminum fire-escape ladder was in one corner. The previous tenant lived here three years. I don't think he swept in there one time. I don't think anyone did. (The other storage area was half open, clean, with finished floors.)Read More »

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Letter from India: The Haunting

September 6, 2012 | by

“I think this hotel is haunted,” I told my traveling companion, Clancy.

I have never said anything quite like that before. Now, I have unconventional beliefs. I believe when others tell me they have seen a ghost, particularly if they have details—say, a long nose and a tuxedo, or a suggestion from an old lady that we “touch now, dearie.” But it still sounds like crazy talk. I am aware of that.

“You’re right,” he said.

“Really?”

Then we were both afraid to turn out the light. We were in the Rajmata Suite, where the woman who lived in the hotel used to sleep, back when it was a home. Actually, the correct word is palace. When you turned out the light it was pitch black in the room. In that darkness, I felt—briefly—a unique dread. It was not a menace. Just a funny intimation. To put it into words is to coarsen what was fine: an intimation that one day I would die.

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Letter from India: The Permit, Part 3

August 22, 2012 | by

The story so far: Clancy and Amie continue to struggle to obtain the elusive permit that will allow them to find accommodation in a remote mountain area.

We stayed one night in McLeod Gange. It might be called the woo-woo capital of the world. Woo-woos everywhere—frustrated, blissed out, on drugs—unwashed woo-woo land, with lots of coffee shops.

In the morning, we passed a black street dog with white paws. He limped on a hind leg.
Clancy said, “Hey, White Socks, how’s it going?”Read More »

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Letter from India: The Permit, Part 2

August 21, 2012 | by

The story so far: Amie and Clancy find themselves stranded in a remote area, in need of a permit before they will be allowed to stay anywhere.

The next day, as we were heading out to get a car, Tenzin, the proprietor of the guesthouse, stopped us and explained that it might take us two or three days to get the permit. He suggested we pack our room, offering to sell it while we stayed in Dharamsala. He said, also, that we could stay until August 6—we could stay as long as we liked.

“I can shuffle rooms around,” he said once, and then later, “We have had a cancellation.” Still later he added, “You will have to change rooms, but your new room will be just as nice.” We shrugged our shoulders. So long as we had a room.

In Dharamsala, we were directed to “District Commissioner” office 111. We poked our heads into a medium-size room shared by four men. Their desks were piled high with manila folders tied together with tennis-shoe laces. We said, “Protected area pass?” in a tone that suggested we might be arrested for asking the question.

The administrators reacted as any American in her office might, should an Indian couple poke its head in and say three words in Hindi.

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