Cathy Krizik has been published in The Penmen Review and The Prague Post. When she’s not making a living as a magazine art director and career counselor, she’s writing—an adventure she wishes had begun before menopause. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her wife and two cats because you can’t be a lesbian without owning cats.
Prairie of the Mind
My first attempt at meditating was, like a first kiss, too self-conscious to enjoy. I turned off Van Morrison and double-checked that my door was locked. Everyone would be at dinner so, hopefully, there’d be no interruptions. Or witnesses. I lit some incense and, as the aromatic sandalwood floated to the ceiling, I placed a pillow and a candle on the floor in the middle of my dorm room. Sitting crossed-legged, as my friend had instructed, I lit the candle with a lighter. Would a match have been more spiritual? With my hands on my knees, guru-style, I took my first deep, cleansing breath, softened my gaze and stared into the candle.
And stared some more, trying not to blink.
Nothing happened. The flame twisted. The wax began to pool. Something thudded in the laundry room downstairs. Was someone drying their damn sneakers? I relaxed my jaw—why, on earth, was I clenching my teeth—and invited my shoulders to drop from around my ears. Wax spilled over the lip of the candle, cooling into small teardrops as it fell. I imagined peeling off the white melted pearls and rolling them, warm and malleable in my fingers.
I was doing this all wrong. Refocus.
I took another breath and watched the flame bob and weave on the breeze of my exhale. I was supposed to keep my eyes opened (why was that again?) but everything I saw in my peripheral vision—dirty laundry, Art of the 12th Century, a soft pack of Marlboro Lights, a black sketchbook-turned-journal — sent my mind skittering down unwanted roads.
So, I broke the first rule of Meditation 101 and closed my eyes.
I reconfigured myself on the pillow, straightening and arching my back. There in the dark, without the detritous to distract me, I could watch my thoughts. They were erratic, so full of complaints and dissatisfaction. I was hungry…my right foot was falling asleep…since when did my clock tick so loud?…why was I meditating?… Breathe…Was the candle still burning? An image of the candle tipping over flashed in my mind. In an instant, flames crawled up the wall and swept across the yellow and orange of the Mark Rothko poster turning it into feathery, grey ash. Soon, fire consumed my room, engulfing the building and spreading across the forest floor. As the inferno reached the Hudson River I surrendered and opened my eyes to find the squat candle winking at me, safe and secure in its ceramic dish.
I hadn’t expected my first meditation session to produce miracles but a little break from my current romantic obsession with a gorgeous, melancholic creative writing major from Greenwich would have been nice. Tatum was known on campus as a recluse—a bit of a crazy genius in the Sylvia Plath tradition—so, when she chose me to share her angst-ridden poetry, I was flattered and quickly fell under her spell. She had a car and we’d sit at the bar at the Rhinebeck Inn, drink Valpolicella Classsico for dinner and talk about her. Her poetry, her distant mother, her dark thoughts. I’d listen, nod, sympathize, keep her glass full and look for a chance to brush my hand, shoulder or elbow against any part of her. I was in love; she was straight. I would later learn she was bipolar but, back then, naive to the stinging side effects of mental illness, I followed her come-here-go-away roller coaster until my self-esteem was a piece of gum under her shoe. She was a force field, and no matter how many friends told me she was no good, no matter how many journal pages I filled with ‘you deserve better’, I was caught in her gravitational pull. My last resort was meditation. If thinking my way clear of her hadn’t worked, maybe emptying my mind could free me.
Back then, the Dalai Lama and Shirley MacLaine hadn’t yet arrived in Upstate New York. It was 1978. Weaned on the Vietnam War, Watergate and lines at the gas station that snaked around the block, we were a cynical, disillusioned, nihilistic bunch. If life would soon be bathed in nuclear fallout, why not enjoy ourselves. So, we snorted cocaine, discoed our way into a lather under a mirrored ball, and played out our sexual freedom and woke in the morning, groggy, sore and grateful that Our Bodies, Ourselves was out in paperback.
Meditation? No way. Meditation was for hardcore hippies, California airheads and the Hare Krishnas my friends and I used to ogle at in Harvard Square. We’d take the T into Cambridge to buy Jethro Tull posters and pot paraphernalia and there they’d be in their saffron robes, the men bald expect for a tiny braid at the nape of their neck and the women wearing heavy puka-beads. I’d watch them chant and parade down Brattle Street, their ankle chimes jingling, and wonder if their mothers knew what they were up to.
Roger introduced me to meditation. He was my best friend’s boyfriend and, at nineteen, an anomaly. While the rest of us freshman were flailing—stumbling through classes, drinking too much and having too much sex (because we could)—Roger held steady, apparently unruffled by the freedom and chaos a blank canvas can create. He knew what he wanted and had a plan. He’d major in psychology, attend a top-notch medical school and specialize in psychiatry. Clear, focused, unapologetic.
One night at Adolph’s, a sagging roadhouse just off campus, adored by students for its cheap beer and jukebox stocked with Donna Summer and the B52s, I elbowed Roger. “What is it with you?”
He took a slow sip of his Gennessee and yelled over the The Ramones. “What do you mean?”
“You’re so damn calm.” I lit another Marlboro. “Nothing ever gets to you.”
He shrugged, taking a long moment to think. “Maybe it’s because I meditate.”
My mug was halfway to my mouth but stopped midstream as I swiveled on my bar stool to peer at him. “You meditate? As in, the whole ‘omming’ thing?”
The front door creaked as a pack of boisterous new revelers piled into the bar. Roger’s face remained passive. “I don’t actually ‘omm’, but yes, I meditate.”
I imagined him in orange robes but Roger was no Hare Krishna. He had a full head of hair and medical school in his future. “Okay, Mr. Cool. Spill it. Tell me everything.”
As bells and bongs rang out from pinball machines across the room, Roger peered into his beer and fingered the rivulets of condensation on the glass. He explained that he’d read a book by this fellow, Suzuki Roshi, and had been following his teachings ever since.
“What does it feel like?”
Roger paused and seemed to listen as Free Bird came on the jukebox. “It’s relaxing, kind of like being asleep but you’re awake. At a certain point, there’s this buzz, this hum, this wonderful floating feeling, like you’re in a trance.”
I took a long drag of my cigarette, flicked the ashes in the ashtray and watched the soft ribbons of smoke weave upward until it caught the draft of the ceiling fan and dissipated. Could meditation really be responsible for Roger’s disposition? “Lay it out for me. What do you actually do?”
He put down his beer and turned towards me. Placing his feet on the top rung of the foot rest—as close to the lotus position as he could get on a bar stool—he sat up extra straight and laid his hands, palms up, on his thighs and formed two circles with his thumb and middle fingers. My eyebrows shot up. Surrounded by local biker dudes and drunk coeds, he looked so regal, so composed. “It’s simple, really. You sit on the floor on a pillow, light a candle, stare into the flame and focus on your breathing for twenty minutes.”
Only twenty minutes? That didn’t sound so hard.
It was nearly midnight and the bar was reaching its full crescendo. Thursday was fifty cent shot night—Cuervo Gold on tap. Coins jangled in the tip jar, double time. Music blared. The walls were throbbing as a dance floor full of people gyrated to Rock Lobster. Yet there was Roger sitting like a Buddha.
He relaxed his posture and yelled over the mayhem. “The goal is to think about nothing. It’s all about quieting the mind.”
I stubbed out my cigarette, grinding the filter into the black plastic ashtray. “I didn’t know minds were noisy.”
He smiled and gave my knee a patronizing little pat. “Meditate for two minutes, you’ll see.”
It would take two years, and an obsessive crush, before I took to the floor with a candle of my own. My first attempt at meditating felt like a failure; my second was only slightly less disheartening. I ditched the candle and tried sitting in the morning when I wasn’t so hungry and my mind hadn’t yet been infected by the day. On my third attempt, I gave up on the prescribed lotus position and leaned my back against the bed in the hopes that my feet wouldn’t fall asleep. It worked. I was able to sit for twenty minutes—a victory of perseverance, if nothing else. But a trance? Relaxed? Like sleeping? Maybe if I dropped a quaalude. The floating sensation Roger had spoken of so reverently was as elusive as Tatum’s affections. But he’d been right about one thing—my mind was a loud, screaming nest of wasps, thoughts never resting, always swarming around one sticky circle of nectar before spotting something sweeter and moving on.
When I reported my feeble progress to Roger, he only nodded. “There’s a reason they call it a meditation practice.” So, as I took my place on the floor for the fourth and, as it turned out, final time, I stopped expecting magic. There would be no trance, no levitating, no humming, no grand insight. My plan was to stop trying so hard. Just sit and watch the thoughts.
So, I did.
All the minutia of life—homework, friends, my dozing feet, Tatum, the muted buzzing of someone’s alarm, the urge for a cigarette—rose and receded as I told myself to let them go. Then, in between two thoughts, something happened. It wasn’t much but it was enough. At the bottom of an exhale my mind went momentarily still and, in that opening, I caught sight of something vast and empty and quiet—like a prairie of the mind. There were no tall grasses or soft cumulous clouds measuring the distance, just a featureless sky of light and a boundless, expectant stage onto which I could wander. No walls, no judgment, just a broad, waiting meadow. I saw a roll of red carpet materialize at my feet and slowly unfurl across the landscape. An invitation—but to what? A summoning—but by whom? In this place, I could do anything, be anything. A fissure of fear ran up from my belly and flushed across my face. My fingers clenched, closing tightly around my thumbs. The sky was too big, too forgiving, too yielding, too full of possibility. As the plush, velvet carpet hit the horizon, the light overwhelmed me and my eyes flew open.
It would be a decade before I meditated again. To sit with yourself in the dark is to be an explorer of inner territories. You have to be willing to catch a glimpse of your own limitations—and potential. You have to want to see. But, at twenty, I wasn’t ready. The winds of my mind, its patterns, its judging nature, its talent for inflicting harm and, ultimately, its wild creative power, were too scary.
But on the floor of that dorm room, in a mind hungry for love and serenity, the seed was planted. Years marched on. Roger went on to graduate school. Tatum became an editor. I fell in love again and moved to Boston with a woman who loved me back. And, through all that life offered up, the promise of that prairie never left me. The red carpet would be there for me when I was ready.