(I’m breaking with formalities and the usual distractions to feature not only a ‘mindful’ side of the creative process – meditation practice – but also to honour one of my most treasured personal influences. Joanne Telfer passed away in Sept 2008, and I haven’t spoken of it publicly since. I hope you’ll do me the kindness of enduring this lengthy and somewhat maudlin post for the sincere revelations within. Many thanks, BB)
So much so that I don’t want to be here anymore.
All I can think is that I’d rather be with you. Wherever that is.
You’d probably just mock me, and call it a ‘cop-out’.
I haven’t suffered anything compared to you.
But you only need to see it once, remember?
You only need to know that it’s real…
It seemed like a grand idea at the time. Self-discovery! Personal improvement! Spiritual progression! Ten days at a remote Buddhist retreat in southeast Thailand. Eighteen hours each day to focus on ‘mindfulness’, in whatever task was assigned.
The wake-up bell at 4AM. Using candlelight to wash and dress oneself. Bare feet on cold, wet grass. Orion’s jewelled belt pointing the way through the jungle from a sky made of black velvet.
The sexes sit on opposite sides of the sand-floored sala. This divide persists for the duration. Separate dorms. Dining areas. Walking paths. Eye contact is discouraged. A deeper, deafening silence.
And then the day truly begins…
Rice soup and (fly-covered) fruit.
Monastic chores. (sweeping for me)
More rice. Vegetables. A cooked rice ‘dessert’. More flies.
Thermal springs (oh yes)
A rush for the communal toilets. The sound of 40 men, dressed in coloured sarongs, ladling water over their heads and shoulders in unison. Slapping and scratching at hundreds of insect bites. Grunting and flatulating behind thin wooden doors. Gasping in frustration and disgust at having to ‘tidy one’s business the Indian way’.
Candles again to navigate a 2x3m cell with concrete bed, barred window, mosquito netting, bamboo mat, and…wait for it…a wooden pillow. If you’re lucky, then your room affords a slight breezy balm to humid 30C+ nights. If you’re not – if you’re cursed with Karma like mine – then you’re adjacent to the latrine, the air deathly still, with a spider the size and hirsuteness of a kitten clutching a pulsing egg-sack a few feet above your face.
Somehow you drift. Somehow peace finds you on the slab. Somehow, sleep swallows you whole.
We raise a glass and dine as ghosts in the belly of a dreaming whale…
The day-long orientation didn’t ‘count’ towards the stay, as attendees are allowed to talk until 8PM. On the first real morning – Day 1 – you’re tired. And sore. And more than a little overwhelmed. But it’s still so new. Novel. Even exciting. You can see hopeful sparks in the eyes and faces of others, which are the only ‘proof’ you’ll have of this feeling in the outer world, as mirrors are banned. But that’s what this whole retreat is about, right? Rejecting the Outer World. Denying the Grand Illusion. Eliminating the distractions of luxury, and comfort, and sensual stimulation. Embracing the nature of Life – the truths inherent in suffering and inevitable decay – and finding the Way beyond it.
I lay on the slab with little winged vampires battering against the netting around my head. I spray a can of poison at them, breaking the retreat’s law of ‘no killing’. In my head, I justify the choice; their death’s won’t be sudden. It’s just poison. Maybe the spider will get the hint and relocate. Shit, I’m breathing it too, lady. Don’t worry – if life’s fair across levels of bio-complexity, then I’ll probably get cancer.
But that’s not how it works, is it babe?
Of anyone I know, you’re proof that Life is a dick.
Dagger pains pierce my guts on the morning of Day 2. I’d gone gluten-free nearly two months earlier out of necessity; psoriasis, inflammation, candida, mood swings, and chronic bloating/constipation are classic signs of a ‘wheat belly’, and I was seeing real improvement with the change. But, as (my shitty) luck would have it, something in the coating of brown rice grains can mimic the gluten effect. Walking hurts. Sitting hurts. Stretching hurts.
And, instead of surrendering to clarity in each breath during meditation, I find myself gripped in fevered visions from the past. Regrets with family, and friends, and lovers. Guilt over countless ego-driven and fear-soaked actions. Anger at slights and betrayals from perceived enemies. Detailed and disturbed fantasies of power and violence and righteous vengeance. I am Genghis Khan lopping heads. An Aztec priest feasting on warm hearts. Motherfucking Tetsuo going nuclear over Neo Tokyo.
I ride the waves of hot crimson in my heart for as long as I can…which is thankfully just long enough. I am corpse-still in the blackness, sad and angry and exhausted beyond measure.
You’re lying beside me now.
A joint gets lit and passed.
I can hear your throaty whisper…
“Jesus…just get over yourself.”
The gut-daggers become bread-knives. Day 3 is a sleepless, poopless, hopeless purgatory. I try to counter this by smiling at my fellow inmates, desperate for even a dram of relief and goodwill. But the mirrors are all cracked. Faces are sullen. Eyes are pained. Mouths droop low and misshapen with the weight of unspoken despair.
When the monk gives his afternoon lecture, he reminds us that the world of Maya – of our collective human delusion – is ‘an engine of Suffering, within which we are all destined for decay and sickness and death.’
Where was this five years ago, right babe? All you really needed was a robed eunuch around to shove a chemo-tipped newsflash down your throat.
Each moment bleeds into the next. Sleeping. Waking. Washing. Eating. Walking. Sweeping. Bathing. Sitting. Breathing. Suffering.
I am loosening the anchor from this reef in space and time. Realizing this uncharted position beyond the map’s edge. I am losing myself…my Mind. I do as the monk says and focus on the in-breath at the tip of my nose. I follow it as it snakes down into the belly. I watch it twist and swirl there, like a warm and golden cloud…until the out-breath, where its heat moves back up through my chest, igniting a small sun inside my head. I see pictures. Flashes. Symbols. Faces.
I hear your laugh like it’s new.
Before now, I couldn’t have recalled it with a gun to my head.
I don’t know what day it is – whether I’m awake, or learning kung fu in some fool’s idea of a Zen Matrix – but I squat and cross my legs and straighten my back and position my hands and close my eyes and breathe deep anyway. This could be the first sit of the day, or the eighth, or I’m dead and lost in my own sad corner of Buddhist Bardo.
With a curtain of rain behind him, the seated monk starts the show:
“To be free of this world, to move beyond the delusion of separation and self – to transcend Suffering – we must pierce the veil of space and time with perfect concentration. We must reach absolute union and Oneness. We must achieve SAMADHI. To fall short in this means to be trapped on the Wheel of death and rebirth. A prisoner of Samsara.”
I exhale, and without warning my mind drops…
I’m falling in all directions at once, through a trapdoor in the Universe…
It’s 20 years earlier – almost to the day – and I’m sitting with Joanne in our basement apartment.
We’ve been together almost five years, through most of university, and have made the trek out west to seek fame and fortune as actors. We’d been through a lot – more than most young couples by this point – and had a pretty good understanding of the highs and lows, and what it took to watch each other’s backs in the trenches.
She would say that I was the ‘brains’ and she the ‘brawn’. No dispute there. For every ten points of IQ I liked to broadcast to the world at large, there was an equally crippling neurosis attached. I was the kite fluttering too close to storm clouds, and forever complaining about the weather. But Joanne? She was the oak I was tied to. Lush and strong, with a towering elder’s spirit and an indomitable will. A little thunder and lightning couldn’t scare her. To a heart like hers, it was entertainment.
That night, we had gone to see a film. In it, there was a scene that had stayed with us once the credits rolled; the nihilistic anti-hero had cornered a hapless incidental character, and proceeded to blow the poor chap’s mind with a monologue on the true nature of Time. Jo’ was fascinated, and wanted me to go over the ideas again. We grabbed some coffee, a fresh pack of ciggies, and made our way back through a dark and winding forest trail. No alcohol touched our lips, though we were microbrewery fans. And none of ‘BC’s finest’ was imbibed, though we certainly weren’t strangers to the green (and if ever there was a time for a mild psychedelic to be leveraged into a complex discussion of physics and philosophy, this was certainly it). It was just best friends, legal stimulants, and a deep discussion…
We stepped inside and lit some candles. Joanne had convinced me to paint the flat a deep ‘Norwegian Forest’ green a few weeks earlier, so our home felt like a continuation of the woods, the carpet like warmer, drier moss. She perched on the futon, and I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her.
For years, I considered theoretical physics to be ‘my thing’. Joanne was the New Ager in this pair-bond – all past-lives and Vedic astrology and energy crystals and Karmic debts – so here was a chance to preach from my soapbox. I dug right in, arms flailing and eyes fiery with passion. It might have been minutes…it could’ve been hours…but time seemed to dilate and contract as I spoke, mirroring the ideas I was trying to illustrate:
Relativity. Superstring theory. Quantum foam. Multi-dimensional mathematics.
The more I talked, the more I felt like I was ‘outside’ myself. It was like my mind, my perception, was swelling like a balloon, and somehow brushing against hers. I could literally feel when an explanation or concept was clicking into place, and then I’d rush to go further…drill down deeper…to the center of it All.
“We are three-dimensional creatures living within a four-dimensional construct. Theoretically speaking, every point in time touches every point in space simultaneously. The beginning of the Universe, the end, and all points in between are happening now. Simultaneously. But, from our vantage point, we experience this as points along a ‘vector’ of unidirectional Time.”
Her eyes widen. I can feel her stop breathing. Her heart slows. She’s thinking that this is fucking crazy…that it would change everything she has ever known about the world…and life…and even death. She’s paralyzed by the unfathomable…
But how do I KNOW this? How in God’s name am I privy to these thoughts. Her feelings? How am I inside her mind…beneath her skin…surfing her blood as it courses through her veins…watching her very cells divide..?
I am suddenly aware of the carpet.
Of a clump of red candle wax, dried and flaking some twenty feet away.
Near a hole in the drywall, where a line of ants marches in and out.
A hole that leads through the wall, and into the uncut grass out front.
There’s an anthill in the moist earth.
The trees shudder, and sway overhead.
The wind swirls, and howls in crescendo.
The stars tilt, gleaming in the Void.
So many…fires in the dark…burning for all of us…
Joanne gasps. Or I do. It doesn’t matter. We Expand. Explode. Dissolve.
Into a million-billion shining galaxies.
Into the blinding forge of all creation.
It sings, and the sound is a maddening, deafening, ecstatic choir of all there ever was, is, and will be.
An infinite sea of bliss, beauty, and unquestioned Belonging.
Samadhi. Godhead. Love.
Until, inevitably, the Door opens the other way. We fall like burning angels, tumbling through time and space, crashing back hard into fleshy prisons. It takes a moment to remember, whatever a moment means. Who and what we are. Where we had been. Why we are here. Now.
We are tear-soaked. Shivering in awe and panic. Before it fades, I run to the kitchen and grab some paper and pencils. I grunt urgent instructions, and she understands; we will take a few minutes, in separate rooms, to write down what just happened. So we can have evidence. So we can know.
Neither of us are that surprised when the bullet-point accounts end up matching. Almost word-for-word. We just laugh. And weep. And hold each other until the dawn.
We knew then that we were forever changed. We didn’t need to speak of it again. There were no vows made, or pledges of undying love, or contracts of mutual ‘sacred servitude’. In fact, we broke up nearly one month later. For a moment, we had glimpsed the Truth in all things and understood, in the clear light of it, what was right for all concerned. But we were best friends for years after.
When the cancer took her, I had never experienced such an excruciating sense of ‘loss’ in my life. Such a complete and utterly unbearable pain. I went into shock from grief. I cried for weeks. And, each year around this time, it’s no coincidence that I was gripped by near-suicidal levels of depression, sometimes lasting months.
The string had been cut. The kite sucked up into the storm clouds, burned and broken and torn asunder, with the unyielding oak that held it fast so cruelly uprooted from the earth…
I breathe, and the rain stops.
I breathe, and the monk smiles.
I breathe, and sit with the pain.
I watch it, and the storm within begins to clear.
I remember the Truth that we shared, that could only be witnessed through the lens of your brave and beloved soul:
There is no suffering at the heart of all things.
There is no pain, or doubt, or loss.
All of space is Here. All of time is Now.
You only need to see it once
To know what true Love is.
You only need to know it’s real…
…to vanquish Death forever