In the Hills.
It was always a struggle to make it to the morning meditation, but this day he was eager to start off his three weeks in the right way. Still dark outside he washed his face at the open air basin and shuddered slightly under the light jacket. The birds were still asleep. One of the other men passed him on his way up the steps, also immersed in silence. The hall was dimly lit with a few small candles around the modest shrine at one end and he walked the length of the space to sit in the darkest part, taking an extra cushion he sat with his back against the hill facing the windows on the other side. A few slow adjustments of the body, he covered his head with the shawl to ward off the mosquitoes, allowing only a small opening around his mouth and nose for air. The shoulders started to relax, the back was straight, he closed his eyes slowly. As he did a smile naturally emerged, the pleasure he had discovered from meditating, the simple joy of focusing on his breathing, letting everything else just come and go.
An almost inaudible bell rang three times signaling to everyone the end of the morning session. The hour had passed quickly for him, and slowly with awareness, he, along with the twenty or so other people in the hall, got up and headed into the dining area for breakfast.
He usually sat slightly away from the others at meals times, at the back of the hall during evening chanting. Once a day at four thirty in the afternoon, tea time, the centre broke its silence and people were allowed to talk for half an hour, sipping their tea and chewing a biscuit or banana. He sat further away along the path that ran the length of the hall to the library, so that the voices were no more than an unintelligible din, not too distracting.
But it’s amazing how in silence, when one isn’t talking, the mind plays all sorts of tricks. The inner voices seem even louder at times, and stories start and evolve sometimes stretching over days. There were several young ladies in the centre. A blonde, a brunette, and a young woman who had arrived the day before, with long light red hair. Most of them wore clothes that hid their figures, a courtesy that female meditators are asked to respect in view of the distraction it can cause their male friends, who often struggling to focus on the inner landscape, are easily distracted. In some places the meditation courses suggest not even looking at each other, no eye contact. He smiled remembering a funny incident. But here on the side of the hill high above the valley everyone was allowed to look at each other.
She walked passed him as he sat next to the hall, this red haired girl, and something stirred, a feeling he had not felt in some time. So he followed her with his look as she walked away and wondered who she was. Where was she from, how old was she; was she married? Then for the next day he was distracted by her, looking to see where she sat to meditate in the hall, even sitting in silence closer to the others during tea time, and watched her from the middle of the hall while everyone chanted, all the while wondering if he should make some sort of contact with her.
On the morning of the second day of the distraction Sri decided to make contact with the red head. He would write her a note and give it at tea time. Then while they sat there on the cool cement sipping their tea they would in silence somehow get to know each other, maybe through deep penetrating gazes into each other’s eyes, and maybe after some time their hands would slowly, naturally, gently move towards each other, and touch. But he didn’t know what to say on the note. Giving his name seemed a bit lame, and asking where she came from would seem a little boring. He had to think of something profound, insightful, enough to arouse her curiosity and her desire to engage in this strange game; because throughout it all he would be remaining in silence.
At the afternoon meditation he arrived a little early in order to get the seat opposite where he had noticed the red head like to sit. He had decided to spend the hour and a half session of meditation looking at her; after all there was no prescribed technique at this centre, so why not experiment with other forms, he thought to himself. Over the next ten minutes the others gradually arrived, everyone moved a little slower in this place, more aware of their movements, and settled down to start the session. For some reason the red head was not there. He lent forward to see if she had changed places and was sitting on the same side of the long narrow hall, but he could not see her on either side. Was she not well? maybe the spicy food had got to her? Maybe she had fallen asleep in her room, he sometimes did that during the afternoon session.
Then an uneasy feeling in his stomach told him she had left. She had left early that morning just after breakfast. But why so soon, it had only been three days. He remembered the way he used to come up just for a few days, a break away from his life in the city. Oh no! where had she gone? Would he ever see her again? So he closed his eyes to start meditating. Focused his attention on his breathing, coming in and out of the area around his nostrils, a few deep breaths to feel the breath coming through his nose; and he was back, into that familiar calm feeling, simply watching his breath going in and out of his body.
It only lasted a few minutes and thoughts of the red head overwhelmed him, distracted his attention, demanded to be recognized, and no matter how much he tried to take his attention back to his breathing thoughts of her continued. He opened his eyes wondering if maybe she had arrived late and looked around the hall again. She wasn’t there. He looked at the others who all seemed so still, content with their sitting and felt a tinge of envy.
Twenty minutes later after trying to re-focus on his breath he got up and left the hall through the back door nearest to him. His slippers where on the other side and he didn’t feel like passing all the windows of the hall to get to them, in case someone saw him, so decided to sit in front of the library on the bench with the comfortable cushions. The cushions weren’t there. It seemed that things were conspiring against him. He sat down glum at the thought of the red head having left, felt the piece of paper and pencil in his pocket he had planned to write the note with, and slumped backwards irritated that he could not meditate. The cool breeze and soft afternoon light did not seem to make a difference. He stared at the bamboo branches opposite that creaked slightly as they rubbed one another, and he let his eyes run down their slender green shape. Suddenly something beyond the bamboo caught his eye. It was a person moving at the base of the bamboo, maybe passing and coming up the steps towards the hall.
Even though the whole days program was not compulsory one was expected to be in the hall during the meditation sessions, he felt a little awkward sitting next to the library and felt a little guilty for skipping part of the session; like those times he had skipped chapel and remained hidden in his room at boarding school. The person did not come up the path but continued to move behind the bamboo. They moved but somehow stayed in one place. Strange he thought. What were they doing? He lent forward and side to side to get a better look but the bamboo was too thick to see much more. He slid right along the bench and as he got to the end he saw them. It was the red head, doing something at the base of the bamboo.
There was now a feeling of relief, the irritation had passed, the smile had come back. ‘How quickly my mood has changed,’ he caught himself thinking. And then there were questions about the red head. What was she doing down there? He slowly got up and glanced towards the hall on his left to see if anyone could see him through the doorway, but thank fully he was hidden by the side wall of the library. He moved a couple of paces further to the right, stealthily, as if stalking some creature so that he would not be noticed, and crouched down on the stone path to get a clear view of the red head. My god she was doing Tai Chi, in the middle of the afternoon meditation session, without a care in the world who saw, at the base of the bamboo.
Now he was more fascinated than ever by this beautiful woman and after squatting for a few minutes longer he slowly retreated backwards to the bench so that she would not see him. He let his senses, and imagination, run wild with her for the rest of the meditation session, several times catching glimpses of her through the green creaking bamboo screen; until a bell rang at the dining room to announce it was tea time.
He sat holding the mug of tea looking around for the first time since he had arrived at the other meditators, looking for her. Many of them were foreigners of various ages and by the sounds of their accents from different parts of the world. He waited for the red head and could feel his heart beating slightly faster than normal. Ten minutes of tea time had gone, ‘hurry up or you will miss it’. He turned to look towards the hall to see if she was coming from that side, one way of getting to the dining area from the woman’s part of the centre. Then as he turned to look back towards the courtyard, there she was, walking up the steps. Her long red hair was loose flowing over her shoulders, and she wore plain white. She passed in front of him in five seconds disappearing around the stone wall and must have gone into the dining area to get tea. He waited where he was. ‘She could sit in several places’ he thought to himself; ‘just wait a little longer’. And just as he was about to get up to see where she had gone she reappeared on his right, walked towards him, and for the first time their eyes met. She smiled knowingly, it seemed, as she walked past and unexpectedly sat down next to him. Well it was on the same bench but at the other end, three metres away, ‘close enough, amazing, she’s actually sitting next to me’, he thought. ‘This must be a sign.’
‘What shall I do ?’ came his next thought. ‘I can’t break my silence, it’s only been three days since I started.’
For the next few minutes in a silent internal monologue he debated the various options available to him, occasionally sneaking a look at her by very slightly turning his head, or putting down and picking up his mug on the seat to his left. He hadn’t even written the note and tea time was nearly over. There was nothing else to do but wait till snack time. Anyway some progress had been made, she had smiled at him.
‘In effect we have met.’ He thought to himself.
The few hours between tea time and snack time were agonizingly slow. He tried several versions of the note but none of them seemed appropriate and as he wrote one version, “I’m doing three weeks in silence but I would love to get to know you, somehow, if possible. . .”, it suddenly struck him how ridiculous the situation was. How ridiculous he was being. He had come to meditate and go deeper within, but instead there he was chasing a woman he didn’t even know, and without even being able to speak. Thankfully at realizing this, the inner quite came back, and thoughts of her vanished; he was back in the flow, in silence.
After gazing longingly at her back throughout most of the chanting and discreetly following her out of the hall and down both flight s of steps, he decided to make contact at breakfast the next day. After all she could be the woman he had a premonition of a few months earlier while meditating. One way or the other he had to know. This was as important as going within.
The red head didn’t show up for breakfast, meditation, or lunch. She had gone. He didn’t even know her name. The rest of the day dragged by, he wondered at the events of the last two days, tried to read the signs. There were no signs he concluded, simply his bloody mind getting carried away by another story. He blew out the candle and lay back down in bed, closed his eyes and promised to himself not to get distracted by anyone or anything for the remaining time he was there, in silence.
‘But this has been an important lesson on my path . . . the way my mind gets carried away . . .‘, was his last thought before sleep took him.