Some months ago I found myself in a nearby town and went to group meditation at a meditation center different from the one I regularly attend, where I’d been before but not in a while.
For those of you who don’t know, a meditation center is a place where people go to meditate. Meditation centers have big clean meditating rooms that smell wonderfully of nothing. There is tea and a spotless bathroom. In their cozy libraries you find books by the Dalai Lama and people like Ajahn Sumedho, a former rich kid from Seattle (I am making an assumption based on his patrician diction and the fact he once mentioned growing up in the Anglican Church) who became a famous Buddhist monk. He is now 84 and my personal favorite because he writes about silence. At my meditation place (which is not the one visited here, as I mentioned) there is also a credenza littered with earnest wishes on Post-its: “May David survive chemo,” “Please help Jan find the love she craves,” “Let my situation with my neighbor resolve itself peacefully.” Mockers and naysayers abound, but in a country where the national pastime is watching videos on your phone in public without headphones with the volume all the way up, there are worse hobbies.
So the format of group meditation is this: 45 minutes of silence, and 45 of a nice teacher explaining what silence is. So, there we were. We meditated. No one’s phone rang, which, sadly, constitutes a miracle these days. It all went fine. It was when the talking/teaching portion of things began that I found myself confronted with the Reactor.
The Reactor is somewhere between 65 and 80. He is white—this is probably obvious, but I thought I should go ahead and say so. He wears T-shirts printed with witticisms about physics, or commemorating visits to boutique aquariums. He has a trimmed beard and seems like he used to work at NASA or maybe JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
The teacher, a woman in her 70s who I liked but took some pains to have no opinion on, talked about faith and wisdom, and how you needed to have both. The Reactor was right up front, sitting cross legged, literally at her feet. Situated as he was under the track lighting his beatific expression was imbued with the celestial. His lips were gently pursed, pensive. His eyes were in a soft squint, his eyebrows slightly raised, alert to the possibility of arch-provoking surprise or furrow-provoking sympathy. Or empathy. How do they differ? One imagines that the Reactor has journaled extensively on this very subject!
When the teacher spoke of suffering the Reactor made a fist and lightly pounded his chest, and shook his head knowingly, at once defiant and accepting—I know that sounds impossible but the Reactor pulled it off! It did not matter whether the suffering involved violent death or someone merely stumbling upon an unusually deep puddle, the Reactor’s reaction was the same.
The teacher read a Cherokee parable about two wolves. As a solid citizen of the yoga/meditation/healing universe I have now heard this parable so many times these two wolves have become real—at this point they’re basically like Stalin and Churchill to me. The Reactor was clearly also no stranger to the parable historically accurate story of the two wolves, because when the teacher got to the “punchline,” he mouthed along with her: “Which wolf wins?” He laid his hand over his heart, as if he were about to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Two Wolves Parable. Finally, he nodded to himself, like, “Gets me every time!”
The Reactor was, however, never so divinely and perfectly himself as when the teacher said something funny. He had a whole ritual, complete with checklist.
- Detect tone of wry irony. Increase lip purse by several millimeters, which will slightly increase body’s proximity to source of mirth.
- Cock head—putting the body off center allows the mind to better understand the off-center, outside-the-box wisdom that often makes a joke a joke.
- Open mouth slightly to convey wonder at the teacher’s cleverness. Add faraway look to communicate that inside your head you’re playing a movie of your life, and bookmarking the places where things could have been different, had wry irony been applied. Not that you’d have wanted them to be, because, because—desire.
- Shake head from side to side while emitting gentle sniffs of pleasure. Pause.
- Repeat steps 1–4 because it’s just so gorgeous you want to live it all again, and, bonus, all who see you are getting the chance to watch enlightenment happen in real time.
Now I know I am perhaps not the most easygoing, charitable person on God’s Green Earth. But if this man were an actor playing “Super Annoying Meditating Uncle” in a Nancy Meyers movie, she would say, “Richard, please, I love this, all of it, it’s priceless, you’re a genius, but please, foot off the gas, we want the audience to believe you.”
“I tried not to look at him,” said my friend Angela when I brought her to this place—a bit of a drive, but who among us will not drive a bit to prove to oneself that no, you’re not just a crazy bitch. I did not tell her about him, but I did make sure we were sitting across from him. And once we were safely in the car heading home, he was the first thing she mentioned. “That guy!” she said. “Did you see him? He was, like—nodding so much I thought his head was going to fall off. I tried not to look but . . .”
I told her yes I had seen him before and I too had tried to ignore him but couldn’t.
“Yes, it’s impossible to ignore him! It would be like driving a boat at night near a rocky coast and trying to ignore a lighthouse. Except—well—you know what I mean.”
I told Angela not to worry that her metaphor didn’t exactly work. I got the point, and she was not to be blamed for mental confusion just after leaving the strong force field of the Reactor.
She reminded me that we had taken yoga for years with a younger, female version of the Reactor.
“Oh my God!” I said. “I remember her. And she used to murmur too. She was the worst.”
“She was also really hot,” Angela said. “Remember how hot she was?”
“Yes,” I said. “Who could forget?”
A few weeks later I had a meeting near the Reactor’s meditation place so I went there again. I subtly tried to get people to comment on him. Like, while getting tea I said, “That guy in the front row sure likes to let the teacher know he appreciates them.” Not even a nibble. Meditators are a nice lot. Goddamn them.
Angela actually teaches yoga, and she called me the other day to tell me that someone had been nodding and gesturing a lot in her class, murmuring too. “How annoying,” I said.
Angela didn’t say anything.
“My God,” I said, “You liked it, didn’t you.”
“Well, being on the other end of it, you know, it is kind of nice to know people are listening. That they care. It made me think—why does everyone have to be so cool all the time?”
Why indeed? Maybe the Reactor has it right, and I have it all wrong.
The Reactor is an enormous dork, there’s no denying that. But there is one very cool thing about him, which is that I know, just like I know my own name, that if I told him this whole story, every bit of it, he would love it. He would furrow his brow, purse his lips, place his hand over his chest, and say to me, “Thank you so much for honoring me with such brave truth!” Then he would bow deeply to the sad beauty of me, of him, of everything.