When other travelers said they were going to India or Nepal to practice meditation, they made it sound like it was tripping without acid. The picture I had in my mind was sitting on a flying carpet, amidst colorful clouds, rising above the Himalayas, with light beams shooting out of your forehead. It was an experience I was jealous to have.
The first time I took a meditation class it was at an ashram in Venice Beach where I was also studying yoga. The teacher was a white hippie with an Indian name and the other two students were Indian tech workers with the slouchiest postures conceivable. The three of us would stack ourselves up on high pillows, and let the teacher direct us through our flow in front of an altar cluttered with Hindu deities.
At my apartment, I made a meditation room out of a closet, and sat inside it a few times a day, trying to concentrate on the image of a flickering candle. Although most of the time I just sat there thinking about my week, I was proud of the commitment I was making, until one day I just stopped and didn’t even think about meditating again for many years.
The next time I went to study meditation was in Thailand, at the end of a four-month journey through Southeast Asia, where I’d studied Buddhism and visited as many temples as I could, including the thousands of pagodas and stupas of Bagan in Myanmar. I’d met a Western monk in Bangkok who’d invited me to study with him, but when I returned from my trip to the former Burma, discover that he’d died of a brain aneurysm.
Researching different mediation centers, I then got in touch with a woman who was practicing at a Wat just off the Chao Phraya River, who said I could come stay with them as long as I wanted. I followed her directions and took the water taxi to one of the last stops, then followed the dirt road past a mob of snarling street dogs to the temple.
The woman, Beth, was from Seattle, and though women historically haven’t been allowed to be monks in Thailand, she had a shaved head and was dressed the part. We discussed the small donation I was willing to make, and then she showed me to a cabin where I could stay. There were enough beds for four people, but I was the only guest.
Beth had sent along the white shirt and pants of an initiate that I was to wear during my stay, and after I changed into them, she took me to one of the senior monks where I made some vows regarding my intentions and actions. Outside of the temple, where a life-like wax statue of their founding abbot sat in the lotus position, was a large courtyard. My arrival, as it turned out, coincided with one of the biggest events on their calendars, where lay people from around the country had gathered for an intense weekend of marathon meditation sessions.
I found a place on the concrete and tried to pull myself into a cross-legged position. I’d been having bad flare-ups of gout for the past month, and at one point had only been able to ascend and descend stairs with the hunched, bristling countenance of a Neanderthal. On this day, compacting myself into the meditative position resulted in strained muscles and distended joints. The senior monks on a small riser in front of me, on the other hand, sat as upright as if their spines were steel poles.
After a while, it dawned on me that they were sitting there all day. Instead of being consumed by ecstasy, I was consumed by agony. When I sought relief by leaning back on my hands, an old monk with a cane came up behind me and began hammering it off the stone floor. I had to just get up and limp away to my cabin before an hour was even up, where I lay in bed and ate sunflower seeds, since no food was allowed until the next morning.
Later that afternoon, I went and talked to a young monk who used to work at a tourist beach in Phuket and went by the name of Sonny. He told me that he was from a small village and that his experience working as a guide and partying with the tourists had nearly cost him his life and his soul. He told me he only felt free on the temple grounds, and that he could never return to his former life, knowing it would destroy him.
In the morning, I got up early and traveled on a school bus with the monks to a market, where they visited each of the shops and the people offered their alms, small bundles of food and drink, tied up in plastic bags. There were about thirty of us initiates, each carrying a large feed bag, and we would collect whatever the monks had gathered. At the end of the morning, we had enough food to fill the back of the bus. When we returned to the temple, there was one large meal, where all the food was divided up between the monks and visitors, and after that there would be no meals until the next day.
I stayed for over a week, collecting alms, meditating to the best of my ability, and chanting at night in the temple, but sitting cross-legged like I was most of my time, inflamed my gout to the point where I could hardly walk. Beth and a friend of hers took me to a doctor and I got medicine that helped some, but by then I’d decided that I should head straight to Hawaii and apply what I’d learned to turn my dream of making a home there a reality. Sonny told me that if I went and cleaned Waikiki Beach every morning, the right karma would follow, and I believed that’s how it would work.
Once I got back to Khaosan Road, however, I discovered that my ATM card didn’t work, and then met a man who’d been temporarily deafened by an insurgent bomb blast in the south. My calm began to vanish like a dream in the daylight, and the very next day I only began to recover it by staring into a tall glass of beer at an outdoor café. My return to Hawaii was a true disaster.
In 2019, I traveled to Bali to study yoga and meditation once again, and as if on cue, a terrible flare-up of gout impeded my attempts for the duration of that stay as well. I’d managed to stop drinking, however, and when I got back to Huntington Beach, took a class at the Zen Center in Costa Mesa, where I learned the techniques of counting breaths and mindfulness, sitting on a round zafu pillow during zazen, my eyelids only occasionally fluttering open to peek at the hot Brazilian woman perched across from me. Then one day I just stopped going.
Now I was back at it again, with no distractions of the hot Brazilian variety, only extremely unpleasant, aggressive ones. Thoughts, loud thoughts, terrifying thoughts, like dinosaurs racing from a meteor, racing from their own extinction, determined that if it was their fate to die out, they were going to take me out with them. I’d throw my eyes open and look at my phone to see that only five minutes had passed. This was meditation, one grueling second at a time. Forget about nirvana. All I really wanted was to straighten out my legs.