It’s a cold fucking evening.
I swallow the last of my mum’s dinner and run upstairs to change out of my work clothes into some leggings, a long sleeved top and a jumper. I look in the mirror. I’m digging the comfy vibe so I throw on a scarf and a pair of trainers too. Recently I’ve taken to actually dressing nicely so it’s good to just chill out. Actually it’s good to get out of the house at all. And on a weeknight. I’ve done well so far.
I go back downstairs and down the rest of my tea before jumping into my car and driving to The Meeting House. I’ve driven and walked past this building a million times on the way to the train station but I’ve never even been inside. I walk up the flat stone steps and inside. I feel a little doubtful… in fact I’m only just about sure I’m in the right place. Inside, the building is washed by the harsh whiteness of tube lights. The carpet is green and flat, and there are doors in all directions. I look tentatively at a few people sitting around, not entirely sure where I’m going. Then I see it. ‘Zen meditation 7.30- 9.45 Room 3’. Room 3 it is then.
I walk up a spiralled flight of stairs and straight into room 3 when I realise I’m still wearing my trainers and everyone else has taken their shoes off. ‘You knob end, Gowri’, I think, before quickly retreating outside the room. I nervously peek inside. A large, golden Buddha sits at the end of the room on a table with a lit candle. A few people bow and pray to it. An old gentleman with a white beard and kind eyes comes up to me and says ‘You must be Gowri. Thanks for getting in touch’. There’s some fumbling and fidgeting and the man, Paul comes out of the room with a younger, beautiful mixed race looking woman with cropped hair, black glasses and a gorgeous smile. I am treading the water between tense and relaxed. She introduces herself as Nicola. I give them both my best polite smile as they gather together some cushions, a small bench and some more cushions and take me downstairs to a big open room, away from everyone else.
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” asks Nicola. I cast my mind back to the Buddhist Centre in Moseley with its warm lighting, the giant gold buddha, the air humid with lemon and ginger tea and the array of navy cushions splayed across the wooden floor and the people of all backgrounds coming together yearning for peace. “I’ve done a six week meditation course back when I used to live in Birmingham”, I reply. I’m not sure if this makes me any more qualified or not.
She goes on to explain to me that here, they practise Zen buddhism which has a number of differences. “We don’t focus on the breath, we simply focus on sitting” she says, casting her eyes to the numerous adjuncts she has brought with her. I play around with them until I find a comfortable position on a chair. I’m taught how to hold my hands. I’m told when to bow with my hands in a prayer and I’m told that when we meditate we sit facing the wall with our eyes slightly open and looking down. At this point, my fight or flight response gets ready to kick in and scream at me to leave but my behind stays firmly on the chair. Must keep an open mind.
“Is everyone here buddhist?” I ask.
“Most people”, she replies “but not everyone”.
“And the meditations… are they guided?”
“No, no… we just sit in silence”, she smiles.
I don’t run. Despite my fear and my reservations I’m taken in by the beautiful warmth that Nicola keeps exuding and wafting in my direction. Buddhists, for fuck’s sake, I think. Why are they all so nice?
I follow Nicola up the stairs. We wait outside the room where everyone else is, making small talk in whispers until we hear a chime. I walk in behind her. The room is dark, bar the single candle on the altar. Everyone’s seats face the wall. I find it weird to begin with, but I settle down into my space. Another chime. And everyone just… sits.
So I sit. At first I’m conscious of every breath I take. My mind wanders to all sorts of places until I look at the wall and see a bit of paint scratched off, exposing the brown wood of the skirting board. If I squint it looks a bit like Australia. I like the lighting here. Calm. What am I doing here? Focus, focus. I try to feel my feet on the ground, my legs and my thighs on the seat. I try to maintain my hands in the position Nicola said even though my thumbs keep drooping as my mind wanders off. I suddenly become aware of the fact that I’ve seriously lost practice at meditating. I also realise that unguided meditations are scary. But as the minutes tick by, I find myself relaxing. My spine curves a little. I begin to let go. The paint scratch looks more and more like a paint scratch. And another chime.
I stand. More bowing. Lights on.
I look at the room around me. It’s mainly older men, in their fifties. One guy has a head of brown hair and a charming smile, he’s perhaps a little younger. Paul is wearing robes in the corner of the room. “Tea?” he asks.
Finally, now that’s something that I can definitely do.
Tea is brewed. We sit around a table and chat. Paul plays a talk and everyone discusses it at the end. I look around, wondering how I found myself amongst this bunch of total strangers on my 24th birthday but feeling strangely at peace. From Nicola’s initial description, I thought this was going to be incredibly prescriptive. It certainly wasn’t the same as what I’d experienced before, but there was a gentle warmth in that room that came not from the radiators but from the loving energy of the humans inside it.
Suddenly, I felt content. I don’t know how much a part of my life this will ever become but I think how happy I am to have done something purely for me for the first time in a very long time. I think this is the best birthday gift I could’ve given myself.
A year ago on this very day I wrote a post called Birthday thanks.
I turn 24 today. It’s been the quietest birthday of my life, to the point where even I almost forgot that I was turning a year older. Right now, I could not feel more far removed from the gratitude filled, abundant force of energy who warmly put together that joyful little number linked above.
So much has changed. So much has changed. I mean, I know I keep banging on about how much has changed but really, so much has changed. But this post isn’t about how I perceived a life of awesomeness and seemingly landed in a shitpile. It’s about how to create sweetness out of the shitpile. And guys, I don’t know how the fuck I’m going to do that but something tells me that this is going somewhat in the right direction.