The very first shot of the very first video I ever did unfolded something like this: I cleared my throat, ready to deliver the lines I’d rehearsed nightly in my apartment for the last week. I smoothed down my hair and dress. I checked my teeth in the mirror. And then the director told me to “just walk.”
“Ne t’inquiète pas,” he told me, “I’m just going to film your feet. That’s all. Just walk normally.”
He focused the lens in on my size-9 clodhoppers. He called out, “Vas-y!” And I started walking. Or something like it. Suddenly I was carefully pacing out my stride, wondering if my toes were turning in, unsure of exactly how I was supposed to get the right foot in front of the left like a normal human being. Do you usually rise up on the ball of your back foot before the front one touches the ground? Is that much dust supposed to cloud up when my heel hits the dirt path? When did I develop a limp? Did he say to head towards that palm tree or that one? How do human beings walk, anyway??
Silly as it may sound, I’d never really realized before that moment how hard it is to avoid concentration and just relax when someone tells you to… well, just relax.
Like a lot of people, I often have that same problem with meditation. See, there’s this concept in meditation of “the Gap.” I’m no expert, but here’s my novice interpretation: the Gap is the place between your thoughts where your mind is just… still. As anyone who’s tried to silence their brain for more than five seconds can probably attest, this is not as easy a state to achieve as you might imagine. While you’re busy focusing on nothing in particular, it’s easy to get caught up in everything in general: irrelevant details of the day, mundane mental notes to self, and completely tangential thoughts just flood your skull. Then, before you know it, the one idea clogging your mind is that you must be doing something wrong here because good God, you couldn’t find that gap if you tripped and fell into its gaping maw.
On Thursday night, lying in a dark outdoor pavilion in Ubud with a blanket rolled up under my knees and citronella coating my skin, I was having this problem once again. Hayley and I had signed up that day for a “Tibetan bowl meditation” at Ubud’s Yoga Barn, my general thinking following the lines of “When in Bali, align your chakras.” (I know, I know. I’ve always said I’m the closet hippie with the world’s largest collection of pink nail polishes.)
The meditation leader strode in and switched on some sort of pan-pipey, mist-rolling-off-the-hills, you-deserve-a-bubble-bath background music. (My eyes were already closed at this point, but Hayley swears the guy looked like Woody Allen with dreads. I am deeply, deeply sorry I did not peek.) “Open your heart chakras and your crown chakras,” he directed us. “Open them and receive all the love and energy of the universe.”
Right, I told myself, Heart chakra – check! Crown chakra – check! Open and ready for business.
Dreaded Woody started moving around the circle of attendees, massaging herbed oil into our foreheads to stimulate our crown chakras. “Throughout the course of this meditation, you’ll be hearing sounds meant to stimulate you. Just go wherever the sounds take you.” He started ringing bells. Banging gongs. Possibly wax-on, wax-off-ing the rims of some wet drinking glasses. I can’t be sure.
And, unsurprisingly, here’s where the sounds took me:
I wonder if this is primordial sound meditation! Didn’t John and Yoko used to do that? Wait. If we’re supposed to be focusing on our crown chakras, why is he putting oil on our foreheads? Isn’t that the third-eye chakra? Stop. Doesn’t matter. Just focus on heart and crown chakras. Was the color of the heart chakra yellow or blue? Or was it amber? No, the crown chakra is amber, isn’t it? Aren’t there sounds for each chakra, too? Raaaam and Shaaaam and Laaaam… Crap, which sound goes with which chakra? Why isn’t he telling us? I bet this is the first meditation for half these people! How are they supposed to know! I wonder if the Yoga Barn has an e-mail address; I should really tell them what’s going on here. OK, it doesn’t matter. Go back to the sounds. Just pick one. Shaaaam. Shaaaam. Shaaaam. How much shaaaaming does it usually take before the gap? I can’t remember. Shaaaam. Shaaaam. Man, will that dog next door ever stop barking? And what’s with the constant hammering and sawing from the construction site next door? It’s 8:30 pm! Isn’t it dangerous to work in the dark? And why didn’t they schedule this class inside if they knew there’d be this much noise! Shaaam. Shaaaam. I wonder how our shuttle bus to Padangbai will be tomorrow. Is it Padangbai or Padang Bay? Shaaaam. Shaaaaam. Crap.
Each time Woody came around the circle, he gave us individual demonstrations of the Dopeler Effect with what I pictured, behind closed eyes, as some sort of huge Tibetan gong. He struck the thing and moved it back and forth in arcs over our heads, ear to ear, letting the vibrations hang in the air in individual sound cocoons around each of us.
Keep your eyes closed when he’s standing over you with that gong thing. Jeez, my eyelids feel spring-loaded! They won’t stop fluttering. Stay shut! I’m totally messing up the meditation. OK. Where do those gong vibrations take me? Shaaam. Shaaaaam. Crap.
The process continued for about another 45 minutes, and then the whole place abruptly went silent. Just the banging of hammers and barking of dogs again.
Stay still. Keep your eyes shut. This is probably just the silent reflection time after the meditation. He’s about to tell you to start wiggling your toes and fingers. He’s about to tell you to thank yourself for taking the time to do this. He’s about to tell you that you are the universe and send you on your way. Any minute now. Aaaaany minute. Surely it can’t be that much longer. Man, my back is getting sore from lying on this wooden floor. I’ll just roll onto my side. But I’ll keep my eyes closed. I’ll stick it out. Maybe the gap will come right at the very end this time. Maybe that’s how it works with Tibetan Bowl Meditation. Any minute he’ll turn on the lights. Aaaany minute.
But the lights stayed off. I half-opened one eye and squinted towards the mat to my left. Its occupant was still in residence. I peered around the rest of the room. Shadows of bodies lying down.
Everyone else is still here. We’re all on the same page. Or they’re just as confused as I am. Just close your eyes again. You don’t want to be that girl who bolts up 30 seconds before the leader says Namaste. Just relax. Shaaaam. Shaaaaam. Crap.
I sat up and rubbed at my back. I blinked a few times and looked around the floor.
Hmmm, that’s not Hayley. It’s a rolled-up blanket in shadow. So’s that. Wait. Wait. They’re all blankets! Everyone left already??
I stumbled out the doorway and down the stairs to where Hayley was sitting, waiting.
“How long have you been waiting for me for??” I asked.
“Forty-five minutes,” she said, “I was just about to head home and leave you a note.”
“Forty-five minutes? He didn’t say anything about it being over! How did you know when it was over?”
“Just did. Everyone else left at the same time as I did.”
“All 20 of them? I can’t believe he didn’t say anything!”
“Well, at least you know one thing for sure,” Hayley said brightly. “If you didn’t realize it was over, then you must have been completely relaxed: the meditation must have really worked on you.”