The months after the blip showed up on Diana’s CT scan were filled with exercises and expeditions into the extraordinary: explorations of any and all energy healing methods with hands on and minds off; extended forays into the jungles of Buddhist thought and biblical allegory; excursions into the elsewhere seated under dolmens, walking around labyrinths, looking for chakra stones on the beaches of the San Juan Islands, and making bracelets out of glass beads and twelve miniature pewter goddesses. It felt like a crash course in slowing down time and wandering beyond the spectrum of visible light.
The blot was still visible on the scans six months later but there was no change in its size or appearance. We hadn’t eliminated it, but had apparently contained it. We just had to keep doing what we were doing, and for me one of the most valuable aspects of what we were doing had to do with not doing.
The hyperactive host and his animated dog on Blue’s Clues encourage preschoolers to Stop, breathe, and think when dealing with frustration. Smokey the Bear and Sparky the Fire Dog warn older kids to Stop, drop, and roll when confronted by fire. And when embracing fate, the immortal lyrics of Rock ’n’ Roll alert the rest of us to Stop in the name of Love; Stop; Don’t Stop; and Bus stop, bus go, she stays, love grows. Everything important seems to start with a stop. Full stop.
It actually takes considerable effort to stop. It’s not just a simple matter of inertia, because coming to a stop is actually the easy part. It’s the staying stopped that’s hard. If you follow the tracks of any Eastern train of thought long enough, you’ll eventually arrive at the ghost town of Meditation, Nowhere—population either one or zero. All or nothing. Unity or emptiness. Presence or absence.
Why would anyone want to go there? I found the whole idea of meditation rather pointless. Just sit there and think about nothing? Why not just fall asleep? Which is what I did whenever I tried to meditate. Every time. For quite some time.
I discovered the trick to not falling asleep while meditating is…to keep my eyes open. I had a lock on the unfocused stare into the middle distance ever since Diana’s diagnosis. It finally came in handy. I could now sit still, not fall asleep, and—as if to compensate for the uncharacteristic inactivity—watch my mind run off in all directions trying to round up every thought I’d ever had so it could parade them past for my reconsideration. And then I finally got it. The idea was not to try to think about nothing, but to get to the point where I have nothing more to think about. Nothingness isn’t the goal; it’s the starting point. Nothing new can get in if the available space is crammed with stuff I already know. Or think I know.
The bus stop at 3rd and Pine in downtown Seattle typically hosts a comprehensive cross-section of humanity: Brooks Brothers to Birkenstocks; confident to confused; intransigent to unhinged; medicated to probably-should-be. A dozen routes run along 3rd Avenue and most of the people waiting hope the person next to them is getting on a different bus. That stop provides an easy way to get out of Seattle and an even easier way for me to get into Nothing.
If you ever come across me in a full lotus position, please help untangle me because it’ll mean I’m stuck and likely in considerable pain. Meditative ambience is nice, but unnecessary because regardless of how I’m sitting or where I am, I imagine myself waiting at the bus stop at 3rd and Pine. My errant, misguided, and intrusive thoughts show up and wait with me, personified as passengers. One of the buses soon arrives, crowded with more of my unruly thoughts, and all those waiting climb aboard—except me. I’m joined by more who get on the next crowded bus, again leaving me behind. This continues until a bus finally arrives without anyone on it and no one’s waiting at the stop but me. I ascend the three steps, take the first forward-facing seat on the right side, and ride to Nothing by myself.
There’s obviously not much I can say about the place other than there are no services so I don’t recommend going right after three cups of coffee. The important part for me was not in being there but in coming back, when the thoughts in my head that had been in full riot present themselves one at a time. Without the hubbub and clamor of their neighbors, it’s easier to see that each one can be simultaneously inspired…and inane. Eternal…and ephemeral. Sacrosanct…and suspect.
My buddy Kurt once gave me a bumper sticker that read: Don’t Believe Everything You Think. I didn’t think to be insulted until just now. At the time, I took “you” to mean everyone else so I plastered it on the rear bumper instead of the steering wheel where it would’ve done more good.
My problem is that many of my thoughts reside in rent-controlled apartments in my mind and are understandably reluctant to leave. They are entirely unprofitable and I’d like to evict them. I suppose I could renovate my mind in such a way that it is no longer hospitable to the long-term tenants—that would be despicable if I were a New York slumlord yet commendable if I were a Buddhist monk—but you also never know what you’re getting into with a renovation. Instead, I decided to just open a methadone clinic in the lobby for whichever ideas needed rehabilitation, which many did. Voluntarily.
For instance—and since it was one of the first issues I faced in trying to meditate—my frustration with tinnitus had been particularly acute. I could never get to a place of absolute silence because after stripping everything else away—ambient noise, mental chatter, the organic rhythms of my lungs and heart—I was always left with the ringing in my ears. I bemoaned missing out on whatever was masked by this incessant hiss. After one of the earlier meditations, it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t missing any subtlety of sound; maybe I was just missing the point. Maybe the hiss isn’t covering up something important, but is the important something itself.
Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs received a Nobel Prize for accidentally discovering the background cosmic radiation left over from the Big Bang. They were initially annoyed by the low-level noise that persisted throughout their experiments, but what they essentially took for tinnitus in their powerful radio telescope turned out to be the first hard evidence for an expanding universe.
So maybe my hearing is exceptional, not compromised. Maybe what I hear is the residual peal of the bells that heralded the birth of the universe, the drone of the bees among the apple blossoms in the Garden of Eden, the sensuous and soothing voice of a New Testament God whispering into each ear: “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh. It’s going to be okay. Shhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhh.”
Or maybe not. But either way, at least I’m not bugged by it anymore.