Pre-dawn figures fill the Meridian Ballroom – In praise of inexpressive clothing – Meditation faces abound – JKZ: man, myth, conveyor of hugs – A most surprising supper.
It is not yet six o’clock in the morning on the third day of the conference and I am seated inside the ballroom of the Four Points Sheraton in Norwood, Massachusetts, surrounded by probably one – or two? Maybe even three? – hundred of my fellow conference-goers, a crazy-quilt of expertly angled bodies anchored nobly to the floor or, like myself, hovering just above it on chairs. It is the only large hall at the Four Points with a name something like “The Moon Terrace Ballroom,” so it is not difficult to find, though two days ago on the first morning of the conference I still made sure to trail the pre-dawn figures trickling from the elevators with their yoga mats and zafus so as not to get lost, though I did so at a safe distance, in the event I found myself seized by an invincible need to retreat. That first morning I made the crucial mistake of coming to the meditation session fully showered and combed and coffee’d and snugly tucked into a three-piece suit. Only after I’d removed my shoes and entered the ballroom did I realize I was the only person who didn’t look like s/he was wearing the same clothes s/he had probably rolled out of bed in a few minutes before, and I thought to myself, “Do I look like a narc? Are they going to run me out of here on a rail?” Nobody paid me any mind. My inappropriate dress was an honest mistake because I had never at that point in my life meditated seriously for more than ten minutes at a time, and basically never at all prior to six months before, and so didn’t understand that after only a few minutes of tracking your own breath you’re going to start to feel the weight of every ounce of clothing on your body as surely as if you’d just been thrown into a swimming pool. That was the first lesson I received that first morning: dress loose, brother, dress loose. The adjoining lesson was that no one was truly going to give a damn how I looked anyway. Not only did they all look more comfortable than me but they also all had on what I now refer to as their “meditation faces”, a peculiar yet unquestionably benevolent close-lipped smile in which the eyes, to the best of my imagining, are focused on something like a ruby-girdled sky stallion riding sunbeams in the middle distance. Do not mistake me, I do not mean to make fun of these meditators with their meditation faces—do not fret, I will acquire my own meditation face soon enough. Yet that is still later. On this third morning of the conference I am simply relieved to have dressed in a manner more fitting the occasion, in broken-in jeans and a snap-button shirt that, paired with my uncombed nest of be-bedheaded locks probably made me resemble some sort of retarded ranch-hand. But, as earlier observed, no one could care less how I look, and even if they did, on this morning it was not possible any eyes would alight upon me because all eyes were fixed on Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the man responsible for bringing mindfulness meditation to the west, on the wings of scientific inquiry, in the 70s, a decade in which I was, at best, being gestated. You can pick apart that claim (the part about JKZ, not the part about where I was or what was being done to me) with a thousand different knives and find it only half-accurate, a quarter-accurate, or a bald-faced lie, but it’s close enough to the truth for those of us with no pretense of being meditation’s biographer, and it’s the typical tale that gets attached to the man in any case. I’m sure he does not revere himself in the same way he is revered and is modest to a fault, but I will never have experiential evidence of this theorem, as I will never meet the man – or at least not at this conference – as he is always surrounded by people, not an entourage exactly, but a group of people he seems to know personally and well, with other orbiting ribbons of well-wishers spanning out from him, the sun: MBSR teachers who have received their qualification to teach at the Center for Mindfulness; writers on mindfulness who may have once profiled him; people whose lives he changed through his once-controversial methods; and then, at the outer rim – Pluto, let’s say, less a planet than a fast food bag tossed out the driver’s side window of Neptune – gawking onlookers like myself. Lest, however, you are mistakenly led to believe by this description that JKZ is content to glide through the mist of devotees amassing around him with a face beaming ecstatic bewilderment, like some sort of crazed stage Jesus, bestowing blessings upon all he passes with a crooked finger that grazes his worshipers’ foreheads, allow me to point out in no uncertain terms the batshit amount of exuberant hugging that goes on at this conference, much of it initiated by JKZ himself. I, like all self-respecting, semi-repressed moderns, naturally regard hugging in public with a kind of horror, to be treated with the same sort of suspicion (if not derision) as urinating in a potted plant or undertipping the limo driver. I despaired to discover, then, that if I wanted to truly infiltrate the world of meditation, I would need to drag my ass past this disinclination, and quickly. For the hugs come strong and fast. These hugs of which I speak and which I witnessed are not the bungling, amateurish hugs I’m used to giving and receiving – in which the embrace portion of the transaction resembles the panic-stricken posture of someone fighting a bird, finished with the sort of close-fisted thumping usually reserved for the brutalization of dough – but were, rather, those soothing, gently-rocking-back-and-forth-in-time-to-soft-rock hugs that recall the care with which one might wrap a child’s dead hamster in a handkerchief.
The night before my first day at the conference, having arrived in Norwood after a long-enough drive and this time really looking like a narc – eating alone at a corner table in the hotel restaurant with my back to the wall so I could observe the people I figured would be my compatriots for the duration of the weekend – I witnessed feats of hugging so audacious I could not help but be impressed. For example: across the restaurant from me were several tables pressed together to make a single long dining slab for a group of roughly a dozen. By the time I was closing the book on my second Manhattan the diners at this table were themselves beginning to gently break away and make for their rooms. Amazingly, each time a member of this party rose to leave, s/he would give a 100% committed hug to each of the remaining people at the table. This process took about ten minutes each time. Though I split for my own room before the scene had fully played itself out, I could only imagine what must have transpired when there was only one person remaining. I conjured two scenarios: in the first, the final solitary gentleman pauses, reviews with satisfaction the debris of the ruined table, and then proceeds to gently massage his own face, back and neck until he is tranquilized by the staff. In the second, he kisses the waiter bang on the mouth for a full ten count, then breaks away with an awesomely timed one-liner, like, “Keep the change!”
(1) And that’s an important lesson. Heed: among a gang of meditators, normal, negative societal pressures to act a certain way or look a certain way are not going to be in effect. If you want to have the hammer brought down on yourself, you’re going to have to do it yourself. On the other hand, positive pressure abounds—after all, this is the precisely the sort of scene where the whole notion of “good vibes” was born, right? And everyone wants everyone to get crazy peaceful.
(2) Or “JKZ” as he is known among initiates, affording him that distinctive, acronym-onious honor granted to only a handful of beloved public and/or cult figures, included among them the late writer David Foster Wallace (“DFW”) and French celebrity philosopher (“celosopher”?) Bernard-Henri Lévy (“BHL”), he of the “one button unbuttoned too many” school.
(3) I did not mean there to be an implied wink to the reader when I wrote this line, but maybe I should have intended there to be one after all…I have a number of reasons for writing this blog, some of which will be discussed more specifically later on, but never until I began writing the very footnote in which we are now ensconced did I imagine that one of them might possibly be the goal of meeting JKZ. But maybe, come to think of it, even that endgame is not grand enough. Because, let’s be honest, at the conference I could have easily muscled my way past any number of meditation-faced practitioners, weakened as they surely were by the experience of universal goodwill and therefore no match for my sharp shoulders and hard-bitten desires, in order to shake the man’s hand, and I’m sure if I had done so he would have been perfectly gracious and not have had me summarily tased into submission. So maybe just having the opportunity to meet the man is not enough. Maybe I need to be granted the opportunity to drink orange juice from his cupped hand, as I crouch nobly at his feet. Or maybe the most logical and maddest outcome of this venture should be to have him ask to meet me.Insane dream, thy name is Stupid Purpose.
(4) Okay, screw all that rebop from the previous footnote about my goal with this blog being to somehow compel JKZ to call me up and invite me to do shots of Malört with him on the deck of his sailboat. No, I have a new sine qua non for measuring the success of this enterprise: I will not stop blogging until the man has hugged me. And then I will blog about that hug for at least three weeks, by which I mean, at least three years.