In today’s column, Jonny Sava cautions a reader against clinging too tightly to “the habit of mindfulness” by relating a holiday tale, and goes on to suggest that two breaths are better than one.
Between the devil and the deep blue seizure – When slights are slow – I’ve grown accustomed to your taste – Gibletting – Rage of the age – I feel petty – Lullaby of birdland.
Dear The Recalcitrant Meditator,
In the recent run-up to Thanksgiving, that day of days when stress seems to feed on the flesh of the living like a succubus, I started meditating extra hard, double-time, occasionally blacking out from the strain. Despite such ardent preparations, however, when the Big Show finally arrived, I found that the littlest thing would set me off. When the crust of my pie became blackened by the exertions of an over-enthusiastic oven, I became so overwhelmed with grief and rage that I inverted the ruined pie upon the counter, forced it by the gobful into my Nalgene Grip ‘n’ Gulp, declared it my “pumpkin energy drink” before God and everyone, then took off running into the night improperly pantsed. When the authorities finally found me several hours later by the old sawmill, making a hat out of a discarded porno mag I had found in a hole in a tree, the best I could do was fake a fugue state and hope no one would press charges (no one did!). Any advice for negotiating the holidays? Can meditation help?
Dear M. Mercy,
Reading your letter, I can’t help but be reminded of an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn I spied in the May 2013 issue of the French weekly L’Express, in which he states, “I try to cultivate a dynamic balance in my life, which consists of passing from one imbalance to the next.”
This comment is wedged crisply into the very last moments of the article, almost as an afterthought, but it stuck out at me. First of all, here we have one of the most mindful guys in the western world admitting his life consists of a series of imbalanced states. This not only serves to give the rest of us regular, bush-league meditators hope, but it underscores the first thing that any mindfulness teacher will teach a student, and also the first thing any student of mindfulness is liable to forget: that if you start mediating in earnest and yet you still find yourself occasionally (or perhaps even more than occasionally)feeling lonely, or anxious, or bored, or frustrated, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Challenging states are the bedrock of existence, as impossible to avoid as the weather. It is the ability to step gingerly through these challenging states—as one might step across a chain of rocks dotting a crater of hot lava in an adventure film—that is the thing to aspire to. And, once you get good at that, to be able to climb, hand over hand like on monkey bars, over these challenging states. And, once you get good at that, to be able to creep alertly over them as on a tightrope. And, once you get good at that, to be able to buzz past them as on a zip-line.
In service of this, it might be helpful to define the state of being “balanced” not as the state of having forevermore vanquished or voided “imbalance,” but rather as the skill that allows states of imbalance to not get the better of you. The ability, that is, to negotiate the migration from one state of inevitable disequilibrium to the next, without feeling like your skull is going to crack open and snakes are going to crawl out from the rubble.
Doing that is hard enough. It requires a lot of practice, a lot of attention, probably a lot of meditation. But there’s something even harder to accomplish, in my opinion. And that is avoiding grasping at mindfulness itself, once you’ve begun to develop it.
Let’s say you’ve reached the point where you’re no long just flailing and gasping from one crisis to the next. Good. You’ve been taking your meditation pills daily for a while now, and consequently, you feel serene and assured even in the midst of chaos—you remain placid while those around you have to watch their stuffing come out of their seams every time Wegman’s runs out of their favorite brand of butter. The challenge you face now is not getting trapped into believing serenity and assuredness in the midst of chaos are abiding traits you’ve locked down, and now you’re free to just kick back and await nibbana while the sad-assed, anxious world toddles by, chewing its cheeks and peeing on itself.
The serenity and assuredness which you’re rightfully proud of having achieved is a result of carefully observing that clinging to expectations of how things “ought to be,” inevitably results in the experience of suffering. And when you loosen the habit of clinging to expectation, you simply suffer far less. It’s not that you’ve done away with chaos, rather, you’ve recognized it’s always going to be a little bit chaotic, and just as importantly, it isn’t going to be all-the-way chaotic all the time.
But there are challenges within challenges in mindfulness—and so, fittingly, once you’ve recognized why not clinging is a vital trait, it becomes equally vital to not cling to that feeling of achievement. That’s right—as easily as one can cling to mindless habits, one can cling to mindful habits, too.
In the big, hard world, this might be referred to as “getting soft.” But it’s really nothing more than a hiccup in the art of observation. It’s one thing to train yourself to observe when feelings of anger and disappointment have snuck up behind you and, before you know it, tied themselves into thrumming knots in your body; it’s a different business altogether to train yourself to observe when you’ve become suffused by feelings of pleasure and confidence, and to counsel caution in leaning too deeply into them. Staying attentive in this way, however, is not about banishing pleasurable feelings, but rather about not becoming so hypnotized by them that when their opposites eventually emerge—as they eventually will—you are not taken so much by surprise that you are knocked entirely off your feet.
But, you know, I keep saying “you” when I really mean “me,” because I can only imagine how you are. I can describe exactly how I am, at least to a point. And any effort to do so takes us back just a few short weeks to the last major American holiday on the calendar, Thanksgiving.
Despite my best efforts, I got creamed by steadily escalating states of disequilibrium during the recent Thanksgiving antics. Don’t get me wrong, it started out well enough. I mean, it always starts out well enough. Let me paint you a picture.
We begin in media res.
I am in the kitchen, having pulled the turkey tight over my hand like a rubber glove. I don’t mean that I had my fist up its stuffing-hole,—I think you would agree that would be better characterized as “wearing the turkey like a baseball glove,” or a giant foam finger. No, what I’m saying is that after several moments of meticulous effort I had succeeded in dislodging the turkey’s skin from its flesh, and had subsequently shoehorned my entire hand between those lean, but startlingly elastic, layers. I had made it to second base.
I found this to be an unexpectedly mysterious moment. Obviously there is skin, on the one hand, and on the other hand, there is flesh—this is clear to any meat-eater. Despite what is clearly demonstrated on my own body, though, I had never given much thought to the fact that these two substances are indelibly linked, and the skin of an uncooked turkey has no intention of separating from the flesh for which it is the wrapper without first putting up a terrific fight. And yet fighting it will get you nowhere. You may be tempted to rough up the turkey. This is normal. Most people who get into the business of roasting a whole turkey do so with the idea that the turkey is the enemy. It would be one thing if you had actually known the turkey during its lifetime, if you had cut it down in the prime of its life for the express purpose of avenging an ancient ill. But if you’re anything like me and went to Whole Foods three days before Thanksgiving, trotted over to the special turkey trough they wheel out this time of year and just grabbed a turkey-sized bundle off the top, it makes little sense to launch into your preparations with an overtly hostile attitude.
In past times I have favored what I consider to be the passive-aggressive method of turkey preparation, a.k.a. brining. This technique allows one to enjoy the satisfaction of ritualistically drowning the turkey, but at a voyeur’s safe remove. One is spared having to do anything more intimate than casually nudging the turkey into the drink, and then stepping away while nature does its work. I left the brining behind, however, after a poorly conceived turkey bath in an earlier year malfunctioned and caused my refrigerator to gush raw turkey juice on Thanksgiving morning like the river of blood that ricochets past the elevator doors in The Shining. This year I decided to try an alternate method, which involved sneakily concealing the flavor between flesh and skin, which is really the last place anyone expects to look for it.
As I implied earlier, though, you can’t just jam it in there. If you read the recipe I read, you will see it says this: “Starting at neck end, slide hand between skin and breast meat to loosen skin.” It sounds simple enough. Then again, I assumed there would be an obvious entry point—perhaps a pull-tab I could use to begin tugging the skin away from the flesh? But no—no such thing exists. The closest material experience I can compare this process to is when you’re at the grocery store and you tear a plastic bag off the spool and then you have to figure out which side is supposed to open because neither side seems like it wants to, despite the use of modernist-type illustrated arrows that pretend to offer instruction, and so you resort to licking your first finger and your thumb and massaging both ends vigorously until either a) one of the ends wiggles apart and turns what was a second ago a flat sheet of plastic into a perfectly serviceable plastic bag, like magic, or b) you are wrestled to the ground by grocery store authorities.
As it turns out, a turkey is much less different from a plastic bag ripped off a spool at the grocery store than one might imagine.
Eschewing the part where I lick my fingers, obviously (?), I began to give the turkey what I can only describe as a “deep tissue massage.” After a few moments of observing how the skin and the flesh reacted to my touch, I was able to begin mapping exactly how the skin was attached to the flesh, and furthermore, how the skin might be rendered askew from the flesh, and furthermore, how the edges of the loose neck meat might be readily exploited for access. Before long my hand was creeping discreetly from neck to cavity, just beneath the surface of the skin. The first flush of success colored my ashen cheeks.
Make no mistake, however—crawling from one end of that awful channel to the other did not happen in a flash, like ripping off a Band-Aid. It was edgy, painstaking work. Traveling even an inch beneath the skin involved several minutes of careful prodding with my completely immersed fingers, as in a prison tunnel, so as to ultimately leave the skin detached from the breast, but otherwise intact and untorn. Given the amount of time this took, I found myself discovering things I did not expect to discover. More to the point, I found myself discovering things I did not want to discover. For example, I began to fixate on the hard nubs punctuating the turkey’s neck skin, not to mention the neck itself, a stalk interrupted; intimate details frequently occluded in the sorts of food preparation even the most avid home cooks undertake. The pores where feathers had obviously been plucked were an equally grotesque reminder that not so long ago this creature had been off living its life, knowing little of how the ax would prove its final reward.
Don’t panic! I am not preparing to launch into some sort of moralizing screed. The final scene in this little domestic drama, excluded here because it’s banal as hell, involves me eating this turkey’s generous output by the fistful, having roasted it brown and slathered it in its own drippings. At this stage, however, what I’m concerned with imparting is how switched on I’d become to the ways in which this beast was a fellow traveler between worlds; not only between the realms of the living and the expired, but between the inner world and the outer world, where every individual, turkey or person, wades. I could clearly imagine how lived experience had caused this turkey’s body to vibrate like a tuning fork. And this skin, which I found myself involved in up to my elbows, how resilient it was! Even when tugging on it with a touch of gusto, it stretched, but did not break. Holy shit, is my body the same? Is this what it would be like if someone were to put their hand underneath my skin? In that moment, I found myself awash with gratitude for my own resilient skin. I was moreover in awe of how the edge of a piece of paper can so easily, almost sweetly, slice that skin, even as the heft of a hammer can only bruise it. The dumb wonder of it all! Yes, this turkey had gotten under my skin, all right, as much as I had gotten under his.
I was beginning to feel kinship.
For those awaiting the feast, I can imagine this was the point in the day when I started to become really annoying. Because this is the point when I started clapping myself on the back and congratulating myself on just how mindful I had become. After all, it was not as though I was treating this turkey like a piece of meat, but rather a true participant in the celebration for whose participation I was visibly grateful. My heart was as pliant as a soft-boiled egg. Before long, however, my efforts at massaging dips of herbed butter across the turkey’s planes and crannies no doubt began to seem less culinary in nature and more recreational. I was scrubbing it the way one might give a baby a bath. I got close enough to it to whisper in its ear, which maybe I would have done if only its head had not been somewhere else entirely. Family members began to gently suggest that I might be spending too much time with the turkey.
“Always in there with the turkey!” they cried, perplexed, even a little bit disturbed. “What is he doing, anyway? Not with real people does he spend so much time! How much butter can one turkey take? His fingers must be like disgusting prunes by now!”
The eggnog is removed to a safe haven where it can do me no harm.
But moments pass as moments do, the oven is pre-heated, the turkey goes in, and only occasionally does its fragrant chariot get eased back out of the deep, just far enough for the guest of honor to have its own juices sucked up and squirted back over it.
Awash in the hot, hot heat of mindfulness, I rest easy, knowing I am invincible.
And then the unraveling begins.
It’s no one thing that does it, of course—anyone who’s ever undertaken to cook a multi-course meal knows there’s no one disaster that causes one’s best laid plans to begin spinning horrifically into the abyss. Rather, it’s the accumulation of small events—death by a thousand mis-mashed potatoes—which tumble together until it feels like the walls are closing in.
For example. I started off cleaning as I went, as I was taught to do, scrubbing each measuring cup, pan, and wooden spoon as soon as it was dirtied, in order to ensure that when the roasted vegetables announced their need to be agitated in their carriage, I was not left scrambling for an ovenproof spatula carelessly encrusted in pie gore. This heedfulness, however, does not last for long. Cleaning each utensil as it gets used gradually deteriorated into cleaning every other utensil as it gets used, and then every third utensil, until all of a sudden I look down and realize I’m stirring the gravy with a candy cane and bouncing flour into it with a shoehorn. Before I have time to think, the precarious goo has clamped together like a dog’s jaws closing on a hank of yarn.
What about my plan to have all the side-dishes marching along in an orderly and dignified fashion, you might ask? Well, that disappeared straight down the shitter. Despite my best efforts to keep everything on a schedule, the rolls and the casseroles and the pies and the sauces have all ended up either underdone or overdone or not done at all, some dishes destined to be accidentally left on top of the washing machine, only to be found days later, in a kind of feral state, like the sole survivor of a massacre, hiding in the closet and covered in rat bites.
Looking around, observing the faces of those I was meant to be feeding, I felt a growing sense of panic, fearing the veneer of propriety that keeps society clicking its heels and whistling a tune might break down at any moment. I was reminded of the familiar scene on view at airport terminals when a flight gets cancelled—when whatever social contract that allows people to engage in small talk with their neighbors or help elderly fellow-travelers with their bags or offer peanuts to kittens in kitten-carriers is instantly terminated, and suddenly the once equable mob breaks apart into frantic, sneering, human-sized gobs climbing over their own faces in a bid to have the first shot at haranguing the poor asshole manning the counter.
“Where’s your mindfulness now?” the turkey guffaws from Hell, where it reveals itself as a dread and red-skinned harbinger of chaos.
“I gave you the best moments of my morning!” I cry back. But it is no use.
It’s easy to be mindful when it’s easy to be mindful, but what happens when being mindful becomes really fucking difficult? Potentially: disaster. One way to avoid disaster, however, is to not get caught up in drifting haphazardly from balance (“This turkey really gets me!”) to imbalance (“This dinner can’t take much more abuse, Captain! She’s coming apart in our hands!”), instead endeavoring to stay in a state of constant alertness. Not a state of constant tension, mind, but rather a state of perpetually gentle observance. It is through a practice like meditation that we gradually develop this mindset as a default mode, so it doesn’t always have to be switched on manually, but hums along watchfully in the background.
Nevertheless, even the most mindful among us can run into problems if we take our mindful “default mode” for granted. Being mindful, ironically enough, can become a habit all its own, and as such, can unexpectedly morph into something we cling to, leading to frustration and disappointment when it is compromised.
It’s tempting to treat the notion of becoming and remaining perfectly, unequivocally mindful as a goal. If we could achieve such a state, wouldn’t we find ourselves forever cradled in a soft, sweet state of relaxed awareness? Doesn’t that sound good? It’s tempting, too, to judge our own mindful selves as separate from those who seem to know nothing whatsoever of mindfulness, and who must therefore conceive of themselves as beset on all sides and at all times by terrible excitations. If you are a human reading these words, however—and not some robot clerk three hundred years from now scanning the digital landfill of human experience for items worthy of permanent deletion—you probably exist on the spectrum somewhere between the two. The trick, I think, is to identify the click.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—I’m talking about the movie now, though I presume the play relates something similar—Brick (played by handsome proto-hipster moppet Paul Newman) talks about “the click in my head that makes me feel peaceful.”
“It’s like a switch, clickin’ off in my head. Turns the hot light off and the cool one on, and all of a sudden there’s peace.”
This causes his father, Big Daddy—played by the extraordinary Burl Ives, a sort of folk-singing Colonel Sanders minus the trunks full of Nazi memorabilia stuffed away in the basement—“Boy, you’re a real alcoholic!”
This, of course, is because the click Brick is referring to encompasses those arresting tingles that come on after drinking, sometimes after only a few sips of drink. Having enjoyed a glass or two in my time, I can attest that the moment in which the world goes a few degrees askance is not very different from the moment in which one mindfully disengages from one’s habitual reactions in order to observe one’s own thoughts and actions from a mindful vantage, even if it can be argued that the latter effect is more wholesomely achieved. All of our short, long, miserable, mindful lives might be thought of as a series of clicks into awareness before we are once again sucked into states of compromised awareness. The trick, then, is to make sure the clicks keep coming.
One way to be pro-active in this regard is to meditate, to keep meditating, to meditate more—of course. But perhaps a more practical method, especially when walking into a situation that is just bound to be drenched in stress, is to find a mindfulness buddy. We all need a mindfulness buddy. It could be a partner, a friend, anyone who knows you well enough to know when your clicks have started getting overturned by twitches. Someone, in other words, who can look you in the eye and say, “It’s time to breathe now, asshole. Let’s breathe together.”
With two, you’re twice as likely to keep clicking.
But don’t worry about me, I’ll have another chance to show off my mindfulness at Christmas. And that hot little ham better get ready for some serious goddamn butterlove.
I remain, as always, obediently yours,
(1) I imagine you are wonderful!
(2) That’s what “second base” is, right? I won’t lie, as a teen-aged person I was as shit-poor at making out as I was at playing baseball. First base, in my mind, consisted of calling up a girl (on a telephone, even! Attached to a cord! That disappeared into a wall!), convincing her she did know who I was and that I wasn’t going to murder her in the woods; second base consisted of open-mouthed kissing, with or without tongues. Sometimes the tongues were involved, but it was impossible to predict the extent of their involvement in advance. Sometimes it was just two gaping spaces, attached to one another like an incorrectly assembled human centipede. There were only two bases, by the way. The game I was playing involved running back and forth between those bases, and there were definitely no fans.
(3) I mean, not literally, mind you. If you have only skin on one hand and only flesh on the other, you are a monster.
(4) Not merely some sort of unassuming chemise which the turkey demurely sheds at the slightest provocation.
(5) Stanley Kubrick’s beloved holiday classic, The Shining.
(6) As one might hide a handgun inside a hollowed-out Bible.
(7) Is that so much to ask, God?
(8) The “pointer,” or “masterfinger.”
(9) And as with any deep-tissue massage, soft music and candles were brought in, knees and elbows were fully deployed, and, finally, there came the application of special herbed butters.
(10) It felt like what happens when Astronaut Dave enters the monolith at the end of 2001, but with turkeys.
(11) In what I can only imagine is a nightmarish pile of turkey heads that collects along the edge of any given slaughterhouse in late November, which farmers hardened to the realities of life probably refer to by a fun nickname, like “meat pennies,” or “gypsy apples.”
(12) Basting is one of those essential turkey-making rites that it’s really better not too think too hard about. If you do, you will come to the realization that basting is roughly equivalent to, say, if you were at the doctor supplying a urine sample, and once you exited the bathroom and handed the plastic jar to the nurse, he or she were to unscrew the lid, and throw the pee into your face. And then eat you.
(13) Come to think of it, that might have been a monkey.
(14) You found them, pal!