We sat in chairs. It was evening. The room had carpet. I probably wore a wool sweater, because it was my first winter in England and I was a senior in college and I had just discovered wool. All of us, about a half dozen students, sat in padded chairs, except one boy who was so perfectly perched on a zafu that I immediately decided he was pretentious and would never reach enlightenment in any religion.
The teacher, a Scottish man in his fifties, had an open face, the kind of carita that made me think of books I had loved once and mountain ranges I had seen as a child in Colombia. He talked about sitting and noticing the breath, and I tried to focus on what he was saying rather than the lilting sound to his words because it was my first time receiving sitting instructions and I wanted an A even if it was not a formal class. In the silence, I noticed my in-breaths and how silent the room was (had a room ever been so still?) and also how much I hated the boy on the zafu (was he even breathing?). And then it was over. We asked a few questions. The teacher wished us well, and we moved toward our shoes. I thanked the teacher, and out of habit I stuck out my right hand. He took it in both of his and cradled it, while saying something about Buddhism or Cambridge University or perhaps the United States; I didn’t hear him. Instead, I noticed his hands, the indents of the palms, the fingers soft as eyelashes.
In the cold, I rushed on the cobblestone streets to my room at the international house, where I sat at the narrow wooden desk and opened my olive green journal and wrote quickly about hands and how no one had ever held my hand like that before. The phrase “spiritual crush” did not occur to me then, and even now I resist it. Even now, I insist that when he held my hand, I felt palms for the first time and fingertips and wrists and that it all had to do with it being my first experience of sitting.
Of course, that night in England, I had no idea that a few years later I would be forced to notice my hands for hours at a time. That a man from Russia would hold my hands and so would a Jewish New Yorker and a Chinese man in Oakland, too. They would lift my right hand to the glare of lamps in medical offices and the backroom of herbalist stores. They would squeeze and tap, murmur questions and send me home with instructions, because by then my hands had stopped being a gathering of skin and tendons, fingertips and spiritual desires. My hands were nothing but traitors.
When I started sitting no one talked to me about what Buddhists call attachment to views. At least not in those words, and that was helpful. It would have been too easy to shrug off the idea of having views. Who has views? I have ideas perhaps, and opinions, yes, but who uses the word “views”? The direction I received instead was to “drop the story.” Now, that made sense. Everyone has a story, a cuento—a lot of them, really—and what would happen if I just noticed mine? And watched the stories shift and move and I just stayed on the cushion?
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