Can you really just see?” the Theravada monk had asked. “Can you just listen?”
We had gathered on the porch of a farmhouse in upstate New York. The weekend retreat had ended and a dozen of us sat with the orange-robed Bhante from Sri Lanka sipping tea in the early spring sun. Sophie, a college student like myself, had complained of the tedious “labeling” in the Vipassana practice as a technique for paying attention.
And so the monk had challenged her. “Try it,” he had said. “Try right now, for one minute only to just be, no labeling, no ‘you’ watching your breath. No ‘rising, rising of the abdomen,’ no ‘falling, falling of the abdomen,’ nothing, just being. Right here. Right now. Forget one minute. Ten seconds. Try it for ten seconds. All of you. No labeling, but no thinking.”
The concentrated silence was broken by a nasty, clenched growl of disgust. “This is harder and even more horrible!” Sophie announced and then burst out laughing. I thought of Sophie as l drove back to Montreal in my red 1990 Honda Civic. She was at the same time feisty and respectful, but did not fawn over Bhante, and her voice did not become suddenly soft and saccharine in his presence. I thought I might give her a call—see if she’s going to the next retreat. I would tell her how much I appreciated her question—how inspiring it had been, and how I had been trying to just be without labeling.
The winter trees were on the verge of coming alive, even while patches of snow covered the fields. I drove north happily indulging in fantasies in which I impressed Sophie with my attainment in the practice that she had inspired. “Be patient,” I would tell her, “you can do it. And when it works, it’s the best.”
Suddenly, catching myself in the paradox of daydreaming about the success of non-thinking (and the sexual rewards that such an accomplishment might invite), I sat up straight, shut off the radio, and thought, “Fuck it, why not actually give it a try?”
The first thing that happened was that the road came toward me. I did not experience going forward: the trees and the white line all to greet me. I became very calm, present, fully in control of driving. In fact, I’d never felt more secure behind the wheel of a car.
Thoughts came and went, but l saw that l could switch the whole experience of direction in a flash, and that I could go back and forth at will. With a distracted, discursive mind I experienced moving for ward; with no storyline or mental mutterings, with attention to just watching, the foreground came to me. The switch required an active passivity—that is, I had to stop looking forward, stop thinking forward, stop anticipating, expecting, focusing on what was ahead, on the future. That self-conscious effort of stopping, of clicking the switch, seemed to crystallize the present.
Against tremendous resistance, I forced myself to stay with the conventional view that everything ahead on the road is the future and everything behind is the past, and then to hold this image so that I could see that when I made the switch, this idea lost all meaning. There was no past. There was no experience of present. The future—what was visually ahead—came forward. There was no future toward which I was moving.
I heard the siren before I saw the red flashing light and edged into the breakdown lane. With his big hat and big holster, the state trooper approached me in the full metal jacket of authority.
I rolled down the window, produced an idiotic grin and asked cheerfully, “What seems to be the problem here, officer?”
“Young man,” boomed the potbellied trooper (he had a W. C. Fields nose, laced with splintered lines), “Do you have any idea how many miles an hour you were driving?”
“Gee, officer,” I stammered in my asshole collegiate best, “I dunno, maybe 70, 75.”
He didn’t respond, letting me know that I wasn’t even in the ballpark.
“80?” I ventured. “85?”
“Young man,” he hissed, then paused for the punch, “For the last 30 minutes you have been driving on the New York State Thruway at 12 miles per hour.”
When his search of my car yielded no illegal substances; he gave me a ticket for driving under the minimum speed. And a good story to tell Sophie.
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