One day recently, I packed up my laptop, dressed business casual, borrowed a friend’s twenty-two-year-old Toyota Corolla, and headed to a shopping mall forty-five minutes away. I was in search of a new battery for my eight-year-old laptop. 

This huge mall is nestled amongst three hills, and I chose what I thought was the main entrance. No luck. I tried again, and started looking for a directory that would point me to the Apple Store. There wasn’t one. Optimistically, I thought I could just walk in any direction and find some clue. Nothing. Twenty minutes later, I spotted a lone security guard, who was quite nice. When I asked him where the directories were, he looked bewildered. When I asked him if he knew where the Apple Store was, he brightened up, and gave me the following directions: “You’ll want to go to Victoria’s Secret, then turn right at the Starbucks, then keep going until you see Abercrombie & Fitch, and then it’s on the left.”

Along the way, I came across an indoor merry-go-round. There were also children riding in little motorcars, with their anxious parents running behind them. I headed toward an escalator to get above the fray, for I’d become as anxious as the parents. 

At the Apple Store, I was told I needed a reservation. And so, the following day, I returned and whizzed past the merry-go-round, did a dance around the children in their electric cars, and headed straight toward Victoria’s Secret, which I found slightly embarrassing, because it was now my one beacon in the midst of eighty-eight stores.

At exactly the time of my appointment, a technician appeared from the back room, and immediately started talking about my laptop. She actually appreciated that it was still going fine after eight years of use. I told her about the twenty-two-year-old car I borrowed to make the trip. And then, for some reason, I felt the need to blurt out that I was 74.

As I left, I decided to try out my brand-new computer’s battery, and found a seat where many of the parents had toddlers in one hand and smartphones in the other. Satisfied with my new battery, I searched for the food court, and grabbed two hotdogs from Nathan’s.

I was enjoying myself, when suddenly, a loud speaker announced that the mall would be closing soon. Waves of people began rushing toward various exits. I moved toward the one I thought would take me closest to the car. 

Suddenly, the long hallway I was in went dark. I could swear it made a loud noise, like a huge door slamming shut.

I looked for Victoria’s Secret, and suddenly their lights shut off, with another accompanying loud bang. I was in complete darkness. I headed toward another aisle, and the lights went off there too. I could see some light at the end of the tunnel, though as soon as I got there, the lights slammed off again. There was another aisle still lit, and there were a couple of young women talking nonchalantly at the bottom of an escalator that had been shut down. I figured they were workers. I asked them if I could follow them out, and they immediately grew suspicious. They pointed me to another long hallway that was half-lit. Then the lights shut down again. 

A woman carrying lots of shopping bags came up to me and asked if I knew where JCPenney was. I tried to be helpful and cautioned her that the lights in front of that store had just shut off. She thanked me and then, to my shock, headed into the darkness. I feared for her.

A family ran right past me. There were two toddlers in the father’s arms, while the mother was urging him on in a direction that was still lit. The father, the mother, and the toddlers were all having a good time. I tried to follow. Slam. The hallway went dark. One of the toddlers was laughing. I, on the other hand, was in full panic mode by now.

It makes me think that once one is committed to dharma practice, it is always there. Intrinsic, yet empty too.

It seemed wherever I turned, the lights went off. Slowly, it dawned on me that this heavy light show had a purpose: I was being shepherded. I thought of the wizard from the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain. Finally, I could see some natural light far in front of me, and voilà, I came to an exit. The nice security guard from the day before ushered me out, though he was more officious this time around.

I headed toward the parking lot and realized I hadn’t a clue where the car was. There was a large hill in front of me and a large hill behind me. I walked one and soon discovered it was the wrong choice. I walked at least a mile circumventing the hills until I got to the last one. I could see from a long distance where my lone car was parked, now in an empty lot. What seemed like a thousand cars had left in a flash. 

I sat in the car for a bit, just to get my bearings, but also to parse what I was feeling about nearly being locked in the shopping mall. In fact, later that evening, I looked up the mall’s rules, and found this: “the Mall cannot be used as a place of slumber or temporary residence.” Surely, then, there must have been shoppers who got stuck overnight. I thought of the woman in the dark. This is what I was afraid could have happened to me.

In retrospect, I could feel a revelation arising. What more could I have said or done? The family with their toddlers were perfectly confident as they ran by me. The suspicious young women, who pointed me in the wrong direction, were probably right to do so. 

Was there any kind of metaphor I could glean from those powerful lights turning off, from running around that giant mall, before finally realizing I was being guided all along? It makes me think that once one is committed to dharma practice, it is always there. Intrinsic, yet empty too. Finally, I’d stopped chasing the lights, accepted it, and found my way.

I imagine what might have happened if all of us got locked in the mall overnight. Would we understand our interdependence and would we become a sangha, no matter how fleeting? Could I suggest we sit zazen? I thought about my newly charged battery, and imagined putting on my own tiny light show for the toddlers in tow. I bet they’d love it. Would that woman be sleeping pleasantly all night at JCPenney, waking refreshed and waiting for the stores to open again?

I sit on my cushion each day, and often thoughts of this experience intrude with tenderness. I know that, off the cushion, this memory will be with me for many months and years to come. I remind myself that the dharmas are boundless and always there to guide me, even when the lights begin to dim.