By Lenny Bass
It’s 4:30 a.m., and I’m sitting in the hot tub in the back of our little home at the edge of Delhi Park. A sliver of moon slides shyly between fast moving clouds, and off in the distance, a family of coyotes are howling away. It is not unusual for me to be up at this hour of day; it has become a habit of mine ever since I lived at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor in my late 20s. Now I am 53, and I’ve become wedded to this hour as a kind of prime time for my sitting meditation. The family is gainfully asleep. The streets are barren and pin-drop silent. And there is a kind of vibrational hush that draws me in and allows me to listen deeply to the spaces between my rambling thoughts.
But on this particular morning, I am drawn to something other. Off in the distance, barely detectable to the human ear, a faint whistle can be heard. We live just a few blocks from the railroad tracks, and I know instantly that a freight train is headed our way. During normal, “sane” hours, we’ve learned to tell time by the regularity of the whistles that pass by our home. But these are trains with schedules, Amtrak trains coming from or going to Chicago. In the “off” hours, however, a random conglomeration of freighters have free access to the rails. Their timing is unpredictable, but I know in an instance what’s coming, and the only question I have is, how large? Sometimes they are quick bursts, flashes in the pan, gone before the earth knows what hit it. Other times, they are like a long, thunderous ovation, squealing rails and the earth shuddering beneath a behemoth’s raucous stampede.
I sit back in the tub and wait for my answer. Finally, the magnificent rumble is upon me and it goes on and on like some kind of primordial tantrum. The thing is massive and I’m instantly awed by the way its magnificent vibrato hits me square in the solar plexus from more than three blocks away. What incredible power we have come to wield, I’m thinking to myself as it passes by. The momentum and density of our existence have a kind of trajectory that seems virtually unstoppable. I imagine how long it would take to bring the thing to a halt by applying the brakes. A mile? Two miles? More?
It occurs to me that meditation practice is like this. It is just like trying to apply the brakes to a hundred car freight train in motion...with a tweezers no less! How long would it take to stop a train of this magnitude with a pair of ordinary hand-held tweezers? This, I believe, is meditation...in a nut shell. At least in the beginning, I would say.
When people first come to their meditation practice and sit for a while, often they are surprised to find out how hard it is to derail their thought processes. No matter how hard they try, the thoughts just keep on coming. I must not be doing it right, they might
think to themselves. But we have to imagine ourselves just like this freight train. Each of us brings to our practice the incredible weight and volume of our entire life history from the moment we separated from the womb and began buying into the notion of ourselves as individual beings. The ego — this separated sense of self — invests incredible amounts of energy in discerning its likes and dislikes, its wants, needs, tastes, aversions, goals, dreams, fears...on and on; it builds itself like a freight train, car after car after car. It motors itself up mountains, through valleys, across flatlands, using any and all available raw material to add to the case of its undeniable existence. How intense an undertaking, then, to imagine slowing the thing down. Could it even be possible to stop the thing altogether!
Having done this a while, I don’t think it is much of an exaggeration to suggest that, at first, our meditation practice can have the feel of “applying tweezers to a freight train”. But rather than being disheartened by this realization or giving up on the practice altogether, it is better if we simply gain the awareness of what we are actually up against. The weight of our momentum is an awesome force. It has been this way for so many years. What makes us think that the minute we decide to sit down and meditate, everything will simply fall away?
When we first come to practice, it may be all we can do to simply “watch the train cars passing by.” We pull up a lawn chair, so to speak, and sit at the edge of the tracks, and...O. M. G...what an awesome contraption! The thing won’t stop. I tell it to stop. But it doesn’t stop. So, now, maybe I’ll just count the cars as they pass on by. Two- thousand five-hundred and eighteen, two-thousand five-hundred and nineteen....where does it end, we may wonder.
This very realization is a wonderful beginning point. For, once we see what we’re up against, then we can begin working with “the tweezers,” as it were, to slow it all down. Little by little by little, sit after sit after sit, we begin gaining an awareness of the space between the cars, that tiny blip of expansive fresh air between fast moving objects. The cars were moving so fast in the beginning, we didn’t even know it was there! But now they’ve slowed down just enough that we see it...a view of the horizon that goes on and on, seemingly forever. And seeing it for the first time....wow, how amazing is that!
Suddenly we have great hope and great impetus to continue onward, for that space between the fast moving train cars seems to bring us such peace. We’d much rather live there than on a fast moving train!
Finally, the freight train has passed (the real one, that is...) and I come back to my breath while sitting alone in the tub. Next, it is to my mat and cushion for a half hour of sitting before the family arises. My own thoughts will keep coming, just like the train that went by...but I’ll also see those vast empty spaces as well, more and more as my years of practice continue.
May we all derail our inner freight trains...with tweezers, forceps, clamps, tongs, whatever we can find! And may we all awaken to those spaces between the cars!
Lenny Bass is a long time meditation practitioner with deep ties to the Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor. His essay "Swaying in the Sangha of Trees: The 'Tree'-Quel" appeared in the January through April issue. You can read the first installment here. Leave a comment for Lenny below or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.