THE TOILET PAPER EPISODE
By Gaye (Dawa) Rowley
“The art of meditation is the ability to let go and begin again, over and over again.” – Sharon Salzberg
Minds are like puppies. Excitable, inquisitive, sniffing off in every direction except the one you choose. Even puppies who grow up to take on responsible jobs like rescuing skiers from avalanches, convincing sheep to move through gates, or sniffing out contraband stitched into underwear at airports – even those responsible creatures started out about as reliable as a windsock in a hurricane. If you want a puppy to come to heel you must train it first. Minds are the same.
My mind was as biddable as a steer at a rodeo. If I tried to lasso it with a peaceful thought it tended to snort and buck and leave me in a cloud of dust. But I did believe in meditation and I wanted to give it another try. I’d been to a weekend retreat with the redoubtable Cecilie Kwiat. I came home with some new tools and techniques –and the mistaken belief that if I quieted my mind sternly enough a new, improved me, a me shimmering in the glow of Enlightenment would emerge. I’d never have to be this me again. Armed with the fervour of the newly initiated, I set my alarm to go off twenty minutes earlier than usual.
Next morning I shook my mind awake.
“C’mon,” I said. “It’s time to get up. We’re going to get Enlightened.” My mind looked quizzical. “We’re going to Awaken for the Sake of All Beings,” I explained. “We’ll start by cultivating Calm Awareness.” My mind still looked doubtful. “Enlightenment is like running a marathon,” I told it. “If you’re out of shape you have to do stretches and get fit and build up to it. I want us to tone up some spiritual muscle. We’re going to watch our breathing.” The quizzical expression gave way to doubt. “Come along,” I said in the same jolly tone that mothers use to explain that eating broccoli is good for you, “It’s only twenty minutes. It’ll be fun.”
I dragged my reluctant mind into a corner of the bedroom and pulled it, still clutching the duvet, down beside me. Cecilie had been very strict about the importance of timing meditation sessions. “When we move deep into meditative enquiry, different states of consciousness can emerge,” she had explained. “The depth of the being needs to know it can trust the conscious mind to come back to present reality before letting go into other dimensions.” Part of the discipline was to stick to a set time. No stopping early because you’re not having a fun. No staying longer because you are. Even in long retreats the day is divided into timed sessions, each with a beginning, middle and end. Twenty minutes was the recommended minimum for learners. It’s short enough to be achievable but long enough to have time to settle into the practice and gain some insight.
So there we were, my mind and I, sitting together early (ish) on a Monday morning. The clock ticked loudly. Ten minutes after we hit the cushion, and after I’d stood up to open the drapes then remembered I was meditating and sat down again, and after I had repositioned the cushion (several times), I heard my twelve-year old daughter get up.
She popped her head around the door to tell me the time. She’d got into that habit when a bout of clinical depression had knocked me back a year or so earlier and I’d taken to forgetting to get up on school mornings. She liked being first one up and first through the shower. But she worried about her two little sisters who needed me more than she did.
Being a sensitive, perceptive child on this, the morning of my meditational debut, she put two and two together when she saw me perched on a displaced sofa squab, gazing purposefully at the wallpaper. (It wasn’t really a debut. I’d tried meditation several times before. But this was the debut, I was sure, of a lifetime of perfect, uninterrupted daily practice.) My daughter smiled, made a little ‘hug-you love-you’ sign and went into the bathroom. A few minutes later I heard a quiet voice.
I ignored it. Well, I didn’t ignore it exactly. I had a big debate with my mind about whether or not to answer it. I won the debate on the grounds that Enlightenment probably requires strict silence.
The tone was more urgent, but still thoughtfully quieter than if I hadn’t recently been seen on the bedroom floor, arms and legs stiffening into odd angles – not unlike, come to think of it, the desiccated daddy-long-legs I had spotted among some dust balls a few minutes into the session. When I’d first caught sight of the dead insect my mind had commented (not unreasonably) that it might be a good idea to get the vacuum cleaner out. I’d told it firmly (and somewhat ironically) to shut up and get on with being aware.
She never called me Mummy. Perhaps something was wrong. I glanced at the clock. I remembered the injunction that minds and puppies do not trust you if you say one thing and then do another. I had said I would meditate for twenty minutes. In another five and a half minutes I would have kept my word. Then I could bounce through the door awash with maternal goodwill. I squinted my eyes and set my jaw and called my mind to heel.
A shout. The tone urgent.
“Mum, there’s no toilet paper and I need some right now!”
Sotto voce I said to my mind, “Sorry, I forgot we had run out of toilet paper. I promise I’ll buy more before our next meditation session.”
“How?” my mind responded. “It’s not payday til Thursday!”
Fourteen-and-a-half minutes into my quest for Enlightenment and I’d already tripped over not only the challenge of being interrupted, but the constant anxiety having enough money for groceries. I leapt up in a fury, thundered about until I found a wee pack of clean tissues in a coat pocket, thrust it through the toilet door and stomped back to my cushion.
I did note however, that I had managed not to swear, scream, shout, or slam any doors. I wondered if fourteen-and-a-half minutes spent contemplating a dead spider and some dust balls could be the reason for that restraint. Perhaps meditation could show me thing or two after all.