This piece was written by Andrés Cruciani, over ten years ago, after his first sesshin (a multi-day meditation—of which he only did one day). One word was added (twice). The rest is exactly as it was written.
She didn’t think it would be so bad. She had chosen her position. She would sit half lotus. She placed her left foot gingerly on her right calf. It was winter out, and the room was cold.
The coldness had seeped into the dark dojo and underneath her gi—the white outfit worn by martial artists. The material felt like heavy canvas and was cold to the touch. She wore a t-shirt underneath, but still, the cold seeped through.
She had her hands in her lap. She was actually exerting energy keeping one hand in the palm of the other, her thumbs making a small circle.
She he held her posture erect, focusing on keeping her spine straight. This will be easy, she thought, as she stared at the ground in front of her.
The room smelled of a distinct incense particular to that dojo. She had been to other sits in other dojos, and those incenses had smelled of different woods, of fruit, of raw tobacco. But this smell she could not place nor relate to any other smell. Perhaps, she thought, if I developed my incense palate, I would be better able to catalogue this smell. But at that moment, she could not, and she realized she had stopped counting her breaths as she had been told to do.
As she stared at that single spot on the dojo’s mat before her, she focused on her breath. She visualized it entering through her nose, forming eddies and swirls first in her nasal cavity and then like a fine mist billowing into her lungs. She felt her lungs inflate and the beating of her heart. She exhaled: One.
Before her was an entire row of others. Mingled amongst them were monks who had come down from a monastery from the north to lead the day-long sit. Though she tried not to move her eyes, through her periphery, she could pick them out from the row of sitters facing her a few feet away—their bald or shaved heads like little pink rosebuds emerging from their gis.
Below her, she felt both the large cushion, the zabuton, and the firmer pillow, the zafu, that was propped underneath her to keep her posture straight. She began to feel tension in her thighs, but it did not worry her. Easy.
She realized she had once again lost track of her count, and so again, she followed her breath: One.
If there was anything she learned from the first sit, it was that she had to readjust her ankle a little. Having done so, she knew that her second sit would be even easier than the first.
She continued to stare at that single spot in the ground, her eyes half closed. Having never stared at a single spot for so long without blinking, she was surprised and amazed when the edges of her vision began to cave in and pixelate. Except for that single spot, her entire vision turned a cloudy gray. This amused her for a moment and her lip twitched, though she knew was not to move.
She managed to reach Four, but each time she thought she would get to Five, some thought would come up that she would have to chase away and begin her count anew. Soon, she reached Ten, but she realized she had just been focused on her counting, not on her breaths as she had been told. She started again.
From the depths of her mind, strange thoughts arose. At first, her thoughts were mundane. She thought of what she would prepare for dinner that night. She thought of sitting at her desk the following day. She thought of her many chores and her To Do list that was like so many rows and rows of twigs in a yellow paper stream.
At first, she delved into each thought—I know we have rice and there should be tomatoes, she thought—and upon realizing her meandering mind she would shoo the thought away. But soon thoughts of tremendous desire began to rise like bubbles from a boiling pot. Thoughts of lust and evil percolated within her.
Though she had readjusted her ankle and had alternated her feet—now her right foot laid on her left calf—she began to feel more acutely the pain in both her ankle and her knees as she sat crossed legged, trying not to twitch even a single muscle.
She had begun to keep a mental clock, and she felt as though forty minutes had passed. If she was right, there were only five minutes to go until the head monk would ring her delicate bell and then bang her wooden clappers twice signifying the end of the sit. Then would begin ten minute kinhin, or meditation walking, for which she was beginning to salivate.
She had learned her lesson and was careful this time when crossing her legs. She wished she could sit just by having her legs crossed, but the monks were sitting full lotus—with each foot placed atop the opposite calf—and her failure to sit half lotus would seem weak.
Soon after kinhin had ended—ten minutes of walking in a circular line around the inside of the dojo—and she had positioned herself; the bell had run signifying the start of the new sit, and she had already started her mental clock. She realized that she was able to keep fairly accurate track of time even while just sitting silently and staring at nothing but that same dark spot. There were thirty minutes to go.
She began to pray for trucks to pass the dojo. The sweet sound of giant engines tumbling were a great music to her deprived ears. She hoped that one would get caught at the intersection’s light, so that from within the dojo, she could sit and listen to the thrum and pumping of the engine’s large pistons. When the light turned green and the truck drove away, she felt a deep sadness within her. She began to pray that people would walk by just so she catch even a few words of conversation. She began to dream of cookies.
With still thirty minutes to go, she realized that she had not counted a single breath. She began to focus on the dull in- and ex-hale, but could get no further than Four. She kept dreaming of cookies.
She wanted to eat something, anything. Though a steak would have been divine, a carrot heavenly, she would have settled for a piece of dirt. She wanted to feel its texture inside her mouth. She wanted to explore its bitterness, to trace the contours of the soil’s bacteria, to chew on its bits of sand. Stuck between two back molars she found the remains of a popcorn kernel, and this made her infinitely happy.
She realized that her posture had begun to slouch. She tried to move a single muscle at a time so as to slowly extend her spine without detection. She focused on the column of vertebrae and imagined them slowly, quietly straightening as though upon a vertical string.
‘Stop moving!’ yelled the dojo’s sensei.
Though she had been scolded, the noise had made her happy. Her stomach growled, but that too was a different sensation which she was thankful for. She could not stop herself from dreaming about cookies. She could no longer smell the incense.
To move! Oh how wonderful! Though they still were not allowed to talk, how wonderful to move her legs and arms! How great to climb stairs! How sad that the sun was already halfway down the sky and all she had done was sit in a room, but how wonderful the dojo’s lights! During their twenty minute break they cleaned the dojo, but how lovely to clean! Oh, and then, and then, and then as though heaven fallen upon earth, they ate! And how delicious the soup! How delicate the tofu! How flavorful the rice! Each grain like a small explosion! And as they kneeled around the table, gobbling down their food because the day was not one of pleasure but of work, work, work, how miserable she felt when she realized they were all staring at her, plates emptied, waiting for her to finish!
Sitting back on her zafu, her legs folded but her eyes open, she delighted in being able to turn her head. She tried to memorize each sitter’s face as a monk walked between the two rows pouring tea in everyone’s cups. There was another monk, his face like a blowfish, wearing thick glasses, but there was something pleasing about his presence. There! Another monk! Old and with a shaved head but how beautiful her wrinkled features, her caring but strict, penetrating eyes. There was another visitor, like her, with blonde hair up in a ponytail, small bags underneath her eyes, and was it true? Yes! She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt! Oh, how jealous the poor girl was. Taking her lead from the monks, she took up her small cup of green tea with both hands—one holding the smooth cup, the other gracefully supporting the cup’s bottom—and drank in pity. Until she tasted its heat and its delicate spices and she felt the warmth flowing from her mouth down her throat as though a fire of the soul like she had never felt. And she closed her eyes and felt the liquid slowly stream down her tongue in a torrent of pleasure and beauty. And then she opened her eyes and—no! Could it be? Yes! The monk was placing a single cookie on a napkin before each sitter. She tried not to jump from her cushion as she waited for the signal to take up that precious cookie but when it came she felt she lunged a little too fast but too late now and oh who cares this is the cookie of a lifetime! Oh there would never be any comparison to this cookie! It was like the gift of eternity—even childbirth could not match the beauty of that moment, the way the cookie fell apart in her mouth and the way her spit mixed with the crumbles to form a delicious sugary taste the likes of which she was sure had never been tasted in the history of man not ever and never again!
‘Eat fast!’ yelled the sensei, and she swallowed.
Following a monk’s lead, she picked up her tea and continued drinking. She was staring but she didn’t really care. He had dimples that shone even when he wasn’t smiling and large, buoyant lips, and she wondered when the last time he’d kissed someone had been.
‘PUT! THE CUP! DOOOOOWN!’ yelled the sensei in a voice so large, powerful, and terrifying amidst the serene silence of the dojo that the girl almost dropped her cup. To her horror, again all twenty of the sitters had been waiting on her to finish.
She knew she was in trouble when she checked her mental clock and it said forty minutes left. She could not count a single breath. Though the lights were off in the dojo but for a single bulb that illuminated a small shrine at the row’s end, she could tell that dusk was approaching. She was no longer hungry, and she even missed her hunger. Both of her ankles began to throb. The pain in her thighs was unbearable. She would realize that her legs were tensed and then she would carefully try to relax them; but just as soon as she had, her legs would spasm and burn. Sitting through the pain was as though as she were keeping her legs in open flames. She tried to dissociate from the pain and began to count her breaths.
What am I doing!? her mind screamed. This is so boring! I am wasting my life! Get me out of here! I have to go! I have to leave! Oh please kill me now and end this is torture!
When the bell rang as though the very sound of all life’s wishes come true, she realized she’d been praying that everyone in the room drop dead, simply so that she could get up and leave.
With forty-four minutes to go, her legs were so enflamed in pain that they had ceased being hers. She was able to make her mind hover away from her legs, to analyze the pain as though some strange sensation. Though just as soon as this realization came, it went, and she flinched as her legs throbbed dreadfully.
She feared the sit would never actually end. So terrible was this torture, that each second was its own hour. Each pain brought ten more pains. She was thirsty, but her mouth was filled with spit. From the corner of her lips, a line of drool began to drip. The cold had reached her bones, and her nose had started to run, her eyes to tear. Though she tried to control herself, she wondered if the sensei could see her shivers even through her gi.
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
Though she had not flinched, she knew that sound. And how she loved its echo. Anything to break the monotony of that room. Anything to focus on besides the nothing that was supposed to be her mind. A delightful thrill crept up her spine when she heard those three hits, the sound of a wooden stick being slapped against shoulders. Someone had fallen asleep, and the head monk had gotten up and smacked him with the stick.
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
Again the sounds lingered in the air, and how badly she wanted to be hit.
Though her clock was telling her there were only ten minutes left, though her legs were in a pain so consistent she had ceased to classify the feeling as pain, though the muscles in her back were aching from having to tense for six hours straight, her mind began to relax. For the first time that day, she found that she had no thoughts to chase away. She experienced a calm like she had not yet felt. She was keenly aware of her beating heart, and for a moment, she was amazed at the muscle that would beat without fail for the duration of her life. But then, so too was that wonder gone.
And then she heard that familiar buzzing. She tried to tense her muscles as though by flooding her face with blood it would somehow stone and the pest would fly away, as though she could focus her energy on her cheek and strengthen its skin, turn it into an impenetrable porcelain. Of course, the mosquito landed on her eyelid.
She tried with all her might not too move. She focused on her back, her spine, her feet, her legs, her thumbs. She tightened her stomach and tried to think about what her scalp was feeling, but still, she felt each of the mosquito’s legs. Out of her right eye, she could see its horrid wings. Her eye teared but that cruel mosquito knew no mercy. She felt its thin sucker insert into her eyelid and an instant itch the likes of which would have cause a mare to buck.
She slapped her face.
‘DON’T MOVE!’ yelled the sensei.
Soon after, the bell rang. Its delicate ting softly died and then the head monk clapped her wooden clackers twice.
The girl ran home. The sky was dark but never had she witnessed such beauty. Each building was more three-dimensional than it had ever been. She threw the door to her apartment open.
Oh what beauty! she yelled. Oh what life! Oh how wonderful to live!