Diane Mehta | Longreads | September 2018 | 15 minutes (3,706 words)
“You’re dead,” said the meditation guide. “You’ve been dead a long time.” I start crying. “What do you see?” she asked. I whimpered, “My dad somewhere, cremated, maybe a river, gone for decades. My son is older. He has a family. He thinks of me sometimes. I can’t stand it.”
“They’ve been gone a long time. You’re fine. Part of the universe. The beginning of what you were meant to be. Does that beanbag chair in the house that you don’t like matter? What about your job and the argument you had with your boyfriend, that burger you had for dinner? Your dresses, your shoes, your jewelry, your house, your keys. Throw your keys away. Throw them into the magnetic sun. Whoosh. Do it again. Whoosh. How do you feel?”
I wiped my tears and scanned my imagination. Exploding galaxies to explore, strange dimensions, star clusters, sunbursts, Earthrise over our moon, star-forming nebula, cosmic microwave background left over from the Big Bang. What does a black hole feel like when you’re disembodied and inside of it? My mind was clear. A cool mist like summer rain while scuba diving underwater but without equipment. She continued to encourage me to throw things away. “It gets easier. Throw it away. Nothing matters. Whoosh.” I winced, then felt relieved, then felt horrible and finally caved and decided to be dead, dead, dead. As shock left me, I imagined looking around at my new home out in space: stars blinked on and off like fireflies, nearby yet distant, planets with inconceivable colors of lilac-brown and red-rust that hadn’t been refracted through an atmosphere and the curve of the turning Earth.
Everything gets easier according to everyone who believes that life is a positive cult. This guide said she used to have an argument with the world. She was angry at all corners of her soul. “I’m happier,” she said calmly. “You have a very open mind. You’ll do well here.” I panicked and came back to Earth. My feet reappeared, and my hands, which I’d watched burn away, per her instructions, grew back like a starfish regenerating its limbs. Whole again. Beanbag chair and teenager and dog and boyfriend, jobs and writing to do and the whole shebang of worries. I forced a breath out. She was wrong about me.
The goal of this style of meditation, which my boyfriend signed me up for (sigh — my anxiety is not fun for the people around me, either) and which, in the interest of being a good sport, I agreed to try for a month, was to achieve oneness with the universe. I had just finished a final draft of a novel that had sustained me for seven years, and felt utterly empty without it. Looking for a job felt dreary and anxiety-creating. What would I do for the rest of my life? What should I do from day to day? I couldn’t relax. From meditation I expected breathing exercises, which are scientifically proven to manage anxiety. Instead I stared at a reflective silver circle on the wall, a sticker about five inches in circumference that conceptually embodied the magnetic sun, and called one memory after another up, and threw it into that shiny gravity-sucking sun. I narrowed my eyes to make the silver blurrier, like the real sun with its gravity 28 times ours at its surface. I remembered Keats and let myself encounter the willing suspension of my disbelief. I could do it when writing poetry and I could do it here. Although here, at the distance the Earth orbits the sun, the sun’s gravitational pull is actually only 0.0006 times the strength of gravity on the Earth’s surface. Still, I told myself, it’s enough to twirl our planet around the sun once a year. Whoosh went the picture-image of one memory after another. When one bounced back, I threw it in again.
We see each event in our past through picture-images, only one perspective of an event. Like Plato’s shadows in the cave, she explained. It’s comparable to the moment captured in a photograph. But you inevitably build a mythology of that moment as time passes. How happy I was back then. You don’t even see the pained memories so clearly in those pictures. And that rose-colored version of events you carry around in turn feels cemented in reality by the existence of the photograph.
In Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, the photographer Sally Mann talks about the treachery of photography in the role of memory. “Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.” So here you are, holding onto your imagined or real-life photographs that contain your memories, and the memories of those memories. What do you do with them? Toss them out? Live with them? Accept their nostalgia or pain and accept, too, that photographs are images that do not necessarily represent what’s truly real? This was more or less what the meditation lady was saying. Some people, such as Mann, are brave enough to recognize that you can capture what’s real while experimenting with how to convey it. Mann chose to convey what she saw with the intrigue and aesthetics of wet-plate collodion, a 19th century process that uses large glass plates and a view camera. “When shooting with collodion, I wasn’t just snapping a picture. I was fashioning, with fetishistic ceremony, an object whose ragged black edges gave it the appearance of having been torn from time itself. Gravitas, memorial, solemn. Unlike the narrator of Proust’s Swann’s Way, praying for an angel of certainty, I prayed for the angel of uncertainty. I added peculiarities, intrigue, drama, allegory.”
We see each event in our past through picture-images, only one perspective of an event. Like Plato’s shadows in the cave. It’s comparable to the moment captured in a photograph.
This is, more or less, the same idea that the meditation group was selling. What you see is incorrect, refracted through your biases and the nature of the picture-taking itself. The brilliance of Mann’s work is her art of pivoting on nostalgia, a marriage of the skill of influence and technical achievement. But also the feelings we have when looking carefully at something. We insert our fears and stories into the pictures we play in our minds like a movie and then repeat. As viewers we want to believe we are seeing something elemental when we look at Mann’s children playing in the forest, or that this is the original tree in the original forest that we have lost, so what drives our admiration is not our awareness of her technique but our eagerness to be rescued from our stories and placed into another story. No matter what the quality of your memory, the photo, so reminiscent of Keats’ Grecian urn, shares the same characteristic of being frozen: clear shapes and curves, the cloudless sky still canary blue at 4pm, shadows overlaid on the still-frozen ripples cascading over my son’s feet in the river and his distracted gaze waiting for the picture to be taken so he can pursue his hunt for frogs and tiny snakes.
The problem with discarding your nostalgic perspective on that memory is that you end up ruining, or stealing from, the memory itself. That forest that enticed you in, that Tennessee river in the shadow of the Smokies that cooled your swollen hiking-booted feet, that wood nymph eyelet ankle-length graduation dress that made you feel so pretty — gone in an instant.
Could I throw away that picture of my momentarily happy family on a cobblestoned European-style street in Ooty, a hill station in India, or the way the soft, diffused light hit my young son’s cheekbones at the Audubon Society in Cape Cod when he was holding a box of baby turtles with gleeful and nervous awe, unaware that his dad had just left me?
Uncertainty gnawed at me through the exercises of throwing away. Mostly the meditation group’s philosophy was beautifully convenient. In a way it felt cathartic to just die and have no choices. But what a struggle to accept casually chucking away the hard-earned moments that fulfilled me. Who wouldn’t be comfortable throwing away an amorphous beanbag chair that oozes around their tidy house? Wouldn’t you be delighted to throw away scenes of kids being cruel to you on the playground or that bully who humiliated you in middle school or the person who broke your heart at 17? But would you remember to bring up, and throw away, those times when you were cruel, when you were too emotionally impoverished to care for your son that time he needed you? How dare we throw our cruelties away instead of living with them? And who would be comfortable throwing away a child, the way he says, I love you when you tuck him in?
I’d committed to this program, so I went through the process seriously. I found that if I threw away my photograph-memories repeatedly, I achieved some distance from them. I understand the value of repetition. You dull things, achieve some balance, and sail away from the emotions you were in when you first encountered them. The previous argument I’d had with my boyfriend played like a movie reel in the distance in proportion to the times I threw it away. I lost interest in the argument. It didn’t take looking for that picture to morph it into something more benign, even lovely. I noticed how handsome he was, and not angry but concentrating in a way that seemed passionate, as when he’s discussing Faulkner, who he loves. Maybe it’s true that if I discard every memory and every attachment, I will find my true nature, but it is also possible that then I will have no nature at all, and nothing to live for.
One of my coping skills is to throw things away. During a particularly traumatic time in my life, a therapist once suggested that I write down my most hateful garbage-y feelings on a piece of paper, rip it to shreds, then bury it deep in the garbage nightly. It worked. For months, my hand moved violently across the page, drawing giant jagged letters that were at best a rant of swears and at worst, death mail to people who had hurt me, until I squeezed every tormented feeling out. Along the way, those thoughts made themselves into something resourceful and I placed that chaos inside the tightly drawn structure of a sonnet sequence. Now I resort to solving problems over email before they get to me at night. I quit jobs, fix situations, cancel plans, and end transactional relationships after just one day of angst. I can whoosh away the stress with decisive full-stop emails, and erase any lingering discomfort with carefully worded sentences. So it’s curious that I happened on this place where they tell me to throw things away, because I’m so good at it already. The link between their philosophy and mine is self-preservation.
In addition to the one-hour sales pitch for the meditation philosophy, and the $200 downpayment for a month, I went to three two-and-a-half-hour private meditation sessions with two different women. They had soft, practical voices and kind faces. It would take approximately 50 sessions before throwing away becomes second nature, one guide said, and if you come every few days, every week, for one year, you’ll achieve all the stages and then you will be happier. Whoosh. Their philosophy is rooted in an idea that you pass through seven levels of discarding to escape the illusionary world you are living in, and to eliminate the self (you) who is living in that world. Then, finally, you are a part of the universe. It felt reliably Eastern in that you are expected to be dutiful and work hard to achieve the righteousness that earns you a spot in eternity, versus in the West where you are deemed righteous at the start and expected to stick to the rules until you arrive in eternity (or not). (Note that I have decided that becoming part of the universe means that you have hit the jackpot of eternity.)
For that first week, I was happier. There were options for “classes,” semi-guided sessions in a dark room where strangers sat against those legless back-jack floor chairs and threw their memories against the wall and into the magnetic sun. I wasn’t interested in classes. I wanted the social interaction. I liked the women. Would we be friends? Would I be part of a community, with the pot luck parties and hang-out zones they promised me?
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
They told me to go ahead and try other types of meditation. They wouldn’t work because breathing exercises are temporary while throwing away picture-images is permanent. I wondered if this was a ruse (If you love something, let it go), but also liked the idea that that if I committed to this philosophy I would react to irritating things with a shrug, I could simplify caring.
Over the weekend, doubt kicked in. I got sick. I never get sick. One of the meditation ladies texted me to feel better and said if I do the meditation I will get sick less often. My feeling was that I usually wash my hands 20 times a day for 40 seconds in warm water like Jane Brody suggests to defeat the germs but I must have skipped a wash or gotten germs from a fast-moving knuckle-ball cough by a stranger on the subway. Maybe it was handprints on the door knob to the building, or my pharmacy, a place of disease fixings. I wasn’t open-minded, but convincing me that I was would guarantee the organization $200 a month from me. Subscriptions are the gold standard of customer retention. They thought I was open-minded because I was Indian, and I understood their idea of the soul, free in death (if you are lucky enough to achieve nirvana). Enter the floating universe. Maybe I could get to pretend-nirvana if I were pretend-dead for a year. I was the perfect specimen.
In fact, I was the opposite: tortured, fact-based, skeptical, provocative, thorny, and closed-minded about new age or Eastern-facing Western philosophies that seem created from a spreadsheet. I wanted to breathe. I like oxygen, photosynthesis, the blood-linked real-life company of my father and son, the sound of my keys turning in the lock of my house. I like my new green Adirondack chair and my biased unreal photographic memory of that week in Ooty, where my parents bought me a striped walking stick with a carved lion head that I used to pretend I was a mountain climber. I loved that eyelet dress that made me feel so American and pretty, for once, and the pottery my 14-year-old son makes for me. I stopped going. The woman who did the sales pitch said no problem, and they were there if I changed my mind. I felt bad I wouldn’t see her again. The other woman kept calling. She was better at follow-up, I figured. She asked me to come in and talk to her about my decision. I remembered the sales pitch, years earlier, of the Florida timeshare: forever. My dad’s British-born wife, a self-proclaimed meditation expert and hands-on healer, who’d studied for years at ashrams in India, told me that the problem with this particular meditation philosophy is that you are constantly filling your mind with clutter. Meditation is supposed to empty the mind. She boasted once that she, unlike most people, could meditate herself into Theta State, deep relaxation during which your brain waves slow to 4-8 cycles per second. (Alert, we all exist in Beta State, from 14 to 30 cycles per second.) My brain probably moves at the upper end of Beta. Theta is used in hypnosis and associated with REM sleep. Her pitch made sense to me. I had to learn to meditate. I blocked the meditation lady’s number.
The following week I went to my father’s house, to visit his wife. A hundred years ago, people didn’t take fancy classes to meditate. The act is about simplicity, not some complicated philosophy. She would teach me to meditate. It was free. We sat down for 10 minutes to breathe. I slumped a little. Breathing felt natural, as if she were a kind of ventriloquist for my body and my mind emptied immediately. Ten minutes later I was tired, as she predicted. I lay on the rose-carpeted floor while she rubbed the spasms out of my neck, then said rest a minute, and left. A half hour later I awoke, flattened. On the carpet, I’d fallen into what seemed to be the deepest, dreamless, most motionless sleep I’d had in years. Heavy as a rock, empty headed, I half-crawled into the living room as if stuck to the ground and said, my god, what have you done?
When I watched the first episode of Wild, Wild Country, the documentary about the cult-guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, colloquially known as Osho, I recognized all the signs of people who were looking for some cathartic, free-loving release from the strictures that noosed their lives. They wanted happiness, relief, certitude, safety, company, calm, rescue, adoration, belief. They followed him to his ashram in Pune, near Bombay, and rose up, orange-robed and rapt, dancing like Pentecostals who speak in tongues at churches in movies or the people I saw fall to the floor writhing in big-eyed religious ecstasies at concerts of the African-rooted Haitian voodoo band Boukman Eksperyans when I was younger. Maybe it was like taking ecstasy and going to a Grateful Dead show. You can fake yourself into a moment of confused elation, or perhaps your brain does it for you to stave off loneliness by letting you pretend you’re in a larger community. Churches and temples are where people go to find spirituality but also and maybe more so, they discover some temporary communal bliss.
One of my coping skills is to throw things away. During a particularly traumatic time in my life, a therapist once suggested that I write down my most hateful garbage-y feelings on a piece of paper, rip it to shreds, then bury it deep in the garbage nightly. It worked.
We all have these various communes we exist in and shuffle in and out of on schedule yet none of them are enough: home, place of worship, gyms, parties, dinners, bookstores. Are they places we are approaching or places we are leaving? Was the meditation workshop I attended a time during which I recalled old memories, or discarded old memories? Maybe it was both, but I left with neither: I did not recall or discard as much as betray my memories by using them to catch a temporarily better mood with the compassion of a stranger in an empty communal room. None of this would exist any more than those picture-images if I didn’t have the $200. Whoosh goes the membership. Whoosh go the friends, the pot lucks, and the empty room.
I tried to meditate for 10 minutes a day on my own, starting the day after my dad’s wife’s knocked me out with her wiggly jiggly theta powers. The first day, my dog looked at me curiously. I slumped on the rocking chair, hoping she wouldn’t bark. The second day, I put the dog in her crate so she wouldn’t stare at me. I’d meditate in peace, but my mind, full of clutter, raced. Irritated, I couldn’t get empty. I stopped meditating after a few days because the voices in my head were just ricocheting off one another and driving me crazy. It was easier to walk the dog and focus on her not biting anybody. Now the dog is on Prozac and she has stopped hurling her body at the window when children come to our building to take lessons from the piano teacher upstairs. If you want your mind empty of clutter, anti-depressants are the way to go.
On two separate occasions, Zoloft put me into an extended period of elation that resembles what I’d like to achieve with meditation. I suddenly became part of the universe of the sidewalk of the sunny day, pom poms for eyes and Solid Gold dancer feet. Breathing was easier. I laughed a lot. Whoosh went all my cares away. I grinned widely in the style of iconic Swedish dreamwoman Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The alternative to anti-depressants is the looming possibility of entering so dark a world that you prefer to be dead, dead, dead. That darkly dark-matter devastatingly dream-like universe we see through NASA’s Earth-orbiting Hubble telescope and from the viewfinders of space missions and illustrators of sci-fi novels and everything since. Stardust.
The only problem with chronic elation is that there is no nuance to joy. To live at that pitch becomes the churn of a Ferris wheel. Eventually you want to get off. The blue blue sky and the all-knowing placid sea get tiresome and the ebb and flow that once seemed thrilling becomes ordinary. You want the hard cold ground under your feet, the crush of sweaty people and the rhythms of excitement and unwinding, the lift of something to look forward to rather than the knowledge that everything is grandly joyful — but only to you.
Whoosh went my creativity. Without varieties of feeling, perspective disappears. Writing fiction becomes more like a friendly letter to a pen pal on Holly Hobby stationary rather than an investigation of a character’s, or your own, motivation. My one deep skill, the ability to write poems, vanished. Once I started to cry over something, and then found my spirits, as if by magic, lifting. In the middle of the grimace and tears that constitute crying, my mouth softened and relaxed and a whoosh of good feeling rose up through my body. I’d rubberbanded back up from misery into joy again. I could no longer cry, and discarded the matter uncomfortably because I had no empathy. It is true that people looked at me on the street as if I were some guru of gladness, and some people even stopped to say something or ask what drug I was on. I exuded teacherly patience, big love, and Ekbergian sexuality. A woman I knew, startled by my elation, said she could make a movie about me and she’d call it Scent. But when I stopped the Zoloft, wouldn’t you know it, the feelings came back with a whoosh.
* * *
Diane Mehta’s poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, comes out in 2019 with Four Way Books. She is finishing a historical novel set in 1946 India while working on a collection of essays. She has been an editor at PEN America’s Glossolalia, Guernica, and A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn.
Editor: Sari Botton