TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Eight

I can do this, I tell myself as I sit in the park with my organic quinoa, orange and pomegranate salad.

I can sit here and eat this salad and not do anything else.

I can be in the moment.

I open the plastic container and stick my fork into the deliciousness. I eat a mouthful, noticing the texture of the quinoa and the sharp acidity of the pomegranate as it bursts open in my mouth.

I’m being in the moment, I’m being in the moment, I’m being in the moment,
I repeat to myself like a mantra.

I take a deep breath in and look around. The winter sunshine’s making the leaves on the trees around me glisten like they’ve been waxed. The clouds are gently scudding across the sky and there’s a magpie softly warbling away on the grass. There’s no one around, probably because it’s 2pm on a Friday, and I feel for a moment as though I could be the only person on the planet. It’s awesome.

I keep eating, relishing every yummy mouthful, and resist the urge to update my Facebook status with how Buddhist I’m feeling right now. I’m the only person who needs to know how great this moment is. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

When I’m done eating, I feel so damn good about this whole mindful thing that I decide to try some meditation. I set my iPhone timer for ten minutes, sit cross-legged on the cool grass and close my eyes. I focus on the feeling of the gentle breeze on my skin and the sound it makes as it whispers through the trees.

I’m calm.

I’m centered.

This is good.

But then the thoughts start creeping back in again, slipping out from beneath the shadows of my mind and slowly taking it hostage. Why haven’t I worn my midnight blue silk shift in so long? Actually, where is it? Did I leave it at the dry cleaner or did I lend it to someone? When was the last time I called mum?

I try to stop the inane thoughts from blossoming but the more I try, the more muddled and frantic they become until that horrible tightness starts squeezing at my chest again. My eyes snap open and as I pick up my phone to see how much time has passed I realize my hands are shaking a little and that it’s only been two minutes and twenty-two seconds.

Shit. Why am I so bad at this? I know Bodhidharma said I shouldn’t beat myself up about it, but it’s kind of hard not to get sucked into a shame spiral about not being able to just sit in one spot and focus on nothing for a measly ten minutes.

Maybe today’s just not the day for it, I think as I pick myself up off the grass and start walking home. And maybe it’s not actually me who’s the problem. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t got the right gear for meditation yet. Yes, that could definitely be it!

I power walk the rest of the way home and a sense of relief floods through me as I jump in the car and start driving back to the Buddhist bookstore. When I get there, I spot the same grey haired lady behind the counter.

“Hi,” I say as I stride towards her. “I’m not sure if you remember me, but…”

“Yes, I definitely remember you.” I can’t tell if she’s being facetious. I continue anyway.

“Great. So I’ve just started meditating because I’m a student at the Buddhist Centre.” I pause, waiting for some kind of acknowledgment or a conspiratory smile, perhaps. It doesn’t come.

“Yes. So I just started meditating at the Buddhist Centre but I’m… having a little trouble with it. I suspect it’s because I don’t have the right stool, so if you could help me choose a good one, that’d be amazing.”

“I can certainly help you there,” she says with a wan smile, “but I can’t promise that the stool itself is going to help you with your meditations. In my experience, the only thing that helps is just doing it every day until your brain starts getting used to it.” I swear she’s smirking slightly as she says this, but it could also just be her hair lip.

“Yes, well I’m aware that it’s all about mind power, we discussed that at the Buddhist Centre last night actually, but I’d just like to make myself more comfortable while I do it. And of course one’s comfort has a positive effect on one’s state on mind,” I add haughtily.

“Yes dear, you’re right. Come with me.” She walks me over to the far right hand wall, which is filled with shelves of little wooden stools and beautiful bright, puffy cushions. Now this is what I’d been expecting. So much more fabulous than those gloomy, lumpy excuses for cushions at the centre.

“So you’re after a stool, not a cushion?”

“You know what? I might actually take one of both, just to mix it up,’ I say, running my hands over a particularly fetching Indian embroidered cushion in bright yellows and pinks, with multi-coloured pom poms and small pieces of mirror stitched into it.

“I’ll take this one for sure, but can you also explain the stools to me?”

“Well there are basically just different elevations depending on your height. You’re quite tall, so I’d say the highest one would work for you. Then there are also stools with a curved base so you can tilt it at whatever angle feels right while you’re sitting. Why don’t you try a couple and see?”

She pulls a stool down for me and sets it on the floor. I sit straight down on it but it doesn’t feel right. My knees are sticking out at awkward angles.

“Ok so I think I might be, like, extra tall or something? This feels wrong.” I look up and notice that she’s giggling behind her hand. “What?” I ask, annoyed. Laughing at me seems like a pretty rude thing for a supposed Buddhist to do.

“You usually sit with your feet underneath the stool, dear. Here, let me show you.” She kneels down on the floor, places the little stool over the lower part of her legs and sits back down on it so her legs are now folded neatly underneath. “See? It’s actually surprisingly comfortable. Go on, you try.”

I kneel down and try it her way. She’s actually spot on. I close my eyes and imagine meditating on it. Yep, this is definitely my ticket to Zenland. “I’ll take it.”

We head back to the cash register and I absently check out my new goodies on the counter while she tallies up my purchases, thinking how fantastic they’re going to look on our lounge room floor.

“That comes to $210, please.”

I immediately snap out of my reverie.

“Sorry, I was a million miles away. What did you say?”

“I said that’ll be $210, please.”

Holy shit! I could get a whole Zimmerman bikini for $210. Surely she’s got it wrong.

“That seems like rather a lot. Would you mind calculating it again?”

“Well the stool’s $130, it’s made out of a very unique type of wood and crafted right here in Australia, and the cushion’s hand embroidered in India so that’s $80…”

I stare at the items for a few moments, weighing up their spiritual worth. I guess you can’t really put a price on enlightenment but this does seem a little excessive. Suddenly, I have a brain wave.

“You know I was just thinking… sorry, what’s your name darling?”

“My name? Stephanie.”

“Gorgeous. So Stephanie. I was just thinking, I’m actually a writer for a magazine – Aspire magazine, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Anyway I do a lot of product write-ups for them, and I think these exquisite meditation accessories could really work in the next issue. Spirituality is huge in the states at the moment so it’s probably a great time to be promoting this sort of stuff here. Trust me, the Sydney A-listers are going to be all over it next year. So I’m thinking maybe we could strike up some sort of a deal? Where you could maybe give me a discount on the product, then I could pop them in the mag?”

Stephanie’s just kind of staring at me, her mouth slightly agape.

“Is that something you’d be interested in?” I try again, thinking maybe she hasn’t understood me properly.

“I’m sorry dear, I don’t think you understand. You see, we’re an ethical, non-exploitative, spiritually beneficial business here. We try to educate Sydneysiders on ethical living, and on living an enriched life through wisdom, meditation and compassion. All our proceeds go to the centre around the corner where I believe you’re doing your class. I’m a volunteer, as are all the other workers here. So while it’s great that people are, as you say, becoming more interested in spirituality, we would never give away our products to get publicity in a glossy magazine. That’s just not in line with our ethics.”

She’s looking at me with that look. The one my mum used to give me when I’d ask her how she thought I went after my primary school jazz concerts. Her eyes would sort of squint a bit, her mouth would go into a tight line and she’d tilt her head a little to the left to portray disappointment and pity simultaneously. You were very sweet, darling, but you have all the grace of a baby hippopotamus, the look would say.

“I wasn’t asking to get them for free…” I mutter as my cheeks start to burn. “I just thought… I didn’t realise… Actually you know what? It’s fine. Just forget about it. Pop it on credit.” I throw my silver Visa down on the counter and pretend to look at a message on my phone.

“I didn’t mean to embarrass you dear, it’s just that…”

“You haven’t embarrassed me, please Stephanie! I’ll do my pin.” I look back down at my phone while reaching my right hand out for the card machine. She hands it to me and I hastily punch in my pin. The receipt cranks out in slow motion. “I don’t need a copy,” I mumble as I grab my bags and rush out into the street. Stephanie’s have a good day! trails out behind me but I don’t turn back.

What a nerve that woman has! I think as I speed home. Claiming to be all Buddhist and spiritual, then slinging mortifying accusations and innuendos around like that! Jesus. I have a good mind to report her to the Buddhist Centre. Lucky for Stephanie I have more morals than she does because I know that would be wrong.

I’m still worked up about the whole thing when I get home. I go to pour myself a glass of red. It’s only 4pm but I feel I deserve it after being treated so abominably. I’ve already filled the glass halfway when I suddenly remember Bodhidharma’s words about mindfulness. I suppose nursing my bruised ego with red wine isn’t considered particularly mindful. Leaving the glass half full on the bench top, I decide there’s no time like the present to try out my new meditation goodies. I walk into the living room and throw my new cushion down on the ground. It certainly looks great against the polished wooden floorboards, so even if I only use it just this once it will definitely have been a good investment. Totally boho-chic.

I light a stick of jasmine incense – the packet says it’s good for balancing the energies which sounds like just what I need right now – set the iPod playing some Ravi Shankar (I totally laughed at Peace when she first downloaded this for me) then straddle my cushion, one leg on either side, plonk my butt down, fold my hands in my lap and close my eyes. Breathing deeply, I try to visualise the tension sliding off my shoulders. There it goes, slithering down my arms and pooling around the base of the cushion, dark and powerless.

Just as I’m getting comfortable, I hear footsteps in the hallway.  

“Heeey my little Buddha,” drawls Ryan. “What’s goin’ on in the temple, huh?”

I open my left eye and stare at him without moving.

“I’m meditating Rye, please.” I snap my eye shut and breathe deeply, trying to settle back into the zone, then hear Ryan walk past me in his Blundstones.

Clomp, clomp, clomp. Just breathe.

The lounge room window screeches in protest as it’s pushed open; a cool breeze rushes in and a ripple of goosebumps covers my body. Just breathe.

Clomp, clomp, clomp.

Another screech, this time metallic, then water gushing into the kitchen sink. Just breathe, just breathe, just breathe.

Clomp, clomp, clomp – thump. A bum hitting the couch, water being slurped from a glass. Silence.

I try to meditate for another minute or so until I can’t stand it any longer. Both eyes flick open this time and I glare over at Ryan. He’s just sitting there on the couch, legs spread, staring at me with a goofy smirk on his face.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously what?” he asks innocently.

“Are you seriously going to just sit there and stare at me while I’m meditating?”

“What’s wrong with that? I just wanna see how you do it.”

“Yeah well you’re making me really uncomfortable! How am I supposed to relax and get into the zone when I know you’re just sitting there, slurping and staring? And why did you have to open the window? It’s freezing!”

“Chill out Mags, can’t a guy relax on his own couch for five minutes after work on a Friday afternoon? And in case you hadn’t noticed, that hippie stuff you’re burning stinks! Bloody hell, next thing I know you’ll be bringing one of those gross peace palms in here.”

I take a deep breath.

“Ok first of all, there are two other whole rooms in this house, surely you can sit and slurp in one of those for the measly twenty minutes it’ll take me to do this. Second of all, it’s called incense and it helps me balance my energies. And third of all, I happen to love peace palms, in fact they’re one of my favourites,” I say, pushing my chin defiantly skywards.

Ryan just sits there, raising his eyebrows at me for the longest time.

“Ok Your Highness, I’ll get out of your hair.”

He stands up and is about to walk out again when a shard of guilt stabs me in the belly.

“Rye don’t go,” I call out. He stops and turns to face me. “I’m sorry. You’ve been nothing but supportive this week. It’s just that I finally feel like I might be getting the hang of this meditation thing and I want to make sure I do it right. Look, why don’t you grab a cushion and, I dunno, try it out with me for ten minutes?” His face softens into a grin at the suggestion.

“I thought you’d never ask,” he says, grabbing a pillow off the couch. He chucks it down on the ground next to me and plonks onto his bum, knees sticking straight up in the air with his boots still on. I can’t help but laugh.

“What?”

“I just think we might have to work on your posture a little,” I say, trying to stifle more giggles. “Maybe start by taking your boots off, and trying to cross your legs?”

“Ahh yes, good point oh holy one.” He pulls his dirty Blundstones off and does his best to cross his long legs beside me, so that our knees are slightly touching.

“Gold star for you,” I say with a wink. “Ok so now, try to sit up as straight as possible with your hands resting gently on your knees.” He does just as I say, yet somehow manages to look even more uncomfortable than he did before.

“I want you to close your eyes and take a deep breath in…” I close my eyes and breathe in deeply with him, “…and a deep breath out. Try to relax your whole body and just keep concentrating on your breathing.”

We continue like this for a couple of minutes, and I really start to drop into it. I let out a little sigh of contentment, but as I do an image of Ryan sitting next to me in that squished up position pops into my head. I try my best to ignore it, but after about twenty seconds I just can’t help myself. I open my right eye a crack and take a peep at him. He’s concentrating so hard, his eyes squeezed shut and his face turning red. It’s adorable, and absolutely hilarious. I shut my eyes and try to concentrate on my breathing again, but before long my shoulders are shaking as I try to stifle the giggles that are starting to throb away in my belly. Soon, my whole body is shaking and little gasps are escaping from my mouth.

BWAAAHAHAH! A rough spurt of laughter erupts from my belly, and then it’s all over. At first it’s just me, doubled over, shoulders heaving, but before long Ryan’s in stitches too. We’re clutching each other’s arms for support, tears coming out of our eyes and everything.

“I don’t even know what’s so funny!” Ryan manages between gasps, and we burst into another round of maniacal laughter. After a couple of minutes we finally manage to control ourselves, sighing and wiping our weeping eyes.

“Ok that was awesome,” says Ryan, shaking his head and swiping his hands through his hair. “Best laugh I’ve had in months.” He grabs my waist and pulls me towards him, looking into my eyes and smiling cheekily. “So, you know what else I’ve heard is really good for raising your vibrations?”

“What?” Something about his expression makes my palms start to sweat.

“You’ll have to guess.” He leans over and I feel his mouth on my earlobe. My body responds with a small shiver of desire as Ryan traces a trail of kisses down my neck. Within minutes there’s a crumpled pile of tee-shirts, denim and underwear on the floor, as we start to raise each other’s vibrations right there on my new meditation cushion.