TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Seven

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it. It’s a plain brick building, with chipped white paint and a sad, faded picture of the Buddha in one of the small front windows. There’s a little non-descript shrub in the front garden that’s going brown and droopy. Surely one of the selfless Buddhists should have been taking care of it?

Anyway I thought this place would look more… I don’t know, temple-like. Maybe with some turrets, or some gilding? Maybe with some prayer flags fluttering, or some gaudy mural? Perhaps they save all the colour and pizzazz for the interiors. Yep, that must be it, I tell myself as I head through the front door.

I’m greeted by a short hallway, dimly lit, with a little table at the end of it. There, my bobble-headed skinny Buddha sits with a couple of incense sticks burning either side of him. Hurrah! I nod my head at him in greeting and walk through to the room on the left. There’s a woman sitting at a wooden table at the entrance, and she looks at me expectantly.

“I’m here for the Buddhism workshop thingame?” I peer down at the notepad in front of her and she follows my gaze. “My name’s Margaux Kirke.”

“Kirke… Kirke…” She hovers her pencil down the side of the list of names. “Ahh yes, here you are. Just grab a nametag, take your shoes off and pop them on the wooden stand at the far wall, then head to the end of the corridor and you’ll see the shrine room through the glass doors at the end.”

“Ok thanks!” I trill with all the enthusiasm I can muster, although this nametag thing has really thrown me. First of all I really hate nametags. They remind me of school camp and first days of uni and make me feel super anxious because no one can ever pronounce my name right because of the X. Second of all, do they really expect me to stick a pin through my $550 Camilla silk kaftan?

I notice the woman looking at me in that expectant way again, so I just pick up the nametag and carry it away with me. I follow her directions, taking off my Italian leather sandals and popping them in one of the little hidey holes on the wooden shoe stand, saying a silent prayer to Buddha that no one nicks them, then head down the corridor to the classroom.

As I walk into the ‘shrine room’ my heart sinks. The name had conjured up images of candlelight, big printed cushions and incense wafting around. But this looks way more like a school hall than a shrine. A dozen plastic chairs are set up in a circle in the middle of the room, one of the overhead fluorescent lights is flickering, and while there are cushions, they’re all dark burgundy or navy and are stacked up neatly against the far wall.

I quickly scan the group. No one looks very cool or even very spiritual. Another disappointment. But I’m here now so I take my spot next to the best of a bad bunch, a skinny girl with cropped dark hair and great skin who’s wearing clothes that I wouldn’t call on-trend but are colourful, at least. No one’s talking. Mostly, they’re just looking at their hands, so I give the coolish girl a tight smile and follow suit. Looking down at the jewelry crammed on my fingers I can’t help but wish I’d worn slightly less of it. The light keeps flickering and something – the air conditioning, maybe – is making an annoying tick-tick sound. The minutes drag by as more boring-looking people wander in and take seats and start staring at their hands. And just when I think I might have to pretend to find the loo or something to get the hell out of this incredibly awkward situation, someone breaks the silence.

“Good afternoon everyone, sorry I’m late.” We all swing our heads in the direction of the voice and find a man in his mid-40s with short salt and pepper hair, glasses, a sensible shirt and trousers and a short white cloth slung around his neck with colourful embroidery on the end of it, bursting through the door. This must be our teacher. Another sartorial disappointment. Where are his fabulous orange robes? Why isn’t he wearing a bindi?

He sits down on one of the grey plastic chairs, next to an empty chair with a small whiteboard sitting on it, rubs his hands back and forth along his thighs and smiles tranquilly at the group. He doesn’t say a word for the longest time. In fact he hardly even blinks, he just keeps smiling and gazing around the circle like a complete dork.

After a minute it starts to get uncomfortable.

After three minutes it’s almost unbearable, and as I look around the room I notice everyone’s back to staring at their hands. Someone coughs; someone else shuffles in their seat.

Holy moly, this is really bad.

“Welcome,” he finally says, the word immediately filling the small space and making everyone snap to attention. He sits, smiling and nodding for a few moments, before continuing.

“My name is Bodhidharma, and I want to thank you all for being courageous enough to come to today’s workshop. I know it probably feels a little daunting for most of you, but this is a safe place. There’s no need to feel anxious about anything.” He looks around the room again, smiling, nodding his head ever so slightly and rubbing his thighs. It’s a good 90 seconds before he picks up a whiteboard pen and scrawls the words A Meaningful Life across the plain white surface.

“A meaningful life,” he says as he clicks the lid back on the marker. “You’ve all come here today because you want your life to be more meaningful in some way, and I’d like to know exactly how I can help you make that happen. So to start today’s class, I’d like to go around the circle and have everyone introduce themselves, say a few words about why you decided to attend this course, and what you’d like to gain from it. Would anyone like to volunteer to start?”

All eyes are back on hands, mine included, and that horrific awkward silence settles back down on the group.

“Anyone?”

“Oh stuff it, I’ll go,” comes a voice from the far side of the circle. Another collective eye roll – this time towards a guy in his mid-twenties with dark curly hair, a chubby face, coke-bottle glasses, and a huge buck-toothed grin.

“Hey everyone!” he says with an enthusiastic wave. “My name’s Ricky. I guess I came to this course because I just wanna basically be… more Buddhist! It was one of my New Year’s resolutions, actually, to be more Buddhist.” A ripple of laughter spills out across the room and even Bodhiwhatsisname is having a bit of a chuckle. Which actually strikes me as pretty un-Buddhist of him.

“That’s great Ricky, really great. And would you like to share with the group exactly what you mean by being more Buddhist?”

“Well, umm” – he pulls off his glasses and cleans them with his brown tee-shirt; he’s such a massive dag that I actually feel kind of sorry for him – “I guess it’s just sorta peaceful, nice, generous… all those kinda things. A Buddhist definitely doesn’t swear, so I totally wanna stop doing that. And I reckon a Buddhist wouldn’t drink much or do drugs, either. I’ll probably curb those a little, too.” As if he’s cool enough to ever do drugs.

Bodhidharma nods sagely for ages with that dumb-looking smile on his face, then turns his gaze to the next person in the circle, a woman in her late 50s with blondey-grey hair in one of those haircuts that’s not quite a bob, not quite a close crop, and that thing going on with her neck where the skin extends directly from her chin all the way to her collar bone. She looks really sad.

“Hi, I’m Anne,” she says, her gaze sliding down to her bony hands nestled in her lap. “My mother passed away a few months back. And since then I’ve… I’ve been having a really hard time finding a reason to get up in the morning. I was hoping that meditation might help me, I don’t know, find those reasons again. I really hope it does because honestly, nothing else has.” Man, do I feel bad for judging the woman’s weird neck and haircut now.

“Wow. That’s really powerful Anne, really powerful. Such brave statements. Welcome.” Cue awkward nodding. Next up’s the chick sitting next to me, whose cheeks have started turning pink before she’s even started talking.

“Hey!” she squeaks in an impossibly high voice. “I’m Tammy, and I guess I signed up because I want to get better at meditation and, well, I know it sounds a little silly but I also want to be nicer to my boyfriend.” She lets out a little giggle as her cheeks turn fuchsia. You said it lady, you sound like a dipstick. Looks like we won’t be friends after all.

“No one’s goals are ever silly,” pipes up Bodhidharma. “Any quest for self-improvement is always noble. And having goals is always the first step.” He pauses, before letting his gaze slide towards… me. Shit. I’ve been so busy judging everyone else that I haven’t even thought of a single thing to say yet. Guess I’ll just have to wing it.

“Umm, hi, my name’s Margaux – Margaux with an X.” I attempt a laugh as I hold up my still-unattached nametag and point to the X. “I guess I’m here because… well, I’m a bit confused about what I’m doing with my job. And with my life in general, really.” I laugh nervously again, and mentally kick myself in the shins. Why can’t I keep my cool in front of this bunch of losers? “I just want the next step I should take to be, like, revealed to me… by the Buddha?” Well that certainly sounded way better in my head than it did coming out of my mouth. Oh well, I still manage to get a sage nod from Bodhidharma.

“When we start getting to know the Buddha, we realize many things about ourselves and our lives that we may not have known before,” he says. Sheesh. I always admire people who can manage to say absolutely nothing, while sounding as though they’re saying something intensely profound. There really is a knack to it.

We slowly inch our way around the circle. “I want to be more calm,” “I feel like there’s nothing meaningful in my life,” “I need to quit smoking,” “I want to learn how to meditate,” “I want to feel more connected to the earth,” blah blah blah – until finally we’re back to Bodhidharma.

“That was really well done, really well done,” he says, rhythmically bobbing his head. “I think a great way to follow up those profound thoughts and intentions would be to do a short meditation. Who here has meditated before?”

A sprinkling of hands shoot up around the circle, mine included. Well, there was that one time in second year uni when Peace and I went to a meditation workshop because we’d heard the monk dude who was leading it had once been a Cleo Bachelor of the Year. We ommed our way through the session with one eye open, perving on the monk who really was a total hottie, but who we quickly discovered sadly had no interest in worldly pleasures. That definitely counts.

“Wonderful. And really good to see that a few of you are first-timers, too. That’s a fantastic place to be. Now usually we’d meditate on the floor, using those wooden stools and cushions stacked in the corner for support. But today, just for the introduction, I’m going to ask you all to stay right where you are and just start having a look around the room.”

Fantastic, this seems much easier than I remembered.

“I want you to become aware of everything that’s surrounding you – everything you see, hear, smell and feel. What does the floor look like? Where are the chips in the paintwork on the wall? How does the air feel on your skin? What can you smell? Just take in all the little details.” He pauses and the heads around me start to swivel. “Don’t try to make sense of the details or give them any meaning, just notice them and acknowledge that they’re there, then move on. The most important thing is that you don’t hold on to thoughts or judgments about any of it.” Then he goes silent, which I guess is our cue to start.

Now I know this should be easy. It’s just looking at things, right? And it is easy… for about the ten seconds it takes me to look at everything in the room and notice that on the floor there are scuffed, dull floorboards, there are chips all over the paintwork on the walls, and the chairs are plastic and grey and fugly.

I try to focus on other things: the texture of the pillows stacked in the corner, the smell of the incense burning at the shrine, anything really. But my mind just starts to race at a rather alarming pace. I start thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner, about how many days are left until daylight savings kicks off, about whether Peace has ever tried to straighten her hair, about when I’ll have time to pick my Zimmerman dress up from the dry cleaners, about what everyone else in the room is thinking about while they’re meditating… plus about 562 other random thoughts in between. I catch myself after what feels like twenty minutes of random free association, glance down at Tammy’s watch and can hardly believe that only 90 seconds have passed.

Shut up, I tell my brain. Just focus on the friggin’ details of the room for another few minutes.

But the harder I try, the harder it becomes until I start to feel an acute tightness in my chest as my mind oscillates ever more wildly between free association and trying to completely empty itself. My hands start to sweat and I feel a strange surge of adrenaline shooting up from my belly.

What the hell is happening to me? This is supposed to be relaxing and calming and Zen, but what I’m feeling right now is anything but.

What I’m feeling, I can safely say, is panic.

Just as I’m about to completely lose it, after what feels like a tortuous eternity, Bodhidharma says we can open our eyes and “return to the room.” As if I was ever under the illusion I was anywhere else. Luckily, as soon as I flick my eyes open and start shuffling around in my seat, my heart slows a little and the tightness in my chest starts to subside.

“So how was that?” Bodhidharma nods and smiles around the circle.

“Awful!” I can’t help it; it just jumps out of my mouth before I even have a chance to stuff it back in there.

“Awful? Please share with the group what you experienced, Margaux,” Bodhidharma says in what I guess is his concerned voice.

“Well, I know it was meant to completely chill me out and I was just meant to be, or whatever, but I just sat there thinking about a million things the whole time and when I realised I was doing that I started to panic and I just wanted it to be over!”

Bodhidharma actually starts clapping at this point, and a couple of class members half-heartedly join in. So awkward. “That’s a real revelation Margaux, well done. Feeling stressed while meditating is actually a good thing, because a big component of meditation is actually about confronting our fears and insecurities. The trick is not to try and ignore these fears and insecurities, or to push them away. What we have to learn to do is to simply recognize that they’re there and then move on. It might help if you think of them as clouds in an otherwise perfectly blue sky, that you just need to admire and then send on their merry way.”

Ok, I think I get this. “So it’s like when you’re at a party. And the thoughts are like a really annoying person who’s, like, clinging on to you who you just can’t get rid of. You just need to chat to them for a couple of minutes, then pretend you have to go to the bathroom and send them on their merry way, as you say?”

“Well, I guess you could put it that way,” Bodhidharma says, his brow furrowing slightly. “But what I’m really trying to impress on you all here is that you needn’t feel guilty about not completely switching off right away because that’s actually not the aim of meditation, although a lot of people are under the misconception that it is. Meditation is actually a way to explore your mind and to learn to calm it, but not completely shut it down.” Another silence follows, but this time I’m actually enjoying having a moment to reflect on everything he’s just said because it’s actually starting to make sense to me. “But let me tell you the most exciting part: you can actually meditate anywhere, at any time, doing anything,” he continues.

“You mean you can meditate while you’re having sex?!” exclaims Ricky, and a ripple of laughter spreads through the room.

“I’m not so sure about that,” says Bodhidharma with a ghost of a smile. “But let me ask you something. When you walk down the street, how often do you realize how the breeze feels on your skin, or how the traffic sounds? When you’re sitting at your desk at work, how often do you think about how your body feels? Mostly, in the modern age, we’re concerned only with going places and getting things done, with the future and with the end result. But we’re missing the most important thing, which is the present moment. The Buddhists call the practice of being in the present moment mindfulness, and meditation really helps us become more mindful.”

“But what if you don’t want to be in the present moment, or if you’re desperately trying to escape the present moment by focusing on the past?” Anne asks the question almost in a whisper, but even so we can all hear the wobble in her voice.

“It’s difficult Anne,” says Bodhidharma, “but running away from the present is ultimately just a Band-Aid measure, and whatever pain or suffering you’re avoiding will eventually surface. If you find a way to confront it and work through it, there’s so much magic to be found in the present moment.” Ricky has started cracking his knuckles, and the atrocious popping sound fills the silence that follows. “Now I know this has been a lot to take in for the first class so why don’t we take a little early mark this week? But before you go, I have a little bit of homework for you.”

Oh God.

“I want you to spend some time being mindful before our next class on Saturday morning. You don’t have to do it all the time – even just ten minutes here and there will be enough – but it could be when you’re riding your bike, when you’re on the bus, when you’re eating lunch. Just take an ordinary, everyday task and do just that. Don’t talk on your phone or listen to music or read while you’re doing it, just focus on doing that one thing. Does that make sense?” A dazed, communal nod. “Fantastic. So until Saturday,” he pauses, putting his palms together in a kind of prayer position, “I say Namaste to you, which means, ‘all the goodness in you salutes all the goodness in me.’ Say it with me now: Namaste.” We all echo him in sheepish voices.

Silently, solemnly, we all file out into the reception area and put our shoes back on, focusing intently on what we’re doing in an effort to seem mindful but really just trying to avoid more awkward conversations. I throw a couple of serene smiles around the room then get the hell out of there, taking the front steps of the centre two by two.

“Where are you going in such a hurry, Buddhist lady?” A voice from the shadows catches me by surprise and I stumble on the bottom step. A warm hand, familiar and comforting, grabs my arm just in time to stop me from falling.

“Hey, you scared me!” I say as I press into Ryan’s warm body. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to surprise you.” He grabs my hand as we start walking down the street. “So how was it?”

“Umm, it was… interesting.”

“Interesting full stop?” he asks with a laugh.

“Well some of it was actually insightful, I suppose. There was a lot of stuff about being in the present moment, and we did a bit of meditation which was pretty horrific.” We stop at the traffic lights, the little red man blinking at us. “And actually, the whole thing kinda felt a bit like an AA meeting. We all had to wear these hideous name badges and we sat in a circle and had to introduce ourselves and tell the group how we found our way to the course. And there were some total losers there.” The green man pops up and we start ambling across the road. Whoever’s been standing behind us shoots ahead and I realize with a sinking feeling that it was Tammy.

“Oh shit!” I whisper.

“What’s wrong?”

“That girl was in my class,” I say, pointing at Tammy. “She must’ve been behind us that whole time, she would’ve heard everything! Ugh, sooo embarrassing.”

“Don’t stress Mags, you weren’t talking that loudly, I’m sure it’s fine,” he says as we arrive at my beat up old Holden Commodore that’s worth about half as much as some of the shoes I own.

“You’re right,” I say. And besides, why would I give a second thought about what those people think of me anyway?