the preliminaries step 0: the zealous zero

When does the story of my meditation fixation begin?  One might say that it was sparked on a groggy morning when I was 19, the moment that a handsome bedmate whom I had won the night before slipped out from under my arm and straight onto a meditation cushion.  The way he looked there in the golden morning light--so at ease, so steady, so complete--I instantly fell in love with something living in that image.  Yes, of course, I mistook the passion as being all about the boy.  But nonetheless I found myself at a used bookstore later that day, perusing the “Spirituality” section.  I left with a book called Raja Yoga, by Wallace Slater, which taught me about the most basic Yoga philosophy.  


It could be interesting to start the story when I was a small child being raised in an avant garde theater community.  By the time I was 18 months old I was performing on stage and, of course, participating in the company trainings and warm ups, initiated into a set of techniques including breath exercises, mindful movement and vocal work.  Before I learned my ABCs I was already a student of the mind-body connection and an explorer of ways in which a person might instigate opportunities for an openness ripe enough, an integrity complete enough and a presence full enough for diving into the great unknown of live performance.   


Or here’s a poignant opening image from which we could commence.  The first time that I cried in yoga class.  I felt a warmth around my heart as I descended from wheel pose and I was surprised to feel tears of relief and gratitude falling down my cheeks.  A thought moved across my awareness that wasn’t a like a normal thought at all, but more like a revelation.   It said, simply, “I need to be here.”  Taking it quite literally, I signed up to do karma yoga service at the studio later that day, and within a year I had completed a yoga teacher training program and become a teacher there. 


If we go back further we could weave in the fun influence of genetics and cultural influences.  My fascination with the mystical might begin with my Sephardic Jewish ancestors.  My love of ritual and my connection to Mama Earth could have been stored in my Hawaiian DNA all along.  My passion for sniffing out unconscious assumptions and holding them up to the light of reason might be traceable to my passionately Atheist great-great-grandfather who memorized the Bible so that he could more powerfully debate the evangelists who surrounded him in Kentucky during the 1850’s. 


None of those stories would be more or less truthful than the one I choose to write today.  But beginning is hard unless we start somewhere.  So let’s begin at nowhere.  Let's start with the experience of a nothingness so big, a hunger so deep, that I was drawn to devour everything whole, unexamined, unmeasured, un-masticated.  This is the story of how I first learned to meditate for keeps, for everyday, for my dear life.  


  In the Tarot, the soul's journey toward enlightenment doesn't begin with the number One, but Zero.  Card from Kim Krans' Wild Unknown Deck.  

In the Tarot, the soul's journey toward enlightenment doesn't begin with the number One, but Zero. Card from Kim Krans' Wild Unknown Deck.  

It begins in a small room in the back of a yoga shala in Union Square on a fall Saturday afternoon. It is our hero’s first day of yoga teacher training.  She walks in as The Fool, not at square one but ground zero. She walks in without real passion for anything in her world. She has a dull day job and an acting “career,” which she is currently approaching in a totally lackluster fashion. (Needless to say, it is repaying her with an equally lukewarm attitude.) Although she often says she would like to, she doesn’t read interesting books or go out to see great shows or keep a journal or have much meaningful conversation like she did for all her years up until 22 or so.  At the nowhere where we begin her only weekly thrill, really, is passing off as relatively charming and intelligent over long, uninspired nights in Brooklyn bars.  She has no deep relationships, no hobbies, little sense of self worth and absolutely no sense of purpose.  Well, at least none that she is consciously aware of.


She walks into the little room without having interacted with the program’s founder and central teacher in any way, without having vetted the Tibetan Buddhist lineage into which this training promises to immerse its participants.  The very act of filling out the application online, barely a month prior, had felt completely compulsive.  Yes, she was keeping a list of potential yoga teacher trainings in her notebook--for later.  For next year when she would have more time and adequate money.  But when she came across this particular website and clicked on the “Application” tab, she was compelled by the questions that appeared on the glowing screen.  Her hands seemed to simply start responding to them, sometimes typing faster than her mind could think.  “What draws you to Yoga?” it asked.  She had never considered this question before but some part of her knew the answer anyway.  This application started the first interesting conversation that she had had in about 5 years.  These were the most meaningful ideas that she had contemplated or written about in all that time. Something was waking up.  Something numbed part of her was beginning to awaken. 


This Fall Saturday gave her that same sense of intuitive ease that she had when conversing with the website, that same feeling that she was being driven somewhere special at high speed and that her job was simply to stay fluid so as not to get jerked off the ride; the same sense that her responses were emerging from somewhere beyond conceptual understanding.  The room was already full of bright-eyed people with beads around their wrists and tattoos around their ankles and welcoming smiles on their lips.  She felt thrilled at the certainty that these strangers would become her community.  When the teacher walked in there was an electric shift in the room.  Every eye was on her as she threw open the door and apologized for being late.  Every student was riveted watching her as, half way between the door and the makeshift altar, adorned with candles and photos and flowers, she went silenter than silent, closed her eyes and completed 3 full prostrations towards the altar.  Then she sat down and began to speak.  


Our hero was so hungry for guidance, purpose, connection, realness, meaning, community and support, that she devoured every morsel of the 3 hour teaching without any discriminatory instinct, without an ounce of doubt.  She awoke the next morning, no bedmate beside her but her own enthusiasm, and slipped right onto her cushion.  Her meditation practice that morning consisted of a set series of steps that the teacher had taught her.  The practice is called “The Preliminaries” and in certain Tibetan Buddhist lineages it is believed that following its steps cleanses the mind, transforms old negative karma, and prepares the practitioner for achieving a deep meditative state.  Our hero would continue to do these steps first thing each morning for years to come.


So we begin with a powerful lack. My state of deprivation was so complete that I had become a big fat zero waiting to be filled, a clean slate awaiting significance, a dark and ready chaos, like soil before a seed has been sown.  And, for a while, in a few different ways, that state served me quite well.  First of all, smacking bottom is one sure way to stun the inner voice of judgement long enough for someone else to hop in the driver's seat and start steering everyone in a new direction.  My discriminatory faculty had been predominant and unchecked for so long at that point that it had obliterated my world, judging everyone, doubting everything, tearing every option to pieces, letting fear have the first word so that no other words could follow.  That voice had kept me loitering around the door of my own good life for too long already, just kicking dust around with my hands in my pockets, waiting for something not totally stupid to come along and whisk me off.  But at ground zero the nothing was so profound that even that voice shut up.  As one songwriter who could probably use a good mediation practice once said, “Hunger hurts, but starving works.”


Without any meaningful hobby, relationship or career taking up my time and energy, and with all the extra resources I had retrieved from my habit of constant doubting and nay-saying, I was able to throw my entire self enthusiastically into the studies and duties of a new initiate.  Not only did I pour myself completely into my required spiritual practice and coursework for the training program but I showed up to every event affiliated with the NYC branch of my Tibetan Buddhist lineage.  Even before I graduated from the training, already-established teachers from the community began asking me to sub classes for them.  Why not?  I was present, engaged, enthusiastic, pushing all the right buttons and, of course, hungry hungry hungry.  I said yes to absolutely everything and I said it with a sincerely grateful, not at all put-on, bow of the head.  I couldn’t get enough of the teachings, the practices, the community, the opportunity to be seen and to be helpful and to be wanted.  That zealousness paid off as I started to finally, for the first time, build an actual career--one as a yoga teacher.  Being a hungry zero worked for me as I began to finally, for the first time, build an adult life with purpose and passion, one with structure and meaning and real satisfaction.  


If a catastrophe had not occurred next I wonder what would have happened.  Would I still be a card-carrying member of that lineage?  Would I still be trying to convince every friend and family member going through a difficult time that all they needed was to enroll in my yoga teacher training program?  Would I be working toward a nun’s maroon and saffron robes right now?  I wonder.  But a catastrophe did occur.  Things went haywire way up at the very top of the lineage’s hierarchy. I heard it all through third parties, as I was still on nearly the lowest rung of the ladder, but I heard it and immediately wanted to un-hear it.  Accounts of scandal, tragedy, domestic abuse, mental illness and even death.  There were arguments between parties that I thought were above arguing, lines drawn in a community that I thought was indivisible, accusations hurled publicly by people who preached acceptance and humility.  These “holy” beings were handling the discord with more finger-pointing and cross-talk than my young, religious-less parents had done during their divorce two decades prior.  Why weren’t they living up to the role models I had made of them?  

 All aglow with the other students in my yoga teacher training group. These wonderful, humble people were my teachers as much as the gurus that we were all idealizing.

All aglow with the other students in my yoga teacher training group. These wonderful, humble people were my teachers as much as the gurus that we were all idealizing.


And then the very teacher who had saved my life by teaching me the Preliminaries, the very one who prostrated devoutly to her lamas before approaching their photos, declared herself no longer a Buddhist.  Done.  Unsubscribed.  I thought that, even if a teacher was fallible, then at least the teachings themselves stood up.  This was all very hard to reconcile.  There was a time of difficult questions.  If I stopped being a devoted follower, would I be thrust back out into a passionless, purposeless, structureless life?  Would doubt and judgement take over my mind again?  Would I just show up starving at someone else’s doorstep after another phase of struggle and directionlessness?  If I started a new program, how could I ever trust it not to self destruct?


I began to explore other spiritual paths.  But the resurfacing of that inner critic was not crippling this time.  The work I had done over the two years of following my teachers’ instructions had bolstered other aspects of my psyche so that voice of doubt was not allowed to run rampant.  It actually felt good to think critically again, to begin to step out in front of my own journey instead of scrambling along behind someone else’s footprints.  I began to dissect the various practices to which I had been blindly clinging, I began to hold their components up to the light of scrutiny, to juxtapose them to other practices and other traditions and to contemplate how it all worked.  All of it--not just one particular brand of Buddhism.  I began to develop and hone my powers of discernment and intuition again and I learned to trust my gut about how I spent my time and where I deposited my trust.  


When it was time to start saying goodbye to some of the teachers and practices that I felt were no longer serving me, complicated emotions arose.  At first I had guilt about parting ways with people who had given me so much guidance.  I had anxiety about dropping the very practices that had given me the scaffolding to support my building a solid self.  If I clung to any one emotion I would start to get sucked into a different dangerous direction.  I was tempted to stay sad and weary of spirituality altogether, or to feel shame that I had gotten duped by an imperfect system and pretend it never happened, to harden and close myself off.  I was tempted to let an anger burn hot enough that it would torch the whole chapter so that I could leave righteous and cursing.  I was tempted to rebound right into some new tradition and never spend time processing at all. 

But after some excellent counseling, a decent amount of time, and a lot of silent reflection, I was able to part in a different way.  In gratitude.  What a miracle that all of that had been there for me when I was a nothing stranded nowhere.  Halleluja!  That being said, I also saw that it would be foolish to marry the shell of a miracle that had already occurred.  Gratitude for what has happened was a perfect response, but my indebtedness needn't cut me off from continuing to grow and explore in an authentic way.  Wouldn't it be complicated and cumbersome if we needed to strap ourselves to every kind passing stranger?  Sometimes a heartfelt "thank you," uttered before turning on our heels is just the right way to transition.


Then there are the practices and teachers with which I decided to keep working.  And for those I developed a whole new kind of respect, a more mature reverence.  The Preliminaries is one of the practices stood the test.  And it is my respect for this practice that inspires the first 8 blogs.  This post will be the first of a series reflecting on my journey, using the steps of the Preliminaries as prompts, aids and mile-markers.