In Buddhism, shamatha is a form of meditation focused on holding, without intrusive thought, a single object in the mind for a desired period of time. (It is also known as “single-pointed concentration.”) Ever since quitting my real job in 2006, I have sought a path to a more compassionate life. Writing is part of that, bringing into focus my own beliefs, fears and obstacles in recognizing and empathizing with my fellow beings. A regular yoga practice teaches me acceptance and patience (with the added bonus of staving off, I hope, arthritis, dementia, osteoporosis and flab). Reading is huge: others have tread the paths now before me, and studying their words allows me to learn from their insights. But while devotion to this, my personal trifecta of bliss, has completely transformed my life, it hasn’t quite resulted in an ability to look at myself and say – Aha! So here I am, Annie Maier, the person I was born to be. I am not, in Caroline Myss’ words, fulfilling my “sacred contract.” Because I absolutely believe in this theory, which suggests we are born with a specific responsibility to ourselves and others and much of our stress and anxiety (the second of which I have in frightening abundance!) can be attributed to not recognizing and/or meeting this responsibility, I’ve consulted a varied assortment of priests, astrologists, shamans, therapists and friends on how-oh-how to figure out exactly what it is I am meant to be doing. Though each of them was to varying degrees helpful, it was the astrologist, the wonderful Steve Nelson who can warm a room simply by being in it, who pointed out that I was in layman’s terms “stuck.” For those of you who study taroh, the place of my self-exile is the tower. For those of you disinclined to such mysticism, the tower can be seen as a symbol of coming change, chaos or an ill omen. My own someplace in between interpretation is that I have remained hidden, ensconced in a hand-picked, self-made fortress under the misguided notion that I was protecting myself.
According not only to Steve but also my own internal wisdom and that of everyone else I’ve consulted, including the priest, what is missing on my path is meditation. Ah. So simple. So peaceful. So… impossible. Not impossible as in it can’t be done, but impossible as in I haven’t, despite hours of study and a world of desire, made the commitment to take 10 lousy minutes out of each evening to contemplate my navel. But today… An epiphany. In, of all places, the radiology department of Presbyterian hospital, where I stood, naked from the waste up and (okay, disclaimer – this might get graphic) with my right breast sandwiched between a most improperly impersonal slab of stainless steel and a 6″x 9″ plastic tray. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve placed at least one but preferably two of your most sensitive body parts into the careless, vice-like jaws of a self-propelled machine three times bigger than you as it steadily, slowly tightens its grip. Picture it then, envision me there – well, don’t envision me there, try some faceless, stick-figure woman and call her me – naked before a machine kneading my breast like Play-Doh, while the oh-so-kind radiologist (torturess, masochist, dominatrix, whatever…) said, “Okay, remember to relax and breathe!”
Now, I don’t dread this day as much as many women I know. It is after all, just a breast (ok, two) and honestly the entire thing can’t take more than ten minutes. Squish, turn, squash, turn times two and you’re out of there. In the meantime, everyone around you is feeling your pain and so breaking their necks and backs and schedules to take the time to be nice to you. All in all, it’s really a quite pleasant experience, minus the squishing. That said, it’s not exactly a day at the beach either and I don’t necessarily look forward to this yearly putty-fest. (I won’t dwell on the fact, but I’m sure this has far more to do with issues about self-image than pain. I mean, if they were squashing my clothed breast, it would probably be a lot easier to take. Sad, but true.)
Which leads to the epiphany.
Just as the machine rotates its first turn, a thought appears. How, I wonder, can I rise above this situation? And viola! Without further ado, I began meditating. First with my eyes shut, but then, because I was afraid some beatific, spaced out look might appear on my face and freak out the lady in the lab coat, with my eyes open. And I am happy to report – it worked. I was, briefly, transported. The room was warm, I had a drape over my soon-to-be exposed left breast and what the hell, didn’t even notice what was up with the right. And in that moment I realized: if I can will myself out of the humiliation and discomfort of a mammogram – I can escape that damned tower.
To Boulder with me, then. Following Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman and Jack Kerouac (my new hero – do read The Dharma Bums) and my friend Celina Mincey (out west chasing her dream) and my daughter Lauren (up north hunting down hers in Alaska), into my sacred destiny.
With maybe a little navel-gazing along the way.