The Wall Meditations #3,4, 5
I’ve hit a wall with my meditation. My thoughts will not still, my mind will not empty. At the same time, my mind is filled with emptiness. That sounds kind of meditational, innit? Kind of zen. Is that what the clowns with the shaved heads and the orange robes have been talking about? I get that the mind is a monkey. I understand that the mind in meditation is the mind in civilian cognition, everyday cognition, maybe more so, since in theory you’re not distracted by the phone or scrolling through youporn. I’ve been trying to understand that that awareness can be a foundation: the failure to achieve stillness is a foundation. Meditation (consciousness, being) is a wobble board. This makes sense to the diver. In the sea, we might hover. We might approximate the magisterial stillness of the barracuda. But even in stillness the barracuda is in motion—the currents, the ebbs, the surges, these are out of barry’s control. Look at him there, in the shadow of the skiff, a sculpture with gills, a horizontal silver streak against a background of blue. Rising and falling, adjusting and re-situating. But don’t tell me he’s not studying the shoal of sardines shimmering in the water column. Don’t tell me he hasn’t noticed the goatfish on the seabed nosing through rubble. Barry’s mind positively pinballs with input and calculations. Which prey is more pleasing to the palette? Which strike is more likely to succeed? What is the ratio of exertion to nutrition? And don’t tell me he’s not remembering—maybe it’s the time he tore a dorsal chunk off the back of a careless grouper, maybe it’s the time one of those glimmering sardines turned into a single-hook jig that ripped his mouth open all the way back to the gills. When the meditation gong rings, and I pack up the zabuton and roll up the rug, I’m thinking: what am I doing wobbling here, on dry land, when I could be wobbling with barry at the reef? Or would that be thrashing from a hook?
I knew a man who was left behind at Tubbataha Reef. It was late afternoon, mild surge, persistent current. The current took him one way, the boat went another. Soon it was just the man and the seabirds perched on blades of elkhorn coral that cracked the surface. At low tide you could smell the guano. Now, with the tide ebbing, the smell wasn’t so bad, although bits of guano eddied in little swirls around the man’s dive vest. The sun sinking, the sea graying, the shadows lengthening. He kept his mask on and his mouthpiece in his hand. He thought about his daughters, soon they’d be entering high school. They were angry that he’d gone away. He thought about his wife, she’d be walking them to school. She’d been happy he went away. His mother. She never understood what drove him, what made him take risks. You’re a father, for god’s sake, she told him, grow up. His argument—that Jacques Cousteau’s children began diving at age four—didn’t persuade her. Jacques Cousteau was French, she said. So what could he tell her? What could he tell anyone who couldn’t understand? Couldn’t understand how even now, with his torso starting to chill, with the dark coming on, with the nearest land twelve hours away, and the shipping channels a hundred miles west of the reef, how even with all that, not to mention what was below him, what might actually be beside him, dorsal fins just slicing the surface, he was at peace. Who would believe it? Who could believe it? But there he was. No panic. His brother panicked. His sister panicked. This was him, rising softly with the surge and settling, like a buoy, an object on a vast surface. I think about this man whenever I go over a wall. I think about the final hours, ways he might have given up, ways he might have gone. The appeal of depth, and then the physiology of it, which could have been merciful. Certainly a better way to go than piece by piece, a slow bleeding on the surface, watching from atop your torso as creatures thrash your limbs. Several mornings later, his dive vest was found tangled in the elkhorn coral and the gauno. Its surface was clean, as if it had been slipped off…
When I go over an edge, when I hover in the water column atop the vast blue abyss, I think about friends who’ve gone over, friends who didn’t trust or lost faith or purpose or meaning, friends who’ve leapt from windows or dropped off bridges, friends who never had the great good fortune that I’ve had, which involved, simply, turning around and looking at where I’d come from and seeing the phantasmagorical coral plane with all its threats and dangers, real or imagined, as an enormous playground, a place where you learn how high you can swing before the chains go slack and the ride gets bumpy, or at what point you can release and fly into the air, a place you can pop out of a tunnel and slide into a soft landing, a place you build trust on a see-saw, or balance on a roundabout. So my visits to walls are often accompanied by sadness, sadness reflected upon in the midst of great excitement, great stimulation, pure joy, or as pure a joy as possible in the swirl of crucial concerns, like depth, and air supply, and current. Turtles drift by, groupers appear, sometimes they study my face, their eyes dropping from my mask to my hands the way a dog might encourage its owner to scratch its head. You can touch a grouper, but you shouldn’t (but I have). Touching a fish risks compromising the thin sea-film that surrounds it like cellophane on a papaya, and that one spot, small as a fingerprint, can attract or enable parasites to perch. Still, sometimes … it’s as if the grouper won’t understand if you don’t touch it. Fish must attend to fish business, which is the business of survival, but they can use a little love, too. They can’t communicate with a bark or a meow, but they can tell us, if we’ll listen. Sometimes I think about the friends who’ve leapt from ledges or dropped off bridges and I wonder, were they telling? Was I listening?
Tim Tomlinson is the author of Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (poetry), and This is Not Happening to You (fiction). He is a founder and the director of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Recent work appears in Big City Lit, Flash Boulevard, Pank, Tin Can Literary Review Volume 2, and elsewhere. He teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.