I taught meditation for a while in a town back East. It is a thoroughly loathsome place, and I would wish it on no one unless you have a high dharma task to perform there, one that occasionally provides you with moments of light to drive away the tedium.
I was there to teach meditation, so I was home free.
On this particular evening, I was in a community center that straddled the borders of two very different suburbs, separated by a park and a set of train tracks. The first community was kinda high-rent, populated by successful yuppies. The second was definitely blue collar, with a standard of living half that of its neighbor and a crime rate twice as high. But the community center was inexpensive to rent and within my budget, so for the past few weeks I had been conducting free meditation classes there.
I could tell that my partner in this venture, another student of Rama's, had lost interest in this particular teaching venue. Rama had told us very clearly that the only new students he was interested in working with at this time had to be under the age of thirty, and in the weeks we had been teaching, everyone who had showed up was well past that age.
But there was something about the place that appealed to me. We had regulars. Even though each session was basically the same - an introduction to meditation - some of the folks kept coming back, week after week. They seemed to be having so much fun with the classes that I just couldn't bring myself to end the series.
In particular, I remember two women. They were from the right side of the tracks, in their late thirties or early forties, married, with children. I really loved them both, because they were so clear about why they were there. They showed up every week because they saw in what we were teaching a glimpse of a world that had never been presented to them, even as an option, when they were growing up. It was a world of light, a light whose source had nothing to do with how much you earned or how nice your house was or how smart your kids were or what kind of car you drove. All you had to do to access the source of this light was just close your eyes and listen to some nice music and still your mind.
This night they had arrived early, running through a pouring rain from the parking lot to the community center, smiles on their faces that seemed out of place in the inclement weather. They went inside and took their places on the folding chairs. I waited by the door for a few more minutes before beginning the class, giving any last-minute stragglers the benefit of a doubt.
As I was standing there, looking out at the pouring rain, a man walked up. He was obviously from the other side of the tracks. He was soaking wet, his clothing was dirty, and he carried a backpack that contained everything he owned. He had obviously been on the street for some time.
He walked up to the door of the community center, looked at the poster we had taped there, and read it. Then he turned to me and asked if I was the teacher. It was a natural assumption; I was wearing a suit and a tie in the burbs. I said that I was, and he asked, very politely, if I minded whether he came in and attended the class.
To my discredit, I hesitated. Being on the street had obviously taken its toll on the guy. He was unshaven and had a slightly crazed look to his eyes and, standing there in my $500 suit, I found myself wondering whether he might interrupt the class with some outburst if I let him in. But then I looked at his eyes and I looked at the rain and I said, "No problem, man. Come on in."
The only chairs left in the room were in the front row, so he walked up to the front of the room and sat down in one of them, carrying his dripping backpack. In retrospect, I realize that walk through a room full of yuppies must have cost him a lot, and I admire him greatly for the dignity with which he pulled it off.
I walked to the front of the room and started the class. The crowd was about half regulars, half newbies. As I gave my introductory spiel about meditation and how it worked, I glanced apprehensively from time to time at the street person sitting at the far left of the front row. I needn't have bothered. He sat there perfectly politely, a little spaced out, but listening to every word.
After the intro, I invited everyone to try this meditation stuff for themselves. Because we meditated to music in such classes, I programmed a few of my favorite Zazen cuts into the Walkperson, offered a few last instructions, and asked them to close their eyes.
It was a pretty cool meditation. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell from the absent sounds of fidgeting and coughing that everyone was into it. Because it seemed to be going so well, I allowed it to continue for three songs, instead of the two I had planned.
Finally, as the third tune was drawing to a close, I opened my eyes and looked around the room, to see how everyone seemed to be doing. I started my scan on the right, and panned across the faces sitting there with their eyes closed. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. When I got to the left side of the room, however, the last face my gaze settled on shocked me so much I almost gasped out loud.
It was the street person. But it wasn't. I almost didn't recognize him. While we were meditating, something had happened to his face. Trying to put words to what I was seeing, the only thing I could think of was that, while we were meditating, the fellow I had met at the door had sneaked out of the room and his younger brother had come in to take his place. In the space of fifteen minutes of meditation, his face had lost ten to fifteen years. The horror and shame of being On The Street In America was gone from his face, and in its place was the face of youth, of hope, of being comfortable - for the first time in years - with who he was.
And I had hesitated about letting him in. I learned a lot that night. About light, and its transformative power. About the maya of elitism, and how it can convince us, in our weaker moments, that some folks on this blue-green ball in black space are better than others, or more worthy of light. About why those of us who teach really do so.
After the class, some of the regulars crowded around the front of the room to get one of the new Zazen tapes we were giving away, and the gentleman walked out into the rain, before I could thank him for all that he taught me. I don't know what became of him, and whether he continued to meditate, but I hope this story someday finds its way to him, and does something - belatedly - to express my gratitude.
His face, and the light shining through it from somewhere deep within, haunts me to this day. Whenever I wonder, as I do from time to time, whether I wasted my life in the pursuit of light, that face appears in my mind, and I smile.
Wherever you are, dude...thanks. And may your journey be lighter knowing that you lightened someone else's.