In middle school, I remember acting out in class, shooting rubber bands across the room, telling jokes when the teacher’s back was turned, or engaging in other ignominious behavior. Perhaps I was bored academically, or simply rebelling against authority. In any case, on at least a few occasions, I found myself in the principal’s office, feeling frustration and shame under the stern punishing eyes and frown of Mr. Barker.
Thus I begin my self-introduction to a group of young men at the Community Center for Alternative Programs, a jail diversion program in Seattle where I have volunteered as a meditation teacher for the past 5 years. I continue with my story, sharing my life experiences in a way that these men might be able to relate to, attempting to forge a connection with them instead of putting myself on a pedestal, above and apart from their lives.
I have not always lived an exemplary life. Openly confessing my checkered past offers them an opportunity to see beyond the immediacy of their current struggles. Institutional advantages of race, gender, and class aside (which are actually quite significant in a criminal justice context), each individual is the ultimate owner of their spiritual destiny.
I look up as I speak, gauging their level of attentiveness. They are right there with me, eyes gleaming and awake. We are on a journey together. I continue my story: In my teens, I relate how I felt considerable anxiety and tinges of depression, as world leaders engaged in a dangerous game of nuclear chess, complete with heated threats.
“Not much has changed”, one of the men interjects. We share a light hearted laugh together and I transition into a fifteen minute guided meditation.
The stories we tell ourselves, moment to moment, day to day, year to year – these build the pathways which guide and funnel our karmic destiny. The crux of the matter is, most of the time, we aren’t aware of the stories we are telling ourselves. Our minds are on autopilot, following pre-scripted content conditioned by our family of origin and the larger society (and infinite previous lives if one acknowledges the full Buddhist cosmological view). The real art of the story is knowing oneself – the story teller – which is the Zen riddle at the heart of the enso – a symbolic circle found in Japanese calligraphy, representing the ultimate truth within Buddhism.
What is the answer to the riddle? We need to answer that question in silence, in a place beyond words and concepts, and understand that any words we tag onto our experience is simply another story, a slippery ego attempting to own an identity. The middle way avoids the extreme of nihilism though; stories are part of being human, and we need them. Make your story, our story, a good one. May all beings be free from suffering and attain the supreme state beyond suffering.