The weather on Saturday morning was cool and overcast. This suited Timothy just fine, since he wanted to guard against getting his hopes too high, and a bright, sunny, unseasonably warm day might have been hard to resist as a harbinger of blessings. His mother seemed to share his guarded spirits as she drove them downtown in her twelve-year-old Corolla. Gone was the amused attitude from Thursday evening. Her mouth was set in a near-grimace, and her eyes were as intent as any hunter’s might have been who was searching for game to feed his family. Timothy found himself more comfortable with this aspect of her, that seemed ready for anything at all, than with her lightheartedness after her conversation with Dr. Putnam. He felt guilty about feeling that way, but he thought it was more painful to lose one’s hopes than never to have them in the first place, and so he was forced to want her not to be any more optimistic than he was.
They found a street-parking spot not too far from the address his mother had jotted down; it was an unmetered space on a semi-major road off one of the bigger thoroughfares of the heart of the city. Though tall office buildings loomed not far away, this was a more reserved commercial zone, with various shop-front style businesses, some of which did apparent retail selling, but the majority of which seemed to offer services of one kind or another. Most seemed not to be open on Saturday mornings, which Timothy thought was a strange business choice, since surely there were more customers available at that hour than at nearly any other time in the week. Still, what did he know?
They walked a bare twenty yards before coming to an unassuming “shop” with a deeply tinted glass front, above which was a simple sign reading, “Maclean Vipassana Center,” underneath which were the smaller words, “Mindfulness, Metta, Advaita Vedanta.” Timothy thought he had encountered the word “metta” in his brief internet explorations, but he couldn’t recall what it meant.
Timothy and his mother shared a look. With a raised eyebrow, his mother said, “‘Maclean’? What is he, a Scottish Buddhist?”
Something gave Timothy the impression that she had been saving and preparing this line, since presumably she had learned the name of the place from Dr. Putnam. He rewarded her with a smile and a small laugh, saying, “I guess so.”
They stepped forward and tugged at the door, through which they could see nothing of the interior, only to find it locked. With a frown, Timothy’s mother tapped on the glass, saying aloud, “I hope this guy doesn’t think that just because he’s not charging, he can keep us waiting, because that’s going to run him into trouble real soon.”
Before she even quite finished her sentence, however, Timothy heard the sound of someone quickly trotting from within the shop, despite the muffling of the door. They heard the clacking noise of the door’s lock being disengaged, and Timothy and his mother stepped back just before the door was cautiously pushed open from within. Before they even could see him, they heard a man’s voice saying, “I’m so sorry, I completely forgot to unlock the door. My first Saturday class doesn’t start for two hours, so I’m not in the habit of unlocking it yet. Please excuse me for that.”
Revealed behind the open door was a man so ordinary that Timothy thought they might have come to the wrong place. He was of perhaps early middle age, average height, with close-cropped brown hair and a pleasant, even-featured face. He seemed reasonably physically fit—he certainly wasn’t at all chubby, despite some comical Buddha impressions Timothy had entertained. He also wore clothing that, though clearly loose and comfortable, looked far from any image of eastern robes, kimonos, or Tibetan garb such as Timothy had seen online.
Timothy’s mother, clearly a bit surprised by the man’s polite apology, which was delivered not in a tone of real embarrassment or chagrin, nor of any kind of obsequiousness, but rather seemed almost matter of fact. If he’d had an English accent, the man’s delivery could have been that of a butler, despite the fact that they’d heard him trot to the door.
“It’s…no, don’t worry about it,” Timothy’s mother said, plainly more prepared for rudeness than courtesy. “I was just afraid that you’d forgotten about us.”
“Not likely,” the man said with a smile. Then, swinging out gracefully to hold the door for them, he said, “Please, come in.”
The interior of the shop was a bit more like Timothy had expected, but not anything close to his most lurid imaginings. There were hanging tapestries on two of the walls, with intricate patterns of colorful lines. Timothy thought he recognized them as “mandalas”, a word he wasn’t exactly sure how to pronounce, but examples of which he had seen on his electronic explorations. They had struck him as pretty, but not in any way evocative. Something about their presence, juxtaposed with the supreme normalness of the man who had opened the door, gave Timothy the idea that they were there solely for atmosphere.
Thinking of atmosphere in the literal sense led Timothy to notice that the air was slightly tinged with a spicy smell, and he saw, to the side of the room, on a simple but lovely, long table, a metal structure like a bowl, but from one end of which protruded a long stick of some kind. The end of the stick appeared to be releasing a steady stream of smoke, and Timothy noticed some ashes from it had fallen into the bowl below.
Apparently noticing the direction of Timothy’s gaze, the man smiled and said, “I lit a bit of incense when I got here. It’s partly for atmosphere, of course…helps get people into the right frame of mind. But also, whoever used this space before I got here did something decidedly…well, unfragrant, I guess would be the term. I don’t think it could have been a butcher shop, but there’s a faint residual tinge of something very…I don’t know, veterinary about the place that I haven’t quite been able to get rid of.”
Timothy’s mother responded, “Maybe it was a pet grooming place?” She seemed far from certain.
The man seemed to consider this proposal with serious admiration, and he said, “You know, that might be it.” Then, with a polite extension of his hand, he said, “I’m Bill Maclean, by the way. Dr. Putnam spoke to me about at least something of your…situation.”
Timothy’s mother took the hand, though Timothy suspected it had been mainly meant for him, and she shook it briefly, saying, “I’m Marisa Outlaw, and this is my son, Timothy.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Mr. Maclean said, then after releasing Timothy’s mother’s hand, he shifted it more clearly to Timothy and said, “And you, Timothy.”
Slightly surprised to be offered the hand after his mother shook it—though he was now as tall as she was, he still felt diminutive and subordinate in her presence—Timothy hesitantly took the hand and said, “Likewise.”
After the shaking ceremony was complete, the man said, “Would you like to sit down so we can talk more comfortably?” He waved an arm toward the left rear corner of the room, where about half a dozen comfortable chairs were currently against the wall, between more numerous stacks of likewise comfortable looking cushions. Timothy noticed a ceramic head in the corner that he took to be a representation of the Buddha, based on his reading. As with the mandalas, he suspected this was an affectation—or perhaps marketing would be the better term.
“Thank you, that would be nice,” his mother said, and her voice sounded noticeably less tense already. The three of them headed toward the corner, a walk of only a handful of meters, and Mr. Maclean grabbed a chair and first brought it to where Timothy’s mother was headed, clearly intending it to be her seat. As his mother smiled, said her thanks, and sat, Timothy had already grabbed a chair for himself, uncomfortable with the notion of a stranger doing him even that modest favor. He put it a few feet away from his mother’s.
Mr. Maclean seemed quick on the uptake. He didn’t try to beat Timothy to the punch and offer him a chair out of forced politeness, but instead simply pulled another out for himself, facing the others and about four feet away. Timothy sat down, and then so did Mr. Maclean.
Before the host could say anything more, Timothy’s mother asked, “So…just how much did Dr. Putnam tell you about…Timothy’s situation?”
“Not too much detail,” Mr. Maclean replied. “Just that he—you—have attacks or bouts of very severe and difficult to control rage that lead you to…well, to try to hurt other people but usually mostly to hurt yourself.”
Timothy was surprised by this last modification of the description. He’d never thought of his rage as self-destructive; it certainly never felt like anything inwardly directed. Maybe the man was being charitable, or maybe it was Dr. Putnam who had been generous in his description.
Timothy’s mother gave a humorless breath of laughter and commented, “That’s one way to put it.”
Mr. Maclean went on, “He said that they were so severe and uncontrollable—and not in keeping with the rest of your character—that it had even been thought they might be caused by underlying physical problems, but that nothing could be found, and that…medication was unhelpful.”
Timothy saw his mother’s eyebrows go up. “Unhelpful?” she said. “They made him act like a serial killer.”
Timothy was shocked by this judgement, not realizing quite how obvious his Paxil-induced derangement had been to his mother, apart from his specific bizarre behavior.
He expected Mr. Maclean to ask for elaboration on that remark, but the man looked thoughtful and said, “That’s a very unusual reaction to those kinds of medications.”
“Well, Timothy is an unusual boy in quite a few ways,” his mother noted. “Almost all of them are good ways, but the few bad ones really are…very worrying. I don’t…I don’t want him to end up like his father did.”
Timothy was surprised to hear his mother’s voice give the tiniest break as she said this, and he realized clearly for perhaps the first time that his mother really was frightened that he was going to come to a violent end, and that she didn’t want it for him. Not for her sake, but for his. This realization, which he supposed had always been implicit, made him feel guilty again.
His mother seemed to catch herself, and she straightened up, becoming a bit more formal and businesslike, saying, “Okay, well, it seems you know at least a little bit about us, but we don’t really know very much about you. Before I decide to let Timothy take part in…whatever it is you do here, I want to know more about it, and about you.”
“That sounds perfectly fair,” Mr. Maclean said. He nodded, smiling slightly, and went on, “Well, as I said, my name is Bill Maclean…short for William, but I prefer Bill. I did undergraduate degrees at Berkeley in philosophy and biology and was planning to become a scientist of some kind or other before I encountered meditation practices and decided that was where I wanted to do my work in the world.”
Timothy’s mother cocked her head, saying, “Dr. Putnam described you as a…well, a Buddhist/Hindu/Taoist atheist. Which sounds a little contradictory to me.”
The caused Mr. Maclean to laugh a bit more forcefully than he had before, and to smile more broadly. “Well, I guess, like you said before, that’s one way to put it. Certainly, meditation as a practice is traditionally explored almost entirely in the context of various eastern religions, and a lot of times the practice is…colored by those origins. That’s not always a bad thing,” he said, nodding toward the mandala nearest them. “As part of their practices, various meditation scholars throughout the ages have done thorough, careful study of the character and uses of meditational states, with an almost scientific approach—sometimes—to what it entails and what it can do.
“And, of course, like so many westerners who get involved in it, I first started to study meditation within the rubric of Buddhism, and secondarily in the other faiths you mentioned. I traveled to India and to Japan, and also to Tibet, for teaching and for experience. I’ve been on many long meditation retreats. But I’ve never felt any pull toward the…supernatural notions attached to the history of the practice, other than as sociological material, I guess. Meditation is something that has to do with the nature of the human mind, quite apart from anything you might call ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual,’ except maybe in the most naturalistic interpretations of the words. More and more scientific studies are showing that the practice of meditation—mindfulness most often, as it’s called—makes beneficial changes to the structure and function of the brain, even increasing gray matter in certain portions of the cortex. And by self-report, regular meditators are…well, as Dan Harris put it, ‘ten percent happier’.”
“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” Timothy’s mother said, apparently latching on to that in the face of some terms and ideas with which Timothy could tell she was unfamiliar.
With a soft laugh, Mr. Maclean said, “Well, maybe not. And he was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when he put it that way, I think. But still…if you could make an investment that consistently returned just ten percent a year, you could become quite wealthy over a pretty short period of time.”
Timothy could tell that his mother wasn’t thoroughly convinced, though he also thought she was at least moved a bit by this last, restrained assessment. Obviously trying to keep a bit of distance, she asked, “Well, if it’s all so scientific, what’s with the magic words on the front of the shop?”
Timothy thought this was a rather insulting question, but Mr. Maclean seemed to take it in stride. With a continued gentle smile, he said, “Well, those are terms for specific kinds of meditation, and because they originated in Asia, they’re still the terms used to describe the practices, as many of them have been around for centuries and even millennia. So, keeping them in use conveys a bit of respect for the traditions and practices. Also…to be honest, it seems to be better advertising. People are just more likely to want to come in and learn about vipassana than they are about just ‘mindfulness’, even though the words mean more or less the same thing. And I do have to pay the bills and pay for food.”
Timothy was reminded of Dr. Putnam’s rather sardonic comment about doctors being able to charge more for their services if they used fancy Latin terms for things. It would have been easy to feel insulted or offended by the admission, but instead he found it reassuring and respect worthy. It took a certain, special kind of honesty, he thought, to recognize and admit where one was being an advertiser as part of making a living.
His mother, too, seemed pleased by Mr. Maclean’s admission, and she smiled a bit as she said, “So, what do they mean, then?”
“Well, vipassana, again, is just a Buddhist term for mindfulness meditation,” Mr. Maclean said, somehow avoiding an attitude of condescension. “It’s a word that can be literally translated as ‘special seeing’ or ‘insight’, but the meaning really is what we practitioners think of as mindfulness. Metta, unlike the less directed meditation of mindfulness, is focused on generating the feeling and state of ‘lovingkindness’, a sense of true benevolence…ultimately towards all living things.”
“That sounds…difficult,” Timothy’s mother said.
Mr. Maclean smiled more broadly than before, nodding and responding, “It can be. But it can be utterly transformative for some people. The best metta practitioners are unironically described as some of the happiest people in the world…and not in any superficial sense, but in a very real, very deep, very durable sense.
“And as for Advaita Vedanta, that’s a Hindu meditation, a word that means, roughly ‘non-duality’…that all things are of the same substance, that the mind is not separate from the world. Now, in the original interpretation, this involved the notion that experienced things are illusory, that all of reality is actually ‘Brahman’…sort of the idea that we are all part of God, as is everything else, and that the sense of separateness is an illusion. In concepts it has some distant similarity to pantheism. But I don’t dwell on the religious notions involved. The meditation practice has some similarities to Vipassana, but for some people Advaita Vedanta works better. For other people…”
“Wait,” Timothy’s mother interrupted, her eyes wide. Timothy thought she was going to protest against what sounded like a lot of woo, but instead she asked, “Did you say ‘Advaita Vedanta’?”
This seemed to catch Mr. Maclean by surprise, but he simply nodded and said, “That’s right.”
Timothy’s mother laughed—surprisingly loudly in the small, nearly empty shop—and said, “Dr. Putnam mentioned it, but I guess he thought it was ‘Invaita Vedanta’. He said it reminded him of the warnings against vampires in the old Dracula movies: Don’t invite a Vedanta into your house, or you lose all power over it.”
Timothy was worried that this would seem even more insulting than calling things “magic words,” but again Mr. Maclean surprised him by actually chuckling. “He has a vivid imagination and a unique sense of humor, Dr. Putnam,” he said. “I expect those help make him a good doctor.”
Timothy mother nodded, still chuckling slightly, said, “I guess so. Though the funniest part is that him not hearing the word right is what made him make the joke.”
“I can see that,” Mr. Maclean agreed. “It’s harder for me to catch because I know the term, so I can’t willfully misunderstand it. But I imagine there are plenty of humorous misunderstandings of medical terminology out there. There are probably websites and subreddits dedicated to them.”
Timothy didn’t think his mother recognized what a subreddit was any more than she knew Advaita from Invaita, but Mr. Maclean’s meaning was obvious, and she nodded in clear agreement. Then, seeming to take control of herself, she said, “Well, speaking of medical things…just what do you think your…meditation can do for Timothy, and how are you going to do it? I mean, are you going to try to teach him that ‘metta’ stuff? That sounds like the best bet.”
With a slight bobbing of his head from side to side that conveyed ambivalent and mild disagreement with remarkable clarity, Mr. Maclean replied, “Well, perhaps in the long run, especially if he’s interested. But I think it will probably be more useful to start with the basics of mindfulness. Though, certainly that will depend on you.” With this last word, he looked more directly at Timothy, saying, “You’ve been pretty quiet, Timothy, but more important than what I mean to try to do or hope to achieve, what are you hoping for, and do you have any specific thoughts or preferences?”
Surprised to be brought into the conversation, since he was so used to his mother taking the lead when she was present, Timothy took a moment to try to think about things. He had a hard time really understanding how to make a judgment, and so he admitted, “Well…I don’t really quite understand what it is, so I’m not sure what I hope to get out of it. I mean, obviously, I’d really like to just…just not get angry anymore. Can meditation do that? I mean, can I like, train my mind to just…just not react and not get angry?”
“That’s an interesting question,” Mr. Maclean replied. “In straightforward terms, meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, isn’t really about trying to change or influence the nature of your mind, but rather to understand it by becoming aware of it. It’s not like the Vulcans in Star Trek, where you control your mind not to feel emotions. I’m not sure if such a thing is possible, or that it could be healthy if it were. However, once a person becomes an experienced meditator, they often do find themselves less at the mercy of their emotional reactions.”
Not sure he was following, Timothy asked, “How does that work?”
Keeping his tiny smile on, Mr. Maclean said, “Well, when one is mindful, one ideally reaches a state of nonjudgmental awareness of the processes in one’s own mind. Your own mind. You don’t necessarily stop reacting to things, but you can see the reactions as what they are. You recognize that this or that emotional reaction, for instance, is a response to some specific train of thought or reaction or idea…and with the habit of evaluating your mind without judgment, without reaction, you find that negative emotions lose their persistence. There’s a passage in a version of the Tao te Ching that describes this pretty well. Things arise and you let them come. Things disappear and you let them go. Many of our worst reactions to our own emotions are born of our attempts to fight with them…either to try to hold on to them or to try to push them down, to deny their existence. When we do this, it’s…well, I like to use the metaphor of trying to hold on to a wet bar of soap. If you try too hard, if you squeeze too tightly, the soap with squirt right out of your hands. Only by calmly accepting the soap, by letting it rest in your hands, do you gain control over it. Or remove its power over you, at least.”
Timothy found that Mr. Maclean’s words conjured a vivid, almost photo-real image of his own hands holding a sudsy yellow bar of soap, squeezing it, and having the bar shoot out, hit the wall of the shower and bounce back to strike him in the face. He liked the imagery.
Mr. Maclean went on, saying, “Much of our difficulties with persistent negative emotions depend on those emotions being reinforced and fed by the thoughts we have in reaction to them and to their causes. At root, all our strongest emotions are physiological responses. Adrenaline leading to increased heartrate, dilated pupils, increased blood flow to muscles, narrowing of our visual focus. But these are nonspecific things. They’re much the same whether what we’re experiencing is fear, or anger, or excitement and anticipation. It’s how we think about them that makes them more powerful psychologically. If one doesn’t ruminate on the ideas associated with anger, but sees them, as all thoughts, as just things that arise and can be let go, as phenomena in our brain that we can observe, note, and move on from, then anger loses its tenacity. It happens, we note it, we see it for the transitory thing it is, and we let it go. It’s very hard to hold onto a feeling of anger unless you hold on to the thoughts behind it. If you don’t, it just passes quickly, like a few leaves blown in a gust of wind.”
Timothy liked the man’s use of imagery, but he wasn’t sure it was what he was looking for or hoping for—not that he really knew what that was, himself. Still, he felt he had to point out, “Well…I don’t really have trouble with getting angry and like…like holding onto it, staying angry at someone for a long time. It happens…it happens really fast, like all of a sudden, and I just…just get grabbed by it and I don’t seem to have any control over it when it happens. I guess it’s…it’s more like a tornado than a gust of wind.”
Mr. Maclean’s smile widened; he seemed quite pleased by Timothy’s choice of metaphor, which took its cue from the one he’d provided. Timothy had been afraid that he was being a bit clumsy and ham-handed, so he felt a minor swell of pride at his achievement, though that pride made him feel silly, and he derided himself as pathetic for it.
Mr. Maclean said, “Well, maybe so. After all, Dr. Putnam did say that he thought your problem was a medical one, of sorts, not a truly psychological one. Still, meditation has even helped people with severe, intractable pain…caused by cancer, or by chronic illnesses…to sometimes be better able to tolerate and even be nearly unhindered by them. But tornadoes only happen in certain conditions, and it’s probably the case with emotional tornadoes as well. And with observation and understanding, people can learn the warning signs of both kinds of tornadoes…and in the case of the emotional ones, maybe avoid the mental states that leave you vulnerable to it. To push the metaphor a little, you don’t get tornadoes in mountainous terrain. Conditions have to be just right, in place and time, for them to happen. And it may be possible, through meditation, to discover in yourself what the dangerous terrain is, and to redirect your attention to other places.”
A silence followed as Timothy digested the man’s words. He wasn’t sure how much they really applied to him, but they were intriguing and even a bit hopeful. He cautioned himself against falling into them too much, recognizing that Mr. Maclean had a persuasive way with words and images, and that didn’t necessarily mean he was right.
Timothy’s mother seemed to share his skepticism, and she said, “You said it ‘may be possible’ to do it. How would we know?”
With a shrug, the man replied, “By trying. There aren’t any real shortcuts for most things that actually work…that may be one of the problems with things like antidepressants. They approach from the symptoms, not necessarily from the causes, so they can often fail to correct the deeper problem, which might then come out in other, sometimes worse, ways. As I guess happened to you.”
Timothy wasn’t sure if the man was right in explaining why the Paxil had failed to help him but had actually made him much more dangerous, but he liked the fact that this Mr. Maclean wasn’t trying to oversell himself. From a glance at his mother’s face, he thought she felt similarly.
“So, I’m not making any promises about mindfulness ‘curing’ your problem, if the term even applies. But I wouldn’t have gone along with Dr. Putnam’s notion and had you come here if I didn’t think there was at least a decent chance of it helping you to manage it and maybe eventually stopping it from being a problem. And I’m quite certain that it will, at the very least, help you be at least a little bit happier. I wouldn’t say that meditation is some kind of magic bullet—I would never encourage anyone with schizophrenia, for instance, to engage in it except under clinically controlled circumstances. But with almost everyone else, and with you specifically, I think it could make you a healthier person, a happier person…someone who knows himself better and likes himself.
“Because…well, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but Dr. Putnam said that you expressed thoughts about…well, about taking drastic action if you thought you were going to ever become a severe danger to other people. And that you seem to have a rather negative moral opinion of yourself. That’s part of why he thought your problem might be an atypical presentation of clinical depression. And he may still have been right. But…well, I just met you, but you strike me as bright and articulate, and Dr. Putnam said you’re an earnest and serious, intelligent young man. You deserve to feel good about yourself.”
Timothy didn’t react to all this very much. It was just the sort of thing that people said, because it was what they were supposed to say. They were supposed to be positive, to be supportive, to be encouraging. That was fine, and he respected the motives behind such sentiments. They were certainly better than many of the alternatives. But he wasn’t concerned with trying to learn to feel good about himself. When he’d taken the Paxil for a few days, he’d felt quite good about himself, and that hadn’t been a good thing.
He noticed his mother eyeing him with what looked like alarm, which caught him by surprise. He looked at her with a questioning glance, but she shook her head, clearly trying to reassert herself from something that had distracted her, though Timothy couldn’t imagine what it had been. He watched his mother turn to Mr. Maclean, and she said, “Okay, well…I’m definitely all for anything that might make my son happier with himself, in any way possible. As long as it’s not dangerous.”
Mr. Maclean didn’t give any kind of reassuring smile, but said, “Well…nothing with power can be completely free of danger, but…well, meditation is extremely unlikely to cause any harm in most people. The biggest danger really is frustration, as it’s not an instant fix for anything, and like most skills, it takes practice to get good…and a lot of practice to become an expert. Also, there are honest variations in individual aptitude, just like with any skill. And, like I said about people with schizophrenia, there are some people for whom too much attention to their inner selves can be problematic without real, medical interventions. But I don’t think that danger applies to you, Timothy.”
“No,” Timothy’s mother said, with a slight, sardonic laugh. “Timothy only has the one personality in his head, at least.”
Timothy recognized, with some surprise, that his mother was falling for the common conflation of schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder. He wouldn’t have expected her to be ignorant of this fact, which he thought was an old misapprehension. Then again, he’d paid much more attention to issues and topics of mental health and illness than most people his age, probably, so he probably knew of things that many others wouldn’t, while being thoroughly ignorant of many things that other people would consider common knowledge.
A look at Mr. Maclean’s face made Timothy all but certain that the man also recognized his mother’s mistake. He expected the man to correct her, but instead Mr. Maclean smiled and said, “That’s always a good thing. And hopefully, by helping him get to know that personality more directly, we can help Timothy get away from the things that have caused him trouble.”
“Okay,” said Timothy’s mother. “So, then…how do we do that? I mean to say, just what does this involve? I know very little about meditation other than common knowledge stuff, but…I mean, is there a mantra, does he say, ‘Om,’ does he have to sit in the lotus position, or what?”
Mr. Maclean smiled again, commenting, “I see you’ve done at least a bit of reading about this, which makes sense, or that you knew something about it already. And it is true that mantras and ‘Om’ are part of certain practices…and that Zen practitioners often like to use the Lotus position…but ordinary vipassana is much more straightforward. Deceptively simple, you might say, like so many things that have greater depth than shows at first glance. Mindfulness starts, and often stays centered on, a focused awareness of something simple, usually breathing. You just sit comfortably, close your eyes—there are practices that can be done with eyes open as well, but to start with, eyes closed is probably better—and pay attention to the breath, wherever it seems most clearly noticeable to you, whether at the tip of nose, in the rise and fall of your chest, or even in the feel of air flowing through your nasal passages. You can also accept and bring into awareness the feelings of your body in the chair, any small sounds, other feelings around you, and whatnot, but at root…at least for the beginning…it’s just about focusing on the breathing.”
After a moment, and with an incredulous look, Timothy’s mother said, “That’s it?”
“Well…yes and no,” Mr. Maclean replied, with a smile that showed that he anticipated this question and probably heard it all the time. “It sounds simple, and it is in concept…but then, so is ‘E equals m c squared’. But one thing that becomes almost instantly recognizable to nearly everyone who starts meditating is how difficult it really is to keep your attention focused only on your breathing. In fact, I dare say that it’s impossible.”
“Huh?” Timothy’s mother said, grunting more than speaking a word. “What do you mean? If it’s impossible, what do you do here?”
This brought an even broader smile to Mr. Maclean’s face, and he replied, “Well, part of the point of mindfulness is to learn about that aspect of your own mind. Your thoughts, which seem so much under your control and part of you, are really in many ways as involuntary as any of your bodily functions. You don’t decide what thoughts you’re going to think, because how would you even do that? You’d have to think of the thoughts before you think them and decide whether or not to do so, which is contradictory. But with meditation, as you quickly learn that you are constantly getting distracted by new thoughts that pop into your head, you learn to simply observe them, as phenomena, without reacting to them or getting emotional about them…even about your emotions…and then letting them go and returning to the breath as soon as you discover that your attention has left it.
“The key point is the…nonjudgmental attitude of it, the ability to have a thought—or an itch, or a sensation of discomfort, a loud noise, whatever—and take it as yet another phenomenon, simply to be observed and then to return to point of focus, not by fighting the thought but by letting it come and letting it go. Some experienced meditators can even make the fact of pain a literal focus of their meditation, replacing the breathing with awareness and observation of their own pain, in an almost…clinical way.”
A silence followed. Timothy’s mother simply looked at the man with a slightly open mouth, clearly not quite internalizing his point or realizing what he was getting at. Timothy, however, was more puzzled and even intrigued by the man’s last declaration. “Wait,” he said, “if someone focuses on their pain, doesn’t that…won’t that just make it worse? I mean, I know that, like, when I have an itch or something, if I think about it too much it’s hard to pay attention to anything else…until I scratch it.”
Mr. Maclean nodded, still smiling a bit, but somehow nevertheless looking serious. “Well,” he said, “a lot of that kind of reaction is born of trying to fight the sensation of pain. Squeezing it like that bar of soap I mentioned. If you can learn to observe your pain with a dispassionate attitude, not trying to resist it but just to…experience it, to understand it, not to judge it or to try to fight the reality of it…it can lose some of its power over you. After all, your pain is simply a part of your being, just as is your joy, your fear, your love, your hopes…whatever.
“That being said, I don’t think we’re interested in the beginning with trying to get you to focus on your pain—this isn’t a Johnny Cash song. We’re starting with the basics, as we should. And in any case, I’m hoping that you don’t have any severe physical pain that would need addressing. Am I right?”
Timothy flexed his right hand in response to the question, honestly trying to see if there was any residual discomfort from the old breaking of bones in his hand, which had given him trouble for a surprisingly long time. It had been trouble that he’d welcomed, since he felt he deserved it; he’d even been a little disappointed when it had faded. But currently, his fist felt as healthy and capable as it ever had been, and probably more so since it was bigger than it had been in the past.
That was probably not a good thing.
Not wanting to stonewall the man’s question, Timothy said, “No, I don’t have any pain problems. I’m more worried about not causing pain than about not having it.”
He heard his mother sigh, but Mr. Maclean nodded soberly and said, “I think that’s a very positive attitude to start with. The world would undoubtedly be a better place if we were all a little more cautious about not causing our fellow beings to suffer if we can help it.”
Timothy was surprised that the man appeared to endorse his statement, especially since his own mother had seemed to find it disquieting. He wasn’t sure what he thought of this meditation teacher or whatever he was called, but his calmness was at least a good advertisement, and his own attitude seemed quite good.
“Okay,” he said, since his mother remained silent for the moment. “So…then what do we do now?”
With his tiny smile again, Mr. Maclean said, “Well, I’d like to try to start with a little guided meditation session first. Just a short one the first time. You’ll see pretty quickly that it’s something you can do on your own pretty easily, but it does help to have someone talking you through it, particularly in the beginning. Similarly, it helps often to meditate in groups, because the solidarity increases a person’s ability to focus…and gives one a greater experience at dealing with distractions, too. Eventually, if you want, you can start attending the Saturday classes, but at first I think we’ll work alone, since you’re younger than many of my other students and we have a specific issue to deal with.”
“Okay,” Timothy said. He was surprised to find himself feeling a little nervous about getting started, worried that he was going to fail miserably, or that it was going to cause greater problems than it solved, as the Paxil had. Still, as Mr. Maclean had said, this was not the same sort of thing as a drug. He wasn’t going to turn himself into a demon by meditating, even if he had wanted to do such a thing.
Mr. Maclean interrupted Timothy’s thoughts by turning to his mother and asking, “Would you like to try it as well?”
Timothy half expected the man to add, “No extra charge,” as a sort of joke to try to lighten the mood, but apparently such things were not part of his approach. He simply looked at Timothy’s mother politely, waiting for her answer.
Timothy, who thought he knew what her answer would be, looked at his mother also. She seemed mildly uncomfortable, grimaced slightly, and said, “No, I don’t think so. I…I have a hard enough time sitting still even when talking to somebody or watching a TV show. And I don’t want to get in the way of Timothy getting as much as he can get out of this. I was planning on doing some window shopping, anyway.” With that, not waiting for a response, she rose to her feet, asking, “How long are you going to be? When should I come back?”
Timothy thought at least that his mother felt reassured by the man’s attitude, because she was ready to leave Timothy alone in his care while she went somewhere else. He supposed that shouldn’t surprise him; he was a teenage boy after all, not too terribly vulnerable to minor dangers in the world, and he spent a great deal of time without any parental supervision. Still, this was a shop with darkly tinted glass and a closed front door, and Timothy would be alone with a man who was at least somewhat larger than he. There were surely many parents who would never leave their child alone with a stranger, no matter how well-recommended the stranger was.
On the other hand, if someone tried to do something inappropriate to Timothy, he knew himself capable of shocking violence. That was the whole point of them being there, after all. Maybe his mother figured he could take care of himself.
But more likely, she just had a good feeling about Mr. Maclean—as did Timothy himself—and so was not worried. Or maybe she was desperate enough to leave some caution aside, who knew?
In response to Timothy’s mother’s question, Mr. Maclean looked up at the wall, where there was an old-fashioned dial clock that Timothy hadn’t noticed before. Mr. Maclean said, “Well…my first class of the day starts in about an hour and half, and people tend to start arriving during the half-hour before it…so, maybe come back in an hour?”
“We’re going to be meditating for an hour?” Timothy asked, surprised.
Mr. Maclean laughed and replied, “I very much doubt it. We’ll start with a few minutes, and we’ll talk about your experiences for those few minutes, and go again, that sort of thing. It’s a lot to ask to expect a beginner to be able to actually meditate for a full hour. A full minute can sometimes feel like too much at first. So don’t feel disappointed or frustrated if it’s a little rocky in the beginning.”
“Okay,” Timothy’s mother said. “Well, then, I’ll be back in an hour.” To Timothy, she said, “Call me if you’re done sooner and want me to come get you.” She surprised him by ruffling his hair affectionately as she passed, her expression melancholy.
Not sure how to respond to this, Timothy just said, “Will do. Have fun.” For reasons that were unclear to him, he doubted that she would. She seemed preoccupied. She didn’t turn to look back at him as she walked out through the glass door, letting it swing quietly shut behind her.
Timothy turned back to find that Mr. Maclean was watching him closely. He gave what seemed to be his default, tiny smile, which somehow conveyed seriousness more powerfully than a scowl would, and said, “Okay, well…before we start, I just want to ask you…do you have any concerns relating to this, and to your problem, that we haven’t gone into? Concerns you might not have felt like talking about in front of your mother?”
This question caught Timothy very much by surprise, but he was able quickly and honestly to reply, “No, not really. I mean…I have the one big problem, and my mom knows all about it, so…yeah, I don’t really have anything secret that I don’t want to talk about in front of her. She’s the only person I can talk to about stuff, so I don’t keep a lot of things from her.”
Mr. Maclean looked as though he was considering making some comment or point, but he apparently decided against it, and said, “Okay, then. We’ll get started. First of all, is that chair comfortable?”
Timothy hadn’t really given a thought to the chair once he’d sat down in it…which, he supposed, answered Mr. Maclean’s question. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s fine. It’s great.”
“Very good,” Mr. Maclean said. “Okay, well, once again, I want to impress on you that it’s quite common…in fact, it’s almost universal…for people to have trouble not getting distracted by thoughts at the beginning. In fact, like I said, that’s almost one of the points of mindfulness, though not quite. But many people find it difficult to sit still and try to focus on their breathing. And almost always, the people who think they’ve succeeded at not being distracted are the ones who’ve been most distracted. So distracted that they didn’t even realize they were distracted. This has the rather interesting effect that, as they become more expert meditators, many people feel that they’re getting worse, because they’re recognizing their distraction more. It’s actually a mark of progress.”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” Timothy said, speaking the simple and complete truth of the moment.
Mr. Maclean actually laughed a bit, and he said, “Fair enough. I think I’m getting a bit ahead of things. It’s just…you’re unusually attentive. You’re rather quiet, but I don’t feel like that’s because you’re not taking in what I’m saying. Quite the opposite. So, I feel like I’m talking to a more advanced student a bit, and I’m falling into that habit. In any case, I think you’ll grasp my meaning before long, so maybe having me say it out front will help it make sense more and be recognizable when it happens.”
Still lost, but not too worried about the fact, Timothy said, “I guess so.”
He felt sure that Mr. Maclean recognized his state of mind.
“Okay,” the man said, “well, to start with, let’s make sure you’re sitting in a comfortable position…”
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