I stood there before the preceptor, doing my damnedest not to bust a gut laughing.
Because if I started laughing, I’d feel compelled to explain myself and there just wasn’t time for that. The interview was only to be a minute or two long. And it was the realization of that reality that inspired the whole giggle fit in the first place.
See, I’d been taking the whole thing way too seriously. Overthinking it, when I should have been trying to simply feel it instead.
The night before the Refuge vow ceremony, I was—well—a big gigantic jerk. But you must understand that it wasn’t my fault. My kids were being really, really annoying. The dog kept following me around the house and licking the leg of my pants while I was busy being busy. My husband came home late. It was cold outside. And windy. Brrrrr. When I went rummaging through the fridge for a club soda, there were none. And I wanted some. But they were gone. All of ‘em. Imagine.
Clearly, the whole world was conspiring against me, ignorant to the fact that I needed to be surrounded by love and peace and harmony because my Refuge ceremony was happening the next day.
I needed to be in the right frame of mind when I walked into that shrine room. I needed to be ready mentally, physically, emotionally. How else would I impress the preceptor in our interview, and hopefully get a ‘good’ Refuge name for myself at the ceremony? Clearly, my only option was to obsess over my own comfort and wants, and muscle everything and everyone in my life into a state that would allow me to practice being a ‘good’ Buddhist on the eve of my formal commitment. What else could I do other than stomp? Sulk. Turn the whole thing into one big ‘poor me’ story when my desires were flouted, and drag everyone else along on my little trip. Yes. Clearly that was the way to go here.
When I finally realized I was being an asinine princess to the people who loved me most in the world, I dropped it. The stories. The agitation. All the me me me crap. And then I cried for a while, more than a little humbled. That happens to me. A lot.
That night, I slept fitfully. I tossed and turned for hours. All three of my kids woke up at different intervals, needing drinks of water, blanket re-positioning, and reassurance that there were no impending closet-monster attacks. Despite—or maybe even because of—my earlier tantrum, I managed to respond with surprisingly awake patience and kindness to the little people who needed me throughout the night. When I did sleep, my mind conjured up particularly vivid dreams. I was collecting newborn kittens. All discarded in horrible places. All with varying degrees of deformity. Extra ears and limbs. Blind but bulging eyes. Furless faces and lumpy heads. All misunderstood, rejected and unloved by everyone. Everyone accept me. I was gently and tenderly wrapping them in blankets and carrying them somewhere safe. I promised to care for them, help them, heal them and love them. No matter how grotesque the rest of the world believed them to be. It’s hard to say what that dream was all about. The need to hold and nurture even my ugliest tendencies and feelings? The true nature of the Bodhisattva Path that beckons to me in my more sane moments? Or maybe our cat is overdue for a visit to the vet? Hard to say.
When my alarm chimed in the morning, I’d netted little more than five hours sleep, none of those hours consecutive and I’d been saving mutant kittens the entire time. And yet, I felt positively electric in a calm, steady sort of way. I was ready for Refuge.
I arrived at the Centre and took my seat on a cushion. We were to meditate until we were tapped to go for our individual interviews with the Acharya—the senior teacher who would be acting as preceptor for the Refuge Vow ceremony later that afternoon. I settled onto my cushion, and found and followed my breath with ease for an hour or so. One by one, my fellow refugees were escorted out of the shrine room and off to see the preceptor. And that’s when my mind began to stray, began to wonder about what was to come. So I let it, under the pretense that this particular train of thought was actually contemplation. Important contemplation. Clearly, it was good to try to think of what kinds of questions the preceptor might ask me. And of course, how I should answer. There was some real insight to be gained here. Wisdom, even. Surely, by giving sparkling, intelligent answers, I’d make a real impression. And maybe my Refuge name would reflect that sparkling intelligence. Hmmm—what’s tibetan for enthralling sky diamond, I wonder? Or maybe glorious river of brilliant wisdom? How ‘bout dazzling lady who’s clearly got this buddhist thang down pat! Yes. Clearly.
I spent nearly another hour dancing and twirling around in this particular little land of ego and delusion.
Then, I got called. And these were the instructions given as I was escorted to the meeting room: Go into the room, greet the Archarya, say your name. Remain standing. He may ask you a question. He may not. Either way, stay standing there until he says ‘thank you’, then bow and leave the room. It should only be a minute or two, in total.
And right there, I was reminded of what a wildly confused, needlessly complicated neurosis-prone goofball I can be sometimes. Apparently, I need those reminders on a very regular basis. Luckily, there is never a shortage of those. Ever.
Suddenly, the pressure that had been squashing and stifling my ability to relax and grow with the flow of the experience was completely off. A spontaneous swell of joyful, playful, delight-filled laughter arose in my chest, and cracked my stoic, serious, I’m-about-to-be-a-real-Buddhist smirk into a big, genuine smile. I wore that smile into the room, and greeted the preceptor as instructed.
“How are you today?” he asked.
“I’m great.” I responded, big ol’ grin stretching ear to ear. And I felt great. Far freer and more in touch with my heart and my reasons for taking refuge than I’d felt in the preceding 24 hours. I got a clear, precious glimpse of who I really was, what it is that I aspired to be, and how interesting the path to actually get there might be. And it was all good.
“How long have you been practicing?” he inquired.
“Two years, one month.” I replied.
His chuckled gently at my nervous, giddy preciseness, then said “Thank you.” I bowed and exited as I had entered: still on the brink of laughter.
I returned to the Shrine room, my heart leaping with a profound sense of both lightness and groundedness. This time when I sat, my mind briefly held and analyzed the details of all that had just unfolded—still rather amused at the stark contrast between the stories I tend to construct, and the reality that tends to manifest in their place. For a second, I wondered what the tibetan words for imperfect kitten with crazy grin might be, then, I promptly let it all go. Breath came in, breath went out. Nothing to contemplate. Nothing to be. Nothing to do, except wait for the ceremony—and my journey as a Buddhist—to officially begin.
Amy Spurway is a writer, a mother and a cautionary tale.
Editor: Malin Bergman
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