A loss of toast and a profound discovery.
“Damn you villains, who are you? And from whence came you?”
~ Edward Teach
Day six of a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. After 11 hours of seated meditation every day, my body is a bag of agony, my mind amok with thoughts of victim-hood and a desperate need to escape, scrambling to understand my fool decision to put myself in this situation, seeking the smallest of comforts wherever I can find ’em.
So, here I am, during the first break of the day at 6:30a.m., waiting in greedy fervor for my most cherished ritual: two pieces of Squirrely bread toast, which I intend to cover with a mountain of peanut butter, banana, and honey…enough joy and indulgence to help me somehow survive until lunch/dinner at 11 a.m.
I stand and stare at the toaster as if to speed it up with the full brunt of my suffering – and it works! Up it pops, a lovely shade of tan and all the sesame seeds roasted to perfection, a sensual wisp of steam rising from deep within – I experience a delicious moment of anticipation knowing that soon I will be savouring this delightful treasure. Then, as I reach out in humble reverence to take it, another one of my fellow inmates reaches in, snatches the toast without a word (true, we had taken a vow of silence six days earlier) and scurries off to devour it in a far corner of the eating hall.
What the fuck?! For a second I’m dumbstruck. Then, quick as lightning: savage, unbridled, primeval rage at this piece of shit who has desecrated the sanctity of the only ceremony keeping me remotely sane through this whole experience. How dare he?! In one hoggish act he has annihilated any chance of peace I might have had for the rest of the day.
All of my thoughts are of revenge, full of self-righteous splendor, and I’m on the verge of grabbing him by the neck and stuffing that toast so far down his throat that he chokes on it. But I’m restrained by another of our vows; no physical contact with any of the other participants. So instead, I put 2 more slices of bread in the toaster and, like the bread, I smoulder in silence, plotting my eventual irreproachable and devastating counterblow.
Now I have an enemy, and that is good. Now I can deflect all of my pain, all of my confusion, all of my suffering onto him, who deserves it so thoroughly. And doesn’t he deserve every measure of it? He did, after all, steal my toast, right? Rather than the soft ring of the gong, the sacred halls of the meditation center will echo with his cries for mercy. He will crawl and beg and plead for it, but he’ll get none.
Such a betrayal deserves a punishment worse than the cruelest torture. And I will revel in his agony, this enemy of mine. Such delight I’ll derive from the unbearable shame and torment I will bestow upon him. I absolve myself of any further responsibility to practice loving-kindness towards such a selfish, guileless, unworthy foe. I vow instead to get medieval on his ass.
What a relief, to feel again this sense of solidity, of self and purpose. He has actually done me a favor by stealing my toast; now I’m free to escape back into the prickly comfort of my cherished opinions, to close and bar the disquieting door of uncertainty this retreat has opened up in me. I’m me, and I’m mad, and I’m justified. And man that feels good after 6 days of dissolving into emptiness…
Skip ahead four days…
Day 10; the day we break our silence. Every morning since the incident I have sheltered my toast with the ferociousness of a tiger protecting its kill. He hasn’t repeated his act of betrayal again, and I’m sure it is because he feels the savage predator in me, ready to spring, bloody fangs bared. True, during meditation I have had quite profound moments of stillness – tiny glimpses of a space incomprehensibly open and free – but I’ve always found my mind turned back to him, burning there at the base of my skull, and that heat fills me head-to-toe every time we pass in the halls. And I’m sure he can feel it; he always bows his head a little lower as we pass.
Over the past 96 hours I have created out of him the most elaborate super-villain. This toast-stealing scoundrel, who would step over his own starving children to get the last piece of toast all for himself, dropping crumbs and dripping honey on them as he satisfies his own selfish desires. And I’m the hero, glowing with the radiance of justice, avowed to make him pay for his crimes. I’ve been stealing myself for today, playing out the delicious moment when we’re freed to speak and I can corner him with no chance of escaping the vitriolic diatribe I’ve drafted to perfection in my head (we’re not allowed to have any writing materials either).
And this is it, the 11 a.m. lunch/dinner break when we’re freed to speak again, and I’m desperately looking around the eating hall for my nemesis, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Then I hear a voice behind me. In an almost imperceptible whisper it says, “I’m so sorry”. I turn around and there he is, facing me at last – and he’s crying. I open my mouth to unleash my onslaught, but for reasons I can’t comprehend suddenly all the heat has left me, my voice catches. He continues to speak. “I’m so sorry I took your toast the other morning. I…” he chokes on a sob, “I was having a really rough morning.”
Where is the predator in me?! I should pounce while he’s weak! But I’m frozen – like this moment between us, which draws out for an eternity – so I listen instead. After about thirty seconds which he takes to compose himself, finally, “I lost my wife in June…” The door of uncertainty cracks open again. “That’s why I’m here.” A bit wider. “To try to understand…” Wider still. “She was 7 months pregnant.”
And the door is flung fully open, and all 96 hours of rage, of self-righteousness, of brutal fixation, is reduced instantly to nothing.
He hasn’t spoken for 10 days, my so-called nemesis (as I chose to so-call him), and before anyone else he chooses to speak to me first. To apologize to me for taking my toast. My toast. And he has recently suffered a loss so devastating that I can’t even comprehend the depth of his agony, even when minutes before I wanted nothing more than to impose my own half-baked version of agony upon him. And I’m standing here, after 10 debilitating, gut-wrenching, confusing days of meditation, and suddenly in this moment I get it. I get it.
The story of him I created in my mind that saturated every moment of the last 4 days, the story I was so invested in and so convinced was true, the story that padded my own experiences of pain and affliction with a false sense of separation…it was just a story. The real person is standing right in front of me now; vulnerable, courageous, tormented, resolute, utterly broken, utterly whole, flawed, human. He is the hero.
It took two pieces of toast, and one person’s unimaginable pain for me to realize that these stories we create about each other are nothing more than that. Each person is a rich, multifaceted, unfathomable enigma – simultaneously the hero and villain of their own life, yet so much more than that. Two pieces of toast, and one person’s unbelievable courage for me to realize that the only way to truly be free is to drop the false sense of separation that comes from perpetuating these stories over and over again.
Originally I was grateful to him for giving me an enemy to fight, to remain mired in that prickly comfort of the old stories. But now I am grateful to him for showing me in such bare human terms that life is not a black-and-white affair. That there is a way of relating to each other beyond and before the old ways, outside of duality, each one of us a reflection of the other.
We spoke for a few more minutes, very few words, but very real. I didn’t get the chance to articulate to him what he did for me, and don’t think I needed to. I still think of him almost every day, in gratitude and in loving-kindness.
edited by Greg Eckard
Cameron Gilley loves: breathing well, red wine, teaching yoga, skateboarding, delving into the mystery, staying up too late, being kind, scary movies, always learning…did I mention red wine? He is based in Vancouver, B.C., and lives with two stinky cats. His website is: www.camerongilley.com