Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Custodian

The long humid days are beginning to fade. The promise of fall is in the air. The change in the weather reminds me of my first tentative steps into Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center around this time three years ago. Yes, I was uncomfortable as the people around me touched their foreheads to the ground in a full prostration ... three times. And I felt downright foolish reading a prayer that included the phrase "Ho Ha Ha Ha Ha Hum." But for some reason I returned each week. 

So how does a Catholic girl from Little Rock, Arkansas become a Tibetan Buddhist? I'm not sure. There is something about Buddhism that's familiar and comfortingMaybe the warm, earthy aroma of incense reminds me of attending midnight mass at Marylake Carmelite Monastery outside Little Rock. It could be the candles. Or maybe the Tibetan chants remind me of the Catholic priests who chanted in Latin on special occasions. Catholicism and Buddhism do have similar philosophies (such as "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself."). But unlike Catholicism, Buddhism doesn't have a deity and isn't an organized religion. It's a practice, a way of living life. The Buddha (who was not God) taught his followers to question everything, to take nothing for granted—and this appealed to me since I had a lot of questions.

My interest in finding a spiritual practice began back in 1992 when I was still employed at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. I hadn't been to church in years but I felt the tug (guilt?) to have some sense of a spiritual life. So I did what I always do when I want to make a change: I shopped. 

I bought copies of the "Tao te Ching" and "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" and "The Celestine Prophecy." I was intrigued by what I read, but I was too wrapped up in my corporate career and all the perks of being part of the media biz to do the required inner work. I liked drinking and smoking and partying with my friends. I was 30 years old and invincible. And yet, I knew there was that illusive "something" missing. The missing thing tugged at my heart, but I looked outside myself for the answer. At first I thought it might be my biological clock ticking, but I didn't particularly long for round-the-clock feedings and diaper changes. It did occur to me that if I could just find the right guy, everything in my life would fall into place. And yet when it came to men, I was the Goldilocks of dating. They were too much of this or not enough that. No one was "just right."
You know when you work with the best in the biz (as I did at
TNT—from left, Tom Wages, me, Scot Safon and Laura Dames)
and you still feel "something is missing," then that something
isn't going to be found in an office.

I kinda, sorta wanted to believe in God, or at least have faith in a divine power who could be held accountable in this world. "All I know is that I don't know," I said in a most Taoist way. I read "The Road Less Traveled," and "Soulmates," and "Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet," and "The Gospels According to Jesus," but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was missing.

One evening I sat in my office cubbie, trying to determine how many 1/2 page and 1/4 page ads I could buy in TV Guide to promote the latest TNT's Original Movie. It was VERY important that the numbers add up and I was determined to stay at my desk until I had it figured out. Other people were hard at work in the office too. It wasn't unusual for employees to work late into the evening. But the glow of florescent lights began to dim as one and then another coworker said good-night.

After a while, I thought I was alone. I kicked off my little black pumps and stretched my legs. For some reason I brought my copy of the Tao te Ching to work that day. I had a few friends who were also into spiritual pursuits and we often discussed our beliefs or lack there ofs. I picked up the book and began to read. I was so engrossed that I didn't register the sound of someone coming down the hall.
  "Working late?" a male voice inquired.
  I looked up with a start and saw the smiling face of one of the building's custodians. He was a big man, at least six-foot tall and older, maybe in his 60s. He might have been menacing save for his grin, which was broad and genuine, like that of a child's. I didn't know his name, but I saw him from time to time when I worked late. He pushed a large trashcan on wheels in which he collected the yogurt containers, candy bar wrappers, wadded up memos and various office flotsam.
   "Hi!" I said. "Yes. Working late again."
    I reached beneath my desk to retrieve my small trash can and handed it over to the janitor.
   "What are you reading?" he asked.
   "Oh, this? It's a book on eastern philosophy."
   "The Tao te Ching?" the janitor said. "That's a good one. I just finished reading a really good book about Buddhism."
   "Yep, I got into it a few years back,"he said.
   We talked for a while about the books we were reading and our thoughts on Buddhism and Taoism and life in general. 
   "Well, I better let you get back to work," he said. "Why don't I bring you that book? I think you'll like it."
   "Sure," I said. "That would be great."
   Then the custodian pushed his trashcan down the aisle, continuing his rounds.
   "Who knew?" I thought.

I worked for about thirty minutes more and then decided to head home and finish my report in the morning. The next day when I walked into my office, I pulled out my desk chair and found a copy of a thin paperback entitled, "Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand."

I thought I would read the book and then return it to my new friend, but I had a hard time comprehending the text. I found it confusing, as though it were written in another language. Buddhism can be explained in simple terms, such as "the science of the mind," or "the practice of loving kindness in everyday life," and I understood those ideals. But each time I picked up the slender text and opened its yellowing pages, I could not wrap my mind around its words. The black type jumbled before my eyes as though it were written in Sanskrit rather than English. Finally, I put the book on my bookshelf ... and forgot about it. 

When I saw the Buddhist janitor again,  he asked me what I thought of the book. I shrugged and said something like, "It's good but really deep," and left it at that. I didn't want to admit that I didn't understand it. After a while, I stopped seeing him in the evenings when I worked late. Maybe I avoided him, or he was cleaning another building or perhaps he left Turner to become a guru. Our paths just didn't cross again. A few months later, I quit my job to pursue my bliss, which was to become a writer.

Months past. And I realized ... I had no idea how to become a writer. I began to doubt myself. What if I didn't have the talent to write professionally? I felt I was alone and I feared I would always be alone. Again I looked outside myself for answers. 

Soon I met a man. He was an artist. I fell in love with the way he painted light. He asked me to marry him. We started planning our life together. We rented a bungalow and settled into our life. I thought I had everything I wanted. But years went by and I began to feel dissatisfied. We had a beautiful baby. For a time I was very happy. But then years went by, and the dissatisfied feeling, that nagging tug, began to surface again ... 

That was three years ago.

In August 2010, a 47-year-old lapsed Catholic (me) walked into a Buddhist Center in Birmingham, Alabama in search of answers. I was still looking for those Big Answers. You know the ones. The answers to the questions that mankind has sought since we first gained consciousness. "Why am I here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What is my purpose?" "What happens when I die?" "If my life is so good, why can't I just be happy?" "Why do I feel so f---ed up?" "Am I grasping for something that doesn't exist?"

As I parked my car in the lot of the non-descript strip mall where the Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center was unceremoniously located, I considered turning around and driving to TJ Maxx for shopping therapy instead. But I took a leap of faith and walked inside. Although I had no idea what I was doing there, I realized I was asking the right questions at last.

After three years, I still attend Losel Maitri's services and discussion groups every week. I've become one of those people who prostrates and chants. Buddha's teachings have encouraged me to become more mindful of my actions. I have learned that my thoughts can be the source of dissatisfaction — or happiness. I accept that all things change and I try not to label those changes as good or bad. Today, I'm more present with my family, friends and colleagues. I'm learning to appreciate the journey of life and the beauty in the world. Buddhism has taught me that my perceptions are limited, and that there is always a positive side. Yes, I'm still asking questions, but—20 years later—the custodian's book is finally starting to make sense.

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