Those of you who follow me on Facebook might remember this strange photo that popped up about seven months ago. A handful of dark, South Asian faces smile pleasantly at the camera, held by a man at the end of a long table, adorned with a paper-plated feast. But on the right side of the table, the beaming smile of a goofy American might make one think this participant had been Photoshop’d in.
Yes, that goofy American was me. And I would bet a lot of money (at least a large proportion of what little I have) that none of you will recognize that place as being in the heart of the island city-state, Singapore. It was one of the many shenanigans I have gotten myself into during my global travels, and that day very much reminded me of the reason I enjoy such solo travels: I can get myself into such shenanigans that almost always make for a good story. I’ve told only a couple people this story, not for any effort to hide it. It’s just one of those stories that need a fair bit of explanation, and I haven’t had many opportunities.
So, here it is. The somewhat strange, but very enjoyable story of that one photograph from Singapore.
It was another adventurous day of couchsurfing. It was actually the only proper couchsurfing I did in Southeast Asia. It appears that the community hasn’t reached Malaysia and Singapore the way it has in China, Korea, and Japan. My host had gotten tied up with some work that he was trying to finish up with the last days of his current job, and so I was left to my own devices to wander the city. I was perfectly happy to do so. Singapore is very easy to get around, and it lives up to the hype when it comes to cleanliness.
I don’t chew gum anyway, so I wasn’t paying attention to whether or not they sell it.
I found my way to Little India. It wasn’t hard. There’s actually a subway stop called Little India. I wandered by one after another of overpriced restaurants. The selection was practically endless, but it was coming to the end of my trip, and I seem to have a habit of saving the most expansive places for last.
But I was suddenly stopped by a sign resting against a wrought iron fence. It said exactly what every hungry and stingy traveler wants to see:
“FREE MEDITATION CLASS”
Just kidding. It said “dinner will be provided” (or something to that effect). But having recently completed 10-day meditation retreat on Koh Pang An, Thailand, I was also interested in the meditation. It said that the class started at 6:00, so I wandered off for a bit, but I was careful not to go so far as to forget which street I had been on.
The sign had only been a printed poster, set out in front of an inauspicious and unmarked boutique. Beside it, a door was propped open, and it led only to stairs going directly to the first level. A piece of paper taped to the wall with “MEDITATION CLASS” printed at the top also told me instructions: take the stairs up to the first level, and then take the elevator to the third floor (also the roof). I followed cautiously and curiously. At the top of the stairs, I seemed to hit a dead end, but light from around the corner guided me around a sharp bend. The light was coming from the glass door of a jewelry shop. A smartly dressed salesman watched me blankly as I inspected the concrete walls around me. I had been led to the front of the elevator. I quickly pushed the button and waited without making eye contact with the black-suited young man.
The elevator carried me slowly up two floors and let me out into a short hallway, lit by the sunlight illuminating the rooftop to my left. A sign on the wall across from the elevator asked me kindly to remove my shoes. On the rooftop sat two rows of empty white plastic chairs facing an altar of sorts. On it, a picture of an Indian swami leaned against a temporary wall. Flowers adorned the photo, and a bunch of bananas sat on the corner of the altar. On a wide rug in front of the altar, a woman sat in full lotus position, rocking back and forth and chanting quietly. Her face was pained, her eyes were closed, and she paid no attention to me or the rumble of the elevator doors as they closed behind me. I slipped off my sneakers, peeled off my sweaty socks, tucked them inside, and pushed my shoes neatly against the wall.
I stepped silently over the threshold of the open gate onto the rooftop temple. I walked silently around the chairs, keeping my distance from the woman deep in prayer. No one else seemed to be on the roof, but I explored all there was to see. Around the corner, a narrow path led to the other side of the building. I could see a makeshift kitchen through hanging drapes. I approached, expecting to find someone preparing the promised meal.
Instead, I saw a pair of feet. Against the wall, a man in nothing but a pair of shorts and a tank top (in this kind of heat, even that much clothing is too much) stretched out, fast asleep. I padded slowly closer and spotted his compatriot a few yards away. I decided not to disturb the napping fellows and figured they would wake up when it was time to begin.
I walked back to the main area and surveyed the view. As sunset approached, it was quite beautiful to look over the rooftops. And a few floors from the street, it was very quiet.
It was just past 6:00 by now, but I figured I could wait a bit longer. Having recently spent much longer blocks of time in silence, I had no problem pacing the tile floor, feeling the cracks and dirt with my bare feet. The dampened sounds of the street below and the packed city beyond made the rooftop peaceful, a veritable refuge.
I paced slowly, staring out through the bars of the protective grate topping the low wall that surrounded the rooftop sanctuary.
Going back to the lessons I had learned at Wat Khao Tam, I started counting the rhythm of my steps.
One – lift, two – swing, three – place. Lift-step-place. Lift-step-place. Lift-step-place…
and so it went.
As I was rounding a corner, facing the hallway to the elevator, I heard it slide open and looked up. A middle-aged gentleman, dark of face and hair, with a long-sleeve button-down collared shirt and jeans, stepped through the gate, smiling. He paid only a glance at the woman still entranced on the floor and let her be. He turned to me. I smiled in return, and he approached me.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name, or anyone’s name from that day. None were familiar; simply collections of sounds that people identified with themselves. But I remember he was kind and genuine. He spoke softly in good but accented English. Where the accent was from, I could only guess, but his features told me he was Bengali.
He asked if I would like to begin. I was sort of confused because I thought more people would come. A young man, mustachioed and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, had entered behind my interlocutor and was setting up a table in the back. I had no objection though, and he asked me to take a seat anywhere I felt comfortable. I chose the chair in the front row on the far right. I didn’t turn around to see if he was following me, a bit of military training that has stuck with me. It was the younger man who walked into my view.
He introduced himself and shook my hand. He said that the session would last about 45 minutes. I said that would be fine. Then he told me to close my eyes. I did so.
I felt the tip of his right thumb press forcefully but not aggressively into the spot directly between my eyes. His left hand rested calmly on my shoulder.
“Focus on this spot,” he said. “Do not stop focus on this spot. Do not open your eyes. Keep focus here. I will tell you when the session is finished.”
And then he disappeared.
I felt the skin between my eyes where he had pressed his thumb. It tingled gently and persistently. I felt my eyes slightly cross as I tried to focus on that spot. My hands rested gently in my lap, and my back fit comfortably along the curve of the plastic chair. I could hear mutterings in a strange language behind me and the soft chanting of the woman on the floor in front of me. I did not focus on those. I focused on the spot between my eyes.
Having had hours of practice recently, my focus stayed for quite some time, but within minutes it was wandering. How I had gotten there… which street I was on… that park I had walked by… there seems to be a lot of green for such a concrete jungle… and a lot of sports facilities… I found three pull-up bars within a short walk of my host’s apartment… I don’t think I’ve seen that many in all of Fort Collins… Americans are so lazy… but I don’t know how people exercise in this heat… I’m sweating sitting down. Sitting. Focus.
And back to the spot. It still tingled. Like he’d put a sticker there. I’m not much into the mystical parts of Buddhism or Hinduism, but this felt different than all the other times I’ve meditated. A lot different.
And the focus stayed. Until I heard a familiar and exhilarating sound. The sky was being torn in two. An angry god was ripping through the blue fabric above me. As it got closer, it moved faster, and as it passed, it stopped ripping, it rumbled like thunder in the cloudless sky. The thunder grew louder as the tail end of the low-flying F-16 pointed almost directly at me.
And then it turned, made another pass. And another. I could hear him wheel in long circles above the city. I wondered if I was right in my identification. I knew there was only one. I knew it was a single-engine fighter. But I couldn’t remember if Singapore had gotten their first F-35s yet. Or if they flew anything other than the F-16… what is he doing?… Why is he alone…? Is there a holiday today…?
The roar of the jet faded away.
The elevator door opened, and a few voices chattered. A little girl came running onto the rooftop. She ran right by me. So close, I could feel the eddies of air fluttering from her dress. It startled me enough that I opened my eyes for a brief moment. But I closed them again without focusing on anything.
My heart rate was now up, and focused on that. Before I could calm my nervous system, I jumped again when a hand landed softly on my shoulder, marking the end of 45 minutes that had passed in what felt like seconds. I looked up into the smiling face of the older gentleman.
“That was very good,” he said.
“Yeah, that was amazing,” I replied.
He asked me to come to meet our new guests. He explained that they would be having a small service and that I probably wouldn’t find it very fun, but that I was invited to join them for dinner in about an hour.
I went back out into the city, now glowing with artificial light, and wandered the bustling streets, half dazed, partly still meditating. I was incredibly relaxed. It felt like a pleasant dream. It felt a bit like walking out of a massage parlor. I wasn’t anxious or bothered by anything. I was just there, taking it all in.
When I returned, a feast had been prepared. I enjoyed as much as I could, but I literally could not continue despite their insistence to go for a third plate. At some point, the gentleman decided to document the night and stood to take the picture. He is not in the frame. The young man first on the left had started my session. The little girl is mostly hidden behind her father three men down the left side of the table. You know which goon I am.
I got the gentleman’s phone number, and he sent me the picture. He added me to a WhatsApp group of followers of the man in the picture whom they call Swamiji. Even though he died several years ago, they believe that he is influencing their lives even now. Apparently, Swamiji meditated for 23 hours a day until he achieved enlightenment. The other hour in the day is for us. All of these followers make a point to meditate at least one hour a day.
I’m still part of the group, but I’ve silenced the notifications, and I haven’t checked it in months. There are literally thousands of unread messages. But I can’t bring myself to leave the group. It reminds of that experience every time I see it when I’m checking messages from friends.
I’m not up to an hour a day, but I’ve started my day with 30 minutes every morning for the past 19 days. I try to focus on that spot. I might have solid focus for a total of three minutes out of every 30, but the impact on my mental state has been undeniable. I’ve been happier, more relaxed, less anxious, less emotionally reactive – less “neurotic” as the psychologists would say.
And now that I’m finishing this at a reasonable hour on a Sunday night, I’ll sit for another 30 minutes and get my hour for Swamiji.