It’s stifling hot September day. I’m sitting cross-legged on a zafu cushion in a room with a large gaggle of other meditators, trying to notice and release discursive thought, resisting the slightly sharp pain in my right knee. I shift a little on my cushion to adjust the discomfort. I’m in the second day of a week-long retreat, when “sloth and torpor” generally take over. Ugh. Why am I doing this?
Just once in a while, I drift into Nirvana — that place in mediation where thought just ceases to exist and I enter the “void.” But this early in the retreat, that never seems to last too long. Maybe a millisecond here or there.
And much to my absolute horror, a fly lands on my nose.
My mind jolts synapses back into activity. “Oh crap,” I think. “This WOULD happen to me.”
I part my eyelids slightly to have a peek. My eyes cross. I get woozy. The fly seems larger than life, and has the jerky motions of a velociraptor. I can’t bear the sight of this critter invading my space, so I go shut-eye again.
A “fly on the nose” is every meditator’s worst nightmare – to swat or not to swat? To kill or not to kill? It’s probably an ancient story that has been woven into countless dharma talks, and is could be much more of a challenge in places like…India. “So really,” I tell myself, “this isn’t SO bad.”
According to the Buddha, all creatures are a part of the great oneness of it all, interconnected in the web of life. Even the most annoying ones. Can I sit with this fly, and find a way to spare its life, while managing my aggravation? Can I be a “good” Buddhist?
So I name it “Henry” in an attempt to make friends, but that quickly dissolves into feeling sorry for myself. “So Henry, WHY MY NOSE out of all the noses in the room?” It’s my Grandmother’s nose, but not really…got a little of the Greek side in it, too. “What makes me different from the rest? Why did you choose ME?” How many of Henry’s thousands of kin are skidding in for a landing on other people’s noses?
More spin. “Dude, my nose really isn’t that great. Can’t you find another longer snout to prance around on?”
“GO AWAY!!!!!” My mind is thinking very nasty thoughts now. Maybe I can use my ironclad will to telepathically force his departure before I commit a deed of ungodly proportions (insect murder in the meditation hall = not cool).
But no, Henry is happy as could be, dancing around in a demented hip hop routine, attempting to navigate the fuzz on my nose (which must seem like elongated strands of field grass). “Fuzz on my nose? (really!?) Oh, Good Lord, what if it tries to climb INTO my nose.” Horrifying. What if I sniffled at the wrong time? Henry might truly become part of me. My mind spirals into ‘stinkin’ thinkin’.
It also reminds me that I’m supposed to be breathing, not thinking. “Yikes, Beth, calm down. It’s just a fly. You’re supposed to be meditating.”
Henry is not going away. He is very content to just hang out and practice his routine. The question is, can I?
So I focus on my breath again. “Thoughts, go away, go away and come again another day!” Wait, I’m supposed to notice my thoughts and just let them go, not tell them what to do. Ego can really create a massive story not worth telling and create drama not worth acting out. Somehow my mind has let this fly take over my life (at least in this moment).
In and out, I breathe. Henry is making Fly Fun at me to see if I will start swatting away at him. “NO!” I will not move. I will breathe into my desire to react.
So I just start to notice the dance on my nose. It tickles a little, then I smile, then I want to scratch it. “Not so bad.” Whoops, I’m thinking again. Breathe. Breathe. Staying present. Mind settling. Do not scratch nose. The activity on my nose begins to feel like it belongs there, that it’s part of some larger plan.
Eventually, the obsessive focus on Henry and my one-way conversation ceases. Henry and I do become friends. We just co-exist. Annoyance has dissolved. And now I just notice and breathe.
And for a couple of those milliseconds, Henry and I do become one.
Once he fulfills his purpose, Henry departs, done with his funky dance, and off to challenge another meditator with his innate, annoying wisdom. I feel a little forlorn that he’s left, but find some gratitude for the time we spent together.
Indeed, he has been one of the greatest dharma teachers of them all.