This past Thursday I did something for myself I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: I went to a Mindfulness Meditation group. Lately, I’ve been wanting to develop more of a meditation practice. I know about all the reputed benefits of meditation and I have no doubt that it would be good for my mental and physical health and wellbeing. If it could also alleviate some of my existential angst, well that would be a big plus. I do a little itty-bitty meditation practice at home, but it’s only a few minutes a day. I think it might be nice to sit and meditate with other people, listen to some dharma talks, and have the opportunity to connect and build community. I’m still quite isolated in my post-Dr. T world, and frankly, I’m lonely. I’ve been thinking that maybe I could meet some nice people at a group, make some new friends.
The meditation group I decided to go to happens to be a very popular group run by a very popular teacher. I’ve been meaning to check it out for, oh, several years now, but somehow, I always seem to have something “better” to do on Thursday nights. This week, however, in the spirit of taking action and putting myself out there (which I’ve been trying to do more of lately), I decided to commit myself to showing up.
I arrived early and sat through the short newcomer orientation, then took off my shoes and went into the meditation hall to find a seat. The hall was already filling up, so I grabbed a chair on the left side of the room toward the back. After I sat down, I started looking around, as I always do, to orient myself. The building is an active Buddhist monastery, though the meditation group isn’t affiliated with their particular practice, so there was a lot to look at in the hall, which was beautiful and imbued with a calm, peaceful spirit. Then I started checking out the people around me.
Several chairs to my right sat a man who looked remarkably like an ex-boyfriend I didn’t really want to reconnect with. Good grief! Really? Here? It seemed completely out of character for him, but then, I hadn’t seen him in ages. Anything was possible. Maybe. His hair was quite a bit whiter, but there was that angry set to his jaw, and he was probably the only person in the hall whose arms were crossed (a bit defiantly) in front of him—as if he were saying, Okay, prove to me this meditation stuff works. Well, that would be utterly characteristic of him. Still, I couldn’t be sure. And then I decided I didn’t care. If it was him, well, I was feeling pretty calm, pretty solid. I could be gracious and still maintain my boundaries. I felt like this peaceful space could support me in that.
Then a man in a white shirt and jeans came and sat down directly in front of me. I swear—he didn’t really look anything like Dr. T. Except, he kind of did. And the more I looked at him (or, rather, the back of him, with brief glimpses of his profile), the more I thought that it really could be Dr. T.
Okay, I’m sure you’re wondering why I wouldn’t be able to recognize the man who carelessly violated my mind and body for five years. But keep in mind that I have not been face to face with Dr. T in over four and a half years. A lot can change in that time. Actually, a lot has changed in that time. At some point after the lawsuit, Dr. T, who used to wear his salt and mostly pepper hair closely cropped, grew it out quite long and lightened the color. (Mid-life crisis, perhaps?) The last time I caught a glimpse of him (from a very safe distance), he looked like an aging hippie whom I happily found quite unattractive. Who’s to say he hadn’t completely altered his appearance once again?
Because, although similar in size and shape, the man in front of me looked a lot different from my last sighting of Dr. T. For one thing, he was nearly bald. And he wore glasses. Hmm. Dr. T had said he was having some trouble after his Lasik surgery . . . And maybe he had done another about-face and shaved off his long, golden locks. Maybe he had decided to clean up his act and look respectable. (Ha!) No, I told myself, this guy was too different. It couldn’t be him.
Still, Mr. White Shirt reminded me enough of Dr. T that I started to feel . . . uncertain.
I kept trying to get a better look at the guy—without being seen, of course, in case it really was Dr. T. (Neat trick when you’re sitting directly behind someone!) But I just couldn’t tell. And that freaked me out. I’d kind of been assuming that I’d recognize Dr. T anywhere, no matter what he looked like. But what if I didn’t? What if I ran into him and just didn’t recognize him? Moreover, what if he didn’t recognize me? After all, I wasn’t sitting behind a one-way mirror or something. Mr. White Shirt had surely caught a few glances of me, too. If he really were Dr. T and he saw me, wouldn’t he . . . well . . . react? Wouldn’t he . . . get angry? Then again, I knew it was just as likely—if not more likely—that he would simply ignore me. Treat me as if I didn’t exist. I really had nothing to go on.
Part of me liked this idea of Dr. T and I not recognizing each other. Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if time just erased all that and let us be? If I could go about my life without seeing him? Without worrying about him seeing me? But another part of me needed to know him, to always be able to recognize him so that I could protect myself, be able to put up my guard, not feel so vulnerable. I wanted to know. I wanted to be certain.
And then it was time to meditate.
Perfect, I thought. I’ve got Mr. May-Be-My-Ex on my right and Mr. Better-Not-Be-Dr. T in front of me. What a great meditation exercise! Let’s see if I can sit here and just be with this.
As it turned out, as long as my eyes were closed, I could be with it. Kind of. Granted, my chest was clenched, my breathing was shallow, and I felt slightly dissociated, but that was okay. I could just notice that.
Still, my mind wandered. And wondered. Okay, so, what if this were Dr. T? Could I handle it? Would the peace and calm of the meditation hall and community support me in facing him? If he verbally accosted me or put his hands on me, I wouldn’t exactly be able to yell “Back off!” or “Take your hands off me!”—the go-to phrases I’ve come up with, in case of an unpleasant encounter. I didn’t think either the monastery monks or the meditators would appreciate that level of disturbance. Somehow, I’d have to keep my cool.
My mind kept going back and forth from imagining possible scenarios between me and Dr. T to noticing my body—my hands on my legs, my feet on the floor, my (shallow) breath, the air on my cheek.
Mostly, I kept trying to convince myself that the man in front of me was not Dr. T.
I thought that if I could just be certain it wasn’t him, I could relax. I started bringing to mind little details I remembered about Dr. T’s appearance, things I thought I might be able to recognize. Then I compared them to Mr. White Shirt. The small head (ha ha). Check. The curve of the nose. Maybe. Not sure. The broad shoulders and long arms (his “wingspan” we used to call it). Check. (Noticing those arms provoked just a touch of panic. The better to envelope you with, my dear, said the wolf.) Slender fingers. Not sure. They didn’t look slender, but it was hard to tell. Sparse eyebrows. Can’t see—and DO NOT WANT TO MAKE EYE CONTACT!
Whenever my anxiety kicked in, I’d simply close my eyes and go back to noticing my body.
I was okay as long as my eyes were closed. With my eyes closed I didn’t have to look at the man in front of me. I could reassure myself that it really wasn’t him, that this was just my imagination, that everything was fine. Then the meditation time ended.
With my eyes open, I was back to staring at the white shirt, the small head, the long arms. Panic started to rise in my chest. I wondered: What would I do when the break came? Would I find out for sure whether it was him? What if it was him? What if I found out that I’d been sitting behind Dr. T this whole time?? My anxiety grew exponentially as I considered the possibility. Maybe I could just leave. Even though I’d finally made it here, maybe I could just let myself off the hook and . . . go.
I knew the break must be coming up, but at this point I was listening to the teacher and a couple of students talk about community programs and upcoming events. Okay, I wasn’t really listening. In fact, I could barely focus on what they were saying. I was too distracted by Mr. White Shirt and trying to decide whether to stay or go. Then I heard the teacher ask any newcomers to raise their hands and introduce themselves to the community. Oh, yeah, right. Like I’m going to say my damn name out loud right behind a man who may be my mortal enemy! I kept my mouth tightly shut, made myself as invisible as I could, and hoped no one from orientation would out me as a newbie.
And then, it was time for the break.
Someone greeted Mr. White Shirt and he replied. I listened carefully, so carefully, to his voice. Surely I would know that voice anywhere . . . And— I just couldn’t tell. Crap! What was wrong with me? How could I not know? This was crazy! For some reason, this put me over the edge. Since I couldn’t be sure that it was not him, the possibility remained that it was him. And finally I decided I just couldn’t take that chance.
So I bolted.
I ducked my head down to avoid the possibility of detection, carefully and purposefully grabbed my things off the floor, picked up my shoes from outside the hall, and, without bothering to put them on, left the building. No looking around, no confirming whether the other man was in fact my ex-boyfriend, no offering a donation to the teacher or the monastery. I just got out.
I felt a little like a coward. I’d been trying to get myself to this group for so long, and here I was running away. But wasn’t meditation supposed to help you feel less stressed? I’d managed to work myself into a state of near panic—there was no way I could stay and be present. Sometimes trauma trumps your practice. I wanted to spend my evening somewhere I felt safe, darn it.
And so it was that I found myself at home, half an hour later, wondering how the heck I’d thought that man was Dr. T. Really, he’d looked nothing like him. Except . . .
Sadly, I think the truth is that to my PTSD brain, a lot of men remind me of Dr. T. It doesn’t take much—the cut of the hair, the shape of the nose, the curve of the mouth—anything can set those alarm bells ringing. And when I hear them chime, a voice in my head very calmly and clearly tells me to keep my head down and keep walking until I get to a safe place. And I do, and then I’m fine. Sort of.
Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to hold my ground and stay, even if I’m face to face with the evil Doctor. Maybe someday soon my sense of self will be stronger than my sense of fear. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting closer all the time. Hey—I made it until the break, didn’t I? That’s progress!
Will I go back to the group? I don’t know. Maybe if I find out for sure that the man in the white shirt wasn’t Dr. T. It seems pretty ironic that I went to the group seeking community and calm and instead found myself dealing with two doppelgängers from my past. But I guess that’s what a meditation practice is all about, isn’t it? Sitting with the past, with all those demons in your head, and not running away. Still, if I’m going to sit down with my demons, I’d prefer to do it on my terms, somewhere I feel safe and supported. Maybe, for now, my living room will do just fine.
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*Title used with the utmost respect for and apologies to Pema Chödrön.