I'm here to learn how to grow food in the center's organic garden, but I'll be learning to grow on the inside, too, they promised in a promoted advertisement I scrolled toward on Facebook a month ago, bright red tomatoes on a vine and a grinning, hardy-looking young woman with dirt on her face under a banner of billowing Tibetan prayer flags. I was lying in my bed in Queens in the dark at seven p.m., stoned and purposeless. I'd been spending a lot of time lying in bed, staring at the bare branches of the tree planted in the sidewalk outside my apartment. I figured I might as well go where there were more trees and where staring blankly was not only not frowned upon, but encouraged and considered productive.
The first morning in the garden, on the cusp of Spring, is freezing. The other two apprentices and I stand shivering as the garden manager, Julian, reads lines about gratitude by a Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, from her book When Things Fall Apart. Which reminds me of the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
"To live is to be willing to die over and over again," Julian reads. We're gathered in front of a shrine which holds three little bowls offering a flower, a vegetable, and some water in front of a drawing of Yeshe Tsogyal, an ancient yogini.
Julian tells us about a meditation practice where you breathe in pain—yours or others'—and breathe out compassion. He says you can do this practice for the earth too.
We bow to the shrine and then Julian shows us how to angle our hoes at the ground to lift plants out at the root. We crouch down with our envelopes of tiny seeds and tap them out one by one, as if coaxing them onto a gang plank, to fall into the thumbprint holes we created in the sifted earth. We squat and shuffle along the beds to gently nudge a tiny blanket of dirt over each one.
I gather the piles of weeds with the other two apprentices, Beth and Jane, and carry them to the compost pile to spread on top of the layers of food scraps, clay, and manure, then drape it in black cloth so it can get baked by the sun into an orgy of nutrients.
We only work five hours. These are Buddhists after all, and they need their time for emptiness. I'm glistening and dirty, my complexion glowing in a way it never did in the smog of the city, maybe never did at all.
At the end of the day as I find my way up the trail on the hill to my tent I hear an owl call out in sets of eight hoots. I crawl shivering in the cold Vermont air into my sleeping bag to wait for my body to fill with heat. I close my eyes and see visions of all the weeds I uprooted floating
through my mind like green ghosts against a black expanse and I feel like a murderer haunted by the faces of the people I've slain. In a good way.
I'm standing in the kitchen pantry surreptitiously eating crackers when Julian walks by and laughs at me. I'm starting to get a crush on him. "Nothing to see here, just eating crackers in a dark closet," I say. I walk out of the pantry to show him the book that Beth and I found on the $1 rack at a used bookstore in the nearby town, called Being Nobody Going Nowhere, by a nun, Ayya Khema. As I'm flipping through it Julian sticks his finger on a page in the middle of a paragraph and says, "What does it say here?"
I read it to him. "It's either old and gone or it hasn't even happened yet. Or it's plain fantasy. Most of the thoughts that flit through the mind have no real connection with anything. The mind usually grasps at some trigger and uses it to play its own games." I stop.
"Well, that's a clear message," he says, briefly grinning as he reaches with his elegant fingers for his jar of kombucha and breezes by before I can grin back.
I'm left replaying the interaction in my head as I go and sit at my computer in the dining room and open up the Photobooth application to look at my face.
An email has been sent out to all staff alerting us about a 'ritual object,' a gift which was sent to the meditation center, which has been determined by a high-level person in the community to have very negative energy and which has been removed and scheduled to be destroyed. It's a mask from a secret society within a tribe in Gabon, and has some association with death.
I open the gate to the garden just as my boss, Hans, an aging gardener who has lived at the meditation center for decades, is telling Beth and Jane that he saw the mask and felt that its mouth was trying to suck energy out of him.
Jane asks whether it's fear of the unknown that makes people relate to it in that way and I ask whether it's a matter of subjective perception—to one person it might be an energy sucker, to another, life-giving, powerful.
Hans and I go to thin the turnip beds, uprooting the weaker-looking turnip sprouts to make room for the remaining turnips to grow. "I would have thought the same things and asked the same questions when I was your age," Hans says. He tells me the story of a scholar who in the early 1600s engaged in a debate with the Dalai Lama of the time. The scholar, who was killed by the Dalai Lama's followers after the Dalai Lama lost the argument, was arguing the perspective that all is luminous emptiness, all appearance is illusory, and nothing can be grasped through conceptual mind. The Dalai Lama was arguing that yes, things are illusory but they are still apparent, and can still be worked with. Now, Hans says, the murdered scholar has followers who treat him as a deity and make offerings to him.
I ask how the story is related to that of the mask and Hans says, "Only vaguely. The first level of emptiness is seeing all as mind, but then within that, different minds have different levels of power, which is mostly a result of training."
We finish thinning the turnips and Hans sends me over to a cucumber bed to weed. As I'm hunched over the dirt, fondling it to uproot the tiny purslane sprouts that have popped up, the ground seems to ripple like a glitch in The Matrix. I blink a few times and look up to see a senior teacher is walking past the garden smiling and waving at me. I wave back.
I remember I stashed a bag of mushrooms in my suitcase so I take them alone in my tent, huddling in my sleeping bag as the dappled sunlight and the deep forest air stream through the netted windows. Soon enough I'm writhing around like a spirit in denial about the body it's accidentally flown into, clinging to the anchor of my breath. Crouched in the cave of my sleeping bag, I wonder what it would feel like to try to stop breathing entirely and whether anyone has ever died from willing their breath to stop. I try to do it, to stop breathing, and as I do a vision arises in my mind of a fluorescent pink and green monster face. It's laughing at me, I think. I feel terrified, not of the face, but of the feeling of breathlessness, and give up the effort.
I lie down on my back like a baby in a crib, watching my fingers move as if each one is a tiny alien with no limbs of its own, trying to wiggle its way out of the trap of my palm. I think of Beth, who a few days ago swerved too late on the highway and hit a suddenly bounding bear with her car. The smack of the bear rang in her ears as it limped swiftly away into the woods leaving tufts of its hair behind on the bumper.
That night, lying on the couch panicking, unable to get the vision and the sound of her car colliding with the bear to stop replaying in her mind, Beth had held her fingers in front of her face and said, "I just want to bite them. Can I just bite my fingers?"
I should've said, go ahead and try. Maybe it would've been funny. But instead I just stared at her thinking about how hard it is sometimes to believe other people's pain is as real as mine.
The setting sun is tipping all the flowers in gold and Julian and I are ripping out seedlings from their trays, loosening the roots which have tried to reach beyond the plastic and ended up squished into piles of ramen noodles, and sticking them into the earth where they will no longer be protected.
Julian always buzzes his own hair so I ask him to buzz mine.
We bow to Yeshe Tsogyal and head inside to a small bathroom near the staff dorms. He closes the door and says, "It's going to get really hot in here."
"Sorry if I smell," I say.
"It's okay, I probably smell too."
I sit on the toilet and he stands behind me, grabs my long thick ponytail and slices through it with scissors.
"Oh so you're just going to start cutting, no ceremonial bow beforehand or anything?"
"How do you know I didn't bow?" he says from behind my head. "Turn this way, tilt your head up." He's inching around the toilet in front of me, grabbing the electric razor. He's touching my head. My eyes are mere inches from his stomach and I'm trying not to think about this. A sharp pain hits my left temple, as, I assume, the razor blade punctures the pimple there. Julian says nothing.
I say, "I'm slightly worried people might think I'm having a psychotic break."
Julian laughs. "I know, one time I shaved my head and someone was like, 'are you suicidal?' and I was like 'no?'"
"You've never contemplated suicide?"
"Sure I have," he says, "plenty of times, but buzzing my hair first was never part of the plan."
I close my eyes and let myself be lulled by the gentle vibration.
"Okay, you're done if you want to look in the mirror," he says.
"I'm scared...okay," I say, moving slowly toward the mirror. "Oh hey, it's not so bad. I like it. I still look like a girl."
"Does it matter if you look like a boy or a girl?" Julian asks.
"You can see I kind of messed up here," he says, standing behind me, touching a bald spot above my right ear.
"Oh, maybe we can just add more spots and do like a starry night sky look," I say.
"I'm not doing that."
Jane and I are turning compost in the garden, shoveling it from one pile into a new pile so that the outside parts of the old pile are inside and the inside parts are out.
She's telling me about a recent episode of anxiety she had. "I was like, writhing around on the bed in sadness and pain and fear, and then suddenly the emotion was gone, and I just felt so stupid."
"Yeah it's weird, how emotions just come and go..."
"Yeah, like just three days ago I was imagining myself hanging by the river."
"I do that. Like visualize suicide."
"Yeah. And it's funny, it feels related to the practice of visualizing yourself as a deity or a Buddha, like it seems like the opposite—visualizing yourself as violently killed. But it seems valuable too. I don't know."
"And sometimes I feel like my desire for death is like...not a negative thing. It's like I'm just so curious about death, like I have a crush on it," I say.
Suddenly I hear squealing and look down. A tiny purple mouse baby is wiggling around in the dirt. "Oh God!" I exclaim. "A mouse baby! I think I stabbed it what if I stabbed it oh God."
Jane and I kneel down by the baby and examine it. It seems okay. We find three more babies buried in the compost while the mama mouse appears and disappears in distress, trying to get a handle on the situation. We move the babies on little beds of compost to the right of the pile and wait for the mama to find them.
She appears shortly, searching through the pile and finally discovering the babies off to the side. She swiftly picks them up one by one in her mouth and moves them under the blanket covering the nearest compost pile. After carrying the fourth one away she comes back and begins searching in the pile again.
"Oh no, maybe there's another baby," I say, and join the search. Julian comes over. "We just went through a major drama here," I say, and pause.
I just found out that him and Jane have been hooking up, which is technically not allowed because he's our boss. Not that I care about that.
I tell him about the mice and ask, "Do you think the mama mouse would remember how many babies she had?"
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" he says.
I scrape compost off a wooden pallet with a shovel.
"You're murdering a lot of bugs doing that," he says.
"Well they're not as cute as the mouse babies."
"Oh so if something's ugly it's okay to kill it?"
"Yeah of course. You didn't get the memo? We always throw away the fucked-up vegetables."
Julian is looking at the ground gravely.
Jane goes to plant dill and cilantro seeds in a new bed and Julian and I climb down into the meditation center's basement to sort beans.
"You're so superficial!" I tease Julian as he throws away disfigured beans.
"So what if I am?"
"Well, that's okay. Maybe everything is superficial. 'Form is emptiness,'" I say, quoting the Heart Sutra, which we chant every day during the morning meditation session.
"What does that mean?" he asks.
"Maybe part of it means, like, that everything you can say with words is superficial. Like, relatively."
There's a silence. I have song lyrics from an old rap album a friend of mine made stuck in my head. "Testing the levels of my emotional enslavement by laying on cold slabs of pavement," the lyrics go, and I want to repeat them to Julian for some reason, but don't. Instead I say, "I could never make it as a farmer, I have too much empathy for the vegetables."
"But if they end up in the compost they have a chance to become part of the process of growth again," he says.
"Yeah I guess you're right," I say. "Though if a human eats you, you get to experience being human."