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Seeking Refuge
by Mary Grace Bertulfo

“’One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?’ said the Buddha.” – Walpola Rahula

Monday night. 6:10 p.m. Alone.

I drove down Lake Street in our worn, twelve-year old mini-van. Hot fury heaved in my chest and shoulders and transformed into a high-pitched scream that poured out of my throat for two whole blocks. I screamed until I had no more energy. I screamed until my voice was hoarse. Had I been a superhero, Wonder Woman say, the scream would have been a siren shattering every van window. But I was just a regular woman, terrified and furious and grieving, trying not to speed or do something reckless as I drove.

I was already ten minutes late when I finally decided to go. It’s rude to walk in and make noise when everyone’s already started. But pain stormed my mind and I had to end it.  I’d do more damage than good if I stayed turbulent. 

The Zen Life & Meditation Center, evening meditation.

 Inside the spacious room, lights were dimmed. Seven bodies sat silhouetted on blue and gray zabutan and zafus, meditation cushions, and black chairs lined the walls. Most of the cushions and chairs were empty. It was dinner time, after all. Seven stalwarts occupied a few, scattered ones. A pillar candle flickered on the altar. A delicious silence permeated the room, the sounds of slow breathing, the spaces between the bodies infused with a calm energy. I was home.

I clicked the door shut as softly as possible so I wouldn’t disturb their flow; the click seemed to echo anyway. I crumpled into the closest chair, leaving my boots and jacket on, happy to have made any part of the evening session. Time slowed. 

Breath. My immediate view was the legs of the wood table, the corner of the rug, and refreshing shadows falling on the bookshelf.

Breath. The exchange of air between, now, eight people, was the same air dinosaurs breathed 230 million years ago; tonight’s oxygen, a refreshed gift from maple, oak, and hawthorn trees. Respiration connects people to distant beings and to each other.

Breath. A white, navy veteran walked into a bar and shot two Indian Americans and the white American who tried to stop him. Breath. News reports say he was looking for Middle Eastern people, immigrants with no visas to work in America.  The two immigrants, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, had been working legally as engineers in the U.S. for over 10 years. Breath. Kansas is far away from Chicago. Breath. Kansas is everywhere in America if you are brown – and angry white men with loaded guns can’t tell the difference. Breath.

 Murder solves nothing.

I must fight the tears; I can’t break down. When I meditate in morning sunlight, dust motes rise, turn, and sparkle. They are specks of my skin, my arms and legs breaking down. They float, leaving shimmering trails as the world spins on its axis and “I” disintegrate. 

Breath.

My sixteen-year-old boy will soon live on his own. I want to fall down in a heap on the floor and wail at the world’s stupidity and violence.

Breath.

Last summer, a boy from my son’s high school, Elijah Sims, was shot and killed. He was eating and hanging out, laughing with a friend at a fast food joint in Austin, the Westside of Chicago. We stood with other parents weeping at his vigil.

Breath.

Too many guns. Too many furious hands. Boys gone too soon.

 

The Bell-ringer intones a small bell for Walking Meditation. I quickly unzip my boots during the transition and, jacket still on, I join the line. 

Our socked feet walk from one corner to the other of the sitting area, creating square formations across smooth Pergo. Cars zip past the Zen Center as rush hour traffic heads home for dinner. Headlights cast our shadows across the walls in a beautiful interplay of light, darkness, and the silhouettes of seekers. This is the Walking Meditation Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse and Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue taught to help us alleviate our own suffering.

Walking Meditation always helps my flow. It doesn’t matter if we may look like Zen Zombies; we’re mindful instead of mindless. I slow down my movements. Raise my left foot, balance with my right, an exaggerated arc of footfall slows down my thinking, slows me down until I can be here, right now. Here. I walk and exist in this one place. Fury and sorrow ease their grip. The world inside me extends, grows vast again, and loosens.

Breath.

A light bell intones, once, then twice. Our sangha of eight, our small evening community, bows to each other. The rest of the meditators return to their cushions and I sneak a seat against the far wall across from a tall, elegant bell.

A floor bell intones, one, two, three times, and calls us back to our second sitting meditation. Now the fury and sorrow are moments, fleet-footed sensations that zip through my interior world and take up residence in different parts of my body.

Somewhere I’d read that labelling these fleeting sensations was one way to detach, to hold them at a distance so that they could be observed lightly. Is this Vipassana practice? I’m still a novice to meditation after all these years. I fumble my way; fumbling is all right.

Sensations: Pressure behind my eyeballs, the flare of my nostrils. Fury pulses there. Hello, fury, I say trying to make friends with it.

Breath.

I have long hair past my waist, a mix of brown and threads of silver, earth turning to starlight. Even other Pilipinos sometimes confuse me with being Indian or Mexican American. Nowadays white Americans, strangers, glare at me on the street just as they did after 9-11. The day after our presidential election, I was pushed aside in my gym elevator by a white man a head taller than me who glared and said, “I go first now.” I was appalled and shocked. I’d been going to that gym for years and nothing like this had ever happened before. When his friend, another tall white man, made moves to step over me a second time, I blocked his way, glared back and took my rightful place in line. He shrank back a little. The body language, these micro-aggressions between us, reflect a social war brewing, all sides saying, “This is my America.” I don’t want to respond to white men’s hate and entitlement by becoming hateful myself.

Breath.

What is lodged in our bodies? What family history do I still need to release? My father and many Pilipino men served in the U.S. Navy in the 1960’s, passing ingenious tests of language, culture, and physical fortitude. But once they were admitted, they were restricted to serving in the galley, the kitchens. “I peeled a lot of potatoes,” he said. My dad, uncles, and their navy buddies were called “brown monkeys” by their white superior officers, threatened, and harassed. This was their pathway to citizenship. Racism was a rite-of-passage.

My mother left the Philippines during the Brain Drain Era, like thousands of Pilipina nurses, to work in the United States. The white doctor she worked for harassed her about her accent. My uncle stood in his driveway in suburban Detroit after a long day of work. Three white teen boys pulled up in a car and threw beer cans at his head. “Go back home!” they yelled at him. He was a full American citizen, standing in front of his own house. He was home. My aunt, the undisputed matriarch of our Michigan family, went shopping at the mall one day with our young cousins in tow. White teens spit in her face. She wiped off their dribble, summoned her dignity, took my young cousins, and walked away. How many things did our elders endure? We know they didn’t tell us the half of it; they didn’t want to speak about it at all.

Breath.

Skinheads chased and harassed my cousins when they were in high school. So what did they do to respond? They learned to be tough so they wouldn’t get beaten down, continuing the karmic cycle.

Breath.

My litany of grievances against white privilege and white supremacy manifests as the pressure behind my eyeballs, the flare of my nostrils, my heart drumming – fury.

Return to breathing, follow the breath through the tunnels of my nostrils, into my lungs as my chest fills and empties.

Every time I have a sensation of fury, I label it: “Sensation, sensation, sensation.” This is a game of masking and detaching so that I don’t get caught up in feeding the fury with my attention. I say that as many times as I need to until the feeling subsides. Tendrils of tension unstick from the inside of my skin.

Sensation: My throat hurts from screaming in the van. It feels raw, stretched, and scratchy. I want to cough and a realization arises, “My own anger can hurt me.” 

I let that moment fall away, too.

 

I feel a new sensation: My jaw clenches and tension tightens the top joints. The energy feels like a solid casing of stress. I breathe and encourage my jaw to soften, soften. But it won’t and that stresses me out more.

Breath.

I remember the first guided meditation Roshi did with my group. He had us close our eyes, visualize being under water, somewhere deep and still. The waves crash above us, but we’re so deep the turbulence can’t disturb us. I close my eyes and go there.

Under water, shafts of light pierce the darkness and illuminate a sandy sea floor and living coral. Schools of slender, blue fish swim past. My hair floats outward like a mermaid’s, my limbs lighten, and the sense of heaviness leaks from my body. My breathing loosens and finally so does my jaw.

I name the feeling that’s been jangling my skin. “Anxiety.”

Thoughts arise like mosquitoes buzzing. When I travel internationally this summer, will they let me back in to America? Or will the government detain me for hours until they “ascertain” if I’m a citizen even though I was born in America on a U.S. naval base? Will they make me feel like a criminal because I’m a brown woman? Will they prod my hair again, my hair which is private and intimate? In my lifetime, only my lovers, my mother and sister, my husband, and our family’s children have touched my hair. Now, the U.S. government pulls me aside and searches it for weapons. It’s so degrading.

Breath.

Will a random white man shoot me, too, because I’m brown and his fury is unchecked and misdirected? How can I let my boy go out into this world and be a man here? How do we protect our children from what we can’t control? Can I shrink him, turn back time, scoop him onto my lap and guard him with the strength of my arms? I hurt with a mother’s love.

Breath.

I let the tropical waters of the visualization leach the anxiety from my jaw, my arms, and legs until my real body feels like a wet noodle, languid and relaxed.

 

It’s less than 45 minutes since I walked through the Zen Center door. I’d watched the thoughts and feelings rise and fall, rise and fall away. I needed to sit and stop my mind from freaking out. The pain, the shock, and the trauma are real. But I don’t need to perpetuate my own suffering by dwelling.

The gunman’s face swims to mind, a picture from the news. He looks angry, disheveled, his hair askew. He’s 51 years old and I can’t help but wonder if it was his fury and hatred that caused him to decide to shoot three people. Witnesses heard him say, “Leave my country.”

Pity rose and fluttered in my chest. What kind of mental hell was this man in? Who fed his fears with images of brown people and people from the Middle East as dangerous enemies to America? Who told him that America, first the land of Native Americans, now means white America?

The skinheads, the gunman, the spitters, the racist doctor, the naval officers, the three beer can throwers, the two men in the elevator – are they locked in fear and fury, too? Unchecked, unbalanced and bolstered by white privilege and white supremacy? Suffering?

Breath.

Near the end of meditation, a few images fell, like petals tumbling in my mind: my son’s hair, long and shaggy, his sweet face, and the gentle way he tosses back his head when he laughs.

The floor bell rings, its voice a deep base vibrating across the comfortable dimness of the room. Slowly, the silhouettes of the other seekers shake their legs and stretch, and the lights come on.

The seven other meditators are white. We created peace together during this meditation, breathing as one community the way we do every week. This reminds me concretely that not all white people are gunmen or spitters or pushers or racists. One white man, Ian Grillot, a real hero, tried to stop the Kansas gunman.

My eyes well with tears. I feel gratitude for these white Americans and the peace our sangha practices. In this moment, I am incarnated as a female body, marked by Pilipino and American cultures. I have just practiced a 2,500 year old Indian tradition in a Center that grew from a Japanese lineage and which lovingly supports Hawai’ian dance and hula. Race is a great illusion, one we embrace, live through, and solidify as our bodies flake away into sunlit dust motes.

We meditators stand and give hugs all around.

The Bell-ringer, Pat who is a Catholic Sister, and I go out afterward to a bar. The bar is boisterous and packed. Tennis and soccer blare from the TVs while laughter and chatter spill easily from table to table. She has a glass of red wine, I have a cup of coffee, and we break bread, a couple of hot buttered pretzels on an unseasonably warm February night. We have the kind of fumbling, sweet, searching conversation new friends have in these times and talk about white privilege, racism, violence, parenthood, how much I love my boy, a universe we have no control over, the need to do what matters, students, and the wonder of snow. 

“I knew from your hug that something was off,” Pat told me. So she invited me out, listened, and gifted me with her steady, warm presence. She gives me her no nonsense advice to face the illusion of control, looks me in the eyes, and adds, “I care.”

This, too, is healing.

I look around the restaurant. Tonight is Trivia Night. The crowd is mostly white except for me and a few other people of color. From the bar, I watch the door open and close. White men enter as I enjoy time with my friend – just as Srinivas Kuchibhotla had been doing before he was shot and killed in Kansas.

The men walking through the door are unarmed, so far.

I watch them…and I breathe.

 

Seeking Refuge was first published in Riksha Magazine's 2017 Inaugural Issue.

BIO

Mary Grace Bertulfo has written for television and children’s education in such venues as CBS, Pearson Education Asia, and Schlessinger and for conservation magazines such as Sierra and Chicago Wilderness. Her fiction has appeared in Growing Up Filipino II, Our Own Voice, The Oak Parker. Her essays and poetry have appeared in various anthologies. She was a 2016 NVM & Narita Gonzalez Fellow. Mary Grace works from Calypso Moon Studio in the Oak Park Arts District and teaches creative writing to children through her program, Taleblazers. She is currently at work on a novel.

Robert Althouse

Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago, 38 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL, 60302