A couple of years ago, when I was grappling with my writing I had a recurring dream. In it, my middle and index fingers pulse painfully with blood at their tips like they’ll burst right through. To reduce the pressure I massage the blood back from the tips, but it surges forward, pulsing, wanting out. I worry about such a serious finger pressure condition and wake panicked I need to get to a hospital. I check my fingers and they’re fine.
The last time I had the dream, I’m in the belly of a cruise ship crouched down half naked in a bathroom stall anticipating a full finger explosion. I hear someone walk in the bathroom; it’s an old colleague and she’s come to see if I’m OK. Just then the blood breaks the skin and sprays out from my nails in all directions like loose garden hoses. It’s gory but doesn’t hurt. I’m humiliated that the blood's now creeping out from beneath the stall in tiny crimson rivers, inching towards strangers peeing next to me. I’m also relieved. Finally, oh god finally they’ve burst. I’m slowly losing consciousness but totally unfazed by possible death. I’m embarrassed that my underwear are pulled down and that I’m about to be fully exposed to strangers.
With no language skills and little knowledge of the culture, I have never been as alone as I am in Japan. I live in a small, isolated farming town in middle of the main island of Honshu and the love-lack reproduces inside me like a hungry little monster that grows bigger by the day. I am the monster. Staring back at me in mirrors and in classroom window reflections is a doughy, pink Westerner wearing a blue-eyed mask. I hate myself. I have nowhere to hide. I am so fat, so round, so lazy. Why can’t I be small, compact, and efficient?! In Japan, there’s no escaping the confrontation of self. I stare longingly at female Japanese teachers’ child-like waistlines, willowy wrists, and delicate feet. Junior high school girls poke at my belly and say “soft” -- I wonder what they think of my ass when I walk away. An old lady at a clothing store touches my stomach and asks, “Baby?”
They say I look like an angel, that I’m so pretty: kawai. The children chase me around, asking to touch my hair, clinging to me like I’ll sprinkle fairy dust on them. After some time the admiration feels more like infantilization. I see that no matter how long I live here, they’ll always be amazed that I can use chopsticks.
After just one month, I decide to use my May holiday time called Golden Week to go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat outside Osaka hosted by mostly Western Buddhist monks. As someone who speaks and thinks and writes incessantly, I look forward to the challenge of learning how to “quiet the mind”. You must be absolutely silent during the ten days, including smiling or making eye contact with other students in order to stay in an interior place at all times. It’s very bizarre for me. I break the code of silence with my bunk mate a few times. She’s a thin, statuesque Australian model from Tokyo whom I’m dying to gossip with. I am so intimate with the fatness of me. I massage the round, doughy roll hidden beneath my yoga pants like it’s possible to massage it right off. I constantly pull on my shirt to hide it and do this over and over while meditating.
Day after day, hour after hour, I learn how to reign in the expanse of my thoughts which at first seem to shoot out to the furthest star in the universe. Each second I attempt to draw them closer, then even closer until they almost seem to be on Earth! By day seven, they’re practically in the room. Breathing in…breathing out…following the breath…pay attention to your breath...you will never be loved…you’re a failure…you’re ugly…you’re disgusting…you are fat and eat all the bread at breakfast…stop eating all that bread…follow the breath…don’t eat the cheese…watch the amount of cream in your coffee…breathing in…drink more tea…breathing out…I’m so hungry…why didn’t you learn Japanese?...her waist is so tiny…your thighs are huge…you’re stupid…you’re lazy…you’re weak…breathing in…breathing out…follow the breath…
This ticker tape of incessant, self-hating thoughts pounds through my head in the silence; my back and legs ache from sitting so long. The overall experience is a soft trauma within the greater trauma of total strangeness that I’ve just begun living outside the gates. Twice a day, we sit before the teacher and speak softly about what we’re feeling or experiencing though it should be related to meditation. Sometimes I cry when I sit before him, confessing those incessant thoughts that come to me while meditating. Then at the next sitting, I smile widely and share how wonderful and transcendent I feel. His answer for all is: “It’s only the mind. Focus on the breath.”
On the last day, for just a few seconds at a time, I meditate for real. The small house is damp from two days of rain, it smells of wet grass, old tatami mingled with musty silk pillows and ancient cedar. I think I’ve reached the deep pool of calm within. I promise myself that I’ll meditate every day after I leave, that I'll choose the right path, and embody impermanence; respect all living creatures and be one with the universe! Easy!
When I leave the grounds after ten days, it seems every gesture, every look, every flicker of my energy is measured. That it matters. I feel connected to every molecule and so very briefly, like maybe a day or two, my feeling of alienation lessens. We’re all just one, infinite pulse of primordial matter! I can almost erase the physical differences between myself and Japanese people in this fleeting sense of oneness. I’m also a bit tripped out and agoraphobic after days of silence in that tiny house and it’s a pretty weird journey back into the wilds of Osaka to catch my train home.
I honestly never meditate again. In this bid to be better, calmer and “good”, I fail to return to the deep pool of calm. I feel guilty all the time. I sit on the internet reading women’s magazines and self-help sites with their irritating mix of love-yourself advice, exercise instructions, and images of tiny models lounging in dreamy, distant locales. I can’t escape the prison of my wants: to be good, to be focussed, to be hardworking, and especially to be SKINNY and if I’m SKINNY, then surely I will be loved. Love will come if I change, if I’m better, if my desires are reigned in and managed! I have four journals from that time and not one of them contains an actual fucking story. They are full of exhaustively long, judgy, policing passages detailing the interior world of my struggle to be good in a culture that takes perfection very seriously.
Relief comes when I have a man to obsess over; many of those thoughts quiet and turn to him. They measure the way his qualities will complete me. I am helpless on my own, I write, and he will make me better. His love will save me from myself…if I can just get myself to be loveable!
REQUIRED READING: "The Young-Girl is her own jailer, prisoner in a body-made-sign inside of a language made of bodies." https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/preliminary-materials-theory-young-girl