A Buddhist For Three Weeks

I was a Buddhist for three weeks back in the fall of 1985. I had just moved to Edinburgh, ostensibly to do a Master’s degree in artificial intelligence, but mostly because I wanted a chance to reinvent myself. The coolest guy I knew was a Buddhist—a real one, not just an intense vegetarian in a black beret—and I thought, hey, maybe if I become a Buddhist, I’ll be cool too.

It didn’t work out that way. I quickly discovered that being a Buddhist was hard work. I’m not talking about abstinence and chastity and the rest—you don’t have to give those up right away unless you really want to, and both were more of a hypothetical loss at that point in my life. No, what was hard was the meditation. I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that if you took it seriously, it was as hard as math, and much harder than programming. Disaggregating your own consciousness and putting the pieces on a mental workbench so that they would be still—so that you could be still—required more than I was willing to invest at the time. Plus, I’d met this girl, see, and…

But here I am, a quarter of a century later, wishing I had stuck with it. My sister went back into hospital this morning; it isn’t the end, yet, but we’re closer every day, and more and more I wish that I had the balance and resilience that I might have had if I’d stuck with it. Starting now would be like saying, “Huh, I’m having a heart attack, guess I’d better go for a run,” but on the other hand, I know there is more loss coming, and more beyond that. My parents are old, and not well; one of my niblings has chronic health issues, another is likely to be serving in a war zone in a couple of years, and—and no one lives forever. (That’s as close as I can get to saying, “Something might happen to my wife or my daughter some day.”)

I wish I had the balance that seems to come from a long practice of stillness. I wish I had the energy to start practicing now, so that I might have it when I next need it, but most of all, I wish my little sister wasn’t dying of cancer at 45.

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