I SUSPECT EACH of us is allotted a certain amount of transcendence; those moments when the veil is thin, when the Eternal offers her hand — gloved, sublime — and draws us up to observe the dance of the cosmos through the screen of heaven.
I have had several of these moments.
ONE SUCH MOMENT occurred near the end of my senior year of high school. Sitting in study hall, my friend Erica approached me. Erica was a friend of a friend, really — barely more than an acquaintance. I was surprised when she came over to my table.
“Beth, do you have a second?” she asked.
“Sure.” I was glad for a reason to flip my notebook shut.
“I’ve been learning a new song this week, and it reminds me of you. I was wondering if I could play it for you. Would that be weird?”
“No, that’d be great.”
Erica stood there, smiling, and I realized she wanted me to follow her right then and there. I scrambled a bit as I packed up my stuff.
Erica had a social magnetism about her that made anyone a little giddy to have caught her attention. Ridiculously good-natured and sweetly whimsical, she retained an edge to her, a “coolness” that made her desirable as a friend, not just easy and convenient. I felt special as she led me out of the cafeteria and off on our little adventure.
At the same time, I felt embarrassed. I knew so little about her that I didn’t even know to which instrument she was leading me (a cello, an oboe, a clarinet…). For me, our moment of contact clarified the distance between us and the superficiality of our relationship. Even as I followed her, I knew the memory we were about to create (whatever it was) would be an outlier in our history, like a coffee-table book that wouldn’t fit on the shelf.
We turned left out of the cafeteria and headed down an empty hallway. She threw the title of the song over her shoulder and asked if I had ever heard of it. I responded with something vague and affirmative in tone, wanting her to believe I knew it.
Truth be told, the title had been so foreign to me it had slipped through my grasp. I would spend a good amount of time that evening researching “famous songs by Beethoven,” cross-checking the titles with YouTube videos until I found it: “Moonlight Sonata.”
WE STOPPED WALKING. She had led me to an old wooden piano, savagely beat down by its tenancy in the lobby of our high school gymnasium. The varnish was an ugly yellow, and black shoe scuffs blemished the bench, the sides, even the top — who had been standing on top of the piano?
The lobby itself was narrow, impractical and cold. Along one length were glass doors leading out to a bare concrete patio. The opposite wall was lined with trophy cases. The piano stood in the middle of this odd space, a cheap folding chair waiting beside it.
I felt exposed, expecting a gym class to burst through the doors at the far end of the lobby, or the choir class from the nearby auditorium to come collect the instrument. It seemed anyone would be able to hear us.
Erica, unaffected by the starkness, pulled out the piano bench, causing it to shriek and honk against the tile floor. She settled herself on the bench, laid out her music.
“I’m still learning it,” she said, her tone preemptively apologetic.
I sat in the folding chair, the chill of the metal shooting through my legs and back. I struggled in intimate social situations like this. I had made very few friends prior to high school, and the friendships I made in my teenage years were achieved via much sputtering, bumbling, and botching.
Indeed, most of my friends were secured in spite of my efforts, not because of them.
As an archetypal introvert, anything interactive drained me. I was prepared for several painful minutes of me grinning awkwardly and trying to appear focused, all the while thinking of what to say when she finally finished playing.
The realization Erica might be awful at piano hit me full force. What would I say? How much would I have to say? How soon could we go back to study hall? Wouldn’t the walk back be awkward? Why couldn’t she just send me a link to the song?
I felt trapped on that chair. I gripped the seat, smiling politely until my knuckles went white.
Some emotion — the distant cousin of Panic, the maiden aunt of Anxiety — had walked up behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders.
Anger entered the lobby, nodding drily at me. He understood. He felt my frustration at having been taken from the safety of study hall and chained to this uncomfortable situation.
Distracted by the phantoms, I struggled to hear what Erica was saying.
But once she started to play, I was silenced. All the thoughts vibrating with nervous energy in my mind fell still, and my eyes closed on their own accord.
As the early notes steadily became layered, I was back in my childhood, standing on an empty playground beneath a dark grey sky filled with thick, electric air.
I had forgotten that memory.
As the song evolved, other buried memories unearthed themselves. They crossed my consciousness, separate from me. I watched them like scenes in a movie, disconnected. The music shifted, and the memories stopped. I was transported to a level higher (or lower).
At the time I did not have the words, but now I understand I was in a meditative state.
WHEN THE MUSIC ended, when I came back to my body — my soul felt tired and clean.
“What’d you think?” Erica asked.
I stared at her mutely; I had forgotten she was there. As I searched for my tongue, the rest of the high school dutifully filed back into position — the noises, the smells, the scuff marks on the piano.
Erica waited expectantly.
“I liked it,” I managed. “A lot. I wasn’t expecting to like it.”
“Why not?” Erica laughed.
A second later, I was saved by the bell, and we headed back to study hall to grab our things, our conversation deadened by the din of the other students.
I graduated a few months later, and aside from the occasional contact on social media, I lost touch with Erica.
Yet as short as our time together was (the majority of our friendship occurred within the space of a year), I think of her often. She is still the sort of person who is easy to admire, easy to love. I count myself lucky for knowing her, if only from afar.
FIVE YEARS LATER while pursuing my Master’s in Philosophy, I began to learn about meditation. My dear friend from the program, Aaron, was a Buddhist scholar and engaged with the religion through asceticism, yoga and meditation.
At the time I understood meditation to be nothing more than a self-elected time-out for adults, a way to unplug and slow down.
Which it is, but also so much more.
Aaron and I shared a partial wall in the graduate student office, and I would sometimes climb onto my desk to peek over at him, usually finding him pensive, his mind heavy, laden with profound thoughts.
Despite my disregard for his mental endeavors (which I frequently derailed by tossing balls of paper at his head), he was always patient with me and kind.
Aaron would do odd things, like bicycle through several inches of snow up the massive hill to the university.
He often fell.
“I can give you a ride,” I said.
“Why do you think I need a ride?” Aaron responded lightly, holding a paper towel to his most recent roadburn.
“You’re covered in snow and blood.”
“Only a little. Besides, I made it here.”
Another time Aaron came into the office brimming with an excited energy.
It was early, and we were the only ones there. I’d left the fluorescent lights off and was finishing up some homework in the golden glow breaking through the fog outside my window. He came and stood at the door frame of my cubicle.
“Hi,” I said, swiveling my chair to face him.
“Hi.” He grinned playfully.
“You’re in a good mood.”
He hurriedly sat down on the desk opposite mine, and his grin widened.
“I dropped out of the marathon,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “It’s tomorrow. You’ve been training for months! It’s all you’ve been talking about.”
“Exactly,” he answered. “It’s about the process. I realized I was getting attached to the marathon itself, the pride of finishing it. So I let it go.”
“You let it go?”
“Yes. The marathon is about the training. I was forgetting that.”
I frowned at him.
“I think it’s the other way around, Aaron. You train for the marathon.”
He shook his head.
“The marathon is just an excuse to train. In Buddhism, whenever you become too attached to something, it’s a sign you need to let it go.”
“Ok, so that’s an obvious example, yeah. But other stuff too — unhealthy relationships, favorite foods, thoughts —”
“How can you let go of a thought?”
“Aren’t you supposed to not think of anything while you’re meditating?”
“Okay, so, ideally, yes.” He hopped off the desk, excited. “But thoughts come up, right? We think things all the time without meaning to, and you can’t control that. So one of the goals of meditation is to disengage, to acknowledge a thought or emotion and then to ignore or dismiss it.
“Then you get back to focusing, continuing on until you are left empty and free,” he said. “Of course, that’s difficult, right? The mind is weak, especially when it is untrained. So you work at it. You try to develop your ability to stay present and still.
“And the more you meditate,” he said, “the more stuff comes up, stuff you didn’t even know you were holding on to, like emotions, memories…”
As we talked, I thought back to my experience of listening to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for the first time. I was amazed the song had given me what others worked repeatedly to achieve.
What others obtained through mental and spiritual discipline — that focus which white-washes the canvas of the mind — I had been yanked into by the arresting magnitude of the melody.
BUT THE GIFT was only given once. Despite owning dozens of versions of the song, I have never been so fully overcome as I was while sitting on that metal folding chair in the lobby of a high school gymnasium.
I wish I could achieve something like that moment of transcendence again.
I’ve dabbled in meditation, but my experiments have yet to surpass the five-minute-timer-on-your-iPhone stage. My greatest barrier to meditation is that it seems so unproductive.
It feels like I am wasting my minutes the same way a gambler tosses chips onto the table: I am exchanging precious, limited, irretrievable time in the hopes of a big payout.
Would I not do better to spend those moments somewhere I am guaranteed a return?
Of course, time spent meditating isn’t wasted. I know mental and spiritual care is critical.
Meditation is neglected — not due to its unimportance, but due to its intangibility.
We feel dehydration of the body and the soul, yet it is much easier to identify and remedy the former. And our friends may not notice a waning of the spirit even if they see a paling of the cheek.
Yet I still want my meditative behavior to be materially productive.
I find myself drawn to monotonous, peaceful tasks: painting a room, folding laundry, washing the dishes. I’ve lost many cares in the white noise of a running faucet, or in the warmth of a freshly folded shirt still smelling like Tide. There is comfort in simple work.
But the rest is incomplete.
WHEN THOREAU SUGGESTED some of us may be hearing a different drummer, the beat he was imagining was likely a steady one, suitable for soldiers walking great distances with endurance. His American readers would have likely had the same thought.
An American today?
Our pace is the rapidity of a drum roll — building, building, building to…whatever form the shapeshifter of Success takes for you. (For me, it is usually a clean house. I wish it was something sexier than that, but there you go.)
Our American hyperactivity has devastated our spiritual health. I am so crippled I cannot sit for five minutes without spending that time making a list of all the things I will accomplish once the five minutes are up.
I need to learn to carve out the time to be still, to let my mind heal and organize, to let my heart lift up burdens that have been hidden for too long. For me, meditation must be a matter of silencing the noise of my life and allowing my spirit to engage directly with God.
I fail, nearly always.
AND YET, EVEN on my worst days, when I am the most distractible, a good rendition of “Moonlight Sonata” can settle me down. Erica’s simple act of reaching out, of introducing me to that piece, opened a door within me to a deeper, quieter place in my soul.
For that song, I will sit and be still. I will close my eyes. I will breathe.
And I will think of nothing but what the music brings before me.