Vanishing and Un-Vanishing: From the Monastery to the Marriott

June 17, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Posted in attention, boredom, no-self, personal | Leave a comment

I spent the summer after my junior year of college living in a Buddhist monastery in Japan. In the last week of the summer, we went on a meditation retreat, in which we took a vow of silence for the week and meditated for eight hours a day. This turns out to have been excellent preparation for being a reader of the AP English Language exam, an ordeal that I am currently undergoing for the first time.

There are, of course, differences: at the monastery, we slept 8 to a room, and we had to earn our keep by doing chores. Here at the Marriott, people clean up after me, and I was once greeted after a long day of reading by a chipper concierge with a free glass of sangria. The monastery was absolutely alcohol-free.

But it turns out that eight hours a day of reading and eight hours a day of meditating are very similar feats. First, the physical challenge: sitting still for that long is difficult, and can be painful. We are lucky that our table readers don’t hit us with sticks when we fidget like the monks sometimes did.

Second, the mental challenge. The kind of meditation that I have been trained in is simple breath-focused meditation. You calm your mind and try to focus simply on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body. This is much harder than it sounds. Your mind will come back online again and again, whispering your worries, woes, and wonderings, and again and again you will have to silence it and redirect your attention. I have this experience during the AP reading all the time. I am reading Question 3, which is about the value of exploring the unknown, so the students often write about personal experiences that will remind me of my own — an old boyfriend, a childhood memory — and before I know it I’ll be hitting myself with the metaphorical stick to bring my attention back to the task at hand.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is said to be a state of no-self, and part of the goal of breath-focused meditation is to achieve that temporarily, to erase yourself. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote that “What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.” Similarly, as an AP reader, it sometimes seems that part of my job is to vanish, to be just a swinging door between the essay and the rubric. It’s as though my own self and judgments ought not to be part of the equation. But that’s not quite right – it’s more that they are fused with the equation; the rubric is my mind and the mind is the rubric.

Another goal of meditation, though, is to practice the sort of mindfulness and attentiveness to the present moment that can be an aid to compassion. It’s always a little humbling to be holding an essay that has been handwritten just weeks ago by a real live teenager who you will never meet or know apart from their words on the page. The best moments of AP reading are when you un-vanish—when your particularity is called back by the student’s particularity. The best moments are when a human mind at the other end stands up and demands that you notice it, when it breaks through the platitudes and starts to say something real. Sometimes that mind does so with acumen and eloquence, and you are delighted to be able to give the student the gift of a high score. Sometimes that mind speaks their truth with less sophistication, but no less passion, and all you can do is give the student a mental thank you for making you feel like a person again, and a deep mental bow. Namaste, student. The god in me recognizes the god in you.


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