A year ago, when Julian was in the dumps about Lucas’ workplace affair, his then bestie recommended he see a renowned Zen master who was said to work miracles in the area of self-discovery and healing. After just a month, Julian managed to forgive Lucas and make a full recovery from the emotional trauma. Julian called it “untying knots.”
It meant reflecting and identifying the cause of stress, suffering or negative Chi and consciously working to let go of that emotion through acceptance and forgiveness—thus facilitating the untying of such knots.
Julian continued to visit the Garden Center for Healing and Mediation every Saturday, even after his relationship was mended. Now Julian was about paying it forward—sharing his Zen success in order to help those in need. So, after some shameless gossip and too many cocktails, Julian proposed that Samantha, a fellow knot-tying-stress-monger, visit the Zen master. Samantha, Julian’s newly acquired BBF, followed Julian’s lead and agreed to call Mishka, the center’s appointment goddess. Sam would lie to Mishka and say she was Julian’s sister, a kinship that allowed her to take his appointment the next morning.
Sam accepted the invitation and inspected the appointment card from The Zen Center for Healing & Meditation. The front was beautifully printed in white script contrasting against a delicate mint green backdrop. Below the center’s name was a semi-transparent Zen garden path creating a peaceful effect. On the bottom of the card, in a flowing white ribbon that seemed to glide from left to right, future Zen-ers could find the address and phone number and begin a path to healing.
The back of the appointment card had Julian Sun 8am in a gentle cursive handwriting. Sam flipped the appointment card in her hand from front to back and back again wondering if she was making the right choice. Even with all of Julian’s explanations, Samantha didn’t know the first thing about Zen stuff.
She felt pretentious pairing her Michael Kors bag with her workout gear—some gray Yoga leggings, a pink sports tee, matching gray sweatshirt and her pink Nike Flex Trainers. I know Zen isn’t Yoga but it’s a little like Yoga, she convinced herself and decided her outfit was appropriate for a Zen virgin.
Forty-five minutes later, when Samantha reached the center’s security gate nestled in the lush green landscape of one of Santa Monica’s residential streets. She leaned out of her driver window and pressed the button on the call box. The gates opened and Sam let her SUV glide forward with caution. The road was a peddled path—a perfect cliché. A winding road dodged the large whipping willows in its way. Slightly to the right the slowly to the left, and green everywhere. So much green, Sam forgot she was still in a metropolis.
As she got closer to the main entrance, rows of vibrant Azaleas in fuchsia, pink and red narrowed her path. Sam finally took a right turn following the arrow on a sign that read: Welcome! Visitor Parking This Way. She turned the engine off, threw the keys in her purse and found Lola, her trusty magic 8-ball, at the bottom. Sam excavated it and shook the ball. She mouthed the question slowly. Will this Zen thing work? Lola’s response came faster than usual through the bubbly churn of the water. Most likely.
Sam walked the few steps across the peddled parking lot toward the main building—a classic temple with a charcoal shingled roof. It was a two-story wooden structure with accents of deep red wrap-around verandas. She felt equal parts impressed and apprehensive. She tiptoed up the flight of steps to the first level and sensed this place was genuine—the real deal. This was a place built for the masters, the dedicated apprentice; people who took their Zen seriously. Not for Sam. Impostor, she thought.
Sam turned to leave when a short, dark-haired woman in her fifties wearing wide-rimmed glasses and dressed in a tan wrapped robe appeared from the shadows of the interior hall.
“Namaste,” the woman bowed her head and brought her hands together in a praying gesture. “Please follow me, Miss Blake,” she pointed inside and Sam wondered who she was and how she knew her name. Then, Sam remembered Jules had called to make the appointment swap.
Sam followed obediently. Through the main entrance, the women stepped left into a corridor lined with Shoji sliding screens of rice paper. Though she could not see it, Sam assumed the building’s interior resided behind the screens. Opposite the screen doors, a series of wood lattice screens let natural light in and connected them with the sunny green exterior of the grounds.
The woman walked with choppy steps and kept her hands at her chest. Sam noticed red praying beads wrapped around her left hand. The long corridor disappeared into the darkness ahead. They stopped and the woman, careful not to make eye contact said, “Here we are.”
Samantha was confused. They were standing in the middle of a dark hallway and she wasn’t sure how to break it to this helpful, but clearly lost attendant, they weren’t anywhere.
Before Sam could make a comment, the woman said, “I’ll take those,” she extended her chubby arms from a pair of dangling sleeves and freed Sam of her Michael Kors bag and appointment card. “You’ll leave those here,” she pointed to the pink Nikes. Samantha complied, flicking her shoes off with the tips of her toes. “My name is Mishka, please let me know if there is anything you need. I’ll be right over there,” she smiled and pointed to her podium by the entrance.
Before walking away, Mishka used her right hand to gently slide open a series of Shoji screen doors made of rice paper. Her graceful movements revealed a breathtaking hidden world—an immense courtyard with views of the clear blue skies above. Mishka can do magic! No wonder Jules likes her, Sam joked in an effort to contain her freak out.
Sam felt pressured, as if the surrounding beauty was demanded everything from her.
The garden landscape below was carpeted with tiny gray pebbles and several large dark gray rocks, meticulously placed in random order. On second inspection, Sam, who benefited from her vantage point on the veranda, realized the garden was split in half by a light sand-colored path in the shape of the Yin-Yang line. Two mature cherry blossoms in full bloom stood on either side of the Yin-Yang path—their delicate pink petals falling off branches like feathers, carpeting the ground below.
Samantha became increasingly frustrated about feeling so tense in such a serene place.
The entire wrap-around veranda and courtyard garden was devoid of human life. The silence was deafening, except for a distant pitter-patter coming across the garden from a bamboo spout that trickled into its wooden barrel below. Samantha felt her pulse quicken. She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her head, her palms sweaty. She found it hard to swallow. She didn’t understand what the hell she was doing there or why she was so stressed out.
“You must be Julian’s sister, though I’m sorry to say I can’t see the family resemblance,” A tall, dirty-blonde hippie crossed the threshold from the matted interior to the sleek wooden veranda where Sam stood. A thin man in his late fifties, perhaps even sixty. His hair thinning on top though he kept it in a long ponytail. He wore silver wire-rimmed glasses and an empty smile. He too, had on a sand-colored robe and was barefoot. “I am Zen Master Bob. Welcome to the healing garden. Please take a seat,” he pointed to a woven mat on the floor of the veranda.
Did he say Bob? Samantha was convinced she’d heard wrong. Zen masters aren’t named Bob. Maybe B.O.B was a mystical ancient acronym for some powerful Zen-mastery shit. Before her ass found comfort on the floor mat, Zen Master Bob took Sam’s left foot from a standing position, lifted it and pulled her sock off. He did the same to the right foot. “Now, that’s better. C’mon, walk with me,” he extended a helpful hand to hoist her up and placed his other hand firmly on his lower back, careful not to throw it out. From a closer angle Sam could see he was much older than she’d originally guessed.
But then again, Sam had expected someone altogether different.
Sam popped up with relative ease and crammed her sockies in her leggings’ pocket, ready to walk with Bob. She wasn’t ready to talk to Zen Master Bob but she figured she could walk with him. No harm in walking.
A soothing cool sensation took her breath away. For several seconds, she stood frozen in place, enjoying the cold of the hardwood floors. Sam was not accustomed to being barefoot—she couldn’t remember the last time she went without shoes. This was new territory. She immediately felt grounded. She was closer to the earth somehow. Her feet, once freed from captivity were doing a much better job at balancing her whole body. Though she had not noticed it, her posture had instantly improved. She felt centered. She felt taller even—her shoulders squared-off in her best warrior stance—Samantha felt ready to take on the world. Barefoot? How knew?
Zen Master Bob and Sam began the Therapy Walk by circling the entirety of the garden veranda. She was unaware that Bob had initiated the healing process the moment he took her socks off. Bob knew subtle and unstructured conversation was the first step to a better path. The rest of the walk was purposefully infused with natural serenity designed to open minds and silence the skeptic and pessimist in everyone. They had embarked on Bob’s favorite activity: flanuering.
Zen Master Bob had first heard the French term in his early hippie days while backpacking through France’s countryside and making his way north to Paris. “Did you know the word flanuer is French for idle wanderer, he asked not expecting an answer. “It’s a custom every self-respecting Parisienne takes to heart.” He continued. “In Paris, when the workday comes to an end, locals hit the city streets and aimlessly stroll the boulevards, parks and gardens with no specific destination or agenda.” Bob explained he refers to it as taking the wandering path, which was the core of his Therapy Walk philosophy.
“Before we get too far along, let’s cover the basics.” The Zen master eased into it. “Yes, my name is Bob. Not Robert. Bob. My parents had quite a sense of humor, so there it is.” He controlled the pace of their Therapy Walk with measured steps. “And yes, I’m also aware I’m not your average Zen master. Now that that’s out of the way, what do you want me to call you?” He asked Sam as they took the few steps to the downstairs garden.
“Everybody calls me Sam.”
“Hum. Interesting.” He nodded his head up and down and Samantha felt like a middle school girl who answered her teacher’s test question wrong. “But, that’s not what I asked you.”
Truth be told, at that moment, Sam thought the old man was nuts. She knew well enough she had answered him. My name? That was a pretty straightforward question. And Sam was the only answer she had. “Okay, Samantha, then,” she gave her full name figuring maybe Bob wanted to keep things formal—but with a name like Bob, she figured formalities were optional.
“Do you remember the question? Word for word, I mean,” the Zen master stopped at the edge of the garden path and motioned for Sam to go first.
“I’m sorry, maybe I wasn’t listening carefully enough but I thought you asked me my name, right?” Sam followed the prescribed path before her.
The stones were cold beneath her toes and the unevenness hurt her soles when she walked. Still, she followed his lead and snaked around the cherry blossoms, careful not to disturb the pebbles beneath her feet as the pain prompted her to hurried to the other side of the courtyard.
Zen Master Bob watched her every move, her every choice. He noted she was following the visual path distinguishable by the slight difference in the pebbles’ hues. Sam could’ve easily chosen to walk toward one of the trees, or around the trees, or wandered over to one of the large stones and sat on one, or stood on one, or even jumped off one. He had conducted too many Therapy Walks in which the “wanderer” didn’t actually do any wandering. Too many people had denied themselves the off-roading possibilities until Bob pointed out they had taken the road most traveled, despite the freedom to make their own choice.
Then, he concluded Sam would need more time with the question before she could “see” the right answer. He wandered off the path and sat on his favorite garden rock nearest the trees, “Can you backtrack a bit and join me over here?”
“Sure,” Sam was no longer happy about abandoning her sneakers. Sneakers were invented so humans could stop wincing in pain when walking over wobbly, pebbly fucking terrain. Bob may have hinted that she didn’t know her name, but if she was sure of anything, she was sure the need for proper footwear wasn’t to be overlooked.
Samantha surprised Bob by sitting on the ground in front of him. He found it rather atypical because he was unaware that her incentive was to get off her feet before she broke into tears. The garden was beautiful, sure, but it was better when she was admiring it from afar not maneuvering through its sharp little rocks.
“Can you reflect on the last few minutes, start with the original question I asked, and tell me what you’ve learned?” He twisted his skinny right leg crossed his left and waited.
He’s gotta be kidding! What could I have possibly learned in the span of a three-minute walk where the only topic of discussion was my name? Which I apparently got wrong! She couldn’t help thinking Julian might be pranking her, so she looked around for hidden cameras.
“I first asked you what you wanted me to call you. Now, listen carefully to this series of questions. Was I asking you what other people call you? Did I ask what your parents named you? Or did I ask you what you wanted to be called?” His seemingly simple questions had depth the way the layers of an onion keep peeling away to reveal a new skin.
Sam ignored the pain in her feet and slowed her mind enough to think critically. She spotted something in his eyes—the first traces of wisdom and kindness. “I think I know what you’re doing. I get that you’re trying to prove a point, but I give up. Teach me, oh Great One, teach me,” she joked with him because she had picked up that Bob was the kind of Zen Master that didn’t take himself too seriously so she took a risk.
If he couldn’t deal with her sarcasm, they weren’t going to get very far.
“Well, you’re right about one thing. Two actually. Yes, I am great. And yes, I am up to something, so listen closely,” he unscrewed his legs then crossed the left one at a ninety-degree angle where he rested his left elbow. “Humans and all species in general define themselves based on their surroundings. It is completely normal when you ask someone what they like to be called that instead of answering the question they were asked, which is internal in nature, they’re predisposed to answer it based on external factors. For example, a man who was named Phillip by his parents and has been called Phil by friends and family will answer with one of those two choices. Are you following me so far?” Bob didn’t care about sounding condescending—most great teachers knew it could prove a useful tactic.
“Yes, go on, oh Great One,” Sam joked but knew where he was going with the lesson.
“But what if Phillip or Phil actually liked the name John better? Why do you think he doesn’t identify himself with the former, with his personal preference?”
“Because he can only see himself…” Samantha started whispering the answer then got louder as she finished, “…through the eyes of others! Damn! You’re good.”
“That’s very impressive. Most people don’t reach that conclusion for weeks. It seems you can be taught, my young apprentice.” Bob got up and walked out of the garden. Sam followed.
They walked under a wooden door framed with large bamboo and into another garden. This one had a small red bridge that arched over an oval Koi pond.
Zen Master Bob took a seat on a bench near the bridge and motioned for her to sit.
“Since you’re starting to walk the path, would you mind if I push you a bit further? I can sense you are not like most students. You have a sharp eye.” He adjusted his glasses.
“Sure thing,” Sam took the seat next to him and stared at the fish.
“In the first garden, I asked you to reflect on all the things you had learned. I saw the look on your face. You were not convinced any learning had taken place. So, allow me to, as they say, enlighten you. When we reached the edge of the garden, I let you take the lead because it was important for me to see how you would walk through it. Knowing this, can you tell me more about that lesson and what it revealed?”
Samantha looked back in her mind’s eye and realized this lesson came much easier than the first, “Yup, I know.” She had an almost disappointed tone, “I followed the designated path instead of walking wherever I wanted. Especially after you went on about the French and their meandering—”
“Flanuering.” He corrected.
“And the lesson?” He pressed her for a conclusion.
“It’s like with the name thing. We do or say what is expected of us instead of what comes naturally, spontaneously. Instead of what we want. We conform.”
“Yes.” Zen Master Bob smiled.
“It makes sense. But you alluded to lessons before. Plural. So, what else did I miss?” Sam got up and sat on the ground in front of him deliberately blocking the path to the bridge.
“There’s just one more lesson for today.”
“Patience my dear, we must have patience along the path. Rushing through the healing process is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Now, let’s reflect on the last lesson and then I’ll kick your sorry butt out of here. This old man needs his midmorning snack or he gets cranky,” as he spoke, Zen Master Bob got up, making his way back to the main courtyard. “What effect did going barefoot have on your visit today?”
Samantha walked beside Bob and was deliberate about her even pace, “At first it was great. The cold of the floors made me feel connected, even alive. I could sense life. I know it sounds stupid but there it is.”
“That’s it. We are alive through our senses. If we deny them we become empty vessels. Don’t deny your world or its visceral connection. Feel all the textures of life. Taste all of its flavors. See where others are blind. Smell its pleasant aromas and revolting odors alike. And listen to all the sounds of life with a child’s ear.”
“And me without my notepad.” Sam joked again, but secretly wished to write it all down. When they began crossing the pebbled garden again, Sam turned to Bob and complained, “This is the part of going barefoot that sucks.”
“I agree. My feet hurt as much as yours and I walk this path every day. So, I’ll repeat part of what I have already said: smell life’s pleasant aromas and revolting odors alike. That’s when you will find true balance.” Zen Master Bob put a hand on Sam’s shoulder and with that last encrypted phrase he bid her farewell, “I do hope to see you again, my dear. Thank you for walking my path. I look forward to the day you invite me to walk along yours. When you find your path, only then will you see the world as it truly is.” The old man lowered his head and palm-to-palm he bowed and whispered, “Namaste.”
Back in the parking lot, Samantha sat in the car and took a deep breath.
When she reflected on the three major lessons she had learned in the course of a fifteen-minute walk she was in disbelief. If she told friends and family, how a skinny hippie with a bad back and a propensity to wander barefoot through life had changed hers with a few seemingly simple questions, they’ think her certifiable. But, from those simple questions came the not so simple truth: Samantha Blake had not, and was not yet, walking her own path in life.
The drive home was devoid of heavy traffic. She adjusted the volume on the car radio so the music was an easy-listening backdrop to the downtown chaos. Before she knew it, she had parked the car. She inhaled and exhaled, taking her time. Breathing was something she was determined to get right. She expanded her diaphragm, filling her lungs with air. She held it for two seconds then exhaled slowly in a controlled gesture.
Sam wanted to be ready. Had to be ready. Ready to talk to Daniel. Ready to tell her husband what she wanted. Needed. Ready to tell him about her plan to go on a Sam-Only-Road-Trip for a few weeks—a much-needed physical and mental journey to continue down the path of self-discovery.
Sam’s wedding song came on the radio and without warning her eyes flooded with tears. She was not prepared for the emotional carnage Stevie Wonder’s Ribbon in the Sky would cause. She allowed herself a long cry. Their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was in two weeks.
Shit! With all the ups and downs and emotional rollercoaster of previous weeks, the event had completely escaped her. Her sobs got louder until she felt she was screaming inside the SUV. She grabbed napkins from the glove compartment and gave her nose a hard blow.
Sam’s were not tears of joy like the kind people cry when wondrous things happened. The tears she shed in the shadows of their garage were tears of loss like the kind shed at funerals.
When her crying was reduced to a few sniffles, she came to terms with postponing her Sam-Only-Road-Trip for the foreseeable future.
I have to put me on hold. Sacrifice my path.
I have to do it for him. For us, if there’s still an us.
Samantha entered their apartment, kissed her husband on the cheek, walked over to her workspace and popped her laptop. She did a Google search to see which fine dining restaurants had availability on their special day. And, for the next few days leading up to their anniversary, Sam bit down hard on her lip to keep from crying whenever she replayed Zen Master Bob’s last words: When you find your path, only then will you see the world as it truly is.