For all his mariconerias, Armando can be quite sensible at times. Like his mother, Cuca, he dispenses unsolicited advice that sometimes hits the mark, making me wince uncomfortably at a barb he makes, or a comment that can be so subtle it might take days for me to realize the validity of his words.
Years ago when I was going through a difficult bout of depression, bankruptcy, and lack of focus (“You’ve turned into an wandering generality,” he pointed out) Armando introduced me to meditation. “Sit down and breathe,” he said sitting crossed legged in the middle of his studio apartment. He wore nothing but briefs, as he’s fond of doing when he’s cleaning or puttering around. He stretched his back until it was straight, pushed his shoulders back, and rested his hands on his thighs. “Sit back, take a few deep breaths, and close your eyes. Let whatever comes into your mind float in and out, and don’t hold on to anything. Let it go.” This was before Princess Elsa made an anthem out of those words.
I sat clumsily on the floor, feeling foolish and awkward. I tried to imitate his posture, but after a few minutes my back, my legs, my body, and my ass were sore from the tension. Whenever I closed my eyes and tried to breath, I found myself taking quick peeks at Armando’s tanned body, admiring the hair on the chest he shaved on nights he performed to unappreciative audiences in gaudy dresses he’d slaved over for days. I shifted and shuffled on the floor, trying to reawaken the flat ass that kept falling asleep while I concentrated on trying not to think at all. Whenever I closed my eyes, my mind darted from thought to thought, not focusing on anything in particular, bouncing from one negative image to another without a clear indication of where it wanted to stand still.
Twenty minutes later Armando asked me how I felt. “I can’t do it,” I told him. “I’m scattered and all over the place. I can’t focus. I can’t sit still. My ass hurts. And this is completely useless. I won’t attain nirvana this way. I might as well turn myself in.”
Armando rolled his eyes and sat next to me. “It takes time and practice to do nothing. It’s like sitting on the couch watching morning television. After a while you find yourself looking at it and thinking nothing at all. Keep trying.”
Over the next few weeks, whenever I visited or he stopped by for coffee or dinner, Armando and I sat on the floor and practiced doing nothing for a few minutes. “This is very hard for Cubans to do,” he said jokingly. “We’re all so busy meddling in other people’s lives we don’t have time to breathe or look at our own thoughts.”
I decided sitting on a pillow or cushion was better for my butt than sitting on a hardwood floor. I found a comfortable corner in my bedroom where I could lean back against the wall to support my back. Later, when we sat together, we got into the habit of lighting incense and candles to set the mood. And we did away with background music because it distracted us and made us feel as if we were in a chaste date. “Imaginate a Cuca walking in on us right now. Se muere.”
It took me a long time to get the ‘hang’ of breathing, to get my hyper-scattered mind to focus on my out breath, to turn down the volume on the constant chatter in my head down to a whisper, and to come out of my sitting position feeling like I had actually accomplished something—or, nothing. I was slowly teaching my mind to discipline itself.
I’ve been worrying a lot these days. For some unknown, and for many other well known reasons, lately I’ve been feeling a lot like I did back on those days when I thought the world was caving in around me and I would never find my way out of the corner I backed myself into. I keep telling myself it’s partly because I’m at the end of a life-cycle and starting a new one. I keep thinking that when I pass all my exams, or if had more friends to distract me from the tedium of every day responsibilities, I would not be feeling the way I do right now. I know I’m tired and that I need a vacation. Chances are that if I found myself drinking daiquiris on a beautiful beach somewhere off in the Caribbean, or carousing around the southern part of Spain with a handsome, bearded moor or gallego, I would not be feeling like this, or waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air.
I started breathing and meditating again last month. Years later, and living in a different city, I found a new cushion, a quiet corner, and an old box of incense and I have taken to sitting for twenty minutes in the morning to breathe and discipline my mind once again. Meditation is very similar to working out. The first couple of days are difficult. Then you coast for a few weeks thinking you have the whole routine nipped. Then it gets hard again and you wonder why you’re wasting your time when a movie on Netflix or some retail therapy will feel better and ease the pain. But meditation is like anything else you might end up doing. If you work at it and keep doing it enough, at some point, you realize that it helps you get further along the way. At the very least, it’s significantly better and far more enriching than watching daytime television.
Armando calls me every day to find out how I’m doing. “Are you breathing?” he asks. “Yes I am,” I tell him, even though I realize I’ve been holding my breath all the time. That’s when I exhale.