Breathing and Observation
She had a beautiful face with an upturned nose and long, dark hair. Sometimes I caught myself staring at her smile. She flashed one at me as I helped her into the Mustang.
When she sat, she grabbed the back of her hair and pulled it around to her front right shoulder. It was a move she made without thinking. I hardly noticed it myself, anymore. She had to make sure neither of us could close the door on any part of her waist-low tresses. When I walked around to the driver's seat, she told me how much she liked the color of the car.
"Oh yeah," I said. The comment made me pause to think. She'd told me once before. I dimly realized her father was a mechanic. She probably knew more about my car than I did. "The Mustang has been pretty great, really. The steering is kind of crap. But the engine has been reliable. The ride is going to be loud, this time. I need to replace the muffler but I couldn't make myself empty my emergency fund."
My budget was near enough to zero that I begrudged filling the gas tank. I'd been putting off needed repairs, as usual. To take a closer look at this particular problem, I'd shimmied underneath the vehicle to check the rust on the muffler. I'd seen how bad it was. Where the pipes connected and held the muffler to the frame, the rust had not only eaten through the metal from front to back but it had left holes. That was why the pipe sounded like a steamboat. I'd jiggered it with a wire coat hanger, which effectively became my muffler bracket.
When I turned the key, the young woman's smile faded.
"That's pretty bad," she said. She had an educated ear, unfortunately. "You may need to spend the emergency fund."
"Probably carbon monoxide is getting in." She sniffed. For sure, all sorts of fumes were flooding us.
"I'll crack a window," I replied.
"Okay." She settled back into her seat and beamed me another smile. Her judgments about me were probably as bad as mine about cars.
I'd known her for a couple of years at this point. She was an old girlfriend who had decided to visit me at college. I'd expected the days with her to be awkward. Somehow, though, she made it friendly and romantic. She had arranged her visit while I was between girlfriends at school. It seemed like she and I were going to stay friends for a long while.
"Why were you just sitting still this morning?" she asked.
"I didn't think you noticed." I'd done it while she was brushing her hair, which took a while.
"Well, you weren't doing anything." She gave me a concerned glance. "You looked like the Kung Fu show. Sitting like that, I mean. It was weird."
"I was meditating." I'd known it would look odd to anyone else. I usually meditated alone.
"Do you do it a lot?"
"A few times a day." Every morning, at least. The other times I chose were random. If I had time and I thought I needed it, I sat down to clear my mind. "Not during your visit, though."
"You didn't have to stop just for me." Her brow crinkled. "What is meditation, anyway?"
I tried to explain. My practice was my own, though. I didn't know anyone else interested. I'd started out with a method called envisioning. It worked well but I knew it was falling out of fashion. I'd moved to calmness meditation. In fact, I'd spent three years with a heartbeat-based method of clearing my mind. I'd learned to slow my pulse. I'd gotten pretty good. After that, though, I switched to breathing meditation, which was more popular. The breathing style had an opposite purpose to it, which made it hard at first.
At the start of breathing meditations, I found myself interfering with my breath. My awareness met with a conditioned reflex in me. I tried to try to control my breathing. After all, I had just been controlling my pulse. The whole point of the popular style, though, was to achieve naturalness. Breathing meditation encouraged self-observation including the ability to observe without exercising any conditioned responses. In the last year or two, I had partly tackled it. I could keep a clear mind for a long time. I could let my body work naturally despite my awareness. I practiced every day. Sometimes I got overly conscious and started affecting my breath or other parts of my body. But mostly I'd ditched my trained reflexes. I was observing my heartbeats and my breaths without asserting any changes.
"You're looking flush," she said after a while. "Do you feel okay?"
"Yeah." She was looking pale, herself. We were both wondering about how the engine fumes were affecting us.
"How long is the ride to Logan Airport?" she asked.
"Two hours," I sighed.
"How long has it been so far?"
"Twenty minutes." I pulled onto Interstate 90. We headed east.
She had a good reason to be concerned. But the ride back was the part I dreaded more, since I'd be alone and bored. For now, maybe we were taking in some carbon monoxide but we'd be fine, a little woozy at most. She popped a Prince album into my tape deck. I listened to the music and to her descriptions of the problems she was having with one of her sisters. Sometimes she shared the dramas involving other members of her family.
Years in my future, we would go on similar drives. She would call to ask for a ride to a different city. She would accompany me on travels from state to state as groups of us went rafting or saw concerts. Once, she called at noon to ask me to come down to the courthouse to witness her marriage. She had been dating the guy for a week but they'd known each other for years and, to her surprise, he'd asked. Their ceremony was at three. My managers at the bar where I worked were so surprised, they broke their usual no-excuses rule and gave me the afternoon off to attend.
Six months later, she called me in tears from three states away. She wanted a ride to get rescued from her husband.
That morning in Massachusetts, though, she mostly talked about her family. The topic of my car kept us busy, too. The muffler noise ramped up. It started to rattle. She said I had turned from flush to pale. She rubbed her head like she was getting a headache. For my part, I had to admit I was feeling dizzy. I rolled down the window another inch.
"These car fumes can't be good for you," she commented. "Are you going to be okay for the drive back?"
A minute later, we felt a thump. I glanced at my rear view mirror. I saw my muffler in my limited field of vision as it went tumbling along the highway behind us and off onto the shoulder.
I rolled down the window some more.
"I'm already feeling weird," she complained. "And now I'm cold."
I was right about us being fine with the window down, though. We made it to Logan Airport with twenty-five minutes to spare. At the terminal, we hugged and kissed a little.
"Make sure you stay awake the whole way home," she warned me. "You had me to check on you. Now I won't be there."
"I'll be fine."
Before I got in the car, though, I took a look at myself in a bathroom mirror. Given it was the early 1980s, I thought I was fine. I had tight jeans, a dark t-shirt that women seemed to like, and my hair was cropped tight on the sides in a lazy, partial mohawk. My skin looked a little pale, maybe, but nothing worse. Fine. I looked healthy.
If I was getting carbon monoxide, it all came down to math, didn't it? I'd breathed it for two hours. Obviously, it had been only a little per minute, far below the critical dose, whatever that was. I was going to have about a forty-five minute break from it. That was time enough for my body to heal up. Next, I had to breathe more carbon monoxide for two more hours.
Deep in the garage, I turned on my car. Three other people in the concrete enclosure spun around in alarm. I smiled and waved. My window was already down.
As I pulled out of Logan, it occurred to me that I hadn't driven for long in this car with a broken muffler. I'd kept the windows open every time, too. Truthfully, I didn't know how much carbon monoxide was adding up in my system.
I decided it was time for my new form of meditation to come to the rescue. Even before I got to the highway, I eased into better awareness. To my surprise, it wasn't harder to drive. It was different. Maybe my reactions were better. Unfortunately, right away I started breathing harder. My intense awareness made my desire to control each breath kick in. When I started getting light-headed, I had to wonder if I was simply doing it to myself with strained, shallow wheezes. I had to fix the attempt to control my body.
Can you meditate better if your life depends on it? Of course you can. At least, my decision then was to improve. Why not get better at meditation at this very moment?
Previously, I had been able to keep my awareness without accidentally invoking my self-consciousness for what seemed like a long time but was probably less than a minute. I'd lose the correctness. Then I'd adjust my mind. I'd achieve another half-minute. And so on. The state of my process wasn't good enough to keep my head above water, metaphorically, but I could keep getting back up to the surface for a while. Already, I'd developed the ability to turn attachments on or off (mostly keeping to the off because I was concerned about my lack of control when allowing re-attachments). Now it was time to exercise the same ability with my observational powers.
The problem was that my observational powers were crap. I felt intensely aware of it.
After half an hour, I felt my breathing reverting to a natural pattern. My awareness remained. I felt different. I knew some of it might be carbon monoxide. My hands and face tingled. Even with normal breathing, I could feel the fumes dragging on my body. I pulled over to adjust the windows, carefully hand-cranking all four to the give me the coldest breeze I thought I could stand. Then, back on the highway, I remained in my aware, relaxed, meditative state.
A few years later, I would discover new realms of observation. I'd come to feel it was its own thing, an important aspect of life. During the carbon monoxide drive, though, my extended moment of practice merely opened the door. For two hours, minus a second stop to adjust the windows for maximum air and minimum cold, I subsisted on awareness meditation. My body felt sick. But I felt good. Very good, very aware. My nose rebelled at the strong odor of burnt oil and other fumes. The tingling in my hands and face worsened. My light-headedness meant I had to concentrate a bit more. My body didn't care for the cold air, either. But my spirits improved. I accepted the freezing temperatures without shivering. When my lungs seemed to slow almost to a stop on their own, I pulled over and got out for a minute. I walked away from the car. I felt better. I got back in and drove the last half hour from Springfield to South Hadley.
"Hey, this really works," I thought. I had been practicing in my dorm room, yes, but not with any urgency. This was the first time my awareness had seemed to be a practical skill. I was surprised to discover that, when I felt my life depended on it, I could improve. When it was important, I could be aware and natural.
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