Thursday, July 17, 2014

Here's a story about meditation, fear and loathing, and a ruined mind.

I was prompted to write this by the last few paragraphs of this Rod Dreher post on meditation.

A couple months ago my wife and I were volunteered by our parish administrator--who happens to be a close friend--to give a ride home to a woman visiting our church. As it turned out, our church is a twenty-minute drive from her neighborhood, so we had a little while to become acquainted. This mostly involved semi-coherent, disjointed rambling on her part. She continued to talk nonstop for ten minutes after we stopped driving. I would have said "after we pulled up to her house," but she didn't want to be dropped off there because, she said without any elaboration, her neighbors were black, so we stopped in a random parking lot in the neighborhood. She finally did get out of the car, but only after my wife interrupted her monologue to say that we had to be going, which was true. I was a bit slack-jawed and trying to formulate words, whereas my wife was better able to keep her head about her, for which I am grateful. If my wife hadn't spoken up, I'm not sure how long she would have kept talking.

That morning I was lay reading and serving. So I was standing in the narthex preparing to process when our kindly senior curate approached me and, smiling his warm and gentle smile, whispered, "Mary's here." I had no idea whom he meant and for a moment thought perhaps he was making some statement about the presence of the Mother of God at the mass but that didn't make much sense, so I just said, "Who?" He continued to smile brightly, clearly expecting me to know what he was talking about, and repeated, "Mary. She's here." I shook my head in confusion, so he pushed open the door to the outside and pointed Mary out as she stood among the various congregants hurrying into church. I had no idea who she was and said as much. "Oh," he replied, "Your wife will know. I'll go tell her."

My wife was obviously just as perplexed when our curate approached her, but she followed Father Dan outside, and then she came back in with Mary. The two of them sat together through the service. I admit my focus that Sunday was not completely on the mass, and in reality I spent a good deal of time covertly observing and puzzling about our visitor. Mary was short and stout, though by no means obese. She had on a flowing dress with muted colors and wore a headscarf tied around her long, graying hair. Her wide eyes travelled around the sanctuary throughout the service, and she didn't particularly seem to be listening or attending to the prayers or sermon. I initially thought that she might be a foreigner, perhaps an immigrant from eastern Europe.

We took her home after coffee hour, and her sad, confusing story came tumbling out. "Tumbling" is an understatement. None of this was told in any logical or chronological order. Instead she jumped from detail to detail, now talking about something that happened the previous week and then jumping back years in time without any break or notice. She frequently contradicted herself, often within nearly the same breath ("I hate it here, but my daughter loves it." "So your daughter likes Charlottesville?" "Oh no, she hates it here."). Bearing in mind these inconsistencies as well my own confusion and noting the extreme unreliability of this particular narrator, here is what had happened to her, as best I can reconstruct.

For starters, Mary isn't a foreigner. She came of age in the 1960s or 70s in Ithaca, New York--or, at least, she lived their for some time, she attended Cornell, and that's where she had moved from most recently. She referred to her younger self as a liberal (a "stupid" or "naive" liberal or something like that) and a hippie and said she "grew up singing 'We Shall Overcome' and all that." Some years ago, she underwent a shattering divorce and an attending descent from the upper middle class into, at one point, total poverty. She noted how when she was a well-off liberal she thought that living in poverty would be a wonderful experience. More recently--it sounded like maybe a few years ago--she became interested in meditation and Tibetan Buddhism. She found a Lama to whom she became intensely devoted, so much so that when he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, she followed.

And she underwent a major transformation which she ascribed to the enlightenment gained through meditation. Essentially, she transformed from a generic ex-hippie liberal into a paranoid, terrified (and terrifying) racist preaching race war. She railed against "the blacks" and made a few furtive statements against Jews. She said they were destroying the country and were bent on the annihilation of white people. She said she knew this from meditation and also from things she was reading on the Internet. She said--and this is where I pretty much lost my ability to process everything she was saying--that shortly after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she had a vision while meditating. Barack Obama appeared to her in the midst of fire and blood and said of the shooting, "I did this. It was me. And I hate you." She was convinced that this was a genuine, authentic appearance of the president, that he had caused the shooting, and that he had it out for her now.

She said that she had started having trouble meditating, and that recently she became completely unable to meditate at all. She wasn't meeting with her Lama anymore. She didn't clarify whether he stopped seeing her, which caused the breakdown of meditation, or whether she left him on her own. But as a result she was beginning to wonder if she needed to examine other "paths" of spirituality. She first visited an Episcopal church in her neighborhood ("It was wonderful; they were very welcoming." "I didn't feel comfortable; they were not nice to me.") and then found us. I'm not certain how she picked our church--an Anglican parish outside of town--though I suspect the phone book and our church's name beginning with "A" has something to do with it. A woman from the neighborhood association gave her a ride to the church and arranged for her ride home. Mary had us drop off her off in the vicinity of her house because, as she said without further explanation, all her neighbors were black. She said she might want to come back to our church, and we did give her our phone number, but she never called. We haven't seen her since. We didn't get her phone number, we don't know her last name, and we only know generally the area where she lives.

On the one hand, this is a great relief. When we told our rector about it, he was not particularly keen on seeing her again, and I can't say we were either. On the other hand, this woman is clearly suffering from some kind of terrible mental or spiritual oppression--probably both. I am glad to know that her neighborhood association knows who she is (as the woman from the association more or less handed Mary over to my wife, she told Mary how good it was that she could "get out of the house"), but it seems like all other forms of community and family have collapsed or fallen away. And she has a daughter in high school, who has been a witness to the transformation and who, according to Mary herself, considers her mother is a bigot, a racist, and a terrible person.

She was not clear on what her Lama's role was in this transformation. Obviously race hate and race war don't square up to the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Still, militant, xenophobic Buddhism is a thing that exists, prominently in Sri Lanka and India. I'm not aware of a strain of that in any form of Tibetan Buddhism, but then I have only a passing familiarity with Buddhism. Possibly her Lama had some direct role in the transformation. Perhaps he was unaware of the transformation, though that seems unlikely given how openly she was sharing her new ideas with complete strangers. But it seems equally likely that he was troubled by and opposed to it, and it's possible that he stopped seeing her because of it. I have no way of knowing. Further, while she attributed her "awakening" to meditation, she was not a reliable narrator. Her breakdown could have occurred completely independent of or prior to the meditation. Given that she suffered through a divorce and descent into poverty prior to meditation, this seems quite plausible.

Whatever the causes, her story was terrifying on many levels--not least in the way that a person, firmly established and past middle age, can undergo a dramatic and destructive transformation from a generally mainstream existence to one on the fringe's of society, infused with radical paranoia, fear, and hatred.