Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953) provides the backdrop to a voluntary decision I undertook to mark the 2020 new year. I set out into the Japanese countryside to learn the meditation practice Vipassana, while living in silence with 60 other meditators.
I was the only non-Asian and Westerner in the bunch. Silence meant no talking, gazing, or gesturing with anyone but staff or the teacher until day 10.
Tokyo is my story too, and to leave my modern comforts to go live the ascetic life 90 minutes away in Chiba was a test of human determination and endurance. No more binge-watching The Crown on Netflix. I had to smash the couch potato stereotype and represent the best of the West.
The law of nature in our common existence is captured in a memorable exchange in Tokyo Story featuring Ozu’s favorite actress, Setsuko Hara. In a discussion about how adult children naturally drift apart from their parents to pursue their own selfish interests, the youngest daughter Kyoko exclaims, “Isn’t life disappointing?” With a reserved smile, her widowed sister-in-law nods, “Yes, it is.” This is the postwar 1950s version of today’s “It is what it is.”
No matter our race, creed, religion, we all are in this earth, air, water, and fire thing together. Self-centered masses of subatomic particles endlessly seek to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Pleasure comes in the form of longings and cravings for people, drugs, alcohol — anything to intoxicate us from our mundane lives.
The purpose of this meditation was to experience this “life is disappointing” truism firsthand through direct experience, and to learn how to react to life’s ups and downs in a more balanced, detached, and compassionate fashion.
To prepare, I packed a size XXL hoodie sweatshirt with the words San Diego emblazoned across the front. The sweatshirt is a well-worn relic of my Southern California days and smells of Suavitel fabric softener. The hooded inside was a she-shed where I could allow a tear or two to drop and grimace in seclusion, while my lower legs lost all feeling.
This was no staycation or spa retreat. With a look of horror, I discovered on day zero before the course began that bath and shower facilities were detached from our female dormitory. This meant middle-of-the-night excursions in the January cold. Our dorm consisted of cells with curtain dividers. We were the lucky ones. The other female dorm was army barracks style. You could not sneak in a nap during room meditation.
This meditation practice seemed designed for the proverbial Japanese salaryman — who was nowhere in sight — whose steadfast dedication to doing one’s duty, day in and day out, permeated the atmosphere. Just like him, we couldn’t catch a break.
Meditating on the floor for up to 10 hours per day, having a snack of a half-an-apple and a kiwi at dinner time, holding posture still while waiting for the pain to arise and pass is a miserable experience. Just like commuting hours per day and arriving home late, often under the influence, just in time to collapse into bed and do it all again tomorrow. We all live varying degrees of miserable lives. Which was exactly the point of the meditation experience.
On day 10, we silently left the meditation main hall and set out into the rays of sunshine like a group of newborn kittens mewing for the milk of human recognition. I smiled and danced, just to make sure that all my body parts were still functioning. Many of my fellow meditators were comparative pros — yoga teachers, athletes, veteran meditators trying out a new technique. Some were, like recidivist inmates, returning as old students for another 10-day go. My slouchy self was just glad to have made it to the finish line.
What did I learn? Good or bad, nothing lasts forever. That pain in your leg, that tickle on your nose, it will pass. You are stronger than you know, but the mind, just like the body, must be trained to focus on the end goal of equanimity, psychological balance that exhibits the trained composure of an airline pilot. Unless you train, you will zig and zag from one sensation to another across the continuum of what repels (“aversions”) to what attracts (“longings”).
I’m easily irritated by little things. I don’t like to be around people with active colds. At least 10% of the meditators hacked and coughed their way through our sittings. My higher meditative self would have had compassion for what they were enduring. They had to remove their masks during meditation and maintain poses while battling the sniffles. But all I could think of was myself and my aversion to being infected by their germs.
Most importantly, this academic whose entire professional life fuels her ego, experienced the vulnerability and humility of having to be mindful of others who were also suffering in their own way. We all are getting closer to death from the moment we are born. We all deal with clutter and chaos on our paths. We all need each other to cope, but how often do we serve each other’s needs? And the weakest among us in our human tribe need the most compassion. Without daily meditation practice, we cannot develop this more noble character.
Life is disappointing. Yes, it is. Say it out loud with a smile. And enjoy the journey.
Author: Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. She holds the 2020 Disney Chair in Global Media at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University.