Bob ascended a staircase with steps of worn linoleum and a loose handrail and opened a battered door to come onto the roof of the small building. The black sealant was old and worn, but it never seemed to rain anymore. Around him, the smog of LA hovered, hiding the buildings and landscape. A thin man with a white beard and bald head sat in the center of a small zen garden and smiled. Bob felt a tension, like a child approaching a father he longed to grow out from under, and approached the man.
“Hello, Bob,” said the guru, giving the Bs in his name very strong pronunciation.
“Hello,” Bob said as he sat down on a small stool.
“What brings you to me?”
Bob nearly stood then and there. The advice he once loved so dearly had withered down into something he could barely tolerate. Perceived insight was now taken as condescension. Bob looked around at the ugly rooftop and wondered how he had ever ended up there.
The guru waited.
“I’ve been feeling a lot of stress lately. Work. The kids. Life, ya know?” Bob gave a weary look to the pollution that dirtied the sky. “Just stress. A lot of stress. The economy and everything. I dunno…” he trailed off and shook his head.
The guru gave him a long look but did not speak.
“Are there any exercises I can do?” Bob asked. “For clarity or something?”
“Do you ever walk in the woods?” the guru asked.
Bob shrugged. “Sometimes. I guess. It’s kinda hard around here, ya know?”
“When you walk, do you listen to the sounds that are around you? And I don’t mean hear them as you pass by, but actively listen.”
Bob skirted the question and gave a movement that was both a nod and a shrug. He felt stupid for doing it. It was half-hearted. There was no point, no gain in lying to this man. In the attempt to answer in a way that was right, he only lied to himself. Worse yet, he knew it.
The guru smiled. “Go into the woods. Walk slowly. Carry an object of nature in your hand. Listen to the sounds that come to you. If there are things that you cannot discern because of the loudness of your steps, walk softer. If your steps are still too loud, stop walking completely. If even when you’re still you cannot listen to the woods, squat down so that you are close to the ground. Do this and listen.”
“Okay,” Bob said. “For what?”
“You’ll come to find that it is impossible to be quiet enough to hear everything. Eventually, your own breath becomes like a raging storm in your ears. You’ll slow your breathing to try to catch what comes between, but then you find that your heart pounds like thunder. So you’ll position yourself to lower your heart rate, but even still there is more that can be heard.”
“Okay,” said Bob. “What then?”
“But even then,” continued the guru, “it will do you no good. With your breathing controlled and your heart rate slowed, you’ll soon only hear the ringing that comes from your own ears. What you’re listening for will still escape you.”
“But what am I listening for?” Bob asked again.
“Silence,” said the guru.
Bob’s eyes narrowed, and he gave his guru a slight glare. “Can silence be heard?”
Bob shook his head and laughed under his breath. “Then why am I trying to listen for it?”
“For the same reason you’re trying to control the events in your life.”
Bob could feel the anger filling in his voice and paused a moment before responding. “Are you saying it’s pointless to try to seek a desired outcome?”
“No,” said the guru, “although it is pointless. I’m saying that no end will ever be enough for you. With each obstacle you overcome, you’ll create a new one in its place. You live in tomorrow, not today. But you can never exist in tomorrow. You can only exist in today. And so it is with silence that can never be heard, as long as you place your dreams and desires in the future, you will never exist in state where you allow yourself to realize them today.”
Bob stared at the old man and stood. He had half a mind to kick the stupid stool into his precious little zen garden.