Yes, there was plenty to explore in the eternal city, and for the first time in my life I lived within walking distance of all the main attractions, but there was also only so many times one could walk around the Colosseum, or lounge in the parks and gardens, reading, waiting for something to happen. I don’t know how long it took, maybe a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but I soon started to realise that if you want something to happen, you’ve got to go out and make it happen.
Making something happen for most 24 year-olds living in a foreign city would probably involve going out in the evenings with colleagues and students, getting shitfaced in the many bars and restaurants near Piazza della Repubblica and Termini (the school where I worked was situated close to both of these). Maybe I should try and get over the break-up of this, my first significant relationship, by finding someone else? And doesn’t finding someone else involve socialising with other single people who are looking for the same things as you are?
But I had never made things happen for myself in this way, not necessarily out of high-mindedness towards the pursuit, but rather a bent towards introversion backed up by a strong aversion to losing control (via drink, drugs, or the unpredictable oscillations of company). I had no plans to start now. Other people went out to get their needs met, I stayed in.
Inside myself, that is.
Perhaps the only compromise I made was in joining a Zen Buddhist sitting group, who met in a studio space near Piazza Dante – I loved the idea of the spiritual pilgrim Dante somehow being in this Eastern mix, even just in name.
I had flirted a bit with buddhism and meditation while I was in Milan. Rif, the Russian hairdresser who lived downstairs, and who I’d hear chanting through the floorboards with his Soka Gakkai pals “nam myoho renge kyo” every evening over and over again, had lent me Shunryu Suzuki’s classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind which I’d read and loved, so maybe now was the time to throw myself seriously into hard-core spiritual practice?
The studio was a wood-lined box in which we’d gather to sit together/alone. Flawlessly polished floors, a small changing room with a simple linen curtain to afford some privacy; ten people filing in every morning at 6 am, as well as two evenings a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) at 7pm.
After changing into our black robes, we would sit facing outwards, away from each other, eyes focused on the brick wall in front of us, or where the skirting board made contact with the floor, hands held in a special position (the Zen mudra) palms upward, fingers of bottom hand resting on the fingers of the top, tips of the thumbs just touching.
As with everything that happened in that room, the mudra felt both reassuring and also highly stress-inducing, like holding a ballet pose under the beady eyes of a Nureyev or a Kenneth MacMillan. But that’s what we did, what I now did too: sitting, self-consciously at first, but less so as time went on, breathing, focusing on breath from the inside out, day after day, week after week, quietly waiting to be enlightened.
Or maybe, as I later learnt, once I could distinguish my Soto Zen Buddhists from their Tibetan and Vipassana cousins (Vipassana being the tradition from which secular Mindfulness was spawned) the Zen crowd saw the practice of sitting on their square black mats atop plump kapok-stuffed cushions as a way to already connect to kensho or satori. That is: seeing into our true nature, aka Buddha-nature, aka our souls. Which is what “being enlightened” essentially meant. No big deal really. No thunderbolts or lightning. No Wagnerian soundtrack required.
Up to ten of us, sometimes a few more or less, would meet in those early winter mornings before sunrise, a kind of Buddhist minyan I would sometimes think, reconnecting for a split-second with my Jewish roots.
Now, 20 years later, recalling those mornings and the people I sat with, I can only bring to mind the faces of three people: Michele, Silvia, and Massimo.