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8. Michelin Man under the Orange Tree

Being a novice meditator,
much comes before I'm ready.

In my meditation today I decide to try some techniques described in books on tantric mysticism that I had been reading for my research, specifically the use of mantras and mandalas as meditation tools. Mantras, I learned, are words or syllables, usually of Sanskrit origin, often without conceptual meaning, that are chanted or intoned during meditation as a method of intuitively experiencing the mysteries they symbolize, and for helping to focus the mind. Mandalas, similarly, provide a means by which symbols represented, for example, as Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, and various deities, are visualized during meditation practices not to be worshipped, but rather for the meditator to internalize their virtuous aspects.

I get comfortable on my meditation pillow, I focus on my in-breath, my out-breath, my in-breath, my out-breath, and when I feel ready, I begin to chant: "Om Mani Padme Hum" as instructed in my readings. However, rather than focusing my mind, my mind immediately wanders, and I am reminded of a book entitled "Chant and Be Happy" that was thrust upon me by a Hare Krishna disciple somewhere in California some 20-30 years ago. Having, at the time, nowhere to discretely toss this unwelcomed gift from the strange young man (or was it a woman?) dressed in the flimsy saffron robes, I had put the little paperback book in my pocket and taken it home with me. Although I had never read it, I had, for some reason, never discarded it either. Perhaps I got a kick out of knowing it was sandwiched somewhere between books on scientific research methodology, psychology, sociology, biology, and various other "ologies" that resided on my bookshelves. How many times had that little book been packed and unpacked over the years? On how many shelves had it collected dust? So, where is "Chant and Be Happy" now, I wondered, as I sat chanting "Om Mani Padme Hum," and not feeling particularly happy about it? I had been unable to find it this morning when I'd wanted to compare the scholarly discourse on the mantra that I had been studying for my research to that dusty and discolored little paperback that had been given to me so long ago with its no doubt exceedingly simple instructions for how, today, I could in fact chant and be happy. I conclude that it was probably inadvertently included among the books donated for the town's annual book sale, and I console myself with the thought that someone else is probably out there somewhere right now chanting away happily, even if I am not.

I manage to bring my thoughts back to the task at hand -- to try out various meditation techniques. I decide to try a visualization. I recall from my reading that meditators achieve a state of tranquility by visualizing the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree.

Well, try as I might, the only image that comes to me is the Michelin man sitting under an orange tree.

At first I found this image more than a bit disconcerting, and feared that I may be beyond all hope of Enlightenment if even in my imagery I could be so disrespectful. Berating myself, I am reminded of the admonition oft repeated in my various "how to meditate" instruction books to let any intrusive thoughts just pass on through without engaging them.

Again, I manage to bring my thoughts back to the task at hand.

I continue chanting, I continue visualizing. The image does not change -- the Buddha is still a comical figure created from a stack of tires sitting under a tree whose branches are heavy with ripe oranges. I don't fight it any more. In fact, as I chant the mantra and focus on the image, I am able to connect with a part of myself that is playful and carefree.

After an hour or so -- longer than my usual meditation time -- I go to the kitchen to prepare my breakfast. I am feeling -- as the little paperback book most certainly would have predicted -- very happy. As I peel my orange, I think about the image of the Michelin man and wonder where on earth that came from. Then I remember.

As a student some 20 years ago I had attended a workshop on the use of guided visualization for stress management. During an experiential component, the workshop facilitator guided the attendees through a visualization exercise designed to help us meet our "inner-guide." She had told us that our inner-guide would take the form of something that was personally meaningful in our lives, that it might manifest in animal form or human form, and that we should not force it, but rather just let it appear. Not being particularly fond of surprises, and being a long-time dog-lover, I decided a priori that my personal inner-guide would surely take the form of a dog. No question about it. And so the workshop facilitator began the guided imagery exercise, guiding us down a path, at the end of which each of us would "see" our personal inner guide (who no doubt would be wagging his tail in anticipation). I dutifully visualized the path, visualized myself walking down to the end of the path, got to the end of the path to meet my guide, and there waiting for me was --- the Michelin man. No dog, just the Michelin man.

When each of us at the workshop shared our experiences, I laughed off the facilitator's suggestion that perhaps it was a (decidedly strange) image of Buddha. I knew absolutely nothing about Buddhism, and had no interest in it, and apart from having a few vague memories of comical Buddha figurines in gift shops in San Francisco's Chinatown, I really didn't know what the Buddha was supposed to look like.

I hadn't thought about that workshop or about my brief encounter with the Hare Krishna devotee in many years. Perhaps 20 years ago I was not ready for what the "Michelin Man" and the "Chant and Be Happy" book could teach me, each in their own way. Today, standing in the kitchen peeling my orange, I wonder, "and now?"