Day seven. Patchouli and body odor—it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Clara never used to associate the two, but her ex-boyfriend Chuck had put the idea in her head. She loved patchouli, used hand-crafted bars of soap laced with it. But the smell in the meditation hall today made her think Chuck had a point. She wasn’t supposed to think of Chuck. She wasn’t supposed to think of anything. That’s why she’d subjected herself to this place with its four a.m. wake-up bell and ten hours of daily meditation, its ban on electronics, reading, writing, talking, even eye contact.
There was just the grinding of time and the tainted waft of patchouli. Fuck Chuck, she thought, and almost laughed. That Porsche-driving prick with the tiny prick had ghosted her last month. Now she was at this ridiculous camp on an island in the Pacific, barred from interacting with anyone around her. Here was a new brand of loneliness, more desperate because these people were her kind. This place was supposed to generate healing and transformation, but it felt more like some black site for torture. Still, she’d spent precious vacation days on this jaunt into asceticism, and she’d made it two-thirds of the way through; she wasn’t giving up.
The group in the hall had been instructed to maintain adhitthana, or strong resolve, for this session. That meant becoming a human statue for a full hour. She longed to shift her weight, to re-cross her legs, to itch her nose, to dab the sweat from her brow, to shoo away the daddy longlegs playing footsie with her. She wondered if the agony in her joints meant she was doing long-term damage.
Do not react. Do not crave pleasure, nor avoid pain.
She closed her eyes and tried to observe her thoughts and sensations with indifference. Pain was temporary and abstract. It held only the power she allowed. It was electrical impulses running through her nervous system, nothing more. She was eternal and immutable.
Stop thinking. Empty yourself.
Her body began to vibrate, and flashes of brilliant color popped beneath her eyelids. A sense of overwhelming peace washed over her. No wanting, no striving, no suffering. She floated in a warm ocean of passivity.
When she opened her eyes, her perspective had changed, literally. As participants stood and stretched nearby, she looked down and found the floor too far away. There was space underneath her—about six inches. She was levitating. If she were a lowly creature who succumbed to such emotions, she’d have felt joy just then. But Clara had evolved.
People shuffled out of the hall. She tried to untwist from her lotus position, but without gravity, this proved tricky. She looked for help. The masses stared past her like zombies. One dissenter, a bearded man with a kind face, noticed, and his blue eyes grew wide. He moved toward her, but the course instructor swept down the center aisle and cut him off. The bearded man offered a sheepish look, shrugged, and turned away. The hall emptied and only the instructor remained. Listing at an awkward angle, hair spilling across her face, Clara waved and asked for help.
The instructor shushed her and departed. The old Clara would have become indignant, taken it as a slight. But the new Clara no longer wasted energy on such foolishness. She affected a front crawl, like a swimmer, and created the forward momentum to gain the wall. Once there, she pawed her way along to the exit. When she finally made it to lunch, she consumed her lacto-vegetarian meal alone but did not care. She no longer craved human contact.
For the rest of the day, she floated around the camp, meditated, and took her dinner of fruit and tea. Nobody acknowledged her levitating. At the evening Q&A, the only time they were allowed to speak, she asked about it and learned it was not important. In fact, it was nothing. She accepted that.
As she lay in her hut that night, fastened to her cot by a luggage strap, a soft knock disturbed the quiet. “Who is it?” she asked, and by his halting explanation, she knew it was the bearded man. This was a bold transgression. Men and women were to remain segregated at all times. Yet she found herself strangely untroubled. She bade him open the door, and he poked his head through.
“Sorry. I know this is against the rules,” he said. “I had an internal nudge I should come check on you—”
“No worries,” she said. “I’m on my own path.”
“I thought maybe you’d like to talk about—you know.” He told her there was a full moon and invited her join him for a walk in the woods. She thought of her former self. The dreamer. The romantic. That person would have leapt at the chance to roam the forest under the moonlight with this handsome mountain man. Now her mind rested, impassive; remain strapped to her cot or slip out with him, it was all the same. She told him so.
In the gloom, she thought he looked vaguely hurt. She noted this like a scientist. Old Clara would have felt guilty, added a lie to spare his feelings. I’m sorry, sounds lovely but I’ve a migraine, she might have said.
“You’re really—there. Aren’t you?” he observed. “Well, good night then.” He slunk out and closed the door.
Old Clara would have liked this man: rugged, genuine, humble. His beard was thick, a bit unkempt, so unlike Chuck’s manicured stubble. She imagined him a single father, a widower with a rustic cabin on some acreage in the woods. There, he tended his organic garden with his children, conversed with wolves and deer, and read the Mahayana Sutras by firelight. It was fortunate she had not met him yesterday. He might have hampered her path.
Day eight. The wake-up bell rang. She unbuckled the luggage strap and promptly rose to the ceiling. She must have become more enlightened overnight. To her credit, she did not react when she found her nose smashed against the rough-hewn wooden beams. She turned her head, and splinters dug into her cheek. Detached from expectation, she considered the reality of enlightenment and observed that Old Clara might have found it lacking.
With difficulty, she crawled across the ceiling and down the wall. There was no furniture in the austere room, nothing to hold onto. She clutched the leg of her cot with one hand and dressed with the other. At least in her tiny loo there was a sink to grab hold of, but using the toilet required some coordination. All this took a while.
A female instructor knocked at the door to investigate Clara’s absence from the morning session. She began to explain, but the instructor shushed her. The woman placed an index finger to her lips and shot Clara a stern look. She motioned toward the meditation hall and departed.
Clara grasped the doorknob and pulled herself out into the humid morning. Her feet floated up, and before she knew it, she was hanging onto the doorknob upside down like a tethered balloon. Well, this is interesting, she thought. And she thought that for some time, perhaps an hour, until the morning session ended and people started to trickle down the path near her hut. Except nobody looked at her. She understood. It was nothing.
Her belly panged with hunger. Her hands began to cramp from gripping the doorknob. Blood pooled in her brain, and her head felt like it would explode. The remote thought that she might float away and die somewhere over the ocean passed through her mind like a cloud.
Finally, the bearded man appeared, and his arrival on the women’s path ignited a silent outcry of indignation. He ignored it and rushed to Clara’s aid, turning her right-side up and throwing an arm around her shoulders as an anchor. “I noticed you missing. How long were you like that?”
She wasn’t sure. The bearded man thought it was awful nobody had helped her. She told him it just was and asked if he’d mind assisting her to the dining hall. He held her arm and pulled her along next to him, but her feet kept rising into the air, so she proposed he embrace her from behind. She was an awkward bundle, but they managed.
“You need some ankle weights,” he said.
“I don’t need anything anymore.”
“Yeah, I guess. I could just carry you around like this all day—but the ankle weights might be more practical.”
“Or I could just float away,” she said.
“You smell good,” he said. “Like patchouli and incense.”
He appreciated patchouli. How very unlike Chuck. Chuck had laughed at her ionic crystals and meridian tapping, her kundalini and sound therapy. There was a bulge in the bearded man’s loose pants, rubbing against her, and this too felt very unlike Chuck. “Sorry,” the man said, “just sensory deprivation.” It was good none of this mattered.
He wanted to know about enlightenment. She said it was a vast, empty savannah. How did she achieve it? She didn’t know. Was she happy? No. Did she feel euphoric or any of that? No. He seemed deflated. “So, it’s really just nothing? Sounds kinda empty.”
Come to think of it, she was empty. Maybe that’s why she was floating away—because there was nothing of weight left in her. She pondered that at the communal breakfast table, under which she hooked her knees to stay in place. A curtain hid the male section of the dining room. The bearded man was somewhere behind it, and this aroused in her a feeling of indifference. If pain no longer offered guidance, if her stubborn determination had evaporated, if desire held no sway, what was left? Further meditation was obviously unnecessary. She’d gotten everything she could from the retreat.
After breakfast, the bearded man rejoined her. People glanced at them sideways. They were rule-breakers now, transgressors. They would soon be asked to leave, and she was ready to oblige. Outside the dining hall, she told him to release her. It was her turn to ghost.
“It’s the last step,” she assured him.
“To what?” he asked.
“You’re an inspirational woman. I’ll tell my kids about you.”
He does have children, she thought, as she rose and drifted on the breeze, and I’ll bet they’re just angels. She couldn’t quite organize her balance, and so with limbs akimbo, she spun and toppled like a drunken astronaut. It was all right. She would never see the bearded man again. She would never have to readjust to normal society or fight traffic or go back to her job. She would relinquish herself to the trade winds. All things were as they should be.
Pleasant blankness filled her head. And then her head bumped into something hard and rough. She rolled over to discover she’d drifted into the canopy of a broad rain tree. Her feet rose and pulled her upward, so that she bounced and tumbled into the branches, scraping and bruising the body she thought she no longer cared about. It hurt. A lot.
“Bugger!” she said. And before the word had left her mouth, gravity slapped her on the bum. She bounced and tumbled back the way she’d come and remembered a nasty comment Chuck had made about another woman once—how she must have fallen down the ugly tree and hit every branch. Fuck Chuck, she thought, and laughed until the ground knocked the wind out of her. She lay on her back, sipping oxygen when what she needed was a gulp. She panicked and decided she wanted to live and she wanted to feel and she wanted to want.
And like a vision, her patchouli-loving companion appeared, his matted hair haloed by the golden morning sun. She tried to speak but could only wheeze. He produced a crystal of rose quartz, pressed it to her chest, and told her she was going to be okay. She believed. Very soon, her diaphragm relaxed, and she inhaled a beautiful, life-giving draft of God’s own sweet air.
Miraculously, she had not broken any bones. Her wounds and bruises were superficial. The bearded man helped her up. The firm ground was a blessing under her sandaled feet. She brushed the leaves and grass from her clothes, smoothed her hair, and said, “I think I’ll go for a walk in the woods. Would you like to join?”
Jason S. Dennis lives in Los Angeles. He attended USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and works in advertising. His stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Exposition Review. Twitter: @jasonsdennis