The Eye-Twitch Path to Peace
Two months before my 38th birthday, I was offered the job of my lifetime: joining the marketing and management consulting staff of a large, well-regarded international consulting group.
It turned out that the job was really two jobs. One was doing training seminars for entrepreneurs. The other was working with young companies on their initial business and marketing plans. Added together, it meant that I had to spend somewhere around 60 hours a week to stay on top of my obligations. No matter. I was young, I was happy, I was well paid. I had a red sports car – a Saab, but still. My boyfriend was the hunkiest entrepreneur this side of the Rockies.
Within five months of joining the firm my left eye started to twitch. If you’ve ever experienced this you know that twitches are completely unpredictable: they can start at any time, are without rhythm, and last just as long as they want to. In other words, your eye just goes nuts. My twitches mostly struck during client meetings or after a long day of teaching. At first I worried that the twitch would be distracting to other people in meetings but then quickly figured out how to gracefully lean one hand close to the eye to hold it in place, while taking copious meeting notes with my other hand. I told myself the pose made me look wise. Thoughtful. Solution-driven.
Then my right eye started to twitch. Since I couldn’t hold them both in place and take notes. I decided to visit my eye doctor to see if she had any tiny, skin colored, strong band-aids that I could use to tape my eyes in place during meetings. When I asked, and explained the problem, she examined both eyes and said one word, “Stress.” While I didn’t want to tell her how to run her practice ― doctors weren’t my specialty ― I was pretty sure she was wrong. I was happy, after all. Had plenty of billable hours, a good home life. She waited me out and told me that I either needed to get rid of the stress or take drugs to calm my nervous system. She could give me a prescription. Given my extended family’s love for all things addictive I turned down the prescription and asked if she had any ideas about stress relief.
“Take a meditation class.”
In those days, pre-Zen in the Midwest anyway, I had no idea what she was talking about. But since she sent me home sans band-aids and with an admonishment to do something before my entire face started twitching, I looked up meditation in the Ann Arbor phone book. There was only one listing: The Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple. I knew nothing of Zen Buddhism, and the temple was largely hidden behind a massive stone wall. They could be doing anything back there. Since desperation can lead to great courage I called and asked about classes. They had one coming up. I signed up and showed up, only to be welcomed into a building that, relative to the world I knew, could only be described as bizarre. A huge altar with a big Buddha statue took up one end of the meditation room. The woman at the door was bald and went barefoot, inside and out. It was winter. I heard someone chanting. Few lights were on. The place smelled of incense and it wasn’t anything like the incense I knew from my Catholic upbringing. Thank God I had asked a good friend to call the police if I turned up missing at work the next day.
I stayed for the class and it was, in a word, wonderful. The teacher, Haju Linda Murray, was friendly and calm and radiated kindness. She taught us how to breathe from our haras, the lower stomach, slowly. She taught us how to do stretches that would help to prepare our bodies for meditation, and how to gently lower our eyes to focus on one spot on the floor. We just needed to breathe in and out, noticing our thoughts as they came up, and then simply go back to our breath. In between short sittings she shared basic Buddhist teachings with us: Life is hard for everyone, and there is an inherent unsatisfyingness about it (dukkha). That this dukkha grows out of our grasping and craving, but that we can dig ourselves up and out of this mess by living a life that is moral, compassionate, and wise. She was way more elegant than my little summary here, but you get the idea. I was shocked at how much the teachings resonated with my own experience and understanding of the world and how it works.
Within three weeks both eye twitches were gone. No trace remained. Nothing. Nil. Nada. And they never came back. I kept going to the temple anyway, fascinated by what Haju was telling us about this Buddha character. I bought books about Buddhism and read them into the night. I even hired a Chinese tutor to teach me Chinese so I could read some of the sutras in a different language to make sure there wasn’t some hidden catch. I invited my mother out from Massachusetts to take a look at the place and its people to make sure I hadn’t fallen into some kind of cult. She has a sixth sense about that sort of thing. They were clean.
So I kept meditating, until suddenly I was in a seminary, and then teaching in my own Zen Buddhist Temple and then, seemingly as suddenly, living in a tiny hermitage near a river in Eugene, happily ever after. Every day I bow in gratitude to those eye twitches. Every day.