Yesterday, Katia and I went to the weekly meditation and lecture series at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County. Think of it as church for Buddhism.

It started with a miraculous drive across the Bay that combined a stunning California morning with the far rarer phenomenon of zero traffic. The event began with forty minutes of meditation, which I managed to botch entirely. My mind flitted to this blog, then to Katia, then to a stand-up comedy routine I’m working on, then I said the hell with it and opened my eyes and started noticing details around the room (the angle of the lighting, the number of support beams). It was around then that I noticed my foot had fallen asleep, so I spent the next chunk of time trying to wiggle my big toe back to life like in Kill Bill.

When the blood got flowing, I resettled, took a few deep breaths, felt my body begin to sink into calm, and–BONG! A cacophony of clacks and chimes indicated that meditation was over.

After an odd silent interlude, a monk advanced to the front of the class. Straight out of central casting for a hippie Northern California Zen practitioner, he was white with a shaved head, collarbone-skinny, and wearing a billowing robe that he tucked around himself with a series of theatrical origami folds before sliding onto a podium.

“Thank you for coming to the meeting,” he began with the lobotomized drawl of the immensely relaxed.  The 30-second pause the followed was completely expected. “Welcome to the meeting,” he continued.

We gained steam. (We had to!) The monk went on to speak of life as a conversation between opposing forces–the finite and the infinite, the real and the delusional–and ultimately wound around to the value of stillness.

Stillness means being here, our mind settled, focused on now, instead of what’s next, the anxiety of the zillion variables of life. That’s our constant struggle. Our conversation.

Last year, my new year’s resolution was to Remain Calm. It’s easily been one of the best changes in my life. When I’m calm, I make better decisions, I think more clearly, I’m nicer. For a while, I can stand outside of the racing thrust of the information economy, which in itself is refreshing. I’m a better person.

William Ury, famed author and negotiation expert, calls this process of subduing our initial reaction “going to the balcony,” and marks it as a critical step in resolving conflict. More on that in a future post.

Finding stillness is one of the governing principles of the User Manual. A successful User Manual helps our partners help us remain–and reclaim–calm. It’s usually pretty simple stuff, really: don’t talk about certain subjects at certain times, and, when our partner does see our temperature rising, take a few simple steps to help us snap out of it.

It’s so hard. To remain calm, to harness stillness. The world is infinitely complex, and interesting, and demanding, and we’re rarely off-the-grid meditating with blissed-out monks to the point where we can really focus on one thing–or even nothing. Every drop of help we can get to find stillness, from User Manuals to hot tubs to yoga practices to meditating with Marin hippies to listening to the slow rhythms of baseball game broadcasts to cooking dinner with jazz on to our partner giving us an all-or-nothing rib-bruising hug, helps.

Back at Green Gulch, the monk wound down his talk with a request to sing us a song…and proceeded to belt out an adaptation of The Doors’ big hit called “Come on Buddha, Light my Fire” that burned a smile onto my face for the rest of the day.

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