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Extract from The Server

From Chapter Two:

Dukkha


“Do you think,” I asked Mrs Harper “that the servers should be eating the bananas, I mean with there not being enough for all the meditators.” She smiled. She has a slight American accent. “Elisabeth, dear, if you feel like eating a banana, please do. No one wants you to go without.”
Her eyes are always surprised, in a generous way. Her voice drawls and coos. On the other hand, she’s always reminding us that the servers mustn’t eat before the meditators have finished, we’re here to serve them, so if we wanted bananas we would have to put them aside for ourselves before laying the fruit out. Which is not in the spirit of the Dasgupta, is it? The spirit of the Dasgupta is that we cook for the meditators and eat their leftovers. We don’t cook for ourselves. Those are the rules. We come second. “If you want a banana,” I told Ralph, and I tipped him a wink, “you’d better put one aside before the hordes arrive.” He was carrying out the toast tray for the men and his eyes fell. He’d already put a couple of bananas aside. I knew. Good job I loathe the things or there’d be a serious shortage.
I opened the dining hall door and the meditators pushed through. There’s a sink in the porch to wash your hands, but nobody does. It’s six-thirty and they’ve been up since four. They haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, at eleven. People are always pleased with themselves after the early morning session. We feel virtuous meditating before breakfast and at this hour virtue seems worth having. It brings peace of mind. I remember my first peace of mind at the Dasgupta came during a morning session. It was the first moment I caught myself feeling good after months of misery. As soon as I noticed, of course, the feeling went. I was straight back to the torment and confusion. But I had experienced it for a moment, and that gave me hope. Later I realised you must never tell yourself you’re at peace. This is a weird thing with the Dasgupta. You can learn to be calm here. You sort of perform calmness. You can make yourself serene and very slow so that you feel like you’re actually mixed up with the things around you. Your body is the rabbit in the dew at dawn, or the sycamores behind the hall when the wind shakes their leaves. I can’t explain. But the moment you notice it and congratulate yourself, the spell breaks and you’re in trouble again.
Often, especially in the early days, it seemed to me that this business of losing the calm and balance I’d been working towards always happened at meal¬times. In the Metta Hall, surrounded by a hundred and fifty people wrapped in blankets, sitting still, breathing quietly, you could settle yourself in a wordless trance. Where there are no words, there are no decisions, no names, no plans, no pain. Even your body grows transparent, like it was made of air. Then you’re happy. No. Happy is wrong. You’re easy, unworried. You are floating in a cool river and the water carries you down.
Then the gong sounds and you have to eat. You have to get up from your cushion, put on your shoes, walk to the dining hall. You have to decide what to eat and how much. You start wondering whether it’s better to be served first when the porridge is piping hot or later when the banana mob have grabbed their loot and gone. You start to watch the others, to think, to criticize, to calculate. You want to eat frugally, to be virtuous, but then your food is finished and you’re still hungry, no, you’re hungrier than before. You go back for a second bowl of porridge, pile up your plate with toast, slabs of butter, spoonfuls of jam, two apples, two oranges. Stuffing yourself, you remember the pig-outs after concerts, beer and biryani, joints and whisky. Then you see yourself four in a bed in some slum hotel or hostel. Doncaster. Dortmund. Or huddled together in sleeping bags in the van. Carl, Zoe, Frank. A huge hand for Frank Halliday on DRUMS! Suddenly you realise how peaceful you were ten minutes ago in the hall on your cushion and how completely that peaceful¬ness has gone. It’s gone. The porridge is poisoned. The apples are sour.
Don’t eat, Beth. Stop eating.
I skipped meals. It’s never been a problem for me, not to eat. It’s harder for me to eat moderately than to cut out food altogether. One thing or the other, that’s me. Gluttony or starvation. But you have to eat at the Dasgupta, the same way you have to meditate. Not eating is not allowed. The same Dhamma workers who count you in for the hour of Strong Determination are there to check that you go to lunch. Course Managers is their official name, though they don’t really manage anything. They have their registers and clipboards. You have to meditate with the Dasgupta method and you have to eat Dasgupta food at Dasgupta times. Vegetarian. 6.30 and 11 am.
“Elisabeth,” Mrs Harper took me aside. “You’re not eating.”
This was before I became a server. I’d been here a month maybe, sitting one retreat after another. They’re free after all. Obviously they’d realised I was a case.
“I’m off food. I want to purify myself.”
Mrs Harper smiled. She was firm. “Fasting is not allowed at the Dasgupta, Elisabeth. You must go and eat now.”
And she meant that to be the end of the conversation. Fasting is not allowed, that’s what it says in the Dasgupta Institute rule book, so there is no need for discussion. Whenever you talk to the people who count at the Dasgupta, they close the conversation quickly. It’s not that they don’t want to help you. They have a whole schedule of times when you can go and talk to them. One day when I’ve thought of the right question I’ll go and talk to Mi Nu. But they always close the conversa¬tion quickly. There’s a rule, so obey it. Things are clear at the Dasgupta. Discussion would inflame the mind. They identify your problem and provide the solution: meditate. If you’re in pain, make an objective note, say to yourself, pain, pain, not my pain. If distracting thoughts keep churning in your head, say, thoughts, thoughts, not my thoughts. And that’s that. They see you are breaking a rule and very politely they remind you not to.
“Fasting is forbidden, Elisabeth, now let’s be silent again.”
“Why is it forbidden?”
I do want to be like them. I want to have what they have, to sit stiller than still, like Mi Nu. Only someone perfectly peaceful inside could sit so still for so long. But I need to provoke them too. I want to make them squirm.
“Tell me why it’s forbidden.”
Mrs Harper was smiling her surprised smile. She’s like a head¬mistress with a favourite who’s got into mischief.
“We’re not masochists, Elisabeth. We don’t believe in punishing ourselves. That’s not the way to purity”.
“I eat like a pig,” I told her. “I hate myself.”
She cocked her head on one side.
“Look, I’ve done some bad stuff,” I went on. “But really bad. I don’t want to be reincarnated as a pig!”
I meant it, but then I couldn’t help laughing. I spluttered. Mrs Harper said nothing.
“You’ve no idea,” I wailed. “I’m sure I’ll be better if I don’t eat for a week or so. Just let me starve for a week. I’ve got to do something about myself. I want to be pure.”
Mrs Harper said, “Not eating after noon every day is purification enough, Elisabeth. The important thing is to learn to eat with moderation. Starving yourself will only lead to pride and self importance.”
“But that’s the point,” I yelled. “I can’t do anything with moderation. I just can’t.”
I burst into tears. She said nothing, but I knew she was watching me. I stopped and snuffled. She offered a tissue.
“You see,” I told her “I’m such a drama queen.”
“You’ll learn,” Mrs Harper said. “That’s what the Dasgupta’s for. Actually, you are already learning, Elisabeth, you’re already changing. Now you want to speed up that change. You want to purify yourself all at once. That’s understandable, but it is a mistake. Change comes at its own pace. Meditate and observe, Elisabeth. Develop your equanimity. Observe yourself as you are and as you change with an equanimous mind. There is no hurry.”
If Mi Nu had told me this I’m sure I would have found it very beautiful. I was furious.
“I killed someone,” I told her. “That’s why I came here. Someone died because of me. Maybe more than one. That’s why I’ve got to purify myself. Ok?”
Mrs Harper sighed. Her shapeless chest rose and fell in her grey dress. She thought for a moment then said: “I am not your confessor, Elisabeth. There is no God seeking to punish you. There is no priest to absolve you. For the moment it’s enough for you to know that fasting is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute.”
Lunch was almost over. She pointed the way and led me to the dining hall. I filled my plate with curried pasta, helped myself to a mountain of apple pie and ate like a hog.