As I took the bus from the airport into the city today, I had my notepad out, waiting for something to happen. “Show yourself to me,” I kept asking Thailand. “Show yourself to me so I can tell your stories.”
One hour later.
I am sitting on the side of Khao San Road, one of the busiest, most traveled streets in Bangkok. This road is a quarter mile long, and a phenomenon in and of itself. It bustles like a creature alive, because it is. It is a mecca for travelers all over southeast Asia, drawing thousands, perhaps millions of travelers annually. It is bursting with music, street vendors, dreadlocked backpackers, girls who are fresh from the islands with their skin peeling off, barefoot ex-patriots, shouting tuk-tuk drivers, corrupt policeman, and the wafting of incense and dog shit on the air, filling your nostrils. The energy is so vibrant it pulses within you. I love to come to Bangkok just to feel it.
However, after twenty-two hours of travel, I was tired. I had showered, unpacked, and gone out in search of phad thai from a street vendor, and was now happily grubbing in the shadows of a clothing cart. As I sat perched on the edge of the sidewalk, Khao San Road streamed by me. I was in a quiet mood. I couldn’t believe I was finally here. I had pictured myself here so many times, it was almost as though I was watching a phantom me walk by on the street.
I felt alone. This wasn’t a bad feeling or a good feeling, merely an observation I made about my state of being. No one here knew me. I wasn’t a part of that pack of beach bums drinking beers at a sidewalk bar. They laughed loudly, their bleached-blonde hair tied back in colorful cloth hair bands. I didn’t have a dark-haired counterpart at my side, like the two Swedish girls who walked by, giggling together, their eyebrows and lips pierced. None of the street vendors knew me. I wasn’t expected anywhere, nor was I recognized by anyone. I was anonymous.
On that bustling street in Bangkok, it is easy to go unnoticed. As I sat there eating my noodles, I was aware of how quiet I had become, of how little space I was taking up. Even the vendor whose street cart I sat in front of had no idea I was there. The people in the street streamed by, and the people in the bars shouted and laughed, but no one saw me. I continued pulling my energy inward, willing the world to look away, to look at other things. I only wanted to observe, I had no desire to make a scene.
Just then a man appeared, walking down the middle of the road. He was looking straight at me. Something in me jolted. I knew this man. He was of average build, with dark eyes, and prominent eyebrows. Tufts of hair stood out at the sides of his head. He had a quirky expression on his face, as though he felt a general amusement towards the world. He was almost smiling. I held his eyes for a moment, and then one of us (or both of us?) looked down. Quickly, we looked back up, locking eyes again. It was clear that there was an element of recognition there. How did I know him?
In that moment, several thoughts flashed through my mind, like a rolodex flipping quickly through its pages. He looked like Frank, my parent’s friend, an old gray-haired hippie who always smells like pot. My next thought was that I must know him from the islands. Maybe he was one of those ex-pats who lived on a tiny beach down south and smoked spliffs all day. Had I done a visa run with him years before? This seemed plausible, though I wasn’t entirely sold. He seemed to know me too, and to be waiting for me to place him. We held eye contact for long enough that the distinct tension of recognition was felt. He seemed to feel this as clearly as I did, and I almost felt bad, like this was someone I should have jumped up and said hello to, and yet… I couldn’t place him.
As he passed me, he looked back one more time, and his step seemed to slow. I thought he might stop and turn around, tell me how I knew him. But then his step picked up again, and he was gone.
Just as he disappeared into the throngs of people, it hit me. Jack Kornfield! My heart thumped hard, and my mouth dropped open. That was Jack Kornfield! I couldn’t believe it. For those of you who are familiar with Buddhism, that name may ring a bell. For those of you who are not, I’ll tell you the little that I do know about him.
Jack Kornfield is an American Buddhist, and the founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California. He often graces the covers of Buddhist magazines that you’ll see at your local co-op store. He has recorded beaucoup des CD’s of guided meditations, and his books are available everywhere, from tiny coffee houses in Portland, Oregon to Barnes and Noble bookstores all over the world. The man is famous, and he is famous for being a meditation master!
I stood up smiling, shocked. I felt a bit star-struck, and wanted to follow him. I tried, but quickly lost what I thought was his bobbing head in the crowd. The man I thought was him stopped at a street vendor’s cart and turned out to be an overweight tourist.
I couldn’t believe it! This felt like the best omen possible. As I moved forward into the abyss of people, sounds, and smells, a smile lit up my face. Suddenly, I felt like a part of the crowd, not just an observer. I was animated. My face must have been brighter, and I felt my lips moving as I spoke to myself in amazement. I saw a person in an outdoor café watching me, probably because he thought I was talking to myself. I was smiling like I had just seen a friend. The beautiful coincidence of seeing Jack Kornfield struck me on many levels.
First, I had been asking Bangkok to show itself to me, so that I might have stories to share with you. And then Jack Kornfield walked by me on Khao San Road, looking me in the eyes and seeming to dare me to say hello. The story handed itself to me. I didn’t even have to try.
I was also amazed by the fact that he had seen me. When I saw him walking toward me, he was already looking into my eyes. No one else on that busy street had seen me. In fact, right before I had seen him, I had been playing a bit of a game in my mind. The stiller I became, the more invisible I was to others. I knew this. I could feel it. No one was looking at me, no one registered that I was there. The street roared around me, but no one took notice of the girl on the sidewalk eating noodles. I was literally willing their attention away, marveling over the fact that one can become so invisible to the world simply by drawing all her energy inwards. As I played that game, Ibegan to feel lonelier and lonelier. It was clear to me that no one on that road had any idea I was there. Then I looked up to see Jack Kornfield watching me, a slight smile on his face.
For those of you who I haven’t talked to lately, it is also one of my missions to practice meditation during my time here in Asia. I made a New Years Resolution (in the company of many of my female friends for witnesses) to practice meditation for at least three months during 2009. I am not envisioning a fleeting sit here and there, I am talking about a committed practice that makes up my life, day and night, during the time that I commit myself to it. So of all of the people in the world that I could look up and see on my first day in Thailand, it was joyous and surreal to see Jack Kornfield, meditation master, looking back at me.
It occurred to me a bit later that perhaps it hadn’t actually been Jack Kornfield that I had seen. What are the chances, really? What would he be doing on Khao San Road? Thailand is a heavily Buddhist county, so that would make sense, but still… crazy! I thought, if I write about this, someone might jump online, and find out that Jack Kornfield was actually in California, teaching a course on compassionate meditation at the time that Sarah allegedly saw him. Then I thought, Who cares!? Even if that wasn’t Jack Kornfield, it looked exactly like him, and the coincidences were enough to spark joy and inspiration in me. So I say, Hooray! Thank you Universe, for giving me that experience! I can’t wait to see more!