by Nick Shaffer
The walls are painted white. Not an off white tannish color, not an eggshell white or ivory or vanilla. The walls are white. It was not a professional paint job; there are little ridges and bubbles and sharp imperfections that feel rough against your hands. I’ve mapped them out across the wall, named them, categorized them into sections. Some form crude images, primitive constellations on a glowing sky. In the northwest corner region is the Siren, the rock underneath and the girl singing, her head titled back slightly. Chest level on the west wall houses a great boar, his tusks made out of two drops of paint that ran together for the same length before drying. The back of the door sports an uncanny stick figure of a man, though his right arm is shorter than his left.
The floor is a deep gray. I am familiar with this floor. I stand on this floor sixteen hours a day. It is industrial tile, smooth and solid, so flat and unflinchingly hard that standing on it hurts your feet after a while. The single bulb on the ceiling floods the tile with flashing streaks of white-hot glare. It emits a faint hum, an elusive frequency that you can only hear on the deadest of days, when the birds are silent and the roads are clear and the air is still. You can manipulate the glare of the bulb based on where you stand in the room. Sometimes the arrangements look like a type of modern art, the flashes forming little portals to alternate dimensions, golden pools that you might stick your finger in and feel warmth.
It is a four by four foot room standing seven feet three inches tall. The frame is wooden, sturdy old oak from my uncle’s logging company and measured and cut and assembled in his workshop by yours truly on the weekends. It has no windows.
I wanted to center myself. I felt turbulence, an elemental glitch that took me by the temples and shook. I had been a photographer, seen the world, had bathed and ate and swam in a hundred different cultures. Riots in Istanbul, a pygmy chimp in the Congo, Kilimanjaro in the early morning hours, the clouds hovering below the summit. A hundred beautiful landscapes, diplomatic leaders, antique cars, world record breakers, all of them snapped and stolen for eternity from behind the lens.
I grew so tired of it; the hours of editing, the days of camping out, the nights in rotten foreign hotels. Imagine: it’s boiling hot, humid, the air is heavy and wet and so are your clothes. Or it’s freezing cold, the air bites at your extremities, your ears are aching and blood red and your eyes feel stuck in place. And you have to steady your hand, wait for the right moment, wait for it, wait for it, now now now now. Be precise. And in the deepest recesses of your mind there’s a whisper: What if you miss the shot? What if the shot you thought was the shot turns out to be garbage? What if your timing was perfect but you sneezed? Imagine your nightmares viewed through a blurry lens. You hate the word. Blur. Artistic license be damned, we need a clear shot. Being perpetually behind schedule. Keep moving, always moving, always hiking or catching a bus or cab or wagon, never stopping to see, only really seeing behind the lens. And I kept up, trudged along at the camera’s pace for years until I saw an alternative.
The routine is this: wake at 8 am, eat breakfast, shower, then into the room. I flip on the light and stretch and prepare myself mentally. Then it begins, first on the western wall. I spend four hours on each wall, shifting position when my internal clock rings. In the early days I used an alarm clock, but as my awareness heightened I found I didn’t need it. I allow myself sitting breaks, cross-legged on the floor, whenever I feel discomfort in the legs, and of course an occasional bathroom trip. I’m thinking of my health in this endeavor.
It was in Dharamsala, near the Himalayas, a trip for a story on Tibetan monks. I’d covered monks before, when I was younger, a brash and hungry man with energy and fire that blinded me to the work going on there. I saw a strange religion, some sacred and holy wisemen sitting around with their thoughts. Wasting time. I filed it with the rest of the East, right alongside downtown Tokyo and the jungles of Laos and the orangutan of Borneo. But I returned when I was older, eroded and impressionable.
We traveled to a monastery in McLeod Ganj, that center of transplanted Tibetan culture, where I saw the man. He was not a monk, this man, but a tourist, with a baseball cap and disposable camera and flip on sunglasses mounted on his glasses frames. I caught the man at a crossroads, the pivot between two lives. It was during one of the morning rituals, a simple silent sit for half an hour. The man had been on the phone outside for the past few minutes, and when he walked in I noticed his furrowed brow and tense shoulders and frazzled hair peppered with drops of sweat. Some kind of annoyance: a disgruntled wife, bad business news, maybe a crying child. It followed him and hovered above him as we watched the ritual from a distance. But about halfway through the man had relocated without my noticing, and when I found him in the corner I saw a new man. He was standing a few inches from the wall, directly beside the sitting monks. His arms were straight down, his back straight and his chin level. His eyes were open, though completely still. Focused. The man’s tension was gone, replaced with a quiet contentment that you could practically see the glow of. The monks paid him no mind, and vice versa. I watched him for the rest of the ceremony, simply staring at the wall, engrossed totally in his moment, his time of living.
The challenge, of course, is focus. It was hardest at the beginning. A thousand thoughts a minute: people, places, images, food, love, sex, family, etc. For every five minutes of peace there were thirty of interference and white noise. Your mind is used to living free, without restraint, and so trying to chain it down is like taming some horrible beast. It roars and shakes and struggles, but all you can do is remember to listen, to hear your breathing in and out, to see the wall with its imperfections and to feel the stuffy air on your forehead.
I saw the man each day for the rest of our short trip, each time looking a little more natural, more at ease. He talked with the monks in a broken Tibetan and they laughed and bowed and communicated on some deeper level. He began sitting with them, chanting and reciting mantras and lighting candles. But at the end of the day I’d always still find him by his wall, his arm hairs trembling with bliss.
The first four hours are buildup, the exposition. You scan the wall patiently, cataloguing every minute detail, what you’ve already examined and what you haven’t, what you thought you once saw and what you see now. You can feel it starting to brew deep down but it hasn’t come to the surface yet. By the middle of the next wall it crawls out from its shell and makes itself felt behind your eyeballs. Euphoria. Picture the opposite of your modern worries, the absence of deadlines and disputes and stimulation. It comes in waves. A moment of distraction, a thought of a stranger in the grocery store, a middle aged woman, her two whining children, her face mid-command: authoritative, exhausted, mired in conflict. And then you catch yourself, and you settle and the thought fades and the next wave drifts in.
I returned home and threw away everything. The cameras, the film, the laptops, the software, the business cards. My employers were angry, my parents were confused, my girlfriend left me. But I didn’t hesitate. I was certain in my investment, convinced of what I’d seen in the Himalayas and of what the four walls could do for me. People tried to talk me out of it. Some laughed and some questioned and a few others got angry. But even still I persisted and built the thing and sighed with satisfaction when I’d finished, looking on my new creation in the yard like a holy shrine.
For the first week I thought I was going insane. Some hours felt like minutes and some seconds seemed to never end. I would drift off to sleep and wake in the middle of the night and think it was morning, hallucinating that I could see the sun’s fresh rays seeping in under the door. I would scream, cry, and laugh in the same two minute interval. I saw faces in the imperfections on the wall, faces of malice and rejection and despair. The faces came to me in my dreams and morphed into family members, friends, coworkers, chiding me, mocking me. But I stuck it out. I had thrown everything else away, and in my desperation I clung to the room until it became the sanctuary it is now.
I remember the first breakthrough, that beginning of what now seems a whole new life. I heard a bird chirping outside, and it melted into the rhythm of my breathing and the leaves trembling in the wind and in that instant there was nothing else, had never been anything else, and that instant lasted for hours. Hours of nothing and everything, hours of elemental bliss in every cell, a boundless joy of simply being. The nightmares stopped. Each night became a replication of the day: white all around, pureness in and out of body.
I’ve come so far. Now I drink a glass of water in the morning and before bed, eat a granola bar every other day. I’ve weaned myself from human needs. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ve transcended, that I’ve become a great celestial being of rock and gas that floats through the vacuum without a thought.
And that was the key: no thought. To wipe the mind clear of its bickering and whining, to transpose the silence of the room onto the mind. But there are still little detours taken here and there, a consequence of consciousness that I’m still trying to eliminate. A memory of childhood: kicking the legs, going back then forward with the swing set’s creaking rhythm. A sudden craving for an arcade game. A scene in Bangladesh: streets packed with bodies, wagons pulled by cattle, neon signs and rickety storefronts. And a recurring vision of an occupied table, every seat filled, conversation flying from chair to chair. All at once the guests stop and turn to me, their mouths moving but no words coming out. And all I can hear is the hum of the light bulb.
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Nick Shaffer is a 21 year-old Psychology major at James Madison University. He likes to tell people he’s an undercover English major because literature is my passion. he’s been published once, by the SilverPen publication Fabula Argentea.