The Lesson


Guru Jon is out surfing when a shark attacks him. He is twenty years old. He tells himself, “Endure the pain! You can make it! Survive! Survive!”

The shark pulls him under. He fights as the water goes dark with his blood. Through panic and terror he tells himself to endure.

“Endure! Endure! You’ll get through this! Survive!”

He looks past the clouds of blood at the sunlight coming in through the waves. He knows he will die in minutes if not seconds.

All of a sudden, a calm overtakes him.

“This is not something to get through,” he tells himself. “This is where you are right now.”

He looks down at the coal-eyed shark. He notices the membrane that has stretched over the shark’s eye to protect the eye as the shark feeds. The shark does not have to think about pulling up the membrane—it’s automatic, a reflex. He watches the shark thrash its body. The shark is trying to dislodge a chunk of Guru Jon’s leg. Or maybe the whole leg. Guru Jon understands that the shark is only trying to survive. It is hungry and it is only trying to survive. He can lay no blame, therefore. Less can he ascribe malevolence. His fear goes away. And now he knows he has learned what he came here to learn. Here, to the coast, away from his family, away from his friends, he came here, not knowing why he came, to learn this.

Guru Jon reaches down and jabs his fingers into the shark’s eye. The shark lets go.

That was the past. The formative past. Guru Jon was not yet a guru at that time, on that day, when the shark attacked. He was just some surfer. He came paddling in with a beatific look on his face. A group of girls saw his face and thought he was a hunk. He came up in the surf and lay there like a beached dolphin. They thought that was odd. Then they saw his leg. Oh my god! They rushed over, threw a blanket on him. One of them was a nursing student. Her name was Miyuki. Thanks to her quick thinking, Jon survived. She applied pressure as the girls carried him to their jeep, their mostly naked bodies smeared with his blood.

“Pain is fear,” Guru Jon says to the two dozen paying attendees. “Fear is pain.”

They are in a very white room. The walls of the room are white and the people are mostly white. The room has a wide view on the Pacific Ocean. The people have calm faces. They sit on the floor in their socks, cross-legged.

“Eighty-seven percent of pain is anticipation. That’s why we hate getting needles. Not because the prick itself hurts so much. It doesn’t. What we hate is watching the needle come out of its package, seeing the tip, turning our heads away, waiting. Eighty-seven percent of pain is anticipation.”

The number is made up. But the attendees don’t know that. Guru Jon mentions studies. He is vague with his citations. The audience shifts and squirms, thinking of needles.

“When the shark attacked me, I was scared at first. I was scared because I thought I was going to die. The pain was excruciating as long as I fought. But then I gave in. I resigned myself to death. I realized I had only seconds left to live—so I decided then and there to live those seconds. To soak them up. To be fully present in them. At that point, the pain became just one aspect of a whole unified experience. I noticed every detail, and to this day I remember it all with crystal clarity. The clouds of blood in the water. The sunlight filtering through the waves above me. The roughness of the shark’s skin. This may surprise you, but I felt compassion for the shark. I felt sorry for it when I jabbed it in the eye. The shark was only doing what it was made to do. And you know what? I want to thank that shark. Because do you know what I found when that shark bit me? I found the most precious thing.”

Guru Jon looks across the room to Miyuki, no longer the nineteen-year-old girl whose presence of mind and formal training saved his life that day on the beach, but still beautiful, still radiant. She stands by the window in her kimono-influenced dress, radiant. She smiles at him across the room.

Guru Jon holds up his right index finger.

“I found the moment,” he says.

He looks to his audience and gestures for them to repeat the mantra he taught them earlier that morning.

The audience says, “This is not something to get through. This is where you are right now.”

“This is where you are right now.”

Guru Jon sits on a patio surrounded by reporters. The reporters try not to seem greedy for his words, but they are greedy for his words, and they hate one another. They do not want to seem greedy because everyone wants to seem radiant and peaceful in the presence of Guru Jon. He has that effect on people. He makes people want to be better people. The reporters aim their microphones.

“You.” He points to himself. “This is where you are, right now. When I tell myself that—when I say that to myself—who exactly is talking? Who is talking to whom?”

The reporters think about Guru Jon’s statement. They think about the grammar. They have all, individually, always had trouble with “whom.” When to use it, when not to. They nod to themselves, believing that Guru Jon has used it correctly.

“When I tell myself, Calm down, don't panic. Or, Don't get angry, let it go—who is counseling whom? Whom is doing the talking to whom?”

The reporters knit their brows and shake their heads. That usage is wrong.

“Whom is it?” Guru Jon continues. He stares abstractedly at the ocean. “Whom is whom?”

The reporters shake their heads.

Guru Jon’s first son is born. He takes the boy in his hands. He tells himself that this is where he is. This is where they both are. They will never both be right here ever again. In this exact moment.

“Where do moments go?”

He poses the question to a gathering of faith leaders. He lets the question hang long enough that some of the faith leaders begin to wonder whether it’s a rhetorical question or if they are supposed to answer. A rabbi opens his mouth, but Guru Jon continues: “Nowhere. The moments go nowhere. We move on . . . Or do we? Advanced physics tells us that time is an illusion. A habit.”

Miyuki throws a hardcover autographed copy of Guru Jon’s own book across the bedroom, and the book hits him in the head. She did not intend to hit him, at least not in the head. Not in the eye. The corner of the cover cuts his eyebrow and lightly abrades the lens of his eye. This light abrasion is exceedingly painful. They are both drunk. Guru Jon yells something unforgivable at Miyuki, who then offers to drive him to the hospital. His eyes fill with tears. He is not crying, not per se—it’s just a physiological reaction. A reflex. His eyes fill with tears that gush down his cheeks. He holds a hand over his injured eye.

“You can’t drive me to the hospital,” he says, “you’re drunk.”

Miyuki calls their eldest son, who refuses to come over to help, even though he lives a mere twenty-minute drive away. In a house that they bought him. He can’t make his payments. The money keeps magically becoming cocaine. He is helpless.

Guru Jon takes his hand off his eye. The blood and tears have mixed to make a gory mess. Miyuki screams.

“Being human is an exercise in pain,” Guru Jon says to his youngest son, when he learns about the son’s divorce.

The son looks up from his palms, into which he has been weeping, and says, “You set me up to fail.”

“I never set anyone up to fail,” Guru Jon says to his daughter, who is strapped to a bed in a psychiatric ward. “You all did it to yourselves. I set you up to succeed.”

“All you ever gave me was money,” she hisses.

“Well, what do you want? Money is freedom! Don’t you understand that?”

Guru Jon dances down a landing strip in a small airport in Peru. The pilots and airport staff watch him with disapproval. Someone yells at him in Spanish. He is drunk. His personal plane waits on the tarmac, door open. The pilot looks out and yells at Guru Jon.

“Vámonos!”

Guru Jon dances down the landing strip, eyes closed, a beatific smile on his face.

“I’m getting too old for this,” Guru Jon confides to his personal secretary.

The personal secretary looks a lot like Miyuki looked when she was nineteen. Guru Jon is fifty-three. He is about to walk out onto a stage and give a talk to a large audience of tech luminaries.

“The older you get,” she says, “the wiser you get.”

That was not the response he was hoping for. He doesn’t know what he was hoping for. He steps toward the stage, where a tech luminary is introducing him. Guru Jon thinks to himself, “You get older, you get better at some things. One thing you get better at is being who you are. Lots of practice.”

Guru Jon steps up to the lectern. The tech luminaries applaud—thunderous applause. The auditorium falls silent.

Guru Jon says, “Is the self a mere habit? An addiction? A pathology?”

“I’m getting too old for this,” Guru Jon says. He dismounts from his personal secretary and flops on his back in the sheets.

“It was really good for me,” she says.

He believes she is lying.

He has come to a place where he can’t trust anyone.

The shark lets go of his leg. It doesn’t like being jabbed in the eye. We are all hungry animals with weak spots. Guru Jon thinks this to himself as he surfaces, grinning, and feels the hot sunshine on his eyelids. He is not yet a guru. Just some kid named Jon.

“We are all hungry animals with tender, terrible weak spots.”

He turns toward the shore, and, euphoric, bleeding out, paddles in.  

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