While making plans to do a long retreat, Gerry Hadden was offered a job at NPR. A reporter, he discovered, is a lot like a meditator. Both are on a quest for truth. And ultimately neither finds it.
When I was thirty-three I built a house in Seattle, Washington. It stood on a steep, wooded hill, and had one bedroom, one bathroom, and a big open living room and kitchen. But its most exciting feature was its dedicated Buddhist shrine room. I was so thrilled to have a whole room just for my meditation practice. When you build your own house you can design things like that. I lived there for exactly one day. Then I locked the door and never went back.
It was 2000 and NPR had hired me to be its correspondent for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. I set up a shrine room in my new digs in Mexico City, but I soon realized I wasn’t going to be meditating much. The problem was that I was traveling all the time, sometimes on the road for weeks. All right, I thought, I’ll get a travel Buddha. One that’ll fit in my pocket.
The little guy was easy enough to find. But although I’d set him up in hotel rooms — on top of the mini-fridge, for example—I still didn’t meditate very often. I was just too tired after my long, occasionally harrowing, days of reporting.
In Seattle I’d built the shrine room in part because I’d had my sights set on a three-year meditation retreat and needed to ramp up my practice, to log more hours on the mat. I spent many hours imagining how the retreat would be: mind-blowing, life-changing, ego-destroying. I set out asking my teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, for permission. It took longer than I’d anticipated to get a yes out of him, but once his blessing was in hand there was no stopping me. Or so I thought.
For the next four years with NPR I would look back on that untaken retreat like a man gazing across at himself in some parallel, unreachable life. I’d been so sure that that was my path, had felt so passionate about it, and now I was losing my ability to practice even basic sitting meditation. I fretted over this—in the Lacandona Jungle, the Galapagos Islands, Port-au- Prince, San Salvador, and Guatemala City—even lying in my own bed in Mexico City, just feet from the mat. I loved my job, and had no regrets about having accepted it, but it was also true that I’d paid a price: I’d lost my spiritual way. I’d left it behind in my untested little house in the northwest.
What a radical rupture, I used to think, going from wouldbe meditator to foreign correspondent. Now, more than twelve years after making that choice, I’ve reconsidered. I see that the lure and life of the microphone were, in fact, very similar to those of the meditation mat.
In 2000 I was a young man eager to leap into the unknown, to push myself to my limits, to pull a Jonathan Livingston Seagull on the world’s sorry backside, so to speak. Buddhism, especially via a long retreat, would have provided that leap. Instead, the NPR gig gave it to me. Boy, did it give it to me. I flew away from my comfortable life to invent a highly unconventional one, reporting from parts of the world with which I was barely familiar, living out of hotels on good nights, sleeping on floors or in hammocks on better ones.
In some fundamental way there had been no fork in the road, as I’d believed. The choices before me had offered essentially the same thing, at least for a young man at that point in his life. And looking at the bigger picture, I now see that there are deeper, more enduring similarities between journalism and Buddhism, both in how they’re practiced and in their goals.
Journalism, at its finest, is nothing less than a pursuit of the truth. I’ll capitalize it, because the Truth is a reporter’s ideal. It’s their Holy Grail, whose ensnaring alone might guarantee that justice is done, that wrongs are righted, that harmony is achieved. The meditator’s equivalent might be the search for the self—whether you call it soul or ego or the smallest particle— some indestructible, nondependent pillar of existence from which springs all of the world’s beauty and nonsense.
Both reporters and meditators are on quests. As the years pass, both will likely realize, if they’re doing their work well—bravely, wholeheartedly, applying themselves with diligence—that their quests are in vain. Reporters will realize they can never seem to find a story with a simple, discernible truth behind it, a clear right and wrong. The story is always nuanced, multifaceted, changing. And yet with each new assignment they set off after an ideal they know they’ll never find, never nail down, and in that there is a great thing to be learned.
It is no less great for meditators, this lesson, as they sit watching their thoughts hour after hour, day after day. How they arise, hang around for a while, fade away. Over and over. Looking and looking to test whether the teachings are right; if it’s really the case that there is no smallest particle to find, no soul, no ego, ultimately, to cling to. When they have caught a glimpse of this emptiness they keep on meditating because, like reporters, they’ve also learned the journey has no end.
The big difference of course is that while journalists may reach the end of their days and be considered wise in the ways of the world, without the dharma they’ll leave this world as ignorant as they came into it. Which is why I must start meditating again. Why I pray to the buddhas that I may sit my sorry backside back down on the mat.