In the days leading up to my session with Muni Natarajan, I did what any career-minded post-Millennial would do at the thought of sitting in silence for hours: I panicked and told everyone. At a party the weekend before, I told the host’s boyfriend about my plans for the week, which included a four-hour time slot carved out for meditation with a former monk of 37 years — a humble brag about the perks of writing for an alt-weekly and a not-so-silent admission that I couldn’t bear being alone with my own thoughts for more than a minute, maybe two if a dirty martini served up is involved. With a cautious smile, he told me that I might want to give it some 20-minute test runs.
By Tuesday, I’d mythologized the experience enough that my closest friends knew exactly what I was doing the next day. Election Day came and went, and so did my 13-hour workday, which ended in a question mark as the votes in the 1st Congressional District race trickled in far past the amount of time I was willing to stay at Joe Cunningham’s election night party.
On Wednesday morning, I followed the instructions on Muni’s Airbnb Experience website and wore “comfortable clothing,” which I interpreted to mean the nicest sweatpants I own and a matching T-shirt. I drove to the City Paper offices, smuggled my web editor Lauren out of the newsroom, and brought her with me. We parked in front of a demure and manicured home on a peaceful block on Daniel Island, the type you see in Disney Channel movies, and came across a man in a button-up shirt and khaki pants. He looked like an everyday guy, minus the serene and distant expression on his face.
Something told me we were at the right place.
“Muni?” I asked.
“I’m not Muni,” he said. “But he’s inside and I think he’s expecting you. Have a good time.”
Muni opened his door before I got a chance to wonder whether to knock, ring the bell, email him, or wait an inappropriate amount of time while staring at Lauren.
He welcomed us in and led us to his kitchen table. Soon, we were joined by Mary Beth, the executive director and CEO of Charleston Jazz and Muni’s wife. Over tea and strawberries, I revealed that I’d been trying to learn to live in the present, a big part of why I’ve sought out talk therapy and gotten on a drug regimen that continues to pile on itself. In a voice that barely exceeded a whisper, Muni went over everything from the merits of finding the perfectness within you (we all have it), breath control (“breathe in, belly out”), and being gay in an all-male monastery (those who were, it turns out, had to exercise an even stronger level of self-control than your average monk.)
On one sheet of paper, Lauren and I wrote down negative experiences and a scathing letter directed at the person involved. We burned it. Another sheet of paper was also burned, though this one went up in flames as a sort of positive prayer for whatever was written on it.
Years ago, Muni gave up the traveling musician life for the Kauai Aadheenam monastery in Hawaii, where, between rigorous and highly-disciplined monastic tasks, he helped publish the quarterly magazine Hinduism Today.
He left the monastery in 2007 to marry Mary Beth, whom he first met during a five-week trip to India in the early 2000s.
Inside of the couple’s zen den — a converted two-car garage complete with mats, chairs, and posters, all surrounded by postcard-ready banana trees — I found myself doing things I would’ve scoffed at mere months ago.
“I am filled and thrilled with positivity,” we repeated, as Muni, known as Philip Johnson in another life, flexed his drumming skills.
As we laid on mats covered in blankets, Muni’s breathing deepened, and I quietly wondered whether I’d have to open my eyes (is that allowed?) and motion to Lauren to nudge him awake. A few minutes later, he arose peacefully to lead us back to the kitchen for a debrief.
After exchanging compliments with our hosts, we hopped back in the car and headed back to the office, where, after a particularly draining editorial meeting, I looked down to a text from Lauren.
“Ha breathing baby.”