A Chinese cricket has taken up permanent residence in my ear.  

I noticed this while flying home from China, when for about the fiftieth time that entire flight, I attempted to put myself in a position in which I could get more than five minutes of restless sleep.  I tried more positions than can be found in the Kama Sutra, but the only one that offered the slightest bit of comfort was what I came to call "the petrified tortoise".  

Emulating the animal for which the position gets its name, one must pull their arms and legs tightly into their body, shifting sideways as to avoid awkward over-the-seat stares from the annoyed and cranky passenger in front of them, after managing to repeatedly kick the back of their seat.  There is not much room for stretching out side to side in this position, considering the even closer and scarier annoyed and cranky stares one would recieve if they, Heaven forbid, cross the invisible space fence toped with invisible barbed wire lying between them and their airplane isle neighbors.  However, there are options for stretching horizontally...or vertically, depending on your point of reference.  Unfortunately, this usually leads to a limb falling off the edge of the seat, therefore completely fracturing the awkward balance that "the petrified tortoise" embodies.  This can be avoided, however, by simply making use of the in-flight meal tray; flipping it down to create a barrier between one's contorted limbs and the devastating fall of the edge of the seat.   

Once in the complicated pose, the appendages begin to succumb to numbness due to lack of blood flow, and the passenger usually falls into a deep sleep, not induced by comfort, but from the sheer exhaustion of getting into the position.  Although side effects of drooling and/or snoring may occur, one usually can enjoy at least a good half an hour of sleep.  

Low, mumbling voice: Do not attempt the "petrified tortoise" if you are susceptible to high blood pressure and/or pregnant or nursing.

So, after hours of tossing and turning, I folded myself like an origami pretzel into my seat and awaited sleep.  Just as I laid the left side of my head against the cushioned head clamp the airlines call a headrest, I heard a repeated scratching sound.  It kind of sounded like a chimney sweep using his broom to clean out a flue in rhythm to a Mary Poppins ditty, and yet Julie Andrews was nowhere in sight.  Just this annoying, relentless scratching.  I opened my eyes and looked around for the origin of the sound.  But, to my dismay, it seemed as if everyone except me was either silently engrossed in their in-flight movie or passed out completely.  

I laid my head down again and closed my eyes, only to once again hear the same sweeping sound.  Again, I searched the cabin for any explanation.  Nothing.  Ok, I thought to myself, if the noise isn't coming from anyone or anything around me, where the heck is it coming from?  I tried to think of what could possible be making this sound.  I gave it another listen, except this time I couldn't hear anything.  Maybe it's gone, I hoped.  So, I tried for a third time to sleep.  The instant I rested my head against the back of my seat, the sound reappeared.  

Really irritated at this point, I contemplated manually tearing the headrest apart with my fingers to see what inside of it was making this noise.  Seconds later, when I had gained a bit more sanity, it dawned on me that perhaps the sound was in fact coming from inside me, as it was only audible when I covered my left ear, creating a barrier for the sound to rebound back into my head.

All sorts of thoughts went through my head as to what kind of creature was most likely laying eggs at this very moment inside my ear.  Images of me waking up in my bed at home millions of little spiders crawled out of ear one by one kept popping into my thoughts, not making it very easy to sleep (despite the sheer comfort of "the petrified tortoise").  Alright, maybe if I just listen closely to the sound, I can figure out what it is, I reasoned with myself.  So, once again, trying to push visions of hairy, eight-legged creatures out of my mind, I closed my eyes and leaned against the seat.  

An image of a tinsy, tiny cricket appeared, trying repeatedly, without avail, to create a chirping noise by continuously rubbing his little legs together.  The little cricket, which was really more of a cartoon than a real insect, complete with adoringly huge bug eyes, had this look of determination mingled with growing annoyance on his face.  Kind of what I imagined I must have looked like seconds earlier as I searched around the plane for the culprit of the annoying sound, which was really all along just this cute little cartoon cricket in my ear.      

Well, this is a much nicer thought than the idea of a black widow spider and her millions of soon-to-be babies residing in my ear cannel, and so this is what I choose to believe.  Honestly I know I should probably go and get a second opinion from say, a doctor, and yes, I know how ridiculous this all sounds.  And if I perchance forget how crazy I am, all I need to do is bring up the subject while talking to my older sister, and she'll for sure set me straight.  

But despite her skepticism, the truth is, I kind of like the idea of the little guy being with me all the time.  The Chinese cherish crickets and even keep them as pets.  While working in China, my friend and coworker, Steven, purchased a cricket from a man on the street selling the insect songsters individually in little bamboo cages.  The cricket, who we appropriately named Jiminey, became our tour pet, until one day we decided to release him into the wild, feeling guilty about his cramped accommodations.  

Despite their rather annoying tendency to constantly chirp, the Chinese never see these creatures as nuisances, and they even consider the invasion of crickets into a family's home as a sign of prosperity and good fortune.  In their eyes, I'm pretty dang lucky, considering I really don't have a home for any crickets to invade, so this little guy just invaded me.  In a way, he's kind of like my new love of dumplings or my recently spawned fascination in meditation, all pieces of China that I've taken away with me like souvenirs.     

I think the little guy is getting aggravated by the fact that he can't seem to eek out any music from his legs, because even now while I'm not laying against my left ear, I can hear his persistent practice.  In a way, his continuous annoyance and determination remind me of my own experience with meditation. 

My curiosity with meditation, and all Buddhist practices, grew as I traveled throughout China.  You'd be curious too after seeing the number of Buddha statues I saw.  And I'm not talking your average, six inch paperweight buddha you see in every other tourist shop.  I mean colossal, 90 meter, bronze buddhas with toenails the size of front room windows, and chubby baby buddhas who are birthed from a glorious lotus flower surrounded by dancing fountains, and precious crystal buddhas held high above the earth on the top floor of 13-story pagodas.  Clearly, this guy has one heck of a story, and I like stories.

The Indian Buddhist sutras, or texts, which became core to Chinese Buddhism after the fall of the Han Dynasty, describe the life of Guatama Buddha.  Known as Prince Siddhartha as a child, Guatama Buddha grew up in the lap of luxury, enjoying the privileges of a royal life.  Until one day Prince Siddhartha was exposed to human suffering by seeing a decrepit old man, a diseased man and a corpse from his palace window.  Distraught by this sight, Prince Siddhartha parted with his lavish possessions, became the monk Guatama, and set out on a pilgrimage to attain peace at heart despite the world's suffering.  After several years of traveling to no avail, Guatama weakly sat beneath a tree and made an oath to sit there until the wisdom he sought appeared to him.  It was in this seated meditation that Guatama passed through various stages of illumination and eventually attained enlightenment, reaching Nirvana. 

In the past, the idea of sitting with legs crossed, eyes closed, palms resting on my knees as I quietly chanted repeatedly seemed more or less like a joke.  In fact, I only time I really thought about meditation was while replaying the episode of Animaniacs in which the Dali Lama (who is in fact an actual llama) repeats the chant "llama, llama, llama" as he floats feet above the ground.  

It was only while reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, this is the second mention of this fabulous book) that I began to view mediation as a practice that might be beneficial to my own life.  In her second adventure (there are three: Italy, where she eats lots of pasta, India, where she finds spiritual enlightenment, and Indonesia, where she finds love...hence the title) Gilbert stays in a yogic ashram where she dedicates herself to creating a closer relationship with God.  When she finally attains an enlightened state of mind, she expresses apprehension in her attempt to describe the feeling.  She says she was always frustrated when she read of any other author's experience.  But, in fact, it was her description of her illumination that inspired me to begin the practice.  

She writes, "it wasn't hallucinogenic, what I was feeling.  It was the most basic of events.  It was heaven, yes.  It was the deepest love I'd ever experienced, beyond anything I could have previously imagined, but it wasn't euphoric.  It wasn't exciting.  There wasn't enough ego or passion left in me to create euphoria and excitement.  It was just obvious.  Like when you've been looking at an optical illusion for a long time, straining your eyes to decode the trick, and suddenly your cognizance shifts and there-now you can clearly see it!-the two vases are actually two faces.  And once you've seen through the optical illusion, you can never not see it again."     

That was it.  I think it was that dumbing down of what I had imagined as a mystical and foreign ritual to the simplicity of a Magic Eye image.  It was something that I could reach and touch without converting my living room into a shrine to supernatural beings complete with massive elephant statues and eucalyptus candles.  And it was something I wanted.  I saw how meditation brought peace of mind and reassurance to Gilbert's life, and I thirsted for a taste of it. 

I searched the Internet for any instruction on how to meditate, and found many several different techniques: five clouds meditation, mindfulness, transcendental meditation, mantras...the list goes on).  After some frustrating trials, I found that simple breathing in a seated meditation to be the most effective.  And by "most effective" I mean I could sit there for a little longer than five minutes without losing my mind.  

You see, the main focus of meditation is to quiet your thoughts.  A seemingly simple task involving pushing any arrant thoughts from your mind and refocusing on your breath.  Easier said than done.  After about a minute, I would begin to wonder why my breathing was so loud.  Has it always been this loud?  Why did I not notice this sooner?  Have I been annoying the people around me with my dragon breathing for years?  Why hasn't anyone told me about this?  Wait, you should be focusing.  But I am thinking about my breath, just not in the relaxing way that I should.  Man, my head itches.  Maybe it will go away.  Nope, I've gotta scratch it.  End of meditation.  

I've had a few nights of this, and honestly I'm getting a bit impatient. Which is really ridiculous, considering it took Buddha years of searching and practice to attain enlightenment.  And yet, I'm still frustrated.  Gilbert equated it to a simple Magic Eye!  I mean, come on, I should be able to do this, right?  

So tonight, I'm taking a different approach.  I've decided to attempt the technique Gilbert herself used after experiencing similar frustrations.  She repeats a mantra.  The most simplistic and natural of the mantras because it imitates human breath, "ham ah", which means "I am that".  

Ok, so I'm all ready to try this.  I've got my little traveling Buddha statue next to me hear on the floor, a contagious full-gut laugh on his face, and incense burning to create peacefulness, if nowhere else, in my nostrils.  I begin breathing while thinking and repeating the mantra in my mind.  I am that, I am that.  

Outside thoughts tip toe into my head, but I throw them out like an outfielder throwing home with bases full.  I breathe deeply as my head naturally falls backward, my eyes pointed towards the ceiling.  And although they are closed, I see the edges of the walls of my room, ending not with my ceiling, but pointing to the dark night sky, speckled with brilliant stars, shifting their light and sparkling endlessly.  I am looking up at God, the Infinite, Allah, Buddha, whatever you call him/her.  And I find myself posing an invitation, “come sit with me,” I offer.  And in response, I feel my head slowly drift back into my room, accompanied by the most calming and comforting presence I have ever felt.  And for once my mind is silent, by body free to sit and enjoy the quiet.  Even my cricket relaxes his tired legs and sits with us.  And so here I am enjoying my first meditative state, something I’ve frustratingly tried to reach for a while, and all along the door was completely wide open.  I just had to send out an invitation.