“The key to meditation, according to my professor,” Theresa said, sitting cross-legged across from him on a blanket on the balcony floor. “Is that failure is your friend: the point of meditation is to keep concentration on a particular thing, but you will get distracted and your mind will wander. Things outside of your thoughts will pull at your attention. That’s all perfectly natural.”
“Right,” Alex said, watching her closely—something he was happy to do for multiple reasons—and making sure that he matched her position as best he could: cross-legged with back straight, shoulders set comfortably and his hands set on his knees. “So, you then push yourself past those distractions…right?”
“Not quite,” Theresa took a deep breath and blew it out. “What you’re supposed to do is notice those distractions, and acknowledge them.”
“Acknowledge them? Aren’t you supposed to just let them pass, like you said?”
“It’s harder when you just try to do that,” she said. “By letting them pass without acknowledging them, even briefly, means that they’re more likely to ‘pop back up’. Your mind is going to want to look at them. I mean…okay, remember that year you peeked at your Sigmus presents?”
“Yeah!” He grinned with absolutely no remorse. It was a good memory and his parents had never found out. A dull pain stung his heart, but it was mixed with happy memories of that Sigmus and previous ones. “Took me two years to find dad’s hiding place, but I did it.”
“I remember that,” she said. “You were obsessed with finding that hiding place.”
“Yeah, I really was.”
“And then when you found it, what happened?”
“Well, I didn’t really need to look for it anymore, I had already seen what was there-Oh,” he paused. “Right…I got obsessed with the hiding place until I looked at it-”
“-and then you didn’t need to look for it anymore,” she finished. “It’s the same thing with thoughts or distractions: if you just try to ignore them or ‘let them pass’ without acknowledging them, then your mind will drift toward them. It’s like…hey, listen to me: whatever you do, do not imagine Brutus with bright pink fur and wearing knight’s armour.”
Immediately an image of Brutus with bright pink fur and wearing a knight’s full plate came to mind. He choked back a laugh.
“Tell me, what did you imagine?” Theresa asked.
“Brutus with bright pink fur and wearing knight’s armour…” Alex admitted.
“Exactly, and if you don’t acknowledge Sir Brutus, he’s just going to keep staying in your head. According to the professor and the textbook, you have to acknowledge thoughts in order to let them pass.”
“Okay, okay,” he mulled it over. “I got it. So that’s how we succeed in getting better at concentration?
“No, we have to fail first.”
“Okay, we’re back to that. What do you mean?”
“So, while we’re being mindful of our thoughts and acknowledging them, our minds are going to wander,” she said. “It’s inevitable. Things catch our attention. At least it’s that way with me. But every time you notice a new thought or distraction, acknowledge it, and bring your attention back to what you’re concentrating on, then your mind gets a little better at doing it each time. Each failure and break in concentration—if followed by acknowledgement of the distracting thought and gently bringing your attention back, then you-Ah!”
“What?” he startled. “What is it?”
Theresa held up a finger. “I forgot maybe the most important part of this entire kind of meditation, sorry.”
He sighed in relief. “Hey, it’s okay, you’re trying to teach me something you just started learning yourself. Take your time. I’ll be a patient student…unlike how you were back in the church school.”
“Ugh, you were doing so well, but you had throw that in, didn’t you?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes my mouth rebels.”
“Oh don’t I know it,” she chuckled. “Alright, stop distracting me.”
“No no.” He grinned victoriously. “Acknowledge the distraction—in this case, my clever words—and then let it pass.”
Her eyebrow twitched. “They will never find your body, Alex, I swear to Uldar they never will.”
Despite her words, he saw that she was fighting a smile.
“Okay, I’ll stop. So what’s the important thing?”
“It’s about focusing on the present moment,” she said. “The professor talked about how—during Life Enforcement—your mind will be left focusing on the same motion of circulating your life force through your body. That means that as you get better at it, your mind is free to wander to whatever it wants, and that’s dangerous. It makes you lose concentration. She said that the key is to not get stuck on ruminating over the past or thinking about the future. It’s to keep the mind focused on the present moment.”
She tapped the side of her head. “So let’s say you were focusing on spreading butter on a piece of bread, but you kept thinking about eating it later. Your mind wouldn’t be on the task at hand, and if it were something more complex than say, ‘patting butter,’ you’d be more inclined to make mistakes and get distracted.”
“Holy crap,” Alex muttered.
It was like she had just described the moment-to-moment of how The Mark destroyed concentration and any attempts to practice its forbidden areas. The memories of the failures would slam into the mind so hard, that sometimes it became hard to distinguish what was happening in the moment, and what was a failure from the past.
With his forceball, it had been like spreading butter on toast: he’d been so familiar with the motions that—even with The Mark screaming at him—he was still able to cast the spell and have enough mental fortitude to alter it. As forcedisk had become more familiar, he was able to continue with that pattern.
But it was still a struggle.
When it came to actions of combat, which he had no experience with, the act of learning the motion while dealing with The Mark had proven to be too much. He couldn’t manage to let the memories pass over him, and he didn’t have enough expertise to simply complete the task in spite of The Mark’s interference.
Yet, this meditation skill sounded like its very purpose was to train the mind in acknowledging memories and thoughts, and then pulling you back into the present.
It could be the perfect weapon against The Mark.
He wasn’t sure how far it could help him in fighting its influence, but it was still worth diving into.
“I think it’s going to be great, it sounds perfect,” he said enthusiastically. “I think it could help with a whole lot of things.”
“And the best part is that, each time you fail and get distracted, as long as you bring your mind back to the present moment after acknowledging what distracted you, you get better at it. Failure brings success.”
Just like how he’d managed to get The Mark to work for him despite its intended purpose.
“Okay.” He straightened himself. “Let’s get started.”
“Alright, first of all, you need to take a deep breath,” Theresa paused. “So like, I’m learning this myself and everything I just told you is pretty much from my professor and the textbook. I’m still learning too, so you might want to find a more knowledgeable teacher after today.”
“Hey.” He looked her in the eye. “You know me. You know our situation. You know this. There’s no one I’d take as a teacher over you, Theresa.”
The smile that came across her face could have lit up a moonless night. “Alright, my student, follow my lead. I’m going to try to remember step by step. First, listen to the sound of my voice…”
Theresa led him into the meditation as she had described it.
She told him to listen to the sound of her voice and to take deep belly breaths.
Luckily, since he’d already been practicing breathing with The Mark, that part had felt natural and relaxing. Then she guided him through shifting his awareness, focusing on different points on his body, and paying attention to how each section of it felt in that moment.
He was surprised at what he found.
There was a slight tightness in his head and neck he hadn’t noticed before.
A lingering soreness in his shoulders, arms and chest from his push-up routine. Yet, he also noticed a feeling of...strength in his torso that he hadn’t been aware of before. His muscles felt stronger. He noticed the breath entering his chest—especially as he swelled his belly with the movement—and noticed the feeling as he exhaled. Relaxation swept through his body.
He noticed the slight tightness and burning in his thighs from their daily run, and also a dull ache in his feet. All these things that were a part of his body—a part of Alex Roth—that he hadn’t paid attention to before.
His mind began to go down that line of thought.
How much of his life had passed him by without him noticing? It was pronounced with The Mark, but things about his own body were becoming so obvious just by concentrating on them, how many other things had he miss-
‘Oh wait,’ he noticed he had become distracted. He acknowledged the thoughts, and gently pulled his mind back to the present moment, concentrating on the last part of his body.
The meditation continued with Theresa directing his attention to each of his five senses—he noticed the faded aroma of the bread he’d baked that morning, the sound of students talking in the adjacent apartments, and the feel of his own bodyweight on the blanket beneath him. Sensation fed into sensation, and his awareness expanded around him. He wasn’t sure if his senses were improving, or if he was just paying more attention to what they were already trying to tell him, but he felt like he knew more about the world around him in those moments, than he had in a long, long time.
The clutter in his mind calmed, and soon, there was only himself and what he was focusing on. He noticed strong feelings of excitement and elation rising in his chest, and he acknowledged them and then brought himself back to focus.
He could bask in them later.
As the meditation came to a close, Theresa brought his attention back to his own body and to his breath, and then—right at the end—told him that he could allow his mind to go wherever it wanted.
His thoughts exploded.
Dozens of plans and pathways opened up to him, and his expectations of the future seemed to shine brightly like the sun rising at the end of a long night. In a mere ten minutes, he had quieted his mind and brought himself in touch with his senses. What would he be able to do once he had put a lot of practice into this?
“Alright, and we’re back,” Theresa said, smiling at him. “Well look at that expression on your face. Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Theresa…this is huge.” He blinked. “Like…I can’t even…”
“Sounds like it had to be really good or really bad if it left you, of all people, speechless.”
“Are you saying I talk too much?” Alex asked with mock anger.
“No, you talk a lot, which is fine by me. I wouldn’t have kept hanging around you if I didn’t enjoy listening to you,” she said with a sort of dreamy, satisfied smile. He wasn’t sure if that meant she was thinking positively about the meditation or about him. As they had grown even closer since their journey started—which he hadn’t thought was even possible—he was starting to be more confident that it was the latter.
In a moment of clarity, he started to realize that there were less and less reasons for him not to take a risk and tell her how he felt about her. He was becoming increasingly convinced that he was getting signals in return, which was supported by Khalik’s not so subtle encouragement. Alex Roth had always been the kind of person to only take risks when he was sure that things would go the way he wanted them to: there was a reason why he had endured McHarris’ abuse for years until he was one hundred percent sure the baker couldn’t hurt him in any way.
But when were matters of love ever guaranteed?
Relationships were between people, and trying to completely control the outcome of someone else’s feelings wouldn’t lead to anywhere good. He could pretty much guarantee his own feelings and that was it. Besides, he was diving into the dangers of magic, combat and investigating the remains of a dungeon core.
This risk was nothing compared to that.
He decided then. He’d need the right moment: Theresa had talked about hunts and ‘waiting for the right moment’ and if that was how she thought about things, he’d just need to notice it when it came.
And, this skill was all about helping him notice things in the present moment.
His eyes narrowed in thought. “Hold on for a second, I want to try a couple of things.”
Concentrating on The Mark, he focused on the idea of growing his skill in meditation. Images of the meditation session rose before him, with The Mark pointing out the times he had performed what was instructed perfectly. It showed how acknowledging the distracting thoughts helped bring him back to focus, and also showed him the times when he brought his mind back to the present gently.
Good. It would help him improve the skill.
Now for test number two.
He started to construct a spell array for forcedisk.
The Mark threw his failures at him with all its power and—though he might have imagined it—it seemed to be trying even harder than usual. Maybe he was just noticing its actions more now that he was so aware of everything. Instead of merely trying to guide his way through the memories or noticing and trying to study the failures, he engaged in the meditation process: acknowledge each one and then gently bring his mind back to the spellcraft.
He noticed a difference immediately.
Memories he acknowledged and then gently pulled his attention away from were less likely to try and force their way back into his mind—or maybe they had more trouble trying to pull his attention back to them. Either way, he found it easier to get past those memories with this new skill. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. There was a major difference between meditating and simply focusing on senses, and trying to do the same thing while actively engaged in spellcraft while having a magical symbol actively trying to destroy his thought processes.
It was the difference between studying in a quiet meadow, and studying with an angry, drunken bard who had spent their whole life mastering the largest, loudest drum ever made, while he gave a full on drum recital five feet away.
But, the forcedisk formed faster and smoother than it ever had.
Progress. And a path to fight the mark.
“Theresa, thank you. Seriously. I don’t…know how to explain what you’ve done for me.” He smiled broadly, fighting back tears of happiness.
Theresa looked at him for a long moment, as though she were about to say something. In the end, she only sighed and smiled. “It’s the least I can do…you helped me find this path for my life. I’m glad I got to do some of the same for you.”
Her smile warmed her entire face and her eyes seemed to shine. They drifted up to the sun’s position in the sky. “Oop, we should go pick up Selina, she’ll be out of school soon.”
She was on her feet in a breath and half-jogging inside.
Alex watched her go with tender eyes before getting up.
A whistle from across the insula drew his attention.
He glanced over to see Khalik sprawled in a chair with one of his textbooks in hand. With a wide, knowing grin, he gave Alex a thumbs up.
Smiling, Alex gave him a thumbs up right back.