How Taco Bell Made Me a Better Meditator

Though I’ve learned a lot from Pema Chödrön over the years, I balked on first reading her instruction to drop the story. In the May 2001 issue of Shambhala Sun she wrote, “In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.”

I value stories. They shape our sense of identity and history. Stories help us feel justified about how we feel and what we do. They tell us who we are.

The author, age 4.

As a writer, my job is to identify new stories and revise old ones to include new insights and circumstances. Chödrön’s instruction to drop the narrative seemed ill-advised, as if it would leave me unprotected and perhaps unemployed. I ignored her instruction, yet I couldn’t forget it either.

On a meditation retreat shortly after my marriage ended, I spent hour after hour rerunning one early scene from our relationship—a scene in which I learned about a betrayal and should have left, but didn’t. The story keep retelling itself. Hour after hour turned into day after day. I wanted the story to stop. I tried to drop it, but couldn’t. I tried to think of something else—anything else—, but the story persisted. Like so many things to do with the mind, I felt less master, more slave.

Drop the story! I yelled silently at myself. The retreat was becoming unbearable. Drop it! Drop it! Drop it!

Suddenly I smiled, remembering a chihuahua—the little dog was from a 1999 Taco Bell commercial. Police rush into a house where the chihuahua has cornered a guy holding a warm chalupa. Eyeing the threatening dog, the officers tell the guy to drop the chalupa.

“Yeah,” chimes in the hungry chihuahua, “drop the chalupa.” The phrase was famous for a moment in popular culture.

Why couldn’t I drop the story when I wanted to? Why was it so difficult? I realized that like the guy holding the chalupa, I didn’t want to let go of something I valued. The betrayal story served a purpose. It allowed me to see my ex-husband in a certain way, as a certain kind of person.

I tend towards self-righteousness. The story, in which I was the victim and he was the offender, reinforced my sense of grievance. And though I felt wronged, I hadn’t allowed myself to feel the hurt beneath the injury—to abide, as Chödrön suggests, “with the experience of our emotional distress.”

So there on the cushion I dropped the chalupa. Though the episode with my ex-husband had happened years earlier, I finally let myself  feel the hurt. The rage and the heartache from his duplicity were still there, along with the anger at myself for not having  been strong enough or smart enough to leave.

It wasn’t pretty. My overdue catharsis included lots of tears, snot and Kleenex throughout the course an afternoon. Between sittings, I splashed water on my splotchy face. I was grateful for the silence of the retreat. No one could ask, “Are you okay?” when the honest answer could have been “No” or “Yes, maybe for the first time in a while.”

On top of a bookcase in the room where I meditate, there are a Buddha statue, votive candles and matches, some rocks, and a chihuahua figurine. The dog is the reminder I still sometimes need to let go of the who and the what and the words of a story and to just feel the emotion underneath.

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