Tracey and I are visiting friends and getting some R&R in California this week. Yesterday in Mountain View, we went into a bookstore that got me thinking about mindfulness.
Tracey was looking for a copy of James Carroll’s new novel, The Cloister, and she asked the proprietor whether he carried it.
“Is it a spiritual book?” he asked. “This is a spiritual bookstore.”
We looked around, and there were books on all sorts of topics: wisdom ancient and modern — Buddha, Swami Kriyananda, yoga, feng shui, alternative healing, healthy diet, tarot and zen. There also were spirit rocks, crystals and scented candles with names like “Awareness” and “Inner Strength.”
This led to a lively discussion and some eye rolling later over lunch about why a novel written by a theologian in which the characters, including Abelard and Héloïse, struggle to work out their faith in a terrible world, would not count as “spiritual.” But that is for another day.
In the San Francisco Bay area, a lot of attention and commerce is paid to spirituality. Obviously, lots of people are looking for a path that taps into the essence of creation, that thing that explains it all, that well of understanding we call by many names and come to by many paths. I call it God, and I completely respect the names and paths followed by others. However we get there, it would be nice (and the world would be a better place) if we all would get there.
As I looked around the shelves, Dan Harris’ book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, caught my eye. I laughed aloud. Now that’s a title for me! I am pretty good at sitting still when I have to. And I can focus on all sorts of things when I have to. But I am not good at paying attention, at being in the moment, being mindful. My mind wanders off in all directions, and I wonder whether it’s worth the effort to bring it back. Do I really want to be all that self-aware? What if I sit down, get all comfy on that cushion (in spite of my aching knees), tune in, open up and meet … myself? What if I don’t like the self I meet? Wouldn’t it be better to just go to the grocery store and accomplish at least one thing on my long to-do list?
Plenty of research clearly ties happiness and good health to nutrition, sleep, exercise, strong community and meditation. And this is a time in my life when I am relearning the importance of all of those things. Meditation in particular can calm stress, lower blood pressure, alleviate depression and increase awareness. The thing is, I have never had much temperament or interest in cultivating a practice of meditation, and so I can’t rely upon it when needed. Which is now. A little mindfulness and some inner tools for stress relief would go a long way as we bounce all over the world in and out of airports, train stations, churches and large conferences with keynote speeches. I am nearly as introverted as Tracey is extroverted, and although my parents trained me well, I really do best in smaller, quieter gatherings. A meditation practice probably would be helpful right now. I almost bought the book but decided on The Inner Life of Cats instead.
Yesterday afternoon, we drove along the coast to Bean Hollow State Beach and climbed around on the rocks at low tide. I stood next to the ocean looking at whale spouts far out to sea. Then, my eyes returned to the sand beneath my feet, the anemones tucked among the rocks on which I perched, the tidal pool full of crabs and little jellyfish. I was totally focused, doing just one thing, observing the world and completely cognizant of time and space and my place in it in that moment. I breathed in. I breathed out. A chunk of anxiety dropped away, and I felt ready to face the world again. In that moment, I was reminded that there are indeed many paths to that calm, inner certainty some call mindfulness.
But I still might go back and get the book.